Hard Conversations: Vaccines and Autism, Part 1
Before I get into the meat of this series of posts, let’s start with a word or two for any parents or loved ones of someone with autism reading this, because this whole series of articles is really for you. I understand that receiving a diagnosis of autism is frightening and while I’m not a parent, I understand that nothing could possibly be more important to you than the well-being of your child. I feel for you, and know that it must feel like the world is changing and the ground shifting underneath your feet as you react to this information. I’m sure that what you want is some certainty. It must kill you to hear things like “We don’t really know what causes autism.” Or “We don’t have a cure for autism”.
I know that you want what is best for your child. Because that’s what you want, I encourage you to not act rashly after getting a diagnosis. Before you make decisions about how to change your lifestyle and how to help your child, you should do some research. I welcome you to start here, and later on in this series I’ll compile a list of some good resources. Along the way, I hope to also point out the bad resources, and how to determine what is a good or bad resource.
To start with, I’d like to talk about autism in the media. Autism has been in the news a lot lately, most recently TIME magazine had a q&a with Jenny McCarthy who is releasing a new book on the subject.
The biggest problem with how the media has covered Autism is that the media has committed the Gray fallacy. Briefly, the Gray fallacy says “well if you say black, and he says white, surely the truth must be grey”. This is not correct.
A more nuanced description of this is the Relativity of Wrong. The relativity of Wrong explains that there are differing degrees of correctness. The classic example is that the earth is neither flat, nor spherical. However spherical is much closer to the truth than flat.
How does the media commit these mistakes? When the media covers autism, they often present autism as if “Vaccines cause autism” and “Vaccine’s don’t cause autism” are equally valid points. These points are not equal.
For those who don’t like reading about science, skip down a bit.
There is alot of scientific information suggesting vaccines do not cause, and are not correlated with autism.1,2 . I have yet to find one good article that supports the hypothesis that vaccines cause autism. If you find such an article, please email me (my contact information is available on the contact page of this blog) and I will read the article, and post my thoughts. I encourage parents to read my references at the bottom of the page here.
The scientific case for “Vaccines cause autism” is just slightly better than the scientific case for “The earth is flat”.
For those people who struggle to see the science here, at least consider the common sense point. We do not know what causes autism, there are almost as many explanations of autism as there are experts on autism. What are the odds that one particular explanation, which lacks any evidence on its side, is correct?
Extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence. While the Anti-Vaccine proponents often offer anecdotal evidence, and then give made up numbers, such as Jenny McCarthy’s
“All you have to do is find a schoolteacher or principal and ask them that question. They would say they’ve never seen so much ADHD, autism, OCD as in the past. I think we’re overdiagnosing it by maybe 1%.”
You’ll notice, she doesn’t give evidence, she offers an anecdote. Anecdotes are not real evidence, everyone has a story of a friend of a friend. Thats why we do evidence based medicine. After that she gives a completely unsubstantiated number saying we’re overdiagnosing by maybe “1%”. This is not science. This is not medicine. This is deception.
In my next few posts, we’ll talk about why you should trust scientists over Jenny McCarthy or any other celebrity. Afterwards I will detail some of the science on this subject, through explanation of at least one scientific study. I will also explain some of the biases that crop up when we use anecdotal evidence instead of science.
Please feel free to post any comments, thoughts, or questions you have. If something I’ve written is unclear, absolutely ask me here to clarify, my goal with this is to make the science as accessible as possible to as many people as possible.
For now, enjoy!
Link to Part 2 here.
PS: Hat tip to Orac over at Respectful Insolence both for his numerous posts raising awareness of this issue, and his most recent post bringing the Time magazine article to my attention.
PPS: When commenting, please remember: keep the comments respectful, especially to people with autism, and their parents and loved ones.
1.Autism Spectrum Disorder: No causal relationship with vaccines DOI: 10.1111/j.1440-1754.2007.01239.x
2.DeStefano F (2007). “Vaccines and autism: evidence does not support a causal association”. Clin Pharmacol Ther 82 (6): 756–9 doi:10.1038/sj.clpt.6100407. PMID 17928818.
Last edit on 4/23/09: added link to part 2