AbbyLieberman_Week12

November 20, 2011 at 5:24 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

When it comes to today’s fast-paced society where information is transmitted and interpreted on an almost instant basis, people tend to seek the easiest and most direct approach to problem solving. Such is the case in the mobilization around vaccines having a causal role in Autism Spectrum Disorder. Despite the fact that scientific data refutes the hypothesis that vaccination has even a minimal relation to autism diagnosis, much of the public continues to believe that it does. Why? Because ASD/vaccine link activists provide the easiest and most accessible way for people to grab onto hope, while scientists provide confusing, complex, and often grim conclusions of potential causes and cures to the disorder.

In “Autism and Vaccines: A health Social Movement,” Kerr investigates “how and why activists continue to mobilize around the hypothesis that mercury in vaccines triggers and/or causes ASD.” Kerr evaluates survey data and conducts in-depth interviews in order to examine the effects of activist groups on the interpretations of mainstream medicine. In particular, her work addresses “challenges to Western mainstream medicine’s cultural authority,” looks at “ASD/VL activists organization and mobilization,” and, lastly “investigates how and why ASD/VL activists deploy personal experience to contest arguments that are scientific in nature.” What Kerr points out is the lack of scientific evidence rooted in activists’ arguments, but ease of accessibility and understanding to them. She exposes the difficulty that official have in explaining scientific data while still avoiding making sweeping conclusions. Officials, scientists, and doctors are forced to speak to the media, but must take care to stay true to the data. “For example”, she says “ rather than saying vaccines do not cause autism, the IOM stated ‘evidence supports a rejection of the causal hypothesis,’ a watered down, much less powerful declaration.” Activists on the other hand, to not adhere to scientific data, but also, do not have a responsibility to do so. They “are able to make very bold, and very direct claims.” The result is that the information they are transmitting is easy to understand and, therefore, easy to agree with. It is much easier to side with people one can identify with and easily comprehend than to side with officials who cloud their conclusions with complex scientific jargon and difficult concepts.

Due to the fact that scientists make their conclusions and evidence so hard to understand, people are often weary of trusting those scientists, officials, and doctors. Therefore, according to Offit in chapter 10 of his book, “If we don’t trust them, how can we believe what they are saying is certain?” In chapters 8 and 10, Offit discusses the autism- vaccine link in terms of federal court hearings and the way society interprets science. He says that, “Between 1999 and 2007, 5,000 parents filed claims that vaccines had caused children’s autism.” This was more than any other claim made and children were compensated if studies showed that they had been harmed by the vaccine. In the specific case of the Omnibus Autism Proceeding, 3 judges sided with science; they ruled that “the combination of MMR and thimerosal did not cause autism,” and their conclusions “left virtually no room for a successful appeal.” But, if that was the case, why do people still continue to believe that there is truth in the link between autism and MMR vaccination? Offit discusses society’s relationship with science as the reason many people still believe this. He says that science is influenced by society and that often people equate “common belief” with “common wisdom.” Offit describes today’s popular culture as one that is “dominated by cynicism and hungry for scandal.” He believes that many are motivated to disapprove of scientific data because they are insecure about the truth in it. Much of the public feel that doctors and pharmaceutical companies will do anything for profit. A lot of these beliefs, Offit explains, stem out of the media. Our society is impressionable and media plays a large, if not the largest role, if how people interpret and understand important information. In movies like The Fugitive, where a pharmaceutical company hires a hit man to kill a doctor who finds out that one of the company’s drugs causes fatal liver damage, people have a difficult time separating television from reality. Although they realize the fiction in stories like this, the idea is then in their heads and interpreted as a possibility.  And on that note, even when it comes to real-life people expressing science in the media, the public will believe people’s direct and bold statements.

The bottom line is that people will take in and remember what is easiest to understand; they will see the truth in ideas they have time to and ability to grasp. How can doctors, scientists, and officials effectively convince the public of the truth in their conclusions on the lack of evidence in the link between vaccines and autism? How can they make what they say easy to understand, while still being careful of sticking to the true data?

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