Megan Geske: Week 12

November 20, 2011 at 1:51 pm | Posted in Uncategorized, Weekly Responses | 1 Comment

For the past 12 weeks, we have been examining three different issues that have made a splash in the media: intelligent design, climate change, and now vaccines and autism. We have seen that while scientists reach a consensus, the public does not necessarily follow their lead. Scientists have found no link between vaccines and autism, yet politicians and parents refuse to let their beliefs go. Kerr and Offitt examine the battle between science and parents, who have unwavering beliefs that while the science claims otherwise, vaccines caused their child’s autism. Both Kerr and Offitt found that even given scientific evidence, parents relied on the “evidence” of their children’s stories.
In chapter 8 “Science in Court”, Offitt looks at the Omnibus Autism Proceeding, a 2007 court case in which parents attempted to sue the federal government over vaccines. The petitioners had three different theories of how vaccines harmed their children: the MMR caused autism, thimerosol in the vaccines caused autism, and finally the combination of MRR and thimerosol caused autism. For each theory, the petitioners trotted out an autistic child, whose parents believed only regressed after given a vaccine. The defense (the federal government) had experts in the field of vaccines and autism, who discredited the petitioner’s scientists, and proved to the judges that there was no link between autism and vaccine. While the defense had science, the petitioners relied on anecdotal evidence (the autistic children) that showed the devastating effects of autism. While heartbreaking, the autistic children are not scientific evidence (nor evidence enough for the court) that vaccines were to blame.
Similarly, Kerr’s “The Autism Spectrum Disorders/Vaccine Link Debate: a Health Social Movement” found that activists of ASD/Vaccine Link rely on “their own experiential knowledge to inform their personal beliefs on ASD causation and treatment.” Parents of children with ASD formed groups that produced scientific research in order to gain credibility, but science is not the foundation of their movement, experience is. No matter what science says, these parents will continue to trust their own beliefs and observations about their children to color their views.
While science has a certain authority, parents and activists of ASD/VL consistently rely on their own brand of science, which often contradicts experts’ opinions. Parents are desperate to know what caused their children to regress, and have latched onto a hypothesis. My question is, is there a way that scientists, or the media, can frame their results to make parents understand that vaccines do not cause autism? Is it more important to find the cause of autism or the cure?

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  1. A major problem with the vaccine and autism issue is that the hypothesis that parents have latched onto seems to be both a cause and a cure to them. After, searching the unfiltered internet to “research” and back up their beliefs with non-scientific evidence, parents believe that if their children do not get vaccines that contain thimerosol, there will be no more autism in the future and their children can live health lives. That being said, you are correct in that since the issue seems to surround children that already have autism, it is more important for parents to worry about a cure for the illness instead of looking for who they can blame. Kerr gave a useful suggestion on how scientists could frame the story, by putting less emphasis on the uncertainty of their findings and framing the the issue in a more hopeful way to the public. Maybe if scientists bring more discussion of a cure for autism into their message it would relate to the public more. Also a more personal and direct approach would be effective, since that is what the media and activists do in order to get the public to agree with their side. Scientists have a tendency to present their evidence in a way too complicated for the public to comprehend so the key to re-framing the scientific message is simplicity and something that the public sphere can relate to.

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