Stef Manisero – Week 12 – Pitney vs. Kerr

November 20, 2011 at 7:05 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

While the science denies it, many people still hold true to the belief that vaccines can lead to the development of autism or autistic characteristics. The truth of the matter is that there are so many different ideas presented to the public about autism in general, that people are being thrown information that has no definite answer. This idea of uncertainty makes the matter of autism difficult to approach and understand.

All too often in situations of public policy, too much time is consumed with the little details that the overall big picture is sometimes neglected. John Pitney recognized this occurrence was happening when dealing with autism, and decided to write a paper sketching out all the facts we know, thus far, about autism, the questions that remain unanswered and ideas in regard to future research. His paper, entitled “Autism Politics: A Research Agenda,” was broken up into six sections, the six stages of the policy process. Stage one, Initiation, he looks into the reasons why autism has just become a national issue in the past decade, when the disorder has existed since at least the 1940s. Stage two, estimation, focuses on the various reasons why autism is so difficult to detect in people. Pitney attributes this uncertainty to the fact that there is still so much haziness in what, exactly, autism entails, and the fact that the disorder exists on a spectrum, rather than a particular and exact list of characteristics. Mobilization is stage three, and Pitney tries to analyze why groups form and how they interact with each other. For example, he discusses how mobilization is a challenge for parents of autistic children because they already spend so much time and money on their children that they have little of each left over for public activity. In stage four, selection, Pitney discusses possible reasons for the unanimous decision to pass the CAA (Combating Autism Act) despite the divide in society on autism opinions. This act led to increased federal support for screening, public education and research. Pitney refers to stage five as implementation, where he considers the level of government funding for autism compared to that for other diseases and disorders, and reviews the impact of the emergence of anti-vaccine groups, which he states caused conflicts when it came to monetary distribution. Evaluation, the final stage, reflects on how autistic people benefit from autism policies, and Pitney argues that they are not, in fact, benefiting. There has been minimal research on long-term benefits, and little literature published providing guidance for people with autism.

Margaret Kerr wrote an essay analyzing the relationship between vaccines and autism. In “Autism and Vaccines: A Health Social Movement,” she writes about how she conducted an experiment exploring, in particular, why autism activists and vaccine activists continue to believe in a connection that has been largely disproved. Kerr examines how and why, despite this, ASD/VL activists organized a movement to prove such a linkage. She found that while ASD/VL activists did use scientific evidence to build their arguments, they depended mostly on their own experiential knowledge and personal beliefs on the autism/vaccine relation. Kerr argues that this is largely due in part to the uncertainty that surrounds the issue of autism. We simply do not have enough knowledge on the relation between the two, or on the disorder of autism itself, for that matter. Kerr seems hopeful in the sense that one day, when we do gain more knowledge on the disorder and the relation it has to vaccines, there will be a cure for autism, yet the matter still needs to become more certain. Kerr explains the differences between activists and medical officials, the major one being that activists keep messages simple and direct while denying uncertainty, while medical professionals and government officials respect the uncertainty. She continues by arguing that the public is better at understanding and interpreting direct messages of the activists, and therefore is likely to agree with these messages, especially if they coincide with their own personal experiences. Kerr advises medical officials to provide a sense of hope to families affected by autism, and maybe then they will be more successful in portraying the message of uncertainty that Kerr presents as the largest issue in this case.

Both Pitney and Kerr express, in one way or another, that there is currently so much information that we still do not know and so many issues are up for debate when it comes to the matter of autism. Pitney attempts to lay out, section by section, the facts that we currently do know and those areas where we need to direct future research. In his final stage, evaluation, he claims that autistic people are not benefiting from autism policies, and that there should be more literature published that guides families afflicted by autism. Kerr, in her essay, argues that the reason for such a disconnect between the general public and medical professionals is the simple fact that there is so much uncertainty surrounding the general autism disorder that it is hard to separate the facts from theories and rumors. This has clearly been an issue in the two other issues we’ve studied thus far – climate change and evolution – and proves to be just as large of an issue with autism.

Is it possible to separate the facts from rumors and theories? If so, how? When people spread rumors or false theories, what harms are they causing themselves and the rest of the public?


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