Last Friday we heard a story from a mother who wondered why a staff member at her doctor’s office still believed the myth that vaccines cause autism, even though the overwhelming scientific and medical consensus, based on hundreds of peer-reviewed studies involving millions of children and adults receiving hundreds of millions of vaccines, is that they don’t. But if you wonder why people still cling to debunked myths, pseudoscience, and conspiracy theories, just ask Dr. Google. Agata Blaszczak-Boxe looks at a new study from Johns Hopkins University which found that a simple web search can point unsuspecting (or gullible) web surfers in the direction of misinformation, misunderstanding, and misinterpretation of actual facts:
Many websites that promote unscientific views about vaccinations use pseudoscience and misinformation to spread the idea that vaccines are dangerous, according to a new study.
For example, of the nearly 500 anti-vaccination websites examined in the study, nearly two-thirds claimed that vaccines cause autism, the researchers found. However, multiple studies have shown that there is no link between vaccines and autism.
The study describes two common strategies of denial that people who cling to anti-science views use when making a point. In addition to promoting misinformation (and outright fabrications and lies), denialists purposely confuse correlation and association with causation. Even though infants and children get a lot of vaccines and the number of children with the diagnosis of autism appears to be rising, science has clearly demonstrated that the vaccines themselves, or how and when they are administered, are not the cause. This is an example of a logical fallacy leading to a false conclusion and it’s easy to see how people succumb easily to this trick if they are not accustomed to thinking critically.
Another tactic pediatricians are all-too-familiar with are second- or third-hand stories and anecdotes, sometimes graphic, told in vivid and compelling words, and practically impossible to confirm. While we’re going to listen and respect a medical history told by a principle observer (namely, the parent of a young child), we’re not buying tales passed down the grapevine, told like the old game of “telephone.”
But it’s facts that are cherry-picked, misinterpreted and then distorted to achieve a dishonest point that can be most maddening. Blaszczak-Boxe spoke to the study’s principle author:
The biggest takeaway from the findings is that researchers and health officials “need to communicate to the vaccine-hesitant parent in a way that resonates with them and is sensitive to their concerns,” Moran said in a statement. “In our review, we saw communication for things we consider healthy, such as breast-feeding, eating organic, the types of behavior public health officials want to encourage. I think we can leverage these good things and reframe our communication in a way that makes sense to those parents resisting vaccines for their children.”
There is no doubt the discussion between pediatricians and vaccine-hesitant parents needs to be reframed. Facts alone, apparently, aren’t enough.