Vaccines and Autism and Pseudoscience

In category Notes, Thoughts and Musings

The debate about whether vaccines can cause autism lingers on. The anti-vaccination lobby are routinely accused by mainstream science of pushing pseudoscience with flimsy claims based on selective research and dubious evidence. Yet the anti-vaccination lobby and the autism lobby have many similarities.

I have some sympathy for Meryl Dorey – not because I agree with her, but because I think her intentions are good and some of the attacks are unduly vicious. I also think Nicole Rogerson’s intentions are good.

Both women had sons who were diagnosed as autistic. Both looked for explanations that fit their observations and then went on to set up a non-profit organisation to raise awareness about what they saw as the problem. Both receive income from their fund-raising.

Neither are scientists. Both women and both organisations use a mixture of the research that suits their viewpoint and their own personal views to produce a discourse which is a mix of sciency terms, citations to claim credibility, and emotive hyperbole. Both are closed to dissenting views. These are the hallmarks of pseudoscience.

The key differences are that Ms Rogerson comes with the skills, background and contacts from a “career in Marketing and Public Relations” (meet the team) and she is currently on the winning side. Her message and language fits with the needs of politicians, policy makers, media and sponsors. Nothing she says challenges the status quo in the world of science, academia or business. That doesn’t make her views on autism any more or less correct than those of Ms Dorey.

So back to the question of whether vaccines cause autism: it is an impossible question because it assumes that autism is a defined, recognisable, measurable thing. It’s not.  There is no settled science about what autism is and therefore can be no settled science about its causes or treatments.

It is known that vaccinations can cause reactions in a very small minority of children. In a percentage of cases the damage can be permanent.  Just as with any major medical trauma, the physical changes and disruption to development may well result in autistic behaviour or responses. That doesn’t boil down to vaccines cause autism.

Parents and medical professionals have always weighed up the tiny risk of vaccinations against the major risks of the associated diseases. The autism bogeyman of the anti-vaccination lobby is not helpful – but nor is the derision thrown at them while not placing the science and vested interests of the autism lobby under the same scrutiny.

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