PBS Frontline covers the vaccine wars

The PBS program Frontline apparently will air a program on Tuesday April 27, 2010 about the battle over vaccines. You can read the press release to learn more.

I hope that Frontline gives the issue its usual careful consideration and doesn’t give equal weight to those who appear to ignore the science. Take, for example, this quote in the press release from J.B. Handley, the founder of Generation Rescue: “There is no real-world study that shows me that those six vaccines didn’t cause my son’s autism.” It’s hard to imagine that there ever will be. Would vaccine critics believe any study that didn’t agree with claims that vaccines cause autism? Large-scale epidemiological studies have shown that there is no link between vaccines and autism. If autism rates are no different with and without vaccination, then vaccines can’t cause autism. Vaccination is not even associated with autism.

Big chest thump to Orac at Respectful Insolence for laying out the difference between scientific skepticism and scientific denialism in his discussion of this Frontline piece. Skeptics accept valid scientific evidence but are open to the idea that poorly conducted or invalid studies might lead to misleading conclusions. Skeptics then look to conduct better studies that could rule out a hypothesis. Denialism involves rejecting any study, valid or not, that runs counter to your own belief system.

The real question, and one we address in The Invisible Gorilla, is why people tend to believe so strongly in an illusory link between vaccines and autism? What leads people to form and then hold onto beliefs about a cause in the face of contradictory evidence?

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2 comments to PBS Frontline covers the vaccine wars

  • One good reason is that it’s not conservative to delay or spread out vaccination schedules. Any delays in vaccinating make it more likely that children will be infected with highly contagious diseases. That’s a known consequence of not vaccinating, and one that substantially increases the risks. Delaying or avoiding vaccinations introduces a known consequence, one that is both bad for the individual and for society. That’s not a conservative approach — it’s a risky one.

    Another reason is that the evidence is overwhelmingly against any link whatsoever between autism and vaccines. Without any link, there can’t be a causal relationship. The media loves a controversy, so they often present “both sides” of a debate. That’s fine in politics, where there often are two (or more) legitimate sides to each issue. Presenting both sides as equals when one side has no valid scientific evidence in support does a disservice to the public. There is no scientific controversy over the lack of a link between vaccines and autism. It’s just a media controversy. People with no scientific training but substantial media exposure can create a “hum” over the airwaves, but media buzz isn’t evidence.

  • Jeremy

    When there is a hum in the air that there MAY be a cause between autism and vaccines and either side cannot be proved why not be conservative about it and delay or spread out the vaccination schedule.