A recent article by Deirdre Imus on The Huffington Post is long tirade against Alice Park’s Time magazine cover story, How Safe Are Vaccines? It’s been pointed out on other science blogs (and I wholeheartedly agree) that the the Time magazine article is one of the better pieces of medical journalism this year. I really do recommend reading the entire article as an example of fine reporting. Also take a look at the excellent chart that Time designed, showing data on U.S. measles cases from the first four months of 2008 with CDC’s recommended childhood immunization schedule.

The purpose of my post today is not to argue with Deirdre Imus’s article, although it would be easy enough to deconstruct it sentence by sentence. No — what caught my eye was something I noticed as I was looking over the comments in response to the article. First, to get the general tone of Ms. Imus’s article, I’ll quote the concluding sentence: “…the government has not proven the number of vaccines given to children today are safe, or that injecting our babies with mercury, aluminum and formaldehyde is safe.” (See Orac’s patient nine-part critique of this absurd claim regarding mercury, aluminum, formaldehyde and other “toxins” in vaccines.)

A commenter who calls themself ThinkForYourself2, who obviously is in agreement with Ms. Imus, states, “Some people want ’science’ to tell them that these vaccines actually caused harm to these innocent children and families so here it is: Parents of autistic children once had full-functioning, happy, outgoing children who then get vaccinated and immediately regress into autism. Is this science enough for you or do you still need more? Let us ‘ignorant’ and ‘dangerous’ parents have the choice to poison or not poison our children. That’s all some of us ask. And let me send my unvaccinated child to school with your higly vaccinated and therefore highly ‘immune’ child. Isn’t this why you vaccinated your child in the first place to protect them? So don’t force me to vaccinate mine if your is immune! Where is the God Damn Outrage?”

It’s the reply to the above comment, by someone named pkafin, that caught my eye, especially since the comment was chosen as “HuffPost’s Pick“:

“Parents of autistic children once had full-functioning, happy, outgoing children who then get vaccinated and immediately regress into autism. Is this science enough for you or do you still need more?” That is actually not science at all. Science requires empirical studies that are both repeatable and subjected to peer review. What you mention is anecdotal evidence that can be used to form a hypothesis that becomes the basis for the design of a scientific study. But that observation, in and of itself, is not scientific in any way. The “G-d Damn Outrage” cuts both ways. Industry should not be the main source for scientific studies on their own products. But, equally outrageous, American education should not be so entirely dumbed down that we don’t actually know what “science” is anymore.(Emphases mine)

This observation by pkafin is quite interesting. The gist of the entire comment, especially the last sentence, is that Deirdre Imus and ThinkForYourself2 and much of the “Green Our Vaccines” movement and others who believe that vaccines cause autism, have one basic problem. That problem is that they simply don’t understand science and scientific thinking. But pkafin is saying more than this. He or she is saying that the burden of this ignorance about science and the scientific process lies with the American educational system.

So readers, I leave you with this question. I don’t know the answer myself. Is this the problem? I assume that you know that I’m not talking about memorizing the anatomy the of the frog or the periodic table. Is a lack of education in science and scientific thinking the major issue here? I’d be interested to see your comments.

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35 Responses to “Vaccines and Autism: Is Science Education the Problem?”  

  1. 1 Mike W

    I fail to see how the quality of science education in America couldn’t be a contributing factor, but we shouldn’t disregard the emotional aspect to autism. Many of those who are so critical of vaccinations are parents of autistic children themselves, and let their pain cloud their judgment. Having an autistic child must be heartbreaking, and there’s a strong desire to label something external as the cause. It’s already bad enough to have to deal with the effects of the disease–who’d want to think that, even if it’s just by genetics, that they’d have done something that could have led to it?
    Vaccinations are thus an excellent scapegoat; they’re complicated and pushed upon the parents by society. It’s easier to turn a blind eye to the evidence that way. Of course, it’s even easier to disregard that evidence when it’s packaged in a corpus of peer-reviewed papers that aren’t easy for laymen (and I include myself in that category) to read.

  2. 2 James Stein

    I certainly do think it is a lack of quality science education. First of all, I attended an extremely prestigious Math/Sciences high school (Stuyvesant, in NY) and then went on to get (well, I’m currently finishing) a B.S. in Biology with a minor in Chemistry. At the age of 22, I’ve yet to hear - in a single classroom - that the basis of science is the falsification of hypotheses and the collection of empirical data, repeatable and subject to peer review. If I hadn’t been following the evolution/creation arguments on talk.origins for years, I still wouldn’t!

    Only recently I was helping a friend with an assignment for one of her classes; a neuroanatomy class in a speech pathology M.A. program. Her textbook (textbook!) actually had the line “IF the word ‘theory’ discomfits some of you, do not worry: a theory is merely speculation on its way to becoming a scientific law.” Oh, if only either half of that sentence were true!

    On another assignment I included a line in her paper (I insisted it be added; how could it not be) “Though this author provides an intuitively pleasing argument, he bases it on a number of assertions without providing either empirical data to support it nor references to other studies that have. Without an evidentiary basis, I can at best posit that it is an interesting direction for future experimental exploration.” The teacher crossed out the line in its entirety and asked her why she sounded so ANGRY? She went on to cross out every other line in the paper that had references to “needing data.”

    For that matter, in science education from kindergarten on up, science *is* taught as dogma. It’s a list of things to be memorized and regurgitated. Now, I’m sure everyone here has studied science to some degree and understands why that is: there’s just a lot of things you need to memorize before you can start to understand anything in science. But by the time people are older they are bored and frustrated with the topic, and claims that “Science isn’t dogma! It’s based on experiment!” certainly fall on deaf ears. How many high schoolers got bad lab grades because *their* experiments didn’t get the results the teacher decided must come about ahead of time?

    Then there’s the fact that we simply don’t value science and math in our society. If a Lit major goes to their dept. and begs to be gotten out of a math requirement because “I can’t do math,” it’s understandable, whether or not it gets achieved. If a math major go to *their* dpt. and begs to be gotten out an English requirement because “I can’t read,” people wonder how this person got into college.

    Most of my examples are at the higher levels of education, where science education ought to have a certain minimum quality already. Need I even talk about how pathetic it is in elementary school and lower, where the people doing the teaching are the same ones that couldn’t pass Bio 101 in college? (How many times my 6 yo. niece has come home and I’ve had to un-teach all of the “science” she was taught in school that day!)

  3. 3 Mary Parsons

    Shamelessly lifted from the latest Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe.

    A popular feel for scientific endeavors should, if possible, be restored given the needs of the twenty-first century. This does not mean that every literature major should take a watered-down physics course or that a corporate lawyer should stay abreast of quantum mechanics. Rather, it means that an appreciation for the methods of science is a useful asset for a responsible citizenry. What science teaches us, very significantly, is the correlation between factual evidence and general theories, something well illustrated in Einstein’s life.

    - Walter Isaacson

    Understanding risk and the scientific method would be invaluable. However, with vaccination issues, a lack of trust somes to be pre-dominant and I don’t have any useful thoughts on ways in which that can be overcome.

  4. 4 EpiWonk

    @Mike W: Yes, I certainly agree with you about the emotional aspects of being the parent of an autistic child. It’s understandable that these parents feel the way they do. I was thinking more of all those others who have jumped on the anti-vax bandwagon.

    Regarding peer-reviewed papers: One of the ultimate purposes of this blog is to educate laypersons on how to read epidemiological studies. It’s my view that anyone with a high school education can learn the basics. Back in the late 1980’s I taught a course on epidemiology (really it was on how to read medical articles) to college sophomores for a few years. The students loved it. It’s the most fun I ever had in my life.

  5. 5 Joseph

    Not really, because it would be naive to expect that by simply improving science education then all or most people will automatically become scientifically literate. It’s possible to try to improve the status quo, but a certain distribution of skills will always remain. Antivaccionists are as much a product of “neurodiversity” if you will as any other difference. What I think matters more than the existence of fringe groups is the existence of data and arguments.

  6. 6 daedalus2u

    I think the problem isn’t just science education. There are many pressures on people trying to actually destroy their ability to think logically, clearly and accurately. Most of this is from the media, from advertising and especially from politically motivated advertising (aka propaganda). A lot of entertainment does the same thing, by fostering magical thinking. I think a lot of this damage to thinking is unconscious and not realized for what it is; the deliberate fostering of magical thinking. Some of it is deliberate disinformation, such as what the tobacco companies put out, and what the oil companies are putting out on global warming. Exaggerating dangers of terrorism while minimizing dangers of environmental degradation.

    Attributing human emotions to animals can be deadly for both. Here is a story about someone who smeared peanut butter on a child’s face so a bear would lick it off and they could get some “cute” pictures.

    http://www.yosemite.org/newsroom/clips2004/august/080104.htm

    People raised on fairy tales and cartoons have no conceptualization of wild animals as actually wild and what that means. Park rangers have to euthanize bears that have become too acclimated to humans.

    I think the more damaging fairy tales relate to how people interact.

    The fairy tales of war turning people into heroes, of the good guys always winning, of the doctor diagnosing the zebra of a disease and achieving a full cure in the last 5 minutes of the show. People lose the ability to conceptualize of these as fiction because they have essentially no experience with reality, only the fantasies that have been generated for entertainment. People are human, you push their buttons with dramatic scenes such as the Eli Stone episode with the fictitious mercuritol where the CEO of the drug company who made the vaccine would not vaccinate his child with the vaccine his company made? It is like shouting fire in a crowded theater.

    The two classes of errors are the type 1 error, the false positive and the type 2 error the false negative. If you make people hypersensitive to false, bogus fantasy situations you increase the type 1 errors. When there is no possibility of a false negative (because the situation is not possible; as in zombies, vampires, ghosts) the total error increases when there are more type 1 errors (there is no corresponding reduction in type 2 errors).

    There was a recent article in Nature about the artist who was prosecuted because he received soil bacteria paid for by a research grant. I think this unwarranted prosecution happened because political pressure made the “cost” of a false negative so high and the “cost” of a false positive so low.

    http://www.nature.com/news/2008/080604/full/453707a.html

    This is the same pressure that is causing xenophobia against minority groups that are easily distinguishable.

  7. 7 Mary Parsons

    One of the ultimate purposes of this blog is to educate laypersons on how to read epidemiological studies. It’s my view that anyone with a high school education can learn the basics.

    Excellent purpose. I have some basics but I have no doubt that there are more basics for me to learn.

    More education is A Good Thing however, I don’t think that education is a complete answer. Even if you had a fully-equipped home workshop cum laboratory, nobody can verifiy everything that they are told, there is a point at which you have to accept some matters on trust. Trust in science seems to be diminishing for some of the reasons that Daedalus outlined.

  8. 8 Mary Parsons

    I know so little, that I don’t even know if the following would count as basics but it left me flapping as I would have no idea how to agree or disagree with this.

    As the authors state, the results of this study are based on a single measurement, leaving some uncertainty in the findings due to bias induced by random within-person variability in 25-hydroxy-vitamin D [25(OH)D]. Platz et al. (22) reported in a population of men in a similar age range as in this study an intraclass correlation of 0.70 for measurements taken, on average, 3 years apart, indicating that a single measure has good validity. If a linear trend in risk with 25(OH)D status had been evident in the study of Ahn et al. (18), the estimated relative risk could have been corrected for bias due to random within-person variation [eg, Rosner et al. (23)], but with the possible nonlinearity that the authors observed a more appropriate adjustment would have involved the estimation of a misclassification matrix from the repeated measures separated in time, which then could have been used to adjust the categorical relative risks and their confidence intervals for measurement error, with no assumptions of linearity imposed [eg, Drews et al. (24) and Hertzmark (25)]. Particularly if random within-person variation had been found to increase or decrease with increasing underlying 25(OH)D level, the adjusted dose–response relationship could be quite different from that presented and is difficult to predict in advance.

    Taken from Vitamin D and Prostate Cancer Risk—A Less Sunny Outlook?

  9. 9 EpiWonk

    @Mary Parsons: Your point about trust in science is certainly a good one. I have to admit that I don’t completely understand that paragraph you quote. But it’s written by respected scientists from a respected institution in a good journal. Yes, indeed, point well made.

  10. 10 AutismNewsBeat

    To expand on what daedalus wrote, I think the role of marketing has to be recognized in the anti-vaccine movement. Consumers are king in the US and most industrialized nations. “Meeting customer demand” is a mantra in business and engineering, an immutable law that anybody with a credit card takes for granted. Consumer demand and preference is tracked and studied and dissected in every industry and service area of the economy. It’s why we have cup holders in our mini-vans and deodorant sticks with a big wide ball on top. But consumers have been pampered and sated to the point of entitlement, and then told over and over that they are always right. And like a snooty diner sending his overcooked veal back to the kitchen, some parents want to return their disabled children to the doctors so they can be made whole again. It’s sick and twisted, but can we really be surprised?

  11. 11 Dr. Gwenn

    Having grappled with this issue for many years in talking with countless families, the issue for me isn’t so much the need for more science education but education about science. Due to the power of the web, well educated families can now go online and get information and think they understand it but fail to realize the interpretation a scientific education brings to those papers. Autism is a perfect example of this.

    Getting reliable information to families is important to me and my colleagues. It drives us and it haunts us when families have trouble understanding the science or accuse us of hiding or misrepresenting information.

    As I wrote recently at http://www.momlogic.com, we need to reestablish trust first to clear up this problem. We need to get families to trust what doctors are saying again so our interpretations as physician/scientists are believed.

    EpiWonk emailed me about a quote I wrote on MomLogic that I’ll reprint here today for you from that article:

    “We can only know what science allows us to know today. There’s no telling what future studies will teach us but we always stay open-minded to their results and adjust as needed.

    We may learn something new tomorrow that is different from today. That’s the beauty of science. That new information may prove what we know today or change what we know.”

    That’s what I believe and what I try to help families believe. So, back to Autism, I see the pain these families go through and it kills me to not be able to offer them more answer but study after study so far has been clear that there is no link between Autism and vaccines. Development is a fluid process and so much occurs during the time vaccines are given that is easy for timing to be at play for any of the developmental conditions like Autism that are diagnosed when vaccines are given. To blame vaccines does not give us the opportunity to hunt for other causes for those disorders -it only distracts.

    Again, I don’t know what the future holds but I do know what the studies tell me today. That’s all I can do as a physician/scientist. But, if a new study comes out tomorrow teaching us something differenetly, I’ll eat my words if I have to - but it wouldn’t be that I was wrong today. It will be that we’ve learned something new and have made new progress. There is a difference.

  12. 12 EpiWonk

    @Dr. Gwenn: This is very well said. People sometimes tell me that I’m on the pro-vaccine “side.” But I don’t like to think of that way. If good peer-reviewed studies started to be published showing a clear association between childhood vaccines and developmental disorders, I would be on the “side” of science.

  13. 13 Dr. T

    The final cause of the problem (people not acting in a logical or reasonable way on issues related to science and medicine) is poor science knowledge. The immediate underlying cause is poor science education in junior high and high school. The basic cause of the problem is public apathy about science.

    Let’s face it: learning science and the scientific method is hard work. One has to build a foundation of science knowledge, understand the scientific method, apply the scientific method, and make judgments about reports and studies. I do not believe that persons of below average IQ can do this regardless of how much effort is expended. Most persons with above average IQ are capable of learning science and applying the scientific method, but they have no desire to do so. To them, it is like training to hurl the discus: possibly useful for a few, unnecessary for everyone else.

    I have taught medical students, science and pharmacy graduate students, and medical technology students. In each of those groups the majority did not truly understand the scientific method well enough to use it. (I believe James Stein’s experiences echo this.) Therefore, I would not be surprised to learn that less than 5% of the general public understands the scientific method. I see no way to change this.

    If we had many intelligent and honest reporters (such as Ron Bailey at Reason), the lack of science knowledge among the general public would not be a huge problem. But, most reporters and editors, preferring sensationalism over truthfulness and public service, function as anti-scientists. By giving quacks and charlatans more column-inches or air time than true medical and scientific experts, the media skews public actions towards the easy path of magical thinking. Unfortunately, I see no way of changing this, either, given the protections our Constitution guarantees for the press.

  14. 14 EpiWonk

    @Dr. T: I just spent about a half hour skimming over some of Ronald Bailey’s articles. Thanks, I was unfamiliar with his work.

  15. 15 jdc

    The first thing I thought of on reading this post was RP Feynman’s lecture on Cargo Cult Science. I think he made one point in particular that stuck in my mind:

    But this long history of learning how to not fool ourselves - of having utter scientific integrity - is, I’m sorry to say, something that we haven’t specifically included in any particular course that I know of. We just hope you’ve caught on by osmosis.

    The first principle is that you must not fool yourself - and you are the easiest person to fool. So you have to be very careful about that. After you’ve not fooled yourself, it’s easy not to fool other scientists. You just have to be honest in a conventional way after that.

    The second half of the quotation is widely used, but I think the first half has been somewhat neglected. I think there is a good argument for teaching the principles of scientific integrity - probably as part of the basic science courses that all students take (e.g., GCSEs in the UK). There are certainly plenty of examples available of science, the use of science, or the reporting of science that display a lack of integrity - as anyone who reads David Colquhoun’s Improbable Science or Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science will be able to testify. If teachers were asked to include scientific integrity in the curriculum, they could do a lot worse than visit http://dcscience.net/ or http://www.badscience.net/ and see the documented examples of ‘how-not-to-do-it’.

    Obviously a lack of public understanding of science is a serious issue that is no doubt a major factor in, for example, anti-vaccinationism - but it seems to me that public mistrust of authority is also an important factor in such matters as the media’s MMR hoax (or scaremongering over ‘frankenstein foods’ or the chimera fears expressed when the embryo research bill was being debated).

  16. 16 Science Mom

    Thank-you EpiWonk for this discussion; it is an important issue that hasn’t been thoroughly addressed. As someone that is on the ‘front lines’ of the debate i.e. message boards and blog replies, I can say that every comment here has offered some valuable insight as to what the numerous problems are. Scientific literacy is at the fore. I learned how to source, read and cite scientific literature as an undergrad (science major); I learned to really read scientific literature (i.e. critically evaluate) in grad school. In fact, one of my epi professors made us (a diverse group of science majors) evaluate papers outside of our respective disciplines with the intent of teaching us how to a.) identify the various study types and b.) learn to critically appraise the methodologies and results.

    I consider myself to be a lucky one. What about all of those that have not had the benefit of formal instruction in scientific methodology? They become victims of the slick, quote-mining pseudo-scientists or wannabes and sexy conspiracy theory cranks. The average citizen is not equipped with scientific literacy early on in their primary education; they feel as though they have to be experts before they can master critical evaluation of science so just skip some steps and settle for spoon-feeding from the aforementioned charlatans.

    We seem to be able to identify the problems but what about the solutions? One very important dilemma that I don’t believe has been addressed is the compassion factor. Anti-vax bloggers, journalists and activists are very compassionate and passionate; they ‘dumb down’ the issue (for various reasons that aren’t really germane to this discussion but we know anyhow); the unwashed masses are drawn to them because they feel empathised with and don’t feel talked down to. I am sorry to say but the pro-science side profoundly lacks the compassion and humility to garner attention from parents confused about this issue. Heck, I am quite condescending when addressing certain individuals although I like to think I am using it as a weapon rather than an effective communication technique.

    So we either have deafening silence from the medical/scientific communities and public health organisations or we have spokespeople like Paul Offit, whom is a brilliant physician/scientist but is one of the most patronising vaccine advocates; Julie Gerberding, whom may be a competent scientist but like Offit, is condescending and dismissive and seems to be alienating the scientific community in a chasmic way. And you have various public health officials that threaten no-exclusion, mandatory vaccination or sound like scripted drones; not exactly instilling confidence in the program to the public. Why has Dr. Bernadine Healy received so much press and attention, I have seen snippets of her interview quoted more times than I care to count. She projected a tremendous amount of compassion, empathy and authority during that interview. Why do books like Cave’s, Tenpenny’s and Sears’ come so highly recommended by the average parent? They break down the science-speak and offer alternatives. Granted, they are not interpreting the science very well, nor are they making responsible vaccine recommendations (Sears’ “Vaccine Book” being the lesser of the evils) but they are appealing.

    I have my ideas, don’t know if they are attainable but am interested in others’ thoughts.

  17. 17 EpiWonk

    @Science Mom: I do notice that almost everyone with a scientific point of view — myself included — seems to come across with a very small bit of anger. What I mean is that there’s a small background message of, “How could you be so ignorant?!” Dr. Gwenn, who commented above, had a very nice post for parents at http://www.momlogic.com/2008/06/green_vaccine_rally_debriefing_1.php, which stressed the importance of science and wasn’t condescending at all. Also, there’s a very impressive new book out, entitled, “Do Vaccines Cause That?! A Guide for Evaluating Vaccine Safety Concerns,” which is available at http://www.dovaccinescausethat.com. It’s published by the National Network for Immunization
    Information (www.immunizationinfo.org). I’m amazed what a good job they do of explaining everything in terms understandable to anyone who speaks English. I read a pre-release copy of the book and plan to do a review of it on my blog in the near future.

  18. 18 Esther

    I think the problem is deeper than lack of scientific education - it’s the lack of teaching critical thinking skills in general, and the fact that information and misinformation is so much easier to spread via the Internet these days. That, combined with the “Question Authority” meme first popularized by the baby boomers, can produce some mighty paranoid human beings - who will believe just about anything. Well, as long as it has a ring of “truthiness” to it, and involves a government cover-up…

  19. 19 Science Mom

    Thanks for the book recommendation EpiWonk, I will await your review but may just buy it now and get started. That sounds like it just may be the counter tool for the pseudo-science being peddled.

    I do notice that almost everyone with a scientific point of view — myself included — seems to come across with a very small bit of anger. What I mean is that there’s a small background message of, “How could you be so ignorant?!”
    Yes, precisely, at least for those that trot out woo-woo as though it were widely accepted and scientifically supported.

  20. 20 Science Mom

    I do notice that almost everyone with a scientific point of view — myself included — seems to come across with a very small bit of anger. What I mean is that there’s a small background message of, “How could you be so ignorant?!”Yes, this is precisely it particularly when addressing those that trot out woo-woo as though it were widely accepted and empirically validated.

    I will be anxious to hear your review of your book recommendation but may just purchase it now anyhow if it appears that good.

  21. 21 Mary Parsons

    I do notice that almost everyone with a scientific point of view — myself included — seems to come across with a very small bit of anger.

    I think that it is sometimes hard to hang on to the thought that although you have answered the same “gotcha” or enquiry more than a hundred times, there are people joining in the conversation who make the same point/ask the same questions because they don’t know/care that it has come up so frequently.

    And, there are people who ask the same question on many blogs, they receive answers, refuse to accept them, repeat questions, leave and go to repeat the cycle at other blogs before returning as if they have never raised the issue before.

    Yes, it looks like a bear pit to the genuine enquirer.

    I wonder if some of the frustration would be diminished if commenters and bloggers had a central depot of stock answers to stock enquiries, challenges about vaccination related issues. In that way, people aren’t expending time, energy and goodwill, constantly answering the same questions. And the central ‘depot’ might be kept updated as new issues emerged. E.g., how many times have individual bloggers and commenters needed to say that there is no thiomersal/thimerosal in the MMR vaccine? Or that there is no anti-freeze in any vaccine? Or needed to explain that the Geiers are not ’scientists’ who conduct or publish valuable research.

  22. 22 Heraclides

    (This has turned into a small essay: my apologies in advance.)

    I’ve had a fairly rough experience trying to “combat” some sometimes vitriolic anti-vaccine, “natural health”, etc., exponents on a public chat forum in my country. Bear in mind that this is a different to the websites most people are referring to here, in that these people are free to reply “in person”. And so-called trolls on these forums hardly help.

    I can understand a little of the anger. If you have received repeated point-blank insults and insinuations from some of these people over long periods of time it can be hard to resist giving a little of their rudeness back or have it run as an undercurrent in your words. Blatantly attacking people they have never met may, in part, stem from the anonymity of the modern internet. I’ve found its usually from those with a strong a ideological stance, as opposed to those that “merely” think vaccines or whatever are be bad. (Ideologues seem to intensely dislike being “corrected” or being shown to be wrong: their responses can be rather brutal!)

    Part of the problem (for me anyway) is that you are going to say that their logic is flawed, sometimes completely so! If you try spell it out slowly, taking care not to take jumps in the logic, some of the less emotionally involved bystanders seem to get the gist. My current line is not to worry too much about the original posters and instead be concerned about the bystanders would might otherwise read their posts has having real meaning. The more ideological posters in particular often strike me as being a lost cause. Maybe that’s giving up, but I prefer to try tell myself that limiting the damage is better than nothing.

    I try hard to write in a fairly “plain” way to head off negative responses, but I’m constantly amazed at what some of these people consider offensive (or make out to be, its sometimes intentional grandstanding). They can be quite good at painting you black in reply, regardless of how innocent your material was. It sometimes feels like trying to make a point against a politician!—their replies can be more about their bluster or “noise” and how others will relate to this, than have any real substance.

    For a small number of these people, their views on science-related matters seem tied to strong religious world-views. I’ve seen others suggest that these people can’t say that they are wrong because to do so deny their religious world-view as well. For these people, I really think you’d have to unpick their religious beliefs first.

    Ocassionally, I’ve found if you present only what there is evidence for, as most scientists naturally do (the rest being not worthy given the lack of evidence backing it) you get accused of being “biased”, “selling the pharmacuetical company’s story” and so on for not addressing “their” side also. It reminds me of the view of “balance” in some sectors of the media as being how much time is given to each side, as opposed to how much evidence there is for the arguments presented by each side. Scientists are inclined to give less time to arguments with less support (and none to those with no support), which is in conflict with a “equal time” take on “balance”.

    To an extent these people follow the media view of “balance”: irrespective of evidence or not, all sides should be given time. By contrast most of us would say that if there is no evidence, there is nothing to really look at (except from a hypothetical point of view). A solution would have to have people place importance on the evidence.

    So… solutions. Firstly, I don’t think there is one solution, in that one size never fits all. My best guess as I’m writing is that, a modern-day take on teaching work-it-out-for-yourself approaches to younger students using logical strategies and explaining why different strategies work for certain things and why they are weak for others might be a central theme—? Education on how the media and advertising actually work might help too. This is, of course, driving at giving the evidence importance. This probably needs to be started at a fairly young age though.

    As a footnote, if you haven’t read Feynman’s “Cargo Cult Science” lecture, try reading it: http://wwwcdf.pd.infn.it/~loreti/science.html Its quite appropriate to this discussion in some respects.

  23. 23 Don Cox

    There is another likely motive for the hostility to MMR besides the belief that the vaccine contains poisonous chemicals. This is the fear most people have of any kind of injection.

    Parents hate being injected themselves, and feel guilty about having their children suffer the same pain.

    This clearly isn’t the only reason - there was a campaign in Nigeria against the polio vaccine, which is given by mouth - but I think it adds to the emotions.

  24. 24 Don Cox

    We should avoid giving people the idea that all science is experimental science. There is good science which involves rigorous observation, but not experiment.

    Examples would be geology, at least until recently, and animal taxonomy (for instance, Darwin’s work on barnacles).

    I think the key feature of science is honesty, and as Feinmann says, not fooling yourself.

  25. 25 Heraclides

    Excuse the poor formatting in my post. There should have been a “close italics” tag after the word “are” (with the next italicised word being “time”, at the end of the block of italics). Its a pity I can’t edit posts here… in future I’ll try figure out a way of previewing the post at my end…!!

  26. 26 EpiWonk

    @ Heraclides: Fixed, I think.

  27. 27 Heraclides

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