Sheep of a Different Color
Anti-vaccinationists and devotees of alt-med often like to proclaim themselves educated, independent souls, with minds more open and opinions more informed than others. On anti-vax websites and in blog comments, you can frequently hear them say things like: “Open your eyes, people!” and “Read, read, read.” When questioned on why they would cleave to a distinctly non-expert celebrity like Jenny McCarthy as a spokesperson, the answer is usually a huffy “I don’t just listen to Jenny; I’ve done my research.”
The one thing they seem to fear almost as much as toxins and autism is being viewed as members of the unquestioning majority of sheeple-parents who follow the recommendations of their pediatricians. They don’t seem to realize that they, too, are “sheep.” They simply choose to follow different shepherds than the rest of us.
Anyone who doesn’t have a firm grasp on statistics and study design, or an understanding of the complexities of epidemiology (not to mention immunology) is not capable of independently and accurately evaluating the science behind vaccine safety. Many people are able to learn these things, but the fact is that most of us don’t. Instead, we rely to varying degrees on others to help us make decisions that, at their core, rest on that knowledge.
When anti-vaccinationists claim they’ve done their research, what they most often mean is that they have looked at a bunch of websites, read some books and looked at a bunch of abstracts. They don’t seem to realize (or won’t admit) that these sources are filtered just as much as anything they hear from the CDC or their pediatricians.
For example, the conclusions from a scientific study can be as biased and inaccurate as a press release, but one has no way of knowing it unless one has: 1) read the entire study and looked at the actual data; and 2) understood what one has read. I would hazard a guess that the majority of laymen don’t do the first, and the vast majority aren’t equipped to do the second.
For the most of us, then, the most important decision is whom to trust to help us interpret scientific information.
Anti-vaccinationists appear to view this reliance on experts as a failing. They are deeply mistrustful of doctors, the government, and especially vaccine manufacturers, not without some cause.
However, because they are, for the most part, unable to accurately evaluate the science, they rely on a variety of non-authoritative sources to support conclusions that, in many cases, they drew before ever encountering a piece of data:
- “Other ways of knowing,” such as instinct and intuition;
- Anecdotes and personal testimony;
- Information from self-proclaimed “experts.”
This lack of scientific understanding, coupled with mistrust for expertise, leaves many of us susceptible to propaganda, often dressed up as science, because it reaches facile conclusions, using crude but easily digested methodology, that agree with our personal biases. Several prime examples are on view at the website of Generation Rescue, one of the premiere anti-vaccination organizations, started by J.B. Handley, a businessman who believes his son’s autism was caused by vaccines, and that autism can be cured with bio-medical treatments such as chelation.
Anti-vaccinationists may see themselves as fiercely independent, speaking Truth to Power, in contrast with the rest of the sheep blindly following the dictates of the medical establishment.
The truth is, they are simply sheep of another color.
- 1. Most American parents of young children today grew up in the shadow of the Watergate and the Vietnam War. Even if they are too young to remember it, their parents were almost certainly profoundly affected by these betrayals of public trust, and any American who has come of age since the early ‘70s is likely to have a very different perspective on the trustworthiness of government bodies than did previous generations. Moreover, they are too young to remember the toll taken by vaccine-preventable diseases before widespread vaccination relegated them to medical textbooks and the occasional case study in this country.
- 2. Several of these “experts” have significant (sometimes undisclosed) conflicts of interest: geneticist Dr. Mark Geier and his son, Mr. David Geier have several patent applications for autism treatment protocols; Dr. Andrew Wakefield received £400,000 from plaintiffs’ lawyers in a vaccine-injury lawsuit, undisclosed at the time of his study’s publication; pediatrician Robert Mendelsohn, MD was president of anti-regulatory org. National Health Federation and the author of several books and a newsletter criticizing conventional medicine; Dr. Jay Gordon is pediatrician to Jenny McCarthy’s son and the author of a book on natural cures for ADD & ADHD; Dr. Jerry Kartzinel is a pediatrician who offers bio-medical treatment for autism and other disorders, purveyor of the KHP™ Essential Daily Health Kit, and co-author of Jenny McCarthy’s book Healing and Preventing Autism: A Complete Guide; Dr. Bernadine Healy is a cardiologist and former head of the NIH. She served as a board member for TASSC, an organization that criticized research connecting tobacco to health problems and was later found to have been funded by tobacco manufacturer Phillip Morris.
- 3. Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. is an attorney; anti-vaccine activist Barbara Loe Fisher is a mother; Generation Rescue founder J.B. Handley is a businessman; anti-vaccination activist Jenny McCarthy is an actress and model who is the author of several books autism.
- 4. These include GR’s telephone survey of the opinions of vaccinated/unvaccinated children, which GR forwards as proof of a vaccine-autism connection. (Interestingly, the survey found that partially vaccinated children had a lower incidence of autism than unvaccinated children); GR’s 14 studies website that attempts to deconstruct and rate several scientific studies; GR’s recent “Special Report” that attempts to correlate developed countries’ vaccine schedules with rates of autism and under-five mortality rates.