Wednesday, June 15, 2016

In the News: Vaccines & How to Tell Good Science from Pseudo-Science

The question of whether to vaccinate children should have been settled long ago. But many today see a correlation between vaccinations and autism that makes them think vaccines cause autism.  How can we know that it doesn't? 

This week's The New Yorker magazine prints the text of Atul Gawande’s commencement address at the California Institute of Technology, on Friday, June 10th. Gawande explains reasons for our tendency to mistrust science and suggests ways to test whether science is good or or bad (pseudo-science).

He also acknowledges that once pseudo-science gets a toehold in popular culture, it’s very difficult to refute it. But, he says, we can point out why the scientific community doesn’t think vaccinations cause autism:

People are prone to resist scientific claims when they clash with intuitive beliefs. They don’t see measles or mumps around anymore. They do see children with autism. And they see a mom who says, “My child was perfectly fine until he got a vaccine and became autistic.”

Now, you can tell them that correlation is not causation. You can say that children get a vaccine every two to three months for the first couple years of their life, so the onset of any illness is bound to follow vaccination for many kids. You can say that the science shows no connection. (emphasis mine)

I was vaccinated as a child in the 1960s because my father was not a member of the fundamentalist church that I was raised in. Still, for a long time I believed what my church taught, and when my children were born I did not have them vaccinated—at first.

But I eventually learned that the eradication of diseases such as smallpox, diphtheria, polio, tetanus, pertussis (whooping cough), measles, mumps, and rubella was mostly because of vaccinations.  There are risks associated with vaccines, but the benefits of an adequately immunized society far outweighs those risks--except for certain children who cannot be vaccinated for medical reasons. We put those children at risk when we refuse immunizations for ourselves or our children.

Gawande's text includes a link where you can learn more:  IMMUNIZATION SAFETY REVIEW

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