Fighting Emotion with Science

It’s getting harder and harder for facts to be heard in the high-wattage emotional arguments that accompany every issue and pervade the media. From tea parties to taxes to Tebow’s ads, there isn’t an issue that isn’t met with a storm of opinion and outrage from all quarters.

Mostly that’s the noise of the zeitgeist, and there’s nothing one can do about it but roll one’s eyes. The problem is, science is boring. Doctors and scientists rarely scream or rant or have a picturesque history as Playboy models and comediennes of questionable taste. That’s what makes “good TV,” as they say in the business.

But there is one current issue where paying attention to science must trump the entertainment value of “controversy.” No, I’m not talking about lead paint, though that’s had its clowns of emotionalism too. I’m talking about immunizations.

The British publication The Lancet last week retracted its report on immunizations that showed a link between immunizations and autism. This follows years of scientific data that showed this link didn’t exist.

However, a celebrity culture grew up around this issue, led by Jenny McCarthy who postulated that her own son was a case study that validated the issue. McCarthy has now received scathing rebukes from a variety of sources, one linked here.

Autism is a heart-wrenching and frustrating disease. There is autism in my family. We will never know for sure the cause of it. And therein lies the frustration. There is nothing and no one to blame. One has to soldier on, dealing with the reality and fighting for the best care possible for those affected.

The recent rise in the diagnosis of autism is upsetting. Could there be environmental factors that influence it? We don’t know. But what was once at best a questionable study has now been refuted. That hasn’t stopped the emotion mongers. The internet is awash with saying that the retraction was motivated by the large pharmaceutical companies, and organizations that have built businesses on this, notably McCarthy’s, which is advertising supported, are backpedaling and offering no scientific substantiation for their positions. Instead, the general consensus of the opposition is that this is a “conspiracy.” These organizations are driven to maintain. McCarthy’s site is covered with advertising; this is no public service. After you read about autism, you can go shopping. That’s truly unnerving.

There is nothing you can do about what’s out there. Anyone with a keyboard and a Web browser can publish online—including me. Still, I called pediatricians and other doctors in the past week to find out what their position was on this issue. Several expressed frustration at dealing with parents who, armed only with an opinion, fought them on vaccinations for their children. To a person their position on vaccinations has remained unchanged: Vaccinations are necessary for kids and good for the population as a whole. There are no proven links between vaccination and autism. There is, however, too much data on the negative impact of skipping vaccinations.

The purpose here is not to give medical advice. If you have children who are due for vaccinations, speak with your doctor. Educate yourself about the situation, separate from all the posturing and emotional noise. I get a kick out of watching Entertainment Tonight, but I don’t plan my health strategy based on what I see there. Your parents may remember when Robert Young famously promoted products saying, “I’m not a doctor, but I play one on TV.” Yes, a credulous public was actually more likely to take medical advice from an actor and a fictional doctor than their own MDs. But that’s the job of advertising: to manipulate you to an emotional reaction that will prompt you to buy, completely bypassing the part of your brain that can make informed decisions. It works again and again, or advertisers wouldn’t spend billions of dollars every year to do it.

When you’re choosing a car, a lip gloss or a snack food, a little emotional manipulation is more or less harmless. When what you’re playing with is your children’s health—and a public health issue—emotion has no place.

If you’re dealing with autism in your family or your circle of acquaintance, this is very difficult. It changes families, crushes expectations and reshapes your life in ways you haven’t imagined. Having a focus for that, a definable enemy, can make it appear as if you have a little more control or understanding of the situation. Yes, the search will continue for both a cause and a prevention of autism. Families will still be challenged by it, and while emotion may be cathartic of comforting, in the long run it’s science that will provide the answers.

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