Saturday, March 28, 2009

The Rhetoric of Science, or, the rejection of science

Earlier this morning,the family and I visited the "fish store," deciding whether or not Sweet Toddler J's fascination with fish is a lasting experience or a fad. If it were a lasting experience, we would purchase a small aquarium and possibly some clown fish; if it were a fad, we should make a few more trips to the aquariums or zoos in the area so she could persuade us that she would like fish, then a monkey, maybe a rhino, so forth and so on. We decided not to buy at this moment, though we are still undecided on the fish issue.

While we were looking at the "big fish"-- the typical assortment of Japanese Koi that you would find at the entrance of a restaurant-- in the pond at the front of the store, a women and her autistic daughter entered so her daughter could feed the "big fish." While Megs and Sweet Toddler J went to look at other fish, the women with the autistic daughter turned to me and said:

How cute your son, I mean daughter,-- I just saw the blue jacket-- is. I just wanted to let you know, watch the children when they receive their shots. Watch them after every shot and every booster. I worked full time and never could pay that close attention... Now I want to tell people.... My daughter, at age three, lost all language, the ability to point, to jump... It's the mercury. I just want to tell parents because no one told me. Do your research. But I just feel as if I need to tell people.

Now, certainly there is a lot to unpack in this scenario. First, if one were to "do your research," a person would find that, first, the scientist who claimed there was a connection with the MMR shots and autism would find out that the scientist manipulated the data to create the appearance of a link.

In addition, a recent court case that reviewed the evidence between the shots with mercury and autism and, consequently, ruled against families who brought forth a suit against drug companies, also found that no link existed between the shots and autism. According to CNN, in the trial, scientists have failed to establish a link between the shots and audience. Of course, even with the Court's ruling, people who believed in the link rejected the Court's decision, claiming a conflict of interest existed as the Court ruled in favor of the government (Health and Human Services), since a person must bring forth a claim against HHS rather than the drug manufacturer. This tends to lead to conspiracy rhetoric though, which usually brings forth a dangerous set of arguments.

Second, even though science has failed to establish a connection, some people with autistic children still advance the argument that the shots are the cause. In my encounter, rather than mention this, for what good would it have done to disagree with here, especially at a fish store, I listened to her story. What struck my while listening to her was her outpouring of guilt ("I worked full time" and "could not pay attention,") and the scapegoating of the vaccinations, even without a evidence of a connection between the MMr vaccines and autism.

I wonder if it would be appropriate to mention this in a public setting. It seems that because of not knowing the other person, there would be no credibility to engage in a debate about this topic with the mother. Further, with her child as an inartistic proof, the mother would just say here is my daughter who regressed, especially in her communicative abilities, after receiving vaccinations.

While I certainly was not in any condition to debate with the mother, it also seems I may have an ethical responsibility as a professor to try and correct what seems to be incorrect assumptions about the link between the vaccinations and autism. I would do this in a classroom and, hence, I should be willing to do it when speaking with others about a topic I could address with some credibility. Granted, I am not a physician, but because of professional and personal relationships, I have followed this debate.



Anonymous said...

I didn't know half as much about Autism as I do after this afternoon, since the woman and her story startled me into self-education. I had grown complacent since we have two girls--and Young Jeezy is getting fairly long of tooth with no problems yet. The arguments about the falsification of evidence, as well as a respected prof's extended thoughts about Autism, have somewhat convinced me that the link between vaccinations and Autism is tenuous, at best. But it's still a lingering concern, especially since it's the prevalent link discussed in mainstream news sources.

Why is that the case? I was just speaking with my BF about media coverage of global warming and how, in treating all sources and studies as equals, "bad" studies are heavily weighted in a way that they should not be. Is that the case in this situation, or is it something else? Solon has a former colleague who works on Autism for the government and I'm really wondering what her take is. Maybe we could somehow include her in this, Solon?

M said...

I have a few thoughts on this.

First, this was a big concern of mine, so I did a fair amount of my own research, all of which Solon essentially summed up. C and I had several chats with Wild Man's first pediatrician, who has 4 kids of her own. While not vaccinating Wild Man was never a possibility in our minds, we had considered staggering vaccinations. Our pediatrician, who has done a lot of additional research on this issue, advised against doing this as many of the vaccines actually work in conjunction, meaning they may not work as well if administered one at a time or spaced out. My good friend L and her husband D, both of whom are immunologists (in fact, D is one of the most respected immunologists in the country), stood by everything our pediatrician said. L also pointed out that a lot of the research has been manipulated and that, if one were solely to follow the media's reporting of this issue, none of us would have our kids vaccinated--which Megs's BF essentially reiterated via global warming.

Second, I'm not sure how it is your responsibility to inform your students about this particular issue, Solon. If you were to frame it in terms of political and judicial rhetoric vs. media representations, I'd say go for it, as you'd be using this issue to instruct your students about larger issues. I could even see using a few articles from both sides to talk about fallacies and such, in a comp course. Beyond that, I'm not sure how you'd approach it. As for informing other parents, such as the one you met today, I think that is a really touchy subject. I mean, really, what good would it have done to explain the intricacies of the research to this mother, who is dealing with the reality of autism on a day to day basis? As L pointed out to me during our discussion on this topic, people often need an explanation to cling to, even if it is one that has been proven to be incorrect. I don't think you'd have much success in changing how this parent, or parents who also believe vaccinations are to blame for their child's autism, feels about vaccines.

solon said...

While I would not just walk in to class and discuss this, there are many appropriate ways in which this would be relevant such as examining and testing evidence, examining scientific argumentation,policy and factual debates, and refutation.

This debate certainly matters. Those arguing for a connection commit the fallacy of ignorance by switching presumption in this debate, leaving the medical profession to refute a causation that has not been proven. Further there are additional factors, such as children not receiving shots, because of the terrible claims without evidence.

Supadiscomama said...

Not vaccinating has led to a recurrence of childhood diseases that seemed to no longer exist (inasmuch as they were prevented *by the vaccinations*). Kids *die* from the measles, for fuck's sake.

The Roof Almighty said...

Maybe I am blinded by science (keyboard stab", but I refuse to call it a "debate" when one whole side has been outed for falsifying all data for a profit.

There is no "debate" between pro-evolutionists and those who choose to ignore the evidence of evolution.

There is no debate between Sherri Shepherd and the Copernican Universe.

There are the people holding debates and the intentionally ignorant talking to themselves nearby.

Now, to your question, no, you have no ethical imperative as a professor to engage her in a debate, because, from your reportage, she is not engaged in a debate.

As a human, maybe there is an imperative to correct the ill-informed who operate on imprecise understanding of received wisdom. And when you are done with her, I suggest you work west to east on local churches and synogogues.

Then east to west explaining to people that "love" is a biochemical mating response.

People respond well to having their preconditioning questiones, donchaknow?