Why Am I So Excited To Hear the Truth?

I was reading (newly-named Pulitzer Prize winner) Siddhartha Mukherjee‘s excellent article about whether or not cell phones cause cancer in the New York Times and one passage caught my eye…

To give you some background, Mukherjee is talking about how rare cancers sometimes become associated with things we’re all exposed to (like cell phones), and he offers another example of a dubious link between problem and cause:

… when patients with brain tumors happen to share a common exposure — in this case, cellphones — the line between cause and coincidence begins to blur. The association does not stand out nor does it disappear into statistical white noise. Instead, it remains suspended, like some sort of peculiar optical illusion that is blurry to some and all too clear to others. (A similarly corrosive intersection of a rare illness, a common exposure and the desperate search for a cause occurred recently in the saga of autism and vaccination. Vaccines are nearly universal, and autism is relatively rare — and many parents, searching to explain why their children became autistic, lunged toward a common culprit: childhood vaccination. An avalanche of panic ensued. It took years of carefully performed clinical trials to finally disprove the link.)

I realize I’m making a big deal about what’s really just an aside, but I read that passage and I was amazed by the simplicity of those last couple sentences. There’s no link between vaccines and autism, but some parents are just looking for something to blame.

I’ve read so many articles and blog posts where the focus is on the “debate” — Do vaccines cause autism? Can vaccines cause autism? Why is all the misinformation out there?

And Mukherjee just says, “There’s no link,” and moves on.

Think about all the stories you’ve read about evolution and how they always seem to talk about Creationism, Intelligent Design, the people who challenge the facts, the question of whether religion is compatible with evolution, etc. As if any of those things actually matter when it comes to the overwhelming evidence in favor of evolution.

And then you read articles by Carl Zimmer or science books by Richard Dawkins and it’s just a breath of fresh air. They stick to the science without wasting time on silly arguments from people who just don’t get it. They explain the science in an incredibly lucid way for those of us who actually want to learn more. They’re educated people talking to people who want to become educated… without focusing on irrelevant nonsense.

Maybe it’s because I write a blog that frequently discusses these issues, but I don’t see nearly enough of that: Just stating the facts as we know them, giving no regard to what the ignorant opposition has to say.

More of that, please.

  • Martin

    I remember when i was young, getting the inoculations i got seriously ill my system couldnt cope with just one of them. I still say it could be putting too much pressure on an unformed system. But people claimed it was because of the mercury in it.. Now this could be a way for people to not discuss, A sort of I believe in god and nothing else matters. I would rather have discussions about things, rather than a single this is it and nothing else.

  • Thomas

    But of course there is no way to convince those who invoke the “big pharma”, “big electronics” giants or any such “big corporation” argument … Its almost religious.

    Regarding vaccines, I think there is a some opposition against it in India as well. After a couple of scandals …

    http://www.dnaindia.com/india/report_mamta-day-turns-fatal-measles-vaccine-kills-4-infants-in-kutch_1520968

    http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/article391111.ece

    .. I guess it was bound to happen. There is also the prevalence of quacks as well as corruption in all fields, including medicine.

  • JulietEcho

    Martin – just read the studies (or summaries of the studies) that have been done over the last several decades, and decide whether or not science is good enough for you. If it’s not, I don’t understand what role “discussions” are going to play in finding the facts about vaccines and safety.

    Discussions about how you’d like another decade’s worth of studies? Discussions about the feelings you get in your gut that lead you to associate unrelated phenomena that occur around the same time?

    Have you ever gotten really ill and associated a food that you ate *just* before the nausea began with the illness? It can render even a previously favorite food into something that triggers your gag reflex just by looking at a picture of it. It’s something our brains do in a leftover effort to prevent us from consuming poisons. We know for sure that pecan pie, for instance, isn’t something that makes humans wretchedly ill, but try telling that to my brain!

    Understanding the ways in which our own brains can fool us is what allows us to discern facts from feelings/hunches/intuition.

  • Alex

    I thought a few lines from A Few Good Men might make a good parody.

    Kaffee(Hemant): I want the truth!
    Jessep (Jesus): You can’t handle the truth! Son, we live in a world that has atheists. And those atheists have to be guarded by men with bibles. Who’s gonna do it? You? You, Sam Harris? I have a greater responsibility than you can possibly fathom. You weep for the atheists and you curse the Priests. You have that luxury. You have the luxury of not knowing what I know: that an atheists death, while glorious, probably saves souls. And my existence, while grotesque and incomprehensible to you, saves souls…You don’t want the truth. Because deep down, in places you don’t talk about in science labs, you want me on that cross. You need me on that cross.

  • Anonymous

    Martin, all those discussions have already been had, ad nauseum. All you need to do is read.

    Try Paul Offit’s Deadly Choices and Seth Mnookin’s The Panic Virus.

  • Heidi

    Should we also keep discussing whether toads cause warts?

  • Courtney

    This may be a derail, but I am so glad Dr. Mukherjee won the Pulitzer. I just finished The Emperor of All Maladies a week or two ago (audiobooks… I love you) and it was truly excellent. Rush out and read at once!

  • http://evolutionguide.blogspot.com/ William

    Martin, that is because your immune system is reacting to the antigen, some people make a couple antibodies (the point of the vaccine) but some people (such as yourself) have a whole complex sickening reaction. However not at a level that anyone would get autism.

  • qtip

    Mother Jones has an interesting article on the topic of why people (like ‘Martin’ above) won’t believe even overwhelming evidence on things like climate change, WMDs in Iraq, vaccines, etc.

  • Brian

    Most accept evolution as good science. These people are called human. Others do not accept evolution. They must be called something else.

  • Kim

    Autism is not the only concern when a parent chooses not to vaccinate. I am more worried about the chemicals, viruses, animal serum/fluid/DNA/cells, etc. used in the vaccines (http://www.novaccine.com/vaccine-ingredients/; http://www.informedchoice.info/cocktail.html). I agree that anecdotal evidence is not proof. But I think it is hard for a parent to ignore potential risks (http://www.novaccine.com/vaccine-risks/).

  • micketymoc

    Kim, I guess we assess the risks differently, because I decided early on that my little girl was going to get the full schedule of immunizations recommended to us by our pediatrician. So far, so good – I’ve balanced the fear of toxins and potential autism effects against my own fear of Andie catching horrible diseases.

    Considering how little support the “aaagh toxins” and “aaagh autism” fears get in the scientific research available to us, I would venture to say that I’ve made a far more reasonable assessment of the risks than you have.

  • http://www.chaosverse.wordpress.com Harish Alagappa

    Perhaps we should indulge Jenny McCarthy in a debate on whether circle-circle-dot-dot is an effective alternative to vaccination. With her outstanding credentials as a doctor, microbiologist, pharmacist and vaginal cyst, I expect she will see the light.

  • Michael

    Autism is relatively rare? 1 in every 110 children is rare? Ok…

  • Michael

    And increasing 10 to 17 percent annually. How can he say autism is relatively rare? Even pulitzer prize winners can ignore straight up facts.

  • ACN

    One meaning of “Relatively Rare” is “rare with respect to some other thing/event”.

    Compared with the number of kids who get vaccines, autism is relatively rare.


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