Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Autism & Internet Memes

I ran across this meme on my FB feed today:

What strikes me as fascinating is not that Mr. Wakefield said these things, if indeed he did. One might be surprised that he is continuing to push this particular line after being so thoroughly discredited from his profession for doing so. But that's his affair, and in a way ego defense isn't very surprising.

I'm also not surprised that he has attached his cause to the US presidential campaign. That tends to happen with all sorts of issues - people who feel strongly about something try to tie themselves to one camp or the other in the hopes of elevating the status of their issue by attaching it to something more visible than themselves. So this is par for the course.

What I do find striking is that he apparently still has a following. Despite being thoroughly discredited, denounced, and stripped of his license to practice medicine in his own country (the UK), folks still believe in his message.

These same folks frequently talk about the need to "do your own research", and are often quite adept at using the internet and research databases to find scientific or pseudo-scientific works that support their point. Yet they do not read, cite, or credit the large meta-analysis studies that have examined (and discredited) vaccine-autism correlation, nor do they seem to pay any attention to half the feed that appears if you google "Andrew Wakefield" or if you read the man's Wikipedia entry.

Leaving aside the scientific questions here for a moment, the social science here is fascinating. Followers of Mr. Wakefield have constructed an entire alternative reality, complete with its own websites, its own documentary, and its own "research" and articles. The audacity of this alternate universe is far greater than that employed by those interested in what used to be known as "creation science". In that case, young-earth creationists were content to simply call for "teaching the controversy", standing their material up against the opposite view. Here, Mr. Wakefield's followers deny the legitimacy, or even the existence, of everything that doesn't support his views. All of it is held to be a vast conspiracy promulgated by multinational drug companies to profit from harming infants - a claim as breathtaking in its scope as it is unbelievable.

The level of cognitive defense required to maintain this view is really quite remarkable. It's one thing to say, hey, I think there's something to this, let's look into this further. It's another to wish away every last bit of evidence published over nearly 20 years in most of the major relevant scientific journals around the world. To continue to defend this position over time means not only violating the very "do your own research!" cry that Mr. Wakefield's followers are so fond of; it means sealing yourself off from most of the rest of the world on the one issue that you claim matters to you most.

I doubt that Mr. Wakefield's argument above is going to have any significant impact on the US presidential election, because I don't know that there are enough people in the US passionate enough about this issue to matter electorally. But the social behavior itself really is fascinating.

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