The Scientific Skeptic and “Mommy Sense”by Don Lacey on May. 30, 2012, under Arizona Families, AZ Politics, Critical Thinking, Education, Environment, Ethics, Freethougth Quotations, History, Logic, Reason, Science, Skepticism
Skeptical Wednesday for May 30th
This is my fourth Skeptical Wednesday. I’ve introduced Skepticism http://tucsoncitizen.com/freethought-arizona/2012/05/09/skeptics-wednesday/, covered the argument from ignorance http://tucsoncitizen.com/freethought-arizona/2012/05/16/skeptical-wednesday-argument-from-ignorance/, and finally talked about begging the question http://tucsoncitizen.com/freethought-arizona/2012/05/23/skeptical-wednesday-for-may-23-2012-begging-the-question/.
This week: Scientific Skepticism (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scientific_skepticism_), Rational Skepticism, or Skeptical Inquiry.
Scientific Skepticism starts with doubt. “Really?” is a very common expression of the Scientific Skeptic. “Can that be true?” and “I have to look into that!” are also common. Notice that the main motivation is doubt. On the other hand, there are many claiming to be Skeptics that don’t start with doubt. For example, there are those calling themselves “Vaccine Skeptics” that are more interested in bolstering their existing or desired beliefs than finding out what is really true. These “Skeptics” will pick through piles of data looking for only that which supports their initial position. No validated scientific research supports their claim that vaccinations cause harm and there are many, many studies that show the benefits of vaccinations. In the case of vaccinations, one is faced with real world facts and empirical evidence that vaccination has been beneficial to humanity. The controversy was created by people such as Andrew Wakefield (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Andrew_Wakefield), Jenny McCarthy (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jenny_McCarthy), and Meryl Dorey of Australia (http://meryldorey.org/). Many people have suffered and died needlessly. There is a webpage dedicated to the number of people that were hurt as a result of Jenny McCarthy’s campaign called Jenny McCarthy Body Count (http://www.jennymccarthybodycount.com/Jenny_McCarthy_Body_Count/Home.html ) The other Tucson paper recently printed an article on the abysmal rates of vaccination in our public and charter schools (http://azstarnet.com/news/opinion/editorial/it-s-disturbing-how-many-let-kids-go-unvaccinated/article_c114cc97-d1fa-561f-ac7d-43a04ef1e0e6.html) .
Please realize that I won’t be giving a full defense of vaccination here. This article is on Scientific Skepticism critical thinking. I’m using the anti-vaccination movement as an example where Scientific Skepticism might have been employed to reduce the damage caused by a small influential band of people. There is a great deal of discussion on how Skeptics should be arguing for vaccination. For example: http://www.randi.org/site/index.php/swift-blog/1720-how-should-we-argue-for-vaccination.html
The basic mechanism that makes vaccinations effective is the natural processes in the body that protect it from disease. Developing an immune response to a pathogen takes time but once the antibodies are in place the attacking disease doesn’t stand a chance. In most cases, a vaccination introduces something into the body that is harmless but looks to the immune system as an attacking microbe. The body creates the correct antibodies and is “locked and loaded” in case the body is exposed to that actual bug. This all makes sense to me. When I was in the military, we often did exercises to prepare for actual battle. The hope was that when the attack came we’d be ready for it with all our defensive operations manuals certified through simulated combat. Think of a vaccination as a disease exercise. Vaccinations are not always pleasant, just as our combat simulations were sometimes a pain. If the idea of a war exercise is repulsive, think of a fire drill. Fire drills are often inconvenient, yet we do them so that we’re ready “just in case.”
Whether you like the analogy or not, I think you get the point and why we do the vaccinations in the first place. What about the claims and the “mommy sense” that argue against vaccinations for everyone? As an example, Jenny McCarthy assumed that her child got autism from a vaccination. Autism is a spectrum disorder so that there are many degrees of the affliction. The symptoms are not always the same and the disease has no known cause. Genetics and environment are the usual suspects in most diseases and it is not clear which causes autism (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Causes_of_autism). Jenny noticed that the symptoms began of autism began in her son, Evan, shortly after receiving the normal childhood vaccinations. Her “mommy sense” was all that was needed to make the connection. Her son originally started having seizures and was diagnosed with epilepsy but she sought out a second opinion and Evan was diagnosed later with autism. There is a possibility that Evan may actually have Landau-Kleffner Syndrome instead since the symptoms are very similar to the ones described (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Landau-Kleffner).
In any case, Jenny has received a lot of support and surveys state that 24% are influenced by her claims. Her evidence is anecdotal which doesn’t qualify as data in a scientific study and if it were a valid data point it would be a single sample. A basic tenet of Scientific Skepticism is: anecdotes are not data. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anecdotal_evidence)
Why does this work? How is it that a celebrity can sway public opinion in such a way as to cause great harm? Vaccines and autism are both mysterious entities. Vaccines are close to magic and autism has no definitive cause after years of research. It also attacks young children and has a serious emotional impact. There have been other diseases that struck young people. For example consider polio (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_poliomyelitis). In 1979 the last case of “wild” polio in the United States was reported (http://americanhistory.si.edu/polio/timeline/index.htm). Ironically, the frequent devastating epidemics of polio ended with the vaccine that developed in 1955 and the incidents of the disease were reduced by 85-90% within 2 years. Perhaps a breakthrough will eliminate autism in our life time. If there is a fix, it will come from science and not a playboy model’s “mommy sense.”