BY DAN OLMSTED
Facing a long plane ride recently, I was thumbing through the airport bookstore and came across a new book by Susan Jacoby titled “The Age of American Unreason.” Now there was a title to catch my attention, because I do think that the general level of education and discourse and shared values in this country is in decline, and not unrelated to the mess we find ourselves in concerning autism, the practice of medicine, the damaging mediocrity of the mainstream media, and so on. I looked forward to spending the next four hours agreeing with Jacoby.
The book jacket was promising: “Susan Jacoby dissects a new American cultural phenomenon – one that is at odds with our heritage of Enlightenment reason and with modern, secular knowledge and science.” All right! And it gets better: “With mordant wit, she surveys an anti-rationalist landscape extending from pop culture to a pseudo-intellectual universe of ‘junk thought.’ Disdain for logic and evidence defines a pervasive malaise fostered by the mass media, triumphalist religious fundamentalism, mediocre public education, a dearth of fair-minded public intellectuals on the right and the left, and, above all, a lazy and credulous public.”
As I typically do, I scanned the index first, and since I’m ultra-left-handed and start from the back, I quickly came to the V’s. Uh-oh. “vaccinations, controversy over, 219-222.”
You know there’s trouble ahead when the chapter title is Junk Thought. “Had anyone told me … that an anti-vaccination movement – embodying both junk science and junk thought – would emerge in the 1990s and be treated by the news media with respectful attention, I would have considered the prediction sheer lunacy,” Jacobs wrote.
And what’s a sure sign of junk thought? “… an inability to distinguish between coincidence and causation – a basic requirement for scientific literacy.”
Hey, you scientifically illiterate parents out there who saw your kids get vaccines, get sick, regress – you know, the whole “junk thought” thing – snap out of it! You’re an embarrassment to your cultural betters.
“Rigorous scientific research also has no effect on the purveyors of junk thought,” Jacoby went on. “The most convincing study on the subject was released in 2002 in Denmark.” Oh good heavens. And it gets worse – there’s no epidemic, only those plagued by innumeracy believe that. And on and on.
“Junk science plays on the fears of parents who understand little about risk benefit equations or about the history of terrible diseases prevented by immunizations. … It in no way minimizes the seriousness of autism … to say the sudden discovery of a much-higher incidence of a well-known disease must always be considered suspect. [Actually, it very much minimizes the seriousness of autism.] … Furthermore, the anti-vaccine warriors know that their children will, in effect, get a free ride as long as the vast majority of their peers are immunized. …”
Do you suppose she even bothered to read that goofball Denmark study and the utterly damning critiques that followed, including the one by the respected scientist who headed a committee mandated by Congress to look at the quality of a key CDC study on vaccines and concluded that, as bad as it was, Denmark’s was even worse?
“The two studies in Denmark both … had serious weaknesses in their designs that limit what we can learn from them,” said this scientist, politely calling them junk. And Jacoby is staking her claim to “rigorous scientific research” vs. junk science by citing one of these? Talk about an embarrassment!
Just to play this game of reason-v-unreason for a second, if vaccines cause autism it’s irrelevant whether immunizations are a great public health boon – what’s relevant is how to fix the vaccine schedule so we save kids from autism. The sad anecdotes about mortal illnesses are a red herring or, to use Jacoby’s language, an example of unreason. So is the idea that coincidence and causation can be confused. Yes, so? The question is whether they ARE being confused. In this case, they are NOT being confused. So applying a broad nostrum to a concrete situation about which Jacoby has no first-hand experience is illogical as hell.
What about the thousands of heart attacks and strokes that followed Vioxx because they were CAUSED by Vioxx? What about the fact the FDA is in tatters? What about the CDC’s conflicts and confusion? What about reasoning by analogy before throwing your intellectual reputation in with this crowd?
You have to wonder how it feels to have just published a book which showcases a literally merciless attack on the idiocy of the vaccine-autism argument and those junk scientists who purvey it and illiterate parents who buy it – and then to choke on your Cheerios reading about the government’s concession in the Poling case that, er, well, vaccines can cause autism in susceptible kids. And then to read that the susceptibility in question is mighty high. And to get the sinking feeling that there’s something going on here and you don’t know what it is.
No doubt you scan eagerly for the reassuring responses from the “credible” scientists, the CDC and AAP and IOM and Denmark types -- thank god they’re sticking to their guns, sort of. Because if they’re wrong, so are you. And that would make your book a case study of what you’re so worked up about – credulous, lazy, pseudo-intellectual junk.
Dan Olmsted is Editor of Age of Autism