A Philosophical Approach to Claims about Vaccinations and Autism.

Author:Talavera, Isidoro
  1. Introduction

    There is much evidence supporting no (or extremely low) correlation between vaccinations and children diagnosed with autism. But, paradoxically, public resistance to thinking critically about this contemporary issue in science (2) seems to have become stronger--usually fueled by bias, misinformation, fearmongering, motivated reasoning, and fallacious thinking. (3) This problem of public resistance is compounded with the reality that science faculty have often avoided teaching controversial issues in science classes, since much of the students' resistance is framed in personal, emotional, or religious terms and science teachers are usually reluctant to address such ideas in class. (4) Moreover, many science instructors are simply not able to master and teach critical thinking well, (5) and/or many science instructors are not entirely effective in passing on scientific knowledge because they are themselves suffering from cognitive dissonance. (6)

    The following treatise introduces a philosophical approach (7) to claims about vaccinations and autism so that the educator may develop a more robust understanding about this critical issue and deal directly and systematically with misconceptions of (and resistance to) bio-medical knowledge, interventions, and/or technology employed in healthcare or public health. (8) This will be achieved by highlighting the critical thinking that (1) analyzes and evaluates arguments, and (2) engages in a form of methodological skepticism that systematically and continuously asks Critical Questions. By engaging in a dialogue between philosophy and the bio-medical sciences via critical thinking, the educator can help students actively compare their initial conceptions (and publicly popular misconceptions) with more fully scientific conceptions.

  2. The science behind autism and vaccinations

    A working example of the resistance to bio-medical knowledge, interventions, and/or technology crucial to healthcare or public health is the vaccine-associated autism myth that originated in 1998 in the United Kingdom with the discredited Wakefield study (with a small sample of only 12 children). The problem is that many studies (with large numbers of children) have since shown that there is no causal link between the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine and autism. The book, The Panic Virus: The True Story Behind the Vaccine-Autism Controversy, documents how all this came to light:

    ... Andrew Wakefield, a British gastroenterologist with a history of self-promotion, published a paper with a shocking allegation: the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine might cause autism. The media seized hold of the story and, in the process, helped to launch one of the most devastating health scares ever. In the years to come Wakefield would be revealed as a profiteer in league with class-action lawyers, and he would eventually lose his medical license. Meanwhile one study after another failed to find any link between 5 6 7 8 childhood vaccines and autism. (9)

    To make matters worse, two separate alleged evils concerning vaccines and autism have been tied together: the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine proper and vaccines containing the chemical preservative thimerosal, which contains a form of mercury. (10) But, even if this chemical preservative has been removed from most vaccines, there are those who continue to suspect it of causing autism. Accordingly,

    ... the myth that vaccines somehow cause developmental disorders lives on. Despite the lack of corroborating evidence, it has been popularized by media personalities such as Oprah Winfrey and Jenny McCarthy and legitimized by journalists who claim that they are just being fair to 'both sides ' of an issue about which there is little debate. Meanwhile millions of dollars have been diverted from potential breakthroughs in autism research, families have spent their savings on ineffective 'miracle cures,' and declining vaccination rates have led to outbreaks of deadly illnesses like Hib, measles, and whooping cough. Most tragic of all is the increasing number of children dying from vaccine-preventable diseases. (11) [This is alarming, since [t]he evidence is clear: vaccines are one of the most cost-effective investments in health and development in history.] (12)

    To be sure, Autism symptoms tend to become apparent around the same time that children are scheduled to get routine vaccines, but most medical researchers argue that vaccine-associated autism is probably a coincidence. [Moreover,] ... experts studied whether the MMR vaccine could cause autism. To do that, they looked for clues among kids who did and didn't get the vaccine. Since. [the Wakefield study], 14 studies including millions of children in several countries consistently show no significant difference in autism rates between children who got the MMR vaccine [and] those who didn 't. The bottom line: It's very unlikely that the MMR causes autism, researchers say. (13)

  3. The problem behind autism and vaccinations

    Most major bio-medical scientists and researchers say vaccines (14) do not cause autism, but a populist coalition of parents, celebrities, politicians and activists say they do. To be sure, the possibility of a causal link between childhood vaccinations and the subsequent development of autism has been of great concern to some that have noticed changes in their children shortly after the children were vaccinated (a disorder known as regressive autism). Accordingly, the overarching problem behind autism and vaccinations is that for some people scientific evidence does not dispel doubts about the alleged causal link between childhood vaccinations and the subsequent development of autism. Moreover, because some people have not inoculated their children due to the fear of a causal link between vaccinations and diseases, a major public health crisis has arisen with vaccine preventable diseases recently increasing in the world. (15)

    To avoid being deceived by means of misleading reasoning used in the vaccine-associated autism debate, we need to recognize the common mistakes of reasoning called fallacies. Fallacies are bad arguments that may be mistaken for good arguments. Fallacies can have weak inductive argument forms or invalid deductive argument forms, but may also be found in arguments that are not cogent or not sound. Moreover, there are many other ways people accept conclusions for the wrong reasons. For instance, reasons that are unacceptable, irrelevant, or insufficient do not adequately support the conclusion of an argument. All this suggests that a fallacy is committed when an argument under consideration does not justify accepting its conclusion. This happens when the premise or premises do not adequately support the conclusion. This means that the reason or reasons provided as evidence for the conclusion are inadequate for accepting the conclusion.

    Let us look at two main fallacies that are behind the vaccine-associated autism myth: the Fallacy that Appeals to Fear (16) and the Fallacy that Mistakes Correlation for Causation. (17)

    1. The fallacy that appeals to fear

      An argument that appeals to fear is an emotional appeal that relies on some type of scare tactic to establish its conclusion. Why is an argument that appeals to fear a bad argument? By relying on emotions, an appeal to fear does not provide evidence for the conclusion that one ought to not do something. We need good reasons, not emotion, to establish a claim.

      The general form of this argument is the following.

      1) X is afraid of Y.

      2) Thus, X ought not (apply or engage in) Y.

      But why is this a problem? Well, the above does not have a valid deductive argument form. (18) To be sure, invalid deductive argument forms are problematic because they allow substitution instances (i.e., examples) with true premises and a false conclusion. And, we certainly do not want to be guilty of using our reasoning and the information involved to derive something false from something true.

      Consider the following substitution instance (i.e., example) of the above Form:

      1) Kevin is afraid of getting his teeth pulled.

      2) Thus, Kevin ought not get his tooth pulled.

      So, suppose premise 1 above is true. Is it possible that the conclusion may be false? Of course, it is true that Kevin (and many of us!) might certainly be afraid of getting teeth pulled. But, the conclusion is most likely false, since his dentist may recommend pulling a badly damaged tooth (say from trauma or decay) because of practical concerns about overall dental health.

      Likewise, people are afraid of a causal link between vaccinations and diseases (e.g., autism). But, this does not mean that one ought not vaccinate a child for the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR). That is because if we suppose premise 1 below to be true, it is possible that the conclusion may be false in the following substitution instance (i.e., example) of the above Form. (Suppose Kevin strongly believes that there is a causal link between vaccinations and diseases (e.g., autism).)

      1) Kevin is afraid of vaccinating his child for the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR).

      2) Thus, Kevin ought not vaccinate his child for the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR).

    2. The fallacy that mistakes correlation for causation

      One way we can think about how events or actions are connected is by appealing to the notion of causation. Causation (19) is concerned with causes and effects. A cause is the reason why something happens. A cause is an event or action that directly makes something happen; an effect is what happens because of the cause--it is what happens as a result of the cause. The research hypothesis is an alleged causal chain (or pathway) that predicts a hypothesized relationship. From this point of view, causation is the capacity of one variable to directly influence another. Causation is important in experimental studies because it is the bridge that links the independent (A) and dependent (B)...

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