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Denialism as the New Parenting Trend: Michael Specter, ParentDish, and Swine Flu Vaccines

Posted Nov 20 2009 10:01pm

Parents who respect the scientific process have a new advocate in Michael Specter, a New Yorker staff writer, who just launched a highly literate counter attack against illogical, ideological  behavior in his new book Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet, and Threatens Our Lives.   From childhood vaccines, organic foods, to Dr. Andrew Weil and alternative medicine to biotechnology Specter targets examples of denialism:
“when an entire segment of society, often struggling with the trauma of change, turns away from reality in favor of a more comfortable lie.” (from the  New York Times book review )
Thats sounds about right.  My copy of the book hasn't arrived yet but I agree about plenty of evidence of irrationality.  Here's exhibit A, saw it just last night.  An article on H1N1 vaccines by Rachel Capos-Duff, a writer over at ParentDish (and who also guest-hosted on the View, so her words and opinions are reaching millions of people).


As a general rule, I am skeptical about any vaccine (or drug) that is relatively new -- like this one that protects against swine flu -- or that is being pushed by the government. I've never once considered getting a flu shot.
Okay, I applaud rational skeptism.  I'm skeptical about a lot of health claims so I seek out the science behind it from sources that I trust.  Or I read the actual journal article myself.  But come on.  Pushed by the government  as if health authorities are getting paid off by Big Pharma.  Seriously.  I know there are researchers with conflicts of interests out there.  And outright unethical ones like Andrew Wakefield, the charlattan behind the vaccines cause autism debacle.  But really...the whole NIH or CDC out to poison children?  The last I checked scientists on the whole were  a curious sort, eager to find the truth.   

So it gets worse.
When I first heard about the H1N1 vaccine, I had no intention of getting it. I happen to be pregnant and despite the current campaign to vaccinate pregnant women and the CDC's safety promises, my husband and I decided that we would not expose our developing baby to the vaccine. We also planned to ignore the CDC's push to vaccinate our children. Like most plugged-in parents, we've been doing our own research on the Web, as well as sifting through the many links and forwards on the subject that are making their way into our e-mail boxes and Facebook accounts. With so much conflicting information coming from so many people we love and trust, we decided to go with our gut, and forgo the vaccine.
Okay, she's in a high risk category.  She's pregnant.  They're highly informed parents, meaning they dismiss the CDC and countless other health agencies who recommend the vaccine - and instead look to the links sent to them from friends and family.  And Facebook for God's sake.  Then go with their gut instincts.  Psychologists would eat that up.  Especially social psychologists who've spent the past 50 years documenting how irrational people can be (yet how rational they think they are).  There's an entire field devoted to just the simple cognitive devices we use to make decisions ("heuristics"). 

But back to ParentDish's unscientific parenting source.  I've left out perhaps the most troubling part.  Campos-Duffy's son, he has asthma.  And she was considering not vaccinating him.  But ultimately she decided to vaccinate him.  But not the rest of the family. 

Does that sound like rational decision-making?  She's right, there is a lot of conflicting info, lots of inaccurate, fear-mongering, and just plain false information.  So she passes over a measured, rational look at the evidence for her gut.  Her anxiety,  her suspicions, her fears.   Yes, I welcome debate, parents can choose not to do the swine flu shot.  But don't say it's because the drug companies want to make billions or some pseudo expert says it's dangerous.  And please don't pass it up because of the thimerosal.  Don't give in to your fears or paranoia.  That's what got us in this hot mess. 

True, I've said and written many times that parents have to consider what's best for their families.  And I still mean it.  Does that mean dismiss the science and go with your gut? No, it means listen to science but also remember that some things science cannot answer.  Studies do not address the individual.  Findings deal will groups of people, averages so to speak.  It's true we're getting very good at identifying and measuring increasing numbers of variables, more "specificity", so that we say for instance, that this drug works best on women who are pre-menopausal without a history of heart disease and who (fill in the blank).  Take breastfeeding.  Just because there are some health benefits doesn't mean it's necessarily right for you and your child.  There are other factors to consider (e.g., your time restraints, whether you're working and can pump, if you're healthy enough, if the baby is capable of attaching and sucking properly, if you don't have other children demanding your attention).  Even though the science suggests there might be benefits (though small), you have to consider your own situation.   The costs of the other factors may outweigh the benefits.

How's that different from deciding on the swine flu vaccine?  There the scientific evidence is clear.  The risks of not getting the shot far outweigh the risks, especially for pregnant women and children with underlying conditions.  What other factors might reasonably be considered? Hmm, let's see which ones have been given:
 
1. Thimerosal is dangerous.  Okay, Thimerosal doesn't cause, trigger, or otherwise lead to autism.  Cross that out.  Especially since shots without the preservative are available. 

2. Vaccines are dangerous (even without thimerosal).  Okay, some bad reactions do occur with other vaccines (again, rarely), but flu shots are very safe though adverse reaction do occur from time to time.  But they're very rare and are less probable than an adverse reaction from not getting vaccinated - I've seen the stats somewhere, will check into it.  The anti-vaccine arguments work best when aimed at infants and toddlers, but for the swine flu shot, it's mostly given to children older than that. 

Collorary: It's unclear what the long-term effects of H1N1 vaccine might be.  True, we don't know but we do know seasonal flu shots have been given for a long time.  As have many other childhood vaccines. 

3. Swine flu isn't all that bad. True, for most people, but children (even without underlying conditions) are dying from it.  Though, yes, I do think half the population is more worried about it than they should be.

4. I don't like vaccines.  I think fear underlies that response.  And that doesn't sound rational to me.  Are there any other valid reasons not to vaccinate?  Other than egg allergies or previous bad reactions to flu shots? 

5. The pharmaceutical companies are simply trying to make money.  And do you think they've also created H1N1 in a lab to unleash on vulnerable populations?  True, I'd see the movie if Russell Crowe starred in it but honestly, this is not reasonable.  FYI, I don't work for a pharmaceutical company nor receive any money for them. 

So, although there may be numerous other rational reasons why breastfeeding for a year might not be right for you (given the relatively small health benefits) - there are not very many rational reasons to not vaccinate your family against the swine flu.  Particularly if you or your child has an underlying condition.  And according to the ABC-Washington Post poll I cited in my previous Swine Flu post, about 40% of parents are rejecting the swine flu vaccine mostly due to safety concerns (53%) and/or beliefs the flu isn't all that bad (33%).   

 I can only hope Campos-Duffy didn't diss the science on The View.  Anyone catch it?   After a quick Wikipedia glance I've learned tv guest host is a former reality tv celebrity (MTV Real World, San Fransisco).  Not exactly a health expert. 

Amen to Michael Specter.   Jeers to ParentDish.
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