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MAD Science: What does autism have in common with silicone breast implants?

Posted Jun 18 2009 1:03am
There's a column on Slate.com " True Believers: Why there's no dispelling the myth that vaccines cause autism." that's kind of interesting.

At right, a parody MAD magazine cover by bloggerBev Harppokes fun at those who believe vaccines cause autism.

If you're not familiar with that controversy, the short version is that there was a contention that a mercury-based preservative ( thimerosol ) used previously in the Mumps-Measles-Rubella ( MMR ) vaccine was responsible for making children develop autism.

This past week concluded a 12-day hearing before the US Court of Federal Claims. The hearings largely confirmed the scientific consensus that there's no connection between autism & thimerosol. A story in the Washington Post summarizes this here.

With the medical literature surrounding mercury poisoning reviewed in the hearing (which has never shown autistic-like effects), the dose are often 100's to 1000's of times higher than what someone would receive in the MMR vaccines. A number of large epidemiological studies have shown no link to either MMR or other thimerosal -containing medicines.

From the Slate.com article:


People who study irrational beliefs have a variety of ways of explaining why we cling to them. Inrational choice theory, what appear to be crazy choices are actually rational, in that they maximize an individual's benefit—or at least make him or her feel good.

Blaming vaccines can promise benefits. Victory in a lawsuitis an obvious one, especially for middle-class parents struggling to care for and educate their unruly and unresponsive kids. Another apparent benefit is the notion, espoused by a network of alternative-medical practitioners and supplement pushers, that if vaccines are the cause, the damage can be repaired, the child made whole. In the homes of autistic children it is not unusual to find cabinets filled with 40 different vitamins and supplements, along with casein-free, gluten-free foods, antibiotics, and other drugs and potions. Each is designed to fix an aspect of the "damage" that vaccines or other "toxins" caused.

In reality, autism has no cure, nor even a clearly defined cause. Science takes its time and often provides no definitive answers. That isn't medicine that's easy to swallow.....Another explanation for the refusal to face facts is what cognitive scientists call confirmation bias.

Systems of belief such as religion and even scientific paradigms can lock their adherents into confirmation biases. And then tidbits of fact or gossip appear over the Internet to shore them up. There's a point of no return beyond which it's very hard to change one's views about an important subject.

Then, too, the material in discussion is highly technical and specialized, and most parents aren't truly able to determine which conclusions are reasonable. So they go with their gut, or the zeitgeist message that it makes more sense to trust the "little guy"—the maverick scientist, the alt-med practitioner—than established medicine and public health. "History tells us that a lot of ground-breaking discoveries are made by mavericks who don't follow the mainstream," says Laidler. "What is often left out is that most of the mavericks are just plain wrong. They laughed at Galileo and Edison, but they also laughed at Bozo the Clown and Don Knotts."
.....Joined together on the Internet, these actors create a climate of opinion that functions as an echo chamber for conspiracy dittoheads.



The activist community in the breast implant debate is an obvious parallel to this. There's tremendously compelling science not confirming their contentions of related illness, but there still exists heart-felt conviction by these women that their breast implants caused their medical conditions.

A whole counter-culture of " implant survivor" support groups and websites have come up and are filled with anecdotes outlining their beliefs. On display are often desperate stories of depression and swapped tales of homeopathic voodoo-like potions to "detoxify" them of silicone, platinum, mold, etc... The reactions on display, like the parents of some autism patients, seek to point the finger at someone who must be responsible for their illness. This may have been a legitimate question in the late 1980's, but we long since know this to not likely be true with silicone or saline breast implants.
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