• Breaking the Link: Misconceptions of the Autism/Vaccination Relationship

    This post is part of a series of guest posts on GPS by the undergraduate and graduate students in my Science vs. Pseudoscience course. As part of their work for the course, each student had to demonstrate mastery of the skill of “Educating the Public about Pseudoscience.” To that end, each student has to prepare a 1,000ish word post on a particular pseudoscience topic, as well as run a booth on-campus to help reach people physically about the topic.


    Breaking the Link: Misconceptions of the Autism/Vaccination Relationship by Jordan Pyle

    Throughout the years, we have seen groundbreaking research in the field of modern medicine, but possibly none as important as the discovery of vaccinations. A vaccine is the product that stimulates a person’s immune system to produce immunity to a specific disease, thus protecting that individual. Vaccines save millions of lives each year and are among the most cost-effective health interventions ever developed. They have decreased the likelihood that anyone globally will catch horrific diseases such as polio, which averaged of over 35,000 cases in the 1940’s through the 1950’s. That number has substantially decreased in recent years to almost zero cases. However, it is estimated that every year, 2.5 million unvaccinated children worldwide die of diseases that vaccines could have prevented. Statistics like these show how detrimental vaccinations are within large societies and how important they are for a healthy existence. Only one in five children worldwide are not fully protected with even the most basic vaccines. Why would any rational human opt out of vaccinating their children, you ask? A large majority of parents have been ill informed over the “dangers” it may cause their children’s health, specifically because they believe it increases their children’s chance to be diagnosed with autism. The question on many individuals’ minds is, how did this misconception of the correlation of vaccinations and autism come about?

    A question no one seems to be answering, is why autism? Why is it this disease that is most commonly linked to vaccines? Before the 1970’s, the diagnosis of autism was 1 in 10,000 but steadily increased to 1 in 150 by 2008. Since Wakefield’s study, no other medical research has shown a valid link between vaccines and mental disorders. Nevertheless, many parents still hold reservations when making decisions on whether or not they should vaccinate their children. In the years since the initial study conducted by Wakefield and his colleagues, at least 14 studies including millions of children in several countries consistently show no significant difference in autism rates between children who got the MMR vaccine those who didn’t. Could the answer be as simple as maybe children are just developing social skills around the time they are being vaccinated? For example, an anti-vaccination organization ran an advertisement stating that in 1966, when children received 10 vaccinations, autism rates were 1 in 10,000. Today, when children receive 36 vaccinations (though many of those shots are for the same disease), autism rates are 1 in 150. Therefore, many believe vaccinations are causing neurological injuries including autism. Majorities of the anti-vaccination following are also informed that mercury within the vaccination could be the cause of the diagnoses of autism. In a group of studies that encompass nearly 1.3 million children, there was no hint of an association between vaccination and autism or between vaccination and autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and no relationship between mercury exposure in vaccines through thimerosal-containing vaccines and autism.

    Research has shown that there are many other factors that should be considered before vaccinations are ever considered. Some risk factors scientists agree on are specific genes that can make a person more likely to develop autism spectrum disorder (ASD), certain prescription drugs taken during pregnancy can also be linked to autism, and children born to older parents are at greater risk for having ASD. People are disregarding the facts and relying on what they see in the media, something that needs to stop.

    Polio_vaccine_posterDue to this misinformation of the dangers vaccinations may cause, many countries continue to see rises in prevalence of diseases that had previously thought to be all but eradicated. Hospital records all across America are showing that diseases such as the measles and whooping cough are becoming more prevalent as the years go on. In the first half of 2012, Washington suffered 2,520 cases of whooping cough, making it the largest outbreak in the state since 1942. Parents continue to support the association between vaccines and diseases such as autism and have subsequently stopped vaccinating their children – as evidenced by the recent outbreak of over 130 measles cases in the United States alone. In Britain, MMR vaccinations fell from 92% to 73%, resulting in measles outbreak and the first measles death in the United Kingdom in more than a decade. One study showed that more cases of whooping cough occurred in the clusters of unvaccinated children than not, resulting in 9,120 instances of the disease and 10 deaths in California alone. Because of one senseless doctor and his followers, we are seeing people die from very easily prevented diseases. I find myself hoping this vaccine-autism link is only a trend that will go away; yet, I know stupidity always finds a way to survive.

    Category: MedicineMental HealthPseudosciencePsychologyTeaching


    Article by: Caleb Lack

    Caleb Lack is the author of "Great Plains Skeptic" on SIN, as well as a clinical psychologist, professor, and researcher. His website contains many more exciting details, visit it at www.caleblack.com

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    • CRTorres

      I agree the benefits out weigh the risk when it comes to vaccination. Stats are 1/5, wow, that is a large number of unprotected children. I know someone who does not get her children vaccinated because of this so called link. She has three children, two of which are on the spectrum. I personally have two children with autism. If I had to make the decision again to vaccinate or not. I would still choose the vaccination. I agree, that the media has done a lot of harm to aid in representing this misconception to our impressionable society. I would suggest, to fix the problem, that the CDC consider making a public announcement stating the facts of vaccination. There needs to be more education, provided, to the parents on the Autism. I would also like to mention, as a side note, that it is very difficult to obtain a 504 education supplements in the school district. I think there should be access to all new parents, especially for children with needs, on how to go about getting these benefits for there children. (ok, sorry I am done.) Good post. Thank you for posting it.





    • Kaitie McElroy

      We no longer have herd immunity against preventable diseases due to people not vaccinating their children which is tragic. I am constantly seeing things floating around social media saying how vaccines are hurting our children and causing autism etc… the media is also pushes out not scientifically backed evidence. Or so called evidence on based on a misunderstanding of scientific papers or rather one paper that was later redacted. You did a great job discussing a subject that can get people fired up on both sides of the argument, even though there really is no argument when you look at the facts.

      • jordannpyle

        Kaitie, you couldn’t be more right in my eyes when you brought up how social media is impacting the decision making of parents across the globe. People have either become so lazy or very easily persuaded by their peers and I think a lot of this is due to chat sites such as Facebook. We no longer see people seek out scientific articles and facts for answers and I think this is a major reason we are seeing so many diseases (i.e. mumps and measles) pop back up in the U.S. We seem to be fighting a pointless uphill battle against stupidity and I wouldn’t be surprised if we continue to see rises in diseases that can be easily eliminated by vaccinations.

    • Kels

      What I find really interesting about the vaccine debate is it’s not just people that are what we would typically assume would be uninformed. I have a second cousin that is a nurse, so she administers vaccines and medications every day, yet she refuses to get any kind of vaccine or allow her children to be vaccinated. You would think people in those kind of positions would know better.

      • jordannpyle

        I agree that it is very astounding when you meet individuals who work
        within the medical field who are completely opposed to vaccinating their
        children. I have met a few and have been so curious to ask them what
        their reasons behind not vaccinating their children. Could it be because
        they are afraid of the side-effects that they believe could cause
        long-lasting damage or because they don’t believe that they help prevent
        diseases at all? You would think that those would be the individuals
        most likely to encourage people to vaccinate but they seem to be very
        wary when discussing them with others.

        • Kels

          I believe her stance is more in favor of the vaccines causing something than being able to prevent what they claim. Either way, I would personally take the chances of my child getting autism (even though there isn’t a link) than have the chance of them dying at a young age from one of many preventable diseases or being a part of the growing problem of mass unvaccinated communities today.

    • jordannpyle

      I agree that it is very astounding when you meet individuals who work within the medical field who are completely opposed to vaccinating their children. I have met a few and have been so curious to ask them what their reasons behind not vaccinating their children. Could it be because they are afraid of the side-effects that they believe could cause long-lasting damage or because they don’t believe that they help prevent diseases at all? You would think that those would be the individuals most likely to encourage people to vaccinate but they seem to be very wary when discussing them with others.

    • jordannpyle

      Kaitie, you would think people would be smart enough to seek out the evidence behind these outlandish claims wouldn’t you? It is such a sad time where anything put out into the media is so widely accepted. Many people have given up on seeking out the information and facts on their own and are instead turning to places like Facebook and other chat sites for wisdom over things like vaccination research. And when they do look into the scientific articles, it seems they don’t pull the most important information from them. At the end of the day, it feels like we are fighting a pointless uphill battle against stupidity.

    • SStice28

      I find it odd that parents would opt their children out of vaccinations, especially since it is more than likely that the parents were vaccinated… and they’re fine. Honestly, if vaccinations cause autism, then shouldn’t all children have it? I would think would be higher than they already are.

      • CodyB

        Your comment made me think of times when parents say they want their children to have better lives than they had. In their frenzy to find the best possible route to send their children, they are confronted with an avalanche of misinformation and appeals to authority that have no business making the claims that are made. It is unfortunate that so many parents take the word of a well-known layman over doctors when it comes to the current and future health of their children. I don’t take my dental advice from a TV show personality, why would people think it’s ok to take medical advice about their children from some actress?

        • SStice28

          It’s possible they may respect and trust the layman more than the medical doctors. I also think that a lot of this misinformation is targeted at people’s hopes, dreams, and fears. They go straight for the jugular, and do not care about the consequences.

    • CatherineD

      Statistics like that can be manipulated in so many ways. Correlation does not equal causation! Just because the rates of autism are higher and the number of vaccines are higher does not mean one causes the other. Just like how murder rates and ice cream sales are positively correlated. What, so murderers like to go get ice cream after they’ve offed someone? No. There may be a commonality somewhere, but it does not have to mean that one caused the other. Great job Jordan 🙂

    • Amanda Beck

      What I find most interesting (and perhaps infuriating) is how easily influenced people are by celebrities who support this anti-vac movement. (Thanks, Jenny Mccarthy -_- ) It seems unwise to me to be taking medical advice from anyone without a medical degree, yet humans tend to fall for this so often. It’s incredible how one bad study can cause such a drastic shift in the populations thoughts about vaccinations and just goes to show how easy it is to manipulate the public with scare tactics. Hopefully for the health of the population, this anti-vac movement is simply a fad and will pass quickly. Herd immunity people!

    • ke Liu

      Autism has been a troubling some mental disorder for human being for quite a long time, and I totally agree that many other factors should be considered before vaccination is chosen as the option. During the delivery process of a child, circumstances may change result the
      cause of autism. For example, child who suffer from long time delivery may have potential possibility of having autism as their brain was damaged in someway. Also, accidences occurs in early childhood may also cause brain damage, which could also cause autism.

    • OklahomaTrey

      I think it is great how it is pointed out the heath-craze (not saying diet and exercise are not important, but there is a reality to what is practical) and how certain influences like Dr. Wakefield’s has created in spreading an anti-vaccine movement. Simply, vaccines has a clear history of eliminating illnesses (small pox, polio, rubella, measles, etc.) from our modern world. We have in our own country have taken further steps to reduce and prevent further diseases. This points a clear problem in human behaviors of misunderstanding probability. If there even was a chance of the vaccines causing autism, its chances would still be lower than what it is preventing. As people freak out about Ebola which has killed as many people in the U.S. as Kim Kardashian has married, there are real fears with stronger evidence and there means to stop it (i.e. the flu, which kills hundreds of thousands of people world-wide ever year).

    • Scott Sims

      It never ceases to amaze me how many people that I have known don’t vaccinate their kids. And then there are those that “understand” why they wouldn’t. I don’t understand why they wouldn’t, it is just absurd and willfully ignorant. Hopefully good sense will prevail before it becomes a real problem. Good post!

      • Brenton

        Yes, I think you make an interesting point.

        “Understanding” why someone wouldn’t vaccinate seems to have a direct parallel with debates in the new atheism movement. Dawkins and Harris maybe, have a position that goes something like: By promoting a view of tolerence for fundamentalism, moderates act as a cushion, or sheild, to more extreme views.

        I think you show that this seems to be a more general problem.

        Moderates about vaccination, if you take the analogy, seem to act as a social sheild for more extreme views.

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    • Brenton

      This makes for a case study in a vague but important issue:

      Why do people go in for this kind of stuff?

      You may be familiar with Dan Dennett, who stresses the importance of the naturalistic study of religion.

      By parity of reasoning other important phenomena, such as the ease of which crazy unsupported claims profligate through a society, also need to be studied scientifically.

      An aside: I’m not sure this is properly categorized as pseudoscience. But then no account of pseudoscience is given here.

      Take Popper’s demarcation – the gist of which goes something like: “Scientific claims involve bold conjectures which can be evidentially falsified. Bodies of theory immune to evidential falsification are not science.”

      For some, pseudosciences are those which hide in the gaps of evidence (Freudianism & Marxism are often given as examples) On an account like this (which may be old fashioned, I don’t know) the author shows that the autism/vaccine link is in fact a scientifc, rather than a pseudoscientific, claim. Pyle shows that the autism/vaccine link is, in fact, amenable to empirical falsification. I would certainly agree that it is a bold conjecture, which can be tested, and the results are in the negative.

      Falsified scientific claims are not pseudoscience – at least on Popper’s criteria – and in the absence of another I would have thought this is the received view.

      Why belief in falsified scientific hypotheses persists, or even increases, is the real question behind this paper. I am convinced this something extremely important for us to understand and something which also requires a scientific explanation.