Crank Science 

Blaming vaccines for autism has been thoroughly debunked, and yet those who promote it are still given soapboxes by otherwise respectable media outlets.

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“When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?”— John Maynard Keynes

“Well, that's just, like, your opinion, man.”
The Dude, “The Big Lebowski”

Imagine, for a minute, that you're an expert in chemistry, invited by a major media outlet to weigh in with your expertise. Now imagine that when you arrive, you find that the other guest believes in alchemy, and in the interest of balance you'll be debating him, with both of your perspectives being treated as equally valid.

In the interest of full disclosure, I have Asperger's syndrome, a high-functioning form of autism. I've known I had it for about eight years. Living with a disability can present two different kinds of problems: The first is caused by the disability itself, such as the social difficulties Asperger's creates. The other is the issue of popular perceptions of the disability, which can have serious ill effects on how people perceive themselves and, as a result, their development in life  (consider that our culture's most resonant image of autism is Dustin Hoffman mumbling about Judge Wopner).

One of the most pernicious misperceptions about autism that I dealt with growing up is the notion of a correlation between autism spectrum disorders and childhood vaccination for measles, mumps and rubella. This theory, first popularized by a 1998 paper by British medical researcher Andrew Wakefield, since thoroughly debunked, has gained traction with people and groups as diverse as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, Bobby Kennedy Jr., and its most high-profile advocate, former Playboy model and actress Jenny McCarthy, who also claims to have cured her son's autism.

The “anti-vaxxers,” as they're colloquially known, have done most pseudo-sciences one better by not only having no evidence, but also having their theory actively disproven. In January, investigative journalist Brian Deer revealed in the British Medical Journal that Wakefield and his team had falsified significant portions of the data in the original paper.

It was further revealed that Wakefield had planned to cause a panic about the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine and market an alternative in the wake of the scare. If you've spent any time talking to an ardent believer in any pseudo-science or conspiracy theory, you'll probably be able to guess that this has had absolutely no effect on the anti-vaxxers' fervor. McCarthy was given an international platform via the Huffington Post to cast aspersions on Deer's credibility.

I know I'm not the first person to take issue with our society and our media's compulsion to “teach the controversy” through debates in which the two sides are clearly not co-equal. The most commonly cited example of this is the teaching of creationism alongside the theory of evolution. But in some ways the MMR vaccine theory is worse; yes, creationism is based on pure religious dogma rather than scientific findings, but religious dogma cannot, by its nature, be proven incorrect. Blaming vaccines for autism, on the other hand, has been thoroughly debunked, and yet those who promote it are still given soapboxes by otherwise respectable media outlets.

The ill effects of the failure to vaccinate children have been well-documented (JennyMcCarthyBodyCount.com, for example, documents how many people have died of vaccine-preventable illnesses since McCarthy began her activism), but very few people seem to have considered the social and psychological effects of this kind of nonsense on children growing up or living with autism spectrum disorders.

When you have something like autism, which affects almost every aspect of your thinking and your interaction with others, try to imagine the effect it must have to hear people — abetted by major newspapers and news stations — saying that you're not supposed to be the way you are, and, in some cases, that you need to be “cured.”  

Not only is this awful for any child or teenager's self-perception, it's also not too far removed for that other, more reactionary type of crank — those who, like radio host Michael Savage, believe that “in 99 percent of cases, [autism] is a brat that hasn't been told to cut the act out.”

No one has all the answers on what causes autism yet, and further research is never a bad thing. That said, we don't know everything about how matter works either, but that doesn't mean we should take seriously the idea that it's all composed of some combination of earth, fire, air and water.

Having grown up with it, I think there needs to be a new conversation about autism, and it starts when we stop treating a physician and the star of “Larry the Cable Guy: Witless Protection” as two sides of the same coin.

Zack Budryk is a journalism major at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.

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