Last week at the video rental place I saw a documentary called “Autism: The Musical”. I’ve been watching a lot of documentaries lately, and most recently I’ve also been interested in the way they are made, so I watch them to notice where the camera is, where the interviewees are looking towards, how the sound is cut, how the story is told, etc. I’m especially interested in how music stories are told, so I picked this up. At the counter, the girl standing next to me said “I watched that last week, it’s great!” so it came with a good recommendation, too.
The documentary is about a group of autistic kids who make and perform a musical. I was watching this, as I said, to look at some editing things. There were some confusing cuts that I felt left out some information, but one thing I did really like was that they introduced the kids before the parents. One of the kids was quite entertaining: completely obsessed with dinosaurs he was a walking, loud, noisy, encyclopedia. After several minutes of getting to know this kid, and seeing him with his mother, you finally find out that it’s the son of Stephen Stills, of Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young.
And here is where the science part comes in: I tried to watch this as a bit of a distraction from science things, but I really do always notice science in everyday topics, and here it was. Stephen Stills was the only parent in the documentary who did not blame vaccinations, but talked about genetics. He joked about it a little bit, saying that he recognized some of his own traits in autistic kids. I found a clip of this very segment online. You can also see his wife talk about a bunch of non-genetic stuff, including vaccines, and she was not the only one that mentioned vaccines.
(Hit play, then pause, wait for everything to load, and then watch. It’s bumpy otherwise.)
Michael Nestor talked about Jenny McCarthy on his blog a while ago, and I suggested that what we needed was not scientists stepping up, but celebrities who actually say that it’s not the vaccines. Well, there he is: Stephen Stills is also a parent of an autistic child, and he says it’s genetic.
I realized, watching this segment, that parents probably prefer to blame vaccines because it’s something external. Stills sounds almost apologetic about the fact that it’s genetic, because it involves his genes.
Because I’ve never really looked into the whole vaccine issue much, I went on PubMed after watching the documentary to do some research. It seems that there was only one publication in the late nineties that linked autism to the MMR vaccination. Meanwhile, 12 of the 14 authors on that publication have retracted their views and said that the data were not significant enough to draw conclusions (for the lay audience, that means: “We were wrong”) What’s more, there have been MANY publications by many different groups from all around the world who show in many different ways that there is no link between vaccines and autism. Many recent articles versus one old one is a no-brainer: obviously, the huge amount of data discrediting the link is the side that’s right. Why isn’t this clear yet in the non-scientific media?
Journalism doesn’t work like scientific publication. Academic reviews look at the bulk of scientific literature, and say “someone once said X, but many people since have shown that not-X.”. Newspapers, on the other hand, publish an article when a press release comes out for one journal article. So imagine: the vaccine/autism paper came out, and that was interesting, so they jumped on it and published it. Later, a paper came out and discredited it. Maybe this ended up in a newspaper, too, but it was just one opinion against the original article. Many other papers came out, all saying the same thing: there is NO link between autism and vaccines. But to a newspaper, that is not interesting at all. Many people all saying the same is not news. We already published an article about people who said there was no link. It’s not new and exciting to publish all the other ones!
To mainstream media, the odd one out is the “Man Bites Dog” story that’s interesting and publishable. That’s what people read over and over, and what ends up in public knowledge.
It’s not worth mentioning that hundreds of scientists agree on something that’s not exciting news – people want the shocking story, that later turned out to be false (but they don’t care)So, two reasons why the vaccine myth persists:
So, two reasons why the vaccine myth persists:
– It’s easier to blame someone else than your own genes
– It’s more exciting to publish a shocking story than the majority opinion that discredits it.
One story that shocked me when I read the PubMed archive, and that thankfully did make the regular media as well, was that because of this stupid vaccine article parents are refusing vaccinations for their kids. Entire programs have been set up in which doctors and nurses have to talk to the community to explain over and over and over again that the initial article was false, and that the vaccines are safe, and please protect your child and save us all from an epidemic. I’d never even considered that this was happening. All the time and money wasted on community outreach trying to set straight one publication…
(I will add some more links to this later. I need to return the DVD now and go to a Christmas concert rehearsal.)