A simultaneously sympathetic and unsympathetic commentary on an antivaccine screed

The false idea that vaccines somehow cause or contribute to autism has been a common theme on this blog, and I’ve spent considerable verbiage discussing why anyone would think that vaccines are in any way associated with autism when the science is quite clear that they are not. If there’s one thing I’ve been consistent in saying is that it’s not because antivaccinationists are stupid (well, at least not most of them; some are spectacularly stupid). It’s because they suffer from the same cognitive biases that all humans suffer from that lead us to confuse correlation with causation, jump to conclusions, and be subject to confirmation bias. One majoor—perhaps the major—difference between skeptics and cranks like antivaccinationists is that skeptics recognize human cognitive weaknesses that allow us to be misled so easily by spurious correlations. We realize that, far more often than we are prepared to believe, things really do happen by coincidence. When there are enough numbers, and there can be a lot of coincidences. For instance, given the millions of children at the age when autistic symptoms most frequently reveal themselves and given that that age happens to coincide with a lot of vaccines, it would be shocking if there were not thousands of children every year who develop their first symptoms of autism in relatively close temporal proximity to a series of vaccines. To individuals whose children do register these symptoms within a few days after vaccination, it can appear all the world as though the vaccinations caused it. Add a bit of confirmation bias, in which people remember details that fit in with their preconceived notions and tend to forget the rest, and it’s very easy even for intelligent parents to mistake correlation for causation and blame vaccines for their children’s autism.

Science is, in essence, inoculation against these tendencies to draw false confusions and to confuse correlation with causation, a weapon against the limitations of individual observations. However, it always interests me “what we’re up against,” because it goes very much against the grain to think scientifically. Our brains are not hard-wired that way. Learning to accept science over one’s own observations does not come naturally; so it is not surprising that so many people have a great deal of difficult doing just that.

These were my thoughts the other day as I read a post on that other wretched hive of scum and quackery, The (Not So) Thinking Moms’ Revolution, entitled If not us, who? TMR, as you might recall, is kind of an unofficial offshoot of that antivaccine crank blog Age of Autism. At least it shares some bloggers. Be that as it may, what this TMR post might help readers understand is that there’s another component to the antivaccine idea that vaccines cause autism, and that’s raw emotion. It’s often a visceral emotion that is so strong that it precludes any sort of clear thinking or the application of even basic skepticism. At least, that’s what Poppy, the author of this post, shows, as she describes…well, I’ll let her tell it:

I made a coffee, sat on my dark patio, and enjoyed the pre-dawn silence for a bit. I started to read my newsfeed and a few PMs on my phone and like a freight train, I started sobbing. REALLY sobbing….like THE UGLY CRY…boogers dripping and all. My body trembled. My chest got tight. I started to sweat. It was visceral.

Memories came flooding back. In my Mind’s Eye, I saw J getting his shots. I’m holding his little leg, whispering in his ear, “It’s ok baby, you’re fine” as he screamed, his little body tensing up as the needles went into his chunky little thigh….one after another. Memories of the projectile vomiting that lasted for over a year of his life. Images of the yellow, toxic shit. I can still smell it. Images of the bizarre sores that developed on his little body. Of the thrush. Of the petit mal seizures. All flashing through my head like a twisted flip book you made as a kid.

None of this should have happened. I realized I was having a PTSD moment.

There’s no doubt that the image of a needle being stuck into a baby is a very powerful one. I’m not a parent, and even I understand that; so imagine what it is like to parents. To them it can appear that their baby is being turned into the proverbial pin cushion. It doesn’t matter that science tells us that the vaccines being injected are very safe and will protect their children against diseases that were once fatal. Something about the act of sticking needles into a baby triggers something very visceral in parents. Parents who are skeptics have told me that even they were bothered by it; so imagine what sorts of emotions can be triggered in parents prone to vaccine denialism. Then, if a child of such parents develops autism by random chance alone within a short time period of a series of vaccinations, the idea that it was the vaccines that caused the autism will become unshakable.

So it apparently was with Poppy. She has in her mind linked vaccines with her child’s autism and other health problems so powerfully that no amount of evidence and science will shake it. So powerful is the image that she even appears to be suffering from a bit of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), complete with flashbacks and crying jags. She then justifies it with a series of antivaccine tropes and canards, including the claim of an “autism epidemic,” that autism, ADHD, asthma, allergies, seizures, and neurological damage are running rampant among our children thanks to—you guessed it—vaccines. What apparently brought this PTSD-like reaction on was, of all things, Dan Burton’s recent autism and antivaccine hearings. That this hearing was nothing but a mummer’s farce devoid of substance doesn’t matter to Poppy. In fact, she blames vaccines so much that she can write something like this:

This week has been a roller coaster, to say the least. I have experienced that gamut of emotions over the past few days. Disgust, celebration, rage, vindication, and sadness….a deep, terrible sadness. I keep thinking to myself, “If something had been done after the hearings 10 years ago, maybe my babies would have been spared from this hell. Maybe YOUR babies would have been spared.”

So.many.babies.

So. Much. Use. Of Bad. Cliche. Seriously.

It is rather sad to see just how strong the illusion is. it’s so strong that Poppy believes that if the government had dones “something” (exactly what should be done is never really specified), then many, many babies would be spared from autism. Never mind, once again, that there is no compelling evidence that vaccines cause autism, much less that somehow eliminating vaccines or “taking the toxins” (the nonexistent toxins) out of them would “save” so many children from autism. Nor would the “biomedical treatments” (a.k.a. pure quackery) favored by the antivaccine movement to “treat” autism have made a difference, either. Using completely non-science-based treatments would certainly not have “recovered” autistic children who wouldn’t have improved through normal development anyway.

But Poppy is angry, too. So angry:

This happened to our kids. We are NOT F*CKING CRAZY! We are not looking for someone to blame. We are just every day, regular people. Just Moms & Dads that wanted to have children who grew up to be happy and healthy people. Who grew up to be successful in whatever they chose to do. We had dreams for our kids.

And there’s the real reason. A good rule of thumb is that whenever someone says she is not looking for someone to blame, she’s looking for someone to blame. Yes, that’s exactly what Poppy is doing and what many antivaccine parents are doing. They can’t believe that they have a child who is not “normal” or a child with special needs significant enough that he might never live independently. Something must have stolen their “real” child from them, and vaccines are a convenient all-purpose bogeyman to blame. They are basically in mourning for the loss of the idealized “normal” child that they think they should have had, a child whom they view as being trapped in an autistic shell (thanks to vaccines) but can be “recovered” with the appropriate “biomedical” quackery.

Poppy is correct, though, that antivaccine parents are not crazy, much less “f*cking crazy.” They are simply people with the same cognitive quirks that you and I have but who are not willing or able to overcome them. Instead, they choose to wallow in what might have been and rail against imagined enemies who stole their “real” child away and left them the autistic child. And, yes, they really believe this. Given that, is it any wonder that confirmation bias that worsens with time as they think about their child’s first symptoms of autism, plus confusing correlation with causation, topped off with guilt because they think they caused their child’s autism by letting those evil doctors vaccinate him, can result in screeds like Poppy’s and the many similar screeds that can be found on Age of Autism and other rabidly antivaccine blogs?