Esa, on Youthful Naïveté
May 1, 2009
While this blog remains in its infancy, I need to get to the heart of why you are likely to find an apparent excess of information pertaining to autism while perusing these pages. The full background on this is likely to be a future post in itself, but, to preface this entry, let me just say that my family has been affected by the disorder and that my research interests have since focused on it. That said, I have gotten into rather heated debates with anti-vaccinationists online at various public forums. Actually, the fact that some of them have gotten quite ugly is what has led me to begin my own blog in anonymity. Recently, in one of these other forums, a particular argument against my position, or rather, against me, was used that was too perfect to pass up discussing here.
The debate about whether autism is caused by vaccines on the forum in question quickly grew to encompass a general distrust of the medical profession. I defended the position of science as best as I could as a minority on the blog, careful always to avoid personal attacks to the maximum extent my frustration would allow. My general argument was typically along the lines of “I understand that what you would call ‘mainstream’ medicine is not perfect, as any field has its flaws, but here is why it deserves more respect than CAMs (complimentary and alternative medicines).” At which point, I would proceed to cite various studies on whatever particular topic is being debated at that moment.
I list statistics; I provide references; I point out flaws in arguments presented to me; and I just generally discuss the efficacy of the scientific method. And all of my effort, research, and passion gets swept away in a single post as follows (posted by a certain dietitian – who will remain nameless – known to work with Generation Rescue). First of all, I will give this poster due credit (though she will probably never see this), as she has always held herself to a basic standard of civility towards me, which is more than can be said for others in the forum in which this was originally posted. The problem with this post, however, is there is very little basis on which I can defend myself against it. Not to be out done though, I will attempt to do so now, point by point (allow me my indulgences):
“With all the best to you as you embark on life: At your young age, starry eyed in a graduate program, no children of your own, no idea what it is like to navigate the health care or education landscapes with a child who has special needs, no experience in the flotsam of the real world, all this looks like it should cue up neatly – that “science” prevails, and naturopaths, vitamins, nutrition etc are not “scientific”; that what you are studying is “scientific” and therefore righteous and better, while the rest is not.”
It is supremely convenient that I am young enough for things to be quaint and to not have learned life’s apparently terrible lessons. This is her opinion, both that life has to be terrible and that I have no experiences with it – a belief that no argument of mine will change. Apparently, she finds it irrelevant that I have always done my best to let facts and logic speak for themselves. If anything, my naïveté is evidenced by my assumption that reason should be the common ground in any debate. As far as science being righteous, that implies a moral judgment. Science does not create morality. It can only provide us with a view of the world through which to design our own moral code. What is true is that the method by which science gathers information allows it to provide us with a more accurate and generalizable view of the world than the emotional and faith based method of knowing that the poster advocates. Whether this is “better” or not is, I suppose, a matter of opinion.
“Besides wanting to point out that all these other areas do get researched with the same rigor as your chosen field – genetics – I can’t help but say this: When you are only given one view of the world, and you are sheltered from all other views, you are blind. At your age, protected in the bubble of a graduate program, you haven’t seen life yet, and you are still blind.”
The first statement is actually correct in some instances. The problem is that, when CAM treatments are researched with the same rigor as, what I will stubbornly call, “real medical treatments”, they are found to be ineffective. It has been seen time after time – initial trials of acupuncture or vitamin C therapy or (insert your favorite CAM here) show some promise, but they cannot be replicated when a larger, double-blinded, control-balanced study is done (more on why these things are so important to science in a future post). As far as having only one worldview: Admittedly, the life of a scientist can be a sheltered one, if we do not seek out exchanges such as this. I feel that, especially in my various exchanges with her and her ilk, I have been exposed to another worldview quite a bit. I’ve researched the arguments made by the other side, but reason continues to compel me to stand by the scientific evidence. Furthermore, it is imperative to my sanity that, while I may be exposed to multiple worldviews and reject some, I should not HOLD multiple views. This would result in extreme cognitive dissonance.
“Life and all its experiences change and challenge everything. The simple, tragic reality is that scientists and doctors are human beings. They can be greedy, selfish, terrified, misdirected, wrong, or stupid just like anybody else, and they can make heinous mistakes that they don’t want to admit. This has happened in spades in our vaccine industry. It’s quaint to believe that pharmaceuticals are safe and adequately tested and regulated, while nutrients/supplements are not – but it isn’t the reality of either industry.”
Even given my youth and apparent naïveté, I am aware that all humans are fallible. It was never my argument that scientists and doctors are not, just that they are probably no worse that the naturopaths that she has praised, and certainly not the demons that others have made them out to be.
The claim made in that forum, that the vaccine industry has made mistakes it does not want to admit has never been backed by real evidence by those making the claim – only anecdotal stories and hearsay. On top of this, it implies a vast conspiracy among science, government, and industry that is simply too expansive to stand. Do drug companies try to gloss over bad PR? Yes. Do they lobby the government? Yes. Are they too involved in policy making? This is a personal judgment call, but I would still say yes. Are they influencing what is being published? Yes, though I’ll admit here that I haven’t had enough personal experience to know the whole story. Are they influencing what is being published to the extent that they are fooling doctors into giving us harmful vaccines? No.
Her basic claim here is that the drug companies made a massive mistake somewhere when creating vaccines that they don’t want to admit for the sake of pride and profit. If this were true and they were capable of executing a cover up to the extent that is alleged, then why didn’t they do the same when the American Academy of Pediatrics advocated the removal of thimerosal from childhood vaccines?
Lastly, pharmaceuticals ARE safe for the vast majority of people, though not without side effects. Whether they are adequately tested and regulated is a more tricky issue. (again, a topic for a better time) The intention is certainly there at the FDA, but we must continue to be vigilant. On the other hand, nutrients and supplements are not held to the same rigorous standards. Therefore, while drugs may not always be tested and regulated as well as they should be, they are, on the whole, better tested and regulated than nutrients and supplements.
I hope this has given everyone a bit of an idea of what is to come on this blog, as well as given you something to think about the next time you hear someone complaining about Big Pharma. Before deciding to go against what is mainstream, be sure you are just as critical of the alternatives.