How to scientifically tell someone they are wrong

How should scientists approach the twenty-year-old misconception that there is a correlation between autism and vaccines? Despite vaccination rates remaining high, the contention persists on public forums like Twitter (a “flourishing” anti-vaccine sentiment was found by a recent CU Boulder study on the social media site) and was even discussed on the Republican Party debate stage. Even the President of the United States has arguably contributed to the debate; “So what’s going on with autism? When you look at the tremendous increase, it’s really — it’s such an incredible — it’s really a horrible thing to watch, the tremendous amount of increase,” he said in 2017. Obviously, the President is concerned about the tremendous increase (tremendously concerned), and it does not seem unreasonable to suspect there might be a not-so-subtle ‘anti-vax’ angle to his tremendous concern.

It is difficult – if not impossible – to lay a finger on the crux of the problem, but in my view, it seems like these scientist folk are having a hard time translating. Dr. Gerald Fischbach, (Scientific Director of the Simons Foundation Autism Research Initiative) has said of the subject; “It’s always difficult, if not impossible, to say a concept like that is wrong.” In the video I watched, you can see a look of exacerbation contort his face. “You can say it’s unlikely… or that it’s not among the prominent hypotheses today.” Now, this very straightforward language seems rather confusing to me. You see, I was thinking we ought to tell people they are “wrong” about this in explicit terms. Clearly, Fischbach would not approve. So why can he not say vaccines do not cause autism? It is a point I find really interesting.

It strikes me that he is just being honest and that he really believes he does not know for certain. I wonder where certainty lies for Dr. Gerald Fischbach. Andrew Wakefield’s fraudulent case study was followed by twelve years of exhaustive research which aside from failing to support the claim, found nothing to link autism and the MMR vaccine whatsoever. I think this type of investigation would satisfy most people’s criteria for certainty. Even so, I’ll trust the view of this Scientific Director on Autism Research. Maybe a disconnect between scientific language and the sort of language needed to affect change in public discourse could be a big part of the problem. Statements like; “It’s not among the prominent hypotheses today”, are much easier to defend than “You are wrong.” Still, the distinction between this scientific articulation and the every day is a significant one.

Maybe when a scientist tells you that you are almost definitely wrong, and you do not like to be wrong, it starts to sound a little like you might be right. Herein lies the Gordian knot. I offer no solution. But I am motivated to write this for one simple reason – Wakefield and his dorky cronies indirectly caused me (as a non-MMR vaccinated late-nineties baby) to recently battle an aggressive bout of mumps that had the left side of my neck as swollen as a bowling ball. I looked like a snake that had tried to eat a large child. The real consequences of this potentially calamitous miscommunication could be far-reaching, but for the families of those unlucky few killed by measles (measles has killed 35 people in Europe as the disease spreads through unvaccinated children according to WHO), it could be devastating. Perhaps, this is the impetus we need to find a better way of saying: you are wrong.

Image: Johnny Silvercloud via flickr.com

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