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McCain

John McCain is the most recent vector of a raging new epidemic. The disease spread by this epidemic moves quickly, attacks mostly the educated and media savvy in our midst, and is potentially devastating in its consequences. I am referring to the dangerous and fast-moving epidemic of medical and science misinformation that is sweeping the land, pushed along by the strong winds of the media. John McCain, in response to a question posed to him at a recent town hall meeting, stated that

 

It’s indisputable that (autism) is on the rise amongst children, the question is what’s causing it. And we go back and forth and there’s strong evidence that indicates that it’s got to do with a preservative in vaccines.

He went on to say there’s “divided scientific opinion” on the topic of whether vaccines can cause autism. The media is also a major force in the spread of medical and science misinformation. It is often quick to point out that there is a scientific debate on an issue, and to present the topic with the balance so sought after in responsible journalism. The problem with the issue of vaccines and autism is that there is no scientific debate on this issue. There is no balance to the scientific data. The scales are tipped so far to one side (that there is no science linking vaccines to autism) that any reasonable interpreter of the data would conclude it’s time we give up on this particular witch hunt.

The notion of an autism “epidemic” alluded to by Senator McCain, and so often highlighted on the news, is also predominantly a media creation. In fact, the best epidemiology indicates that there is likely no true change in the prevalence of autism, just in the way we define the cases and count the numbers. Incredibly, I have yet to see a single media story that has attempted to intelligently cover this less shocking, but fact-supported, angle.

But the main problem with John McCain’s statement is that he fails to understand what “strong evidence” means in the context of science. Strong evidence is evidence that is presented for peer review, poured over for sound reasoning, scrupulous and meticulous methodology, and accurate statistical analysis. Good scientific papers will also point out their own limitations and flaws, and make suggestions on how to improve on the science. To be declared truly “strong” however, the data must also be replicated and validated by multiple independent investigators. When the evidence is assessed by this standard (the standard by which all science must be judged), John McCain’s statement is seen as entirely erroneous.

The reason Senator McCain was so quick to jump on the vaccines-are-evil bandwagon, and the reasons for this epidemic of medical and science misinformation, are complex. They involve mistrust in the medical establishment, in the Federal government and its oversight, and in the pharmaceutical industry. They also involve the frustrations inherent in the loss of autonomy over one’s own health, an age old problem made more extreme by the ever-evolving complexity of scientific insights into health and disease. At the heart of Senator McCain’s erroneous statement, however, lies an even more ominous sign that indicates this epidemic has no end in sight. A major factor allowing this type of misinformation to take root so easily is the public’s relative ignorance about the general workings of science. If our educational system did a better job teaching science and explaining it’s centrality to so much of what we take for granted in our lives, these types of misstatements would be far less likely to occur and the misunderstandings about so many scientific issues, from believing vaccines cause autism to believing in the efficacy of homeopathy, would fail to become so widespread.
It is ironic that in this election year a major presidential candidate, with both advancing science and improving our educational system as major underpinnings of his platform, would fall victim to an epidemic at least partly preventable by both.
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