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Perry R. Branson M.D.
Perry R. Branson M.D.

Why Do We Believe Nonsense?

The "vaccines cause autism" canard was based on fraud.

It is always a source of interest to consider how much nonsense we believe. Much of the nonsense we believe has almost no data that backs it up; yet we persist in believing it despite mountains of evidence to the contrary. Sometimes the nonsensical things that people believe are so ridiculous that only the most disturbed can believe them (for instance, vultures spying for the Mossad) and we understand that entire societies have gone mad in the past and present, based on beliefs impervious to reality testing.

Since the enlightenment and the development of the scientific method, modern societies have depended on this most sophisticated technique as the bedrock of our reality testing. We no longer burn witches at the stake because we do not believe that even those who call themselves witches have supernatural powers that can harm others. Despite our reliance on the scientific method, most people still manage to believe in nonsense on regularly, and we do not consider those who believe in widely shared nonsense to be psychotic. For example, a large minority believe in ESP, despite the fact that stage magicians can duplicate any feat of ESP and science has been unable to demonstrate the existence of ESP powers that can survive double-blind testing.

Sometimes our belief in nonsense is sustained by powerful unconscious determinants. Since the 1990s, it has been an article of faith for a great many parents who have struggled with raising an autistic child, that childhood vaccines cause autism. A seminal study from 1998 fueled this belief and has led to many parents refusing to immunize their children; as a result there have been many unnecessary serious injuries and deaths from childhood diseases that should be minimal nuisances for an enlightened, modern population. The "study" which proved the link has now been exposed as being, not merely wrong, but based on fraud:

Retracted autism study an 'elaborate fraud,' British journal finds.

A now-retracted British study that linked autism to childhood vaccines was an "elaborate fraud" that has done long-lasting damage to public health, a leading medical publication reported Wednesday.

An investigation published by the British medical journal BMJ concludes the study's author, Dr. Andrew Wakefield, misrepresented or altered the medical histories of all 12 of the patients whose cases formed the basis of the 1998 study -- and that there was "no doubt" Wakefield was responsible.

"It's one thing to have a bad study, a study full of error, and for the authors then to admit that they made errors," Fiona Godlee, BMJ's editor-in-chief, told CNN. "But in this case, we have a very different picture of what seems to be a deliberate attempt to create an impression that there was a link by falsifying the data."

Britain stripped Wakefield of his medical license in May. "Meanwhile, the damage to public health continues, fueled by unbalanced media reporting and an ineffective response from government, researchers, journals and the medical profession," BMJ states in an editorial accompanying the work.

Autism is a devastating developmental disaster and the desire to avoid it, especially if it could be easily achieved, is completely understandable, yet since the 199's there has been a large and growing body of evidence that vaccines have nothing to do with the development of autism. Among other things, the rates of autism did not decrease after the offending agents (thimerosal) were removed from the vaccines (in fact, for unclear reasons, the rates of autism have risen since thimerosal was removed); rates are no different in vaccinated and non-vaccinated populations; and subtle signs of autism can be found in most cases well before the vaccines are administered, among other data. Yet despite the evidence (and recognizing it is impossible to prove a negative, ie you cannot prove to a 100% level of confidence that vaccines do not cause autism) many smart, enlightened parents still refuse to allow their children to be vaccinated. They willingly expose their children to a non-trivial risk of death (0.3% of children with measles will die in developed countries and much higher rates will die in developing countries) and horrendous neurological disorders (1 in 100,000 children with measles will develop Subacute sclerosing panencephalitis or SSPE) because of an irrational fear of vaccines. This does not include children who will die from whooping cough, diphtheria, polio, or other childhood illnesses which can be so easily avoided.

Why would supposedly smart, rational people believe such nonsense? For parents of children who suffer from terrible illnesses or developmental disasters, there is an ever-present, often unconscious, anxiety about fault, ie guilt and shame. After all, the child is the product of their bodies, their genetics, their parenting; on some pre-conscious level, we always feel responsible for our children's shortcomings and worry that our behavior or our heritage, has damaged them in some way. If the cause of the disaster can be ascribed to an external force, it allows that guilt to be alleviated.

Please note, feelings of guilt and shame, in reality, have nothing to do with the actual cause of the problem. There is no evidence that a cold, uncaring mother (or father) causes autism; that is nonsense of a different order, nonsense once countenanced by organized medicine, but nonsense nonetheless. It is the kind of nonsense that alleviated feelings of guilt and shame for doctors who could neither prevent nor treat autism. Helplessness is an unpleasant, traumatizing feeling and we all would prefer to externalize our guilt onto some available agent, such as evil, "Big Pharma" using toxic vaccines to make money, damn the consequences, than to accept the unknown and/or our human limitations.

In essence, we believe nonsense (especially once it has been exposed as nonsense by science) because it serves a psychological purpose.

We need science more than ever, in our ever increasingly complex world, yet we must recognize that science and scientists are not immune to human failings. As long as we remain human we will believe nonsense; all we can do is try to minimize the amount of nonsense that we allow to control our lives.

In additon, the BMJ article notes that the fraud had the most prosaic and venal of roots:

The series of articles launched Wednesday are investigative journalism, not results of a clinical study. The writer, Brian Deer, said Wakefield "chiseled" the data before him, "falsifying medical histories of children and essentially concocting a picture, which was the picture he was contracted to find by lawyers hoping to sue vaccine manufacturers and to create a vaccine scare."

According to BMJ, Wakefield received more than 435,000 pounds ($674,000) from the lawyers. Godlee said the study shows that of the 12 cases Wakefield examined in his paper, five showed developmental problems before receiving the MMR vaccine and three never had autism.

Sleazy tort lawyers paying sleazy doctors to create a market for themselves; who would have ever thought such selfless individuals as Plaintiff Tort Lawyers could behave in such a self-serving manner?

About the Author
Perry R. Branson M.D.

Perry R. Branson, M.D., is a psychiatrist in New York.

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