How sociology perpetuates the vaccine-autism rift

May 14, 2009

In my anti-Jenny McCarthy screed, I pounced on her harsh language as evidence of how misguided she was. In comments, James said he was put off by the way Slate and my own post framed the issue.

Now Matt Nisbet reminds me why an isolated group — such as the pro-vaccine movement, or the anti-vaccine movement — will move toward extreme rhetoric:

Analyzing data from a national panel survey conducted between 2002 and 2005, graduate student Andrew Binder and his collaborators find that after controlling for demographics and news use, like-minded discussion pushed respondents’ position on stem cell research to the extreme ends of the distribution, either towards strong support or strong opposition.

Remember the insanity heard at some of the McCain-Palin rallies? Same kind of deal.

To explain how conflicts can escalate even from mild rhetoric, look to Sci Am Mind, where we learn that in a behavioral economics context (games played for money), “we retaliate against selfishness more than we reward generosity—even when the slights are only illusory.”

One group of dictators started with $100 and gave a portion to the second player; the other group of dictators started with no money but took part of $100 from their partner. Later, when participants rated the dictators’ generosity, they judged the taking group inordinately more harshly than the giving group. […] Furthermore, takers do not realize how greedy they appear to those on the receiving end.

These skewed judgments led to increasing selfishness with each interaction: when participants switched roles, the new dictators responded to seemingly greedy splits with less generosity themselves, the pattern continuing with each subsequent role reversal.

I imagine the same applies to rhetorical selfishness and generosity, where the currency being thrown around is self-respect.

All the more reason to bring everyone to the same table, as James noted in pointing out the work of one Roger Bernier, CDC scientist. 

Roger Bernier, 61, an epidemiologist with the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), witnessed first hand the deep lack of trust between some citizens and government at a 2001 congressional hearing on vaccinations and the controversy surrounding vaccines and autism. A citizen’s comment–“Your CDC research is dead on arrival”–served as a wake up call to Bernier. […] Bernier’s solution was to attempt to build trust by bringing together citizens and government officials with diverse views to work jointly on developing and analyzing public health policy choices. In 2003 Bernier worked with the Keystone Center in Keystone Colorado to convene a diverse group of citizens and professionals to design a new public engagement model called the Vaccine Policy Analysis CollaborativE (VPACE).

So where is the Keystone approach in the Jenny McCarthy meltdown? I might have to — gasp! — make a phone call or two. I know, I know. Calm down. It’s still a blog.

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9 Responses to “How sociology perpetuates the vaccine-autism rift”


  1. Great, thoughtful post. Thank You! And thanks for bringing it to my attention via Twitter!

    I agree, we need to come to a middle-ground on this issue. At the Colorado Children’s Immunization Coalition we are interested in promoting the use of vaccines to protect children and all of our community.

    As an independent, non-pharma funded nonprofit, we want to be a source of information for parents concerned with this issue.

    My biggest worry about the anti-vaccine movement’s power is its far reaching implications. I do not want to interfere in parent’s choices. I do not want to dictate what parents do to care for thier children.

    But the reality is, by not vaccinating your child, there are far reaching horrible consequences for OTHER people’s children.

    The simple fact is, there are children who can NOT get vaccinations because they are either too young for the shot or are immino-compromised due to myriad of reasons including steroid shots for asthma or chemotherapy. I can’t imagine the guilt I would have I knew I was the cause of the death of one of these little kids just because I was so selfish not to get myself or my children vaccinated because of fear. I have way more fear in hurting another human being due to my selfishness.

    I like the piece in your post about selfishness. I know that both sides sees the other for being selfish. Pro-vaccine sees anti-vaccine as diminishing herd immunity and selfishly protecting their one child at the cost of our community. Anti-vaccine sees the pro-vaccine movement as selfishly forcing a government agenda on their child and encroaching on their generosity of doing self-research to protect their greatest gift of health for their child.

    In fact, we are now looking into how to create communications plan that looks to speak to the parents that are afraid of vaccines and bring them the facts about the benefits of vaccines so they can make their own decision with a deep breath of information from both sides.

    It’s a hard road, there are lots of emotions on both sides. I try to understand anti-vaccine moms as much as possible. Trying to understand what motivates them and why they are so fearful of something I see as so helpful.

    Granted, full disclosure here, it’s hard for me to not be a vaccine warrior. I am 100% confident that vaccines are one of the best inventions of modern medical science. We are able to protect so many lives with a simple shot. Prevention should be easy and it is with vaccines. I’d the be first one to sign up for a shot to prevent obesity, heart disease and cancers.

    Thank you for your thought-provoking post. Please keep us in mind for any further posts or collaborative work.

  2. Jeremy Says:

    At my work we are talking about the lack of rigor involved in personnel choices. What i find interesting about that decidedly un-interesting topic is that it really ties into a national pandemic. People now seem to care very little about how much information they take in when making a choice. Our process we are developing involves taking as much unbiased data from across the board and processing ALL of that data, not just what you want to hear to make a decision. We are all hardwired to make choices based on all the input we receive over our lifetimes, and that disparate data we have rattling in our heads effects our decision making by filtering the information we have and receive.

    When we had briefly mentioned that the pro-vaccine camp has a celebrity, Amanda Peet, i think we made some kind of joke about that being a real halfway attempt. It is true though really… McCarthy is screeching on next to Oprah, and publishing books and doing just about anything she can to get her message out. I heard Peet one afternoon on NPR, it was like 4 o clock. This is a huge problem.

    You have disseminated a lot of great info JR, but the unfortunate thing is that it isn’t going into the hands of the people who need it. And like someone mentioned the presentation of the facts doesn’t register well with people inclined to believe that the pro-vaccine people are socialist communist muslims trying to ruin their children’s lives.

    I feel like the pro-vaccine camp will never really get the publicity it deserves because no one wants to stand up against McCarthy and seem like they are attempting to dethrone a loving mother who cares about her child. It is hard to walk that line between spreading information and attacking. That seems to tie back into the lack of information age we are in.

    It just isn’t worth the time to go read ALL the facts. People are “too busy” so they rely on Oprah to tell them what is true. This is a highly unfortunate side effect of the dumbing down of America. Completely frustrating.

    Sorry this ended up going nowhere.


  3. Oh and Jenny blocked me on Twitter – so much for coming to a middle ground!

  4. JR Minkel Says:

    @Dawn: That’s AWESOME. Put it on your CV.

  5. JR Minkel Says:

    @Dawn: Seriously, is anyone working to adapt the VPACE model on a national level? Who would be responsible for something like that – HHS?


  6. Thanks, I am honestly pretty proud of my block and Age of Autism threatened to block me too!

    The two national provax organizations to start talking to is Every Child By Two – http://www.ecbt.org/ – and the CDC Immunization Program – http://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/. Both have their interests – ECBT receives pharma $$ (which is unfortunately needed to do national campaigns) and the CDC is great (and has its own politics).

    As far as antivax – The National Vaccine Information Center – http://www.nvic.org/ – is in “our” opinion anti-vaccination and they might be interested in the conversation. Autism Speaks and Generation Rescue are the best orgs for the autism piece.

    Seriously, keep us in the conversation. We want to part of the dialogue.


  7. […] an autistic mind May 19, 2009 Now that we’ve solved the whole vaccines vs. autism controversy, we can start to address the really cool questions: What is autism? What does it tell […]


  8. […] about vaccines June 1, 2009 In wondering how the pro-vaccination camp might effectively communicate with parents, I’ve been imagining some kind of sit-down between parent groups and medical […]


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