(If you don’t use reddit, the first sentence of this will be gibberish to you). There is a new subreddit called called /r/explainlikeimfive, which is great. The idea is that people pose questions that they feel like they ought to know the answer to but don’t, and then responders attempt to answer the question like they are talking to a five year old. Today someone asked this:
As best you can, please explain the scientific case for and against the notion there is a link between vaccines and autism. Also the cultural, political, and corporate aspect of this issue if you would.
I responded, and I feel like anyone who reads my blog ought to know a little about this too, so without further ado, my response:
Once upon a time, a fellow named Dr. Andrew Wakefield wanted to be published in a prestigious medical journal called the Lancet. He also wanted to make some money. So he handpicked twelve kids, some of whose parents’ lawyers were paying him secretly to conduct the “study” in order to gather evidence that would make it easier to sue vaccination companies, and pretended that they had developed signs of autism within 14 days of having had the vaccination, even though he had no evidence to support that and not all of the parents even claimed that. He then subjected these twelve young children and babies to a series of invasive and potentially harmful tests like colonoscopies (that’s where you shove a long camera through the anus and into the lower intestine) and lumbar punctures (that’s where you jam a needle into the spine), despite his not having gotten permission from the people in charge of whether you’re allowed to hurt babies for science. When the people who are in charge of whether you’re allowed to hurt babies for science found out, they were very mad, especially since the tests ended up not proving anything anyway, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
(Pictured above: common pond scum)
His study was published in the Lancet, and he got paid his money. However, even though his study was mostly fake, it still didn’t conclusively show a link between autism and the lifesaving MMR vaccination. That’s because it’s not that easy to show that one thing causes another thing when you’re writing a paper. It’s easy to show that things happen at the same time (especially if you lie, which he did), but it’s not easy to show that one of them causes the other (even if you lie, which he did). So after the paper was published, he went on record as saying that he was sure that the MMR vaccination caused autism, even though that claim wasn’t even supported by his fake paper. He developed a large following of parents in the UK (where he is from) and around the world, who noticed that when their children were babies, they were vaccinated and they also developed the signs of autism, and decided that the autism must have been caused by the vaccination like Mr. Wakefield said. He exploited these sad, desperate parents in order to gain more fame and notoriety. With his fame, he planned to develop his own line of autism-safe vaccinations, despite still not having actual evidence that the existing vaccinations were not autism-safe.
Then, a reporter named Brian Deer started to do some research on Wakefield’s research. He started by visiting one of the parents and asking her about her child’s case. She revealed to him that she thought her child developed signs of autism around six months after the vaccination—but Wakefield’s study had said that it was only two weeks. Wakefield went on to do some other research and found out some other things, like that some of the children in the study had never even been diagnosed with autism, and some of them had developed signs of autism and bowel problems (his other claim was that the vaccinations caused bowel problems) before receiving the vaccination. Every single one of the children had a medical record that showed a different story from what was published in the study.
When the people who are in charge of whether you’re allowed to hurt babies for science found out about this, they were really mad. Wakefield had hurt developmentally disabled babies and children for no reason, and had also hurt countless other babies whose parents are now scared to let them be vaccinated on account of a pretend link to autism. They told him he’s not allowed to be a doctor anymore, so now he’s just Mr. Andrew Wakefield.
Everyone in the world should hate Mr. Andrew Wakefield, but some people still don’t. Some people, who don’t really know very much about how to read scientific papers because they are hard to read, are still scared that vaccinations cause autism, and they think he might have been right. Some of them are famous, like Jenny McCarthy (who was previously most famous for having naked pictures of her appear in a magazine) and Jim Carrey (who was previously most famous for pretending to talk out of his butt). This is unfortunate, because a lot of people are willing to believe people based on how famous they are, rather than based on whether they are doctors or even know anything.
There really isn’t much more science out there than this fake article that this liar published to make money, but a lot of people are still scared because both vaccinations and autism are mysterious things, and autism is terrifying to a parent.