Over the past couple decades, there has been a significant, some might say startling, rise in the rate of diagnosis of autism in children. Many theories have sought to explain this phenomenon, much study has been devoted to the issue, yet an answer still eludes us. But, one thing that we do know is that childhood vaccinations are not the cause.

The history: About 15 years ago, a British doctor named Andrew Wakefield had a study published in The Lancet, the British medical journal, that posited certain side effects from the MMR vaccine. He then went out in the world and suggested that those side effects increased the chance of children becoming autistic. Panic ensued, parents stopped vaccinating their kids, the incidence of measles skyrocketed, and an on-going and persistent controversy was born. Fast forward: Wakefield’s study has been debunked as outright fraudulent (he was looking to market his own alternative vaccination program), the study (which his co-authors couldn’t reproduce in the first place) has been withdrawn from The Lancet, and he was stripped of his license to practice medicine. The posited link between vaccines and autism has been thoroughly studied and debunked ever since.

Yet there are many, many people in the world who continue to believe that vaccines can cause autism, despite the fact that the original theory was a fabrication. The actress/comedienne Jenny McCarthy is still defiantly proclaiming the link, in the face of overwhelming science and perhaps based on nothing other than the fact that she fell prey to a con man. She’s written three books on the subject and is intimately involved with an anti-vaccination group. Is she stupid? Hardly. In fact, I suspect she’s quite intelligent. Successful comics are generally bright and observant people, and there is the fact of Ms. McCarthy’s successful career as further evidence. But, as mountains of anecdote and analysis demonstrate, intelligence is no proof against being suckered. In fact, there are many examples of confidence men noting that they prefer to go after smart “marks,” because people who believe or know they are smart are more likely to believe they can’t be conned.

There are several well-understood psychological phenomena involved in this sort of irrational behavior. Two in particular, confirmation bias and the “trust trap,” are at play here. Elements of confirmation bias are “belief perseverance” and a “preference for early information.” In other words, we tend to cling to what we first learn, even if we later find out that what we learned was completely wrong. It’s illogical, but it’s a powerful part of human nature. The “trust trap,” the tendency to be less critical of sources once you’ve invested some trust in them (e.g. you may be more likely to take the word of a political commentator who has offered up good and proven insight in the past without as vigorous a challenge), is also a strong countervailing force to dispassionate logic and reason.

Imagine a mother with an autistic child, casting about for answers. She comes across Jenny McCarthy’s writings, and in them sees a kindred spirit (Ms. McCarthy’s son Evan is reportedly autistic) and a source of comfort. She builds a trust for what Ms. McCarthy says and writes. She also hears from Ms. McCarthy a strong voice declaring the MMR-autism link. Then the bottom falls out of the “science” on the subject. The original theory and author are utterly discredited and further science demonstrates that there is no link. Yet the mother of the autistic child is resistant to the truth, especially since Ms. McCarthy continues to insist the link is real (based on, in her own words “My science is Evan, and he’s at home. That’s my science.”), and may choose not to vaccinate another of her children or convince others not to vaccinate, with predictably unfortunate consequences.

Psychology has all sorts of names for the phenomena at play here: consistency theory, the rationalization trap, cognitive dissonance. They all point to the same thing – people, once they’ve formed an opinion or staked out a position, fight to defend it, even if the basis for it is thoroughly disproved.

Bernie Madoff swindled thousands of people – people who we might presume are smart and savvy, given that they had large sums of money to invest with Madoff. Charles Ponzi and Frank Abagnale are only the most famous of a long list of legendary con men, people who managed to sucker hundreds or thousands of others with lies. Then there are the cults. Jim Jones, Charles Manson, Heaven’s Gate, the Raelians, Sung Myung Moon’s Unification Church, the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh… the list is long. Certainly, not everyone who is taken in by a confidence scheme or a charismatic swindler is smart, or even of above-average intelligence, but in that reality lies a trap. In dismissing those who’ve been conned, we lower our guard and make ourselves more vulnerable, and not just to overt confidence schemes, but to persistence of misinformation. If we presume that our own intelligence is of itself proof against clinging to bad information, debunked theories and false “facts,” we’re more likely to resist when truths are presented to us. Our critical thinking skills are hindered by our egos and hubris.

The principles at play here certainly extend into the political sphere. It’s the reason that government programs continue onward, even when it’s demonstrated they don’t work. It’s the reason that politicians who turn out to be bald-faced liars or outright crooks still draw support from those who voted for them. It’s the reason that certain ideologies persist, even when their past implementations have proven disastrous.

The takeaway? A tough one. We may be as smart as we think we are, but the world is full of people and ideas that will use those smarts to steer us wrong. Ideas are persistent, and lies can be even more persistent. Be critical, both of others and of yourself. When dealing with others, bear in mind the Reaganism “Trust but verify.” If someone challenges a long-held belief of yours, and does so with some substance, give it a fair shake. It’s quite possible, likely even, that your position will withstand the challenge. But from time to time, every one of us gets something wrong, and there’s no harm in admitting and accepting that. And, if you’ve been conned, don’t consider it a personal failure. The confidence men of the world are a lot better at it than we are.

Peter Venetoklis

About Peter Venetoklis

I am twice-retired, a former rocket engineer and a former small business owner. At the very least, it makes for interesting party conversation. I'm also a life-long libertarian, I engage in an expanse of entertainments, and I squabble for sport.

Nowadays, I spend a good bit of my time arguing politics and editing this website.

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