This Climate Change Researcher Weighs in on the Use of “Science” to Ridicule Parents who Question Vaccines

February 26, 2015

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By Cynthia Nevison, Ph.D., SafeMinds Board Member

In 1988 Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky wrote a book, Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media, which describes how the media tend to present information from government sources as unquestioned truth while marginalizing dissenting opinions and effectively controlling the terms of the debate.

Herman and Chomsky’s astute observations are as applicable today as they were 27 years ago. The media have painted a largely black and white picture in which sensible, science-minded parents give their children the recommended 37 vaccine doses by age 18 months while irrational and uneducated parents balk at this regime.

In the majority of mainstream articles in newspapers, magazines, and on-line sites, one is either for vaccines or against them. The possibility of a middle ground is not acknowledged.

Further, in the fallout surrounding the Disneyland measles outbreak, the media are increasingly invoking “science” to marginalize dissenting opinions on vaccines.

Many recent editorial cartoons, op-ed pieces, and magazine articles list climate change denial, creationism, and belief that vaccines can cause autism as equivalent examples of the irrational rejection of science. The current issue of National Geographic, with an article by Joel Achenbach entitled, “Why Do So Many Reasonable People Doubt Science?,” is a case in point.

As an environmental scientist with two advanced degrees from Stanford University, I agree that parents have a responsibility to help protect the most vulnerable members of society, especially young infants, from potentially fatal diseases like measles. However, as someone who has worked in the field of climate change for the past 25 years and done volunteer scientific research in the field of children’s health for the last five years, I will make two evidence-based observations:

1) The most pressing health problem facing American children today is not measles, but rather the rise in chronic immune system and neurological disorders. Asthma currently affects 9.3% of American children, 25-30% have allergies, more than 10% have ADHD, and over 2% of boys have autism.

American parents should not be mocked for wanting to protect their children from developing these chronic, sometimes debilitating, and often lifelong health conditions. Parents’ concerns for their children’s health and safety is grounded in data, not hype.

2) It is inappropriate to conflate climate change denial and concerns over vaccine safety as comparable examples of the rejection of science. (The fact that resistance to genetically modified foods is increasingly being cited as another example of the rejection of science raises questions about who is really behind this type of argument, but that is a discussion for another day.)

Why are so many parents questioning the official information coming from the mainstream media about autism and its potential link to vaccines? Are their fears based on facts or on emotion?

Let’s take a dispassionate look at what we know and what we don’t about autism:

  1. Autism is caused by improper brain synapse formation: Current government policy is based on the idea that we don’t know what causes autism, and since we do not know the cause there is nothing we can do to prevent it. Thus the best parents can hope for under current Centers for Disease Control (CDC) guidelines is “early diagnosis.” However, the biological underpinnings of autism have become increasingly understood. Autism is caused by improper brain synapse formation due to a chronic state of inflammation and oxidative stress during critical stages of early development. This can occur in utero, postnatally, or both. In the simplest terms, something is happening to dysregulate babies’ immune and detox systems, which in turn affects brain development.


  1. Empirical data shows autism is on the rise: The National Institute of Health’s assertion that the increase in autism is mainly a matter of “better and expanded diagnosis” is wishful thinking at best, denial at worst. This assertion doesn’t stand up to scrutiny of the actual data, as I have shown in a peer-reviewed analysis published last fall in the scientific journal Environmental Health. While there is uncertainty in the true prevalence of autism prior to the 1980s, it was at least a factor of five and probably closer to a factor of 20 lower than today.


  1. Autism is caused by environmental triggers but the government continues to spend most of its money searching for the elusive “autism gene”: Most federal autism funds are devoted to genetic research, even though it is increasingly clear that environmental triggers, acting on genetically susceptible kids, are mainly responsible for causing autism. Further, to the extent that the NIH admits that autism is rising, it blames illogical things like air pollution (despite the fact that U.S. air quality has improved over the past few decades). Are genetics and air pollution appropriate scientific research priorities for a condition that took off sharply in the late 1980s?


  1. The increase in the number of childhood vaccines correlates with the increase in autism: Beginning in the late 1980s, the number of recommended childhood vaccines has increased by a factor of 2 to 3, depending on well-baby visit age. The birth dose of the hepatitis B vaccine, which has been linked in peer-reviewed research to increased autism risk (Gallagher, “Hepatitis B Vaccination Of Male Neonates And Autism Diagnosis, NHIS 1997–2002,” Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health, Part A, 73:1665–1677, 2010), was introduced around 1991. The CDC reassures parents that the expanded schedule contains “fewer antigens” and thus is actually safer than before. However, this is a scientifically misleading argument, on multiple levels, but primarily because it ignores the roughly 3-fold increase in aluminum adjuvants injected into infants. That the steep rise in autism has occurred in concert with the expansion of the childhood vaccine schedule may or may not be coincidence, but the majority of vaccines have not been studied for autism prevalence in children who received them compared to those who did not. Meanwhile, the media continue to ridicule parents, health care professionals, and public figures who question whether it is wise or necessary to give young infants so many vaccines.


  1. Asking whether our packed vaccine schedule might be a trigger for autism is a scientifically plausible question that is not equivalent to climate change denial: The media present climate change denial and concerns that vaccines can cause autism as comparable examples of scientific ignorance. However, evidence for climate change comes from thousands of studies across a wide range of scientific disciplines, from ecology to oceanography to paleogeology. This evidence is rooted in fundamental principles of physics and chemistry involving the absorption of energy by greenhouse gases, and is supported by thousands of ground-based, satellite-based and ice-core derived records from around the world that have documented trends in vital Earth properties such as temperature, rainfall, snow depth, polar ice extent, and atmospheric chemical composition. In contrast, the evidence refuting a vaccine-autism link is based more or less entirely on a limited number of studies from just one scientific discipline, epidemiology, which is rooted in statistical correlations that do not and cannot address underlying biological mechanisms. Further, some of those epidemiological studies originally showed significant associations between autism risk and thimerosal (Verstraeten, 2003) and receipt of the MMR before age 3 (DeStefano, 2004), but were manipulated to make those associations go away. CDC senior scientist Dr. Bill Thompson, who has now become a whistleblower, has publicly stated that he was involved in research fraud on a key MMR study. Thompson’s admission provides evidence that parental concerns about giving MMR too early may not be irrational after all, yet the mainstream media has barely reported on his allegations. They also have not reported that two scientists at Merck are suing the company for exaggerated claims over the efficacy of the mumps portion of the MMR vaccine, falsifying data sets, and destroying evidence.

It is unfortunate that in the current atmosphere of name-calling, the important discussion we could be having about children’s health has been framed by the media in a way that delegitimizes parents’ concerns about vaccine safety and shuts out further dialogue. The conflation of vaccine safety concerns with climate change denial is a cynical and scientifically misleading tactic that seems hypocritical when one recalls that the media for many years helped perpetuate the idea that climate change science was highly uncertain, even “bogus.” The media’s biased portrayal of the issue in years past helped enable inaction on important steps, such as building a clean energy economy, that could have begun decades ago and spared our children and grandchildren some of the burden they now face in coping with future climate disruption.

With respect to vaccine safety, we could be framing the discussion in a more compassionate and constructive way that seeks to spare our children some of the unnecessary health burdens they currently face. What journalists, scientific researchers, medical professionals, parents, and policy makers could be asking is this: Can American medical practices be modified in a science-based and responsible way to minimize children’s risk of developing lifelong immunological disorders while also protecting them from deadly infectious disease?


Related blogs:

Empirical Data Show Autism is On the Rise

New Study: Thimerosal Found to Disrupt Mitochondrial Function

nevison_photoCynthia Nevison, Ph.D., is a research scientist at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Her work focuses on atmospheric and environmental science. She earned her B.S. from the University of California at Berkeley, her M.S. from Stanford University, and her Ph.D. from Stanford University. Dr. Nevison’s current research focuses on numerical modeling of the global carbon-nitrogen cycle in an Earth System Model and the evaluation of trends and seasonal and interannual variability in modeled and observed atmospheric greenhouse gases. A volunteer board member for SafeMinds, Dr. Nevison also has also written/co-written two scientific articles on autism.

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