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Today on On the Media, an NPR program, there was a story about the falsified British “study” that linked childhood immunizations and autism.  The story is timely because this week the British Medical Journal completed an extensive investigation into this “study” and concluded that the study WAS A FRAUD.  And yet, after a decade of no convincing evidence of a link, the panic remains and vaccination rates are down.  Seth Mnookin, author of The Panic Virus, explained why it’s so hard to dislodge misinformation and fear.

Despite the fact that there is no evidence supporting a link between childhood immunizations and the onset of autism, immunization rates are down.  And that has life and death consequences.  In 2010, there were 10 children in California who died of whooping cough, a disease against which children and adults can get immunized.  None of these children were immunized.  A couple years ago, there was a measles outbreak in California that cost millions of dollars to contain.

In the radio program, Mnookin points to the different impact a mother who honestly believes her child’s autism was caused by a childhood vaccine has, as opposed to a new caster (or Oprah Winfrey) reading a statement from the Centers for Disease Control (a “faceless bureaucracy”).

Two things in the radio program really caught my attention.

The first is the notion of “balanced” news/media presentations on a given subject.  In an effort to seem “fair and balanced,” news media present “both sides” of the case – doctors who have scientific studies that show there is no link between vaccinations and autism on one side and parents who believe there is a link even though they have no evidence on the other side.  This is simply bad journalism.  But we see it all the time.  For instance, even though something like 98% of scientists who have studied the data agree that humans are causing global warming, the news media include “the other side,” someone representing the remaining 2% of scientists who are in the pockets of big oil and coal.

The second thing that caught my attention was this exchange that takes place about seven and a half minutes into the story:

Interviewer:  [The bigger issue is] the willingness of human beings to accept as truth what there is no evidence for.  There seems to be some human impulse to explain complicated or painful or unknowable things in easy terms that snuggly fit into some preconceived world view.…

Mnookin:  … It even goes beyond people being willing to believe things for which there isn’t evidence.  It’s people willing to believe things … for which there is evidence against it.

This immediately got me thinking about religious faith.  Do people believe in God simply out of an impulse to explain our complicated world?

I believe in God.  Why?  What evidence do I have that God is real?  Well, I don’t have any scientific evidence.  I have personal experiences when I have felt connected to something transcendent, something bigger than myself, something loving and pure and whole.  I call these events experiences of God.  But they are internal experiences, experiences that are real to me but that were not (as far as I know) measurable or reproducible.  So, as a person of faith, I’m okay with people accepting as truth things for which there is no supporting scientific evidence.

I’d like to point out that I also have no scientific evidence against the existence of God, either.  If such evidence existed, then I’d say that belief in God is a problem, because I agree with Mnookin – there is a problem with people believing as truth things that evidence suggests are simply not true.

Mnookin goes on to say:  One thing you see going on now is it’s much, much easier for people to construct their information intake in a way that insures that they don’t receive any views that contradict what they already think …

Perhaps even more dangerous than people believing things that scientific evidence shows are not true is people so constructing their information intake that they don’t even hear differing view.

If you have a differing view, I encourage you to leave a comment.  And I encourage you to listen to this story.



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