Losing faith in science: the rhetoric of denialism in the autism/vaccines debate
In the last few
centuries, “science” has become almost cultural shorthand for
culturally-accepted, peer-reviewed fact.
Scientists, as seekers of knowledge of everything from the inner
workings of our bodies to the furthest reaches of our universe, are held to an
incredibly high standard by the general public; as a species, we rely on scientists
to provide objective, unbiased, untainted data about the way the world works,
data which can then be parsed and transformed into meaningful, useful
applications for peoples’ daily lives. In
short, scientists are the gatekeepers of knowledge to the rest of humanity. But over the years, there have been times
where both science and scientist were ostracized, ridiculed, and even
ignored. Galileo Galilei famously
suffered the wrath of the Catholic Church for publicly claiming that the earth
revolves around the sun. In a similar
vein, years of study on evolution in both its natural and social forms were
challenged by religious fundamentalists who believed that evolution could not
exist simultaneously with the Christian creation story, since the Bible was the
infallible word of God. Global warming,
too, has been challenged by individuals and interest groups, and has seen public
support for its existence drop considerably over the last decade.
In each of these
cases, resistance has not come from some alternative, scientifically-based theory,
but instead through the rhetoric of the institutions with the most to lose if
such claims were to become generally accepted.
The Catholic Church, long the ultimate authority on matters both earthly
and divine, faced the possibility of losing its legitimacy if some aspect of
the Bible proved to be untrue, as did modern-day fundamentalists, who theorize
that creationism or intelligent design are the true causes of nature’s
resilience and dramatic diversity. Similarly,
business interests have the most to lose if any serious action was ever taken
to try and reduce global warming, as such action would likely result in
increased regulation of their carbon output.
Such organizations as the US Chamber of Commerce have framed the
argument against global warming in economic terms, using rhetoric that
emphasizes the potential economic impact of such potential policies over the potentially
catastrophic environmental consequences if scientists’ predictions were ever to
come to pass.
This same invocation of rhetoric over evidence
can be seen in the debate over the supposed link between vaccines and
autism. Unlike the previous examples,
however, the anti-vaccine movement is not trying to maintain any form of the
status quo. As the autism incidence rate
has dramatically increased over the last few decades, people have been looking
for any way possible to try and explain it.
In this regard, science has failed.
There is no known cause for autism, no known treatment, and no way of ensuring
complete prevention. So in 1998, when
one British scientist claimed to have discovered a link between a ubiquitous
vaccine and an increased incidence of autism, people took notice. But even though his claims were later refuted,
they remain the only explanation anyone has ever received as to how their children
might have become autistic. Therefore,
rhetoric has remained one of the few ways concerned citizens still have to
engage with the public on this issue.
purpose of this study is to examine the role of rhetoric in this very
current debate. By examining both the types of rhetoric used in
this debate as well as its content, it may yet be possible to determine
why people believe what they believe, even when faced with overwhelming
scientific evidence to the contrary.
"Syringe", by Andres Rueda