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Losing faith in science: the rhetoric of denialism in the autism/vaccines debate




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Losing faith in science: the rhetoric of denialism in the autism/vaccines debate


    A parent's love for their children can make them do many things.  It can make them jump in a pool to try and save their child from drowning, it can make them work harder than they've ever worked before to earn enough money to provide for their children, and it can even make them reject years of proven scientific efficacy because they're scared to death that their child might one day become autistic.  Such devotion should be seen as admirable proof of that familial bond, but the reality is that too many parents, buying into the fear-inducing rhetoric of the anti-vaccine community, will buy into their claims so completely as to ignore the greater risk: not ensuring their child's inoculation against a very large number of very scary diseases.

    The level of rhetoric used by anti-vaccine groups encourages more than just denialism; it promotes ignorance and distrust of science itself.  A belief in the objectivity and validity of scientific endeavors has long been a cornerstone of Western civilization.  Vaccinations in particular have successfully proved their effectiveness over multiple centuries, so for a sizable social movement to arise in the modern era challenging the worth of vaccinations, especially after the eradication of smallpox, the near-complete eradication of polio, and the drastically-reduced number of measles infections, suggests that perhaps a larger post-fact movement might be the reason.  Such a possibility is too large an issue to examine in a study such as this, but to borrow from Stephen Colbert, it seems as if society is beginning to value truthiness over actual truth. 

    There is little pro-vaccine, pro-science, pro-truth individuals and organizations can do to encourage a more reasoned approach to this situation while simultaneously allowing the (always needed) possibility that somehow, someday, their previously-held scientific facts could be proven wrong.  Public debate of controversial issues has long been an important component of American society, but when the other side remains so... extreme, productive argument often proves impossible.

    In short, denialism as a philosophy among otherwise well-educated individuals is growing.  They believe what they do because part of them feels as if no corporation with the power to manufacture so many vaccines could do so without having some ulterior motive, or because they care so deeply for their children, or because they believe that there is no other way ASDs could have increased so rapidly in the last twenty years.  And it's not a problem with the science.  Denialism now encompasses global warming, evolution, the possibility that the recent Gulf of Mexico oil disaster could have been sabotage... it has nothing to do with the specific scientific facts of any given situation.  Why this is remains unclear, but, to be sure, denialist rhetoric will continue and thrive for years to come.

Measles campaign 17

"Measles campaign 17", by hdptcar

Last updated:  5/3/2010


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