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Environmental Studies

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


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.

The 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

Last updated:  5/3/2010


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