An unhealthy skepticism
Los Angeles writer Amy Wallace knew there would be blow back when she wrote a story for Wired magazine debunking the idea that autism is caused by childhood vaccinations. But she didn’t imagine anything like this.
Two weeks after the story hit the Internet, the e-mail keeps flowing. A majority voice support for “An Epidemic of Fear: How Panicked Parents Skipping Shots Endangers Us All.” But at least one in five disagrees. Many seethe with indignation. A few sling vile names and veiled threats.
The rebuttals bristle with epidemiological jargon, screeds about risk and anguished testimonials of struggling with autistic children. But there is also another thread.
“They will say, ‘Who do you think you are to tell me?’ or ‘Who does the government think it is to tell us what is best for public health?’ ” Wallace told me this week. “They say, ‘You can’t know my child like I know my child.’ ”
Wallace has run smack into an abiding, perhaps growing, phenomenon of the Internet Age: Citizens armed with information are sure they know better. Readers who brush up against expertise believe they have become experts. The common man rebels against the notion that anyone -- not professionals, not the government and certainly not the media -- speaks with special authority.
Where it stops, nobody knows. But already we see a wave of amateurs convinced they can write a pithier movie review, arrange a catchier song, even assess our planet’s shifting weather conditions, better than the professionals trained to do the job.
Unhappy with the scientific consensus that man’s activities have exacerbated global warming? Then just find and promote the academic naysayers. Or merely post your personal musings: “Climate change, bah, there’s a foot of snow on my lawn.”
“What’s happening is a general crisis or challenge to authority and you see it in mainstream media, in politics, in law, in medicine,” says Andrew Keen, a cultural critic and author of “The Cult of the Amateur.” “More and more people challenge the traditional meritocracy both in philosophical terms -- is the meritocracy just? -- and also by doubting what its real benefits are.”
The rise of computer literacy, high-speed Internet connections, blogging and social networks has emboldened the common man to tell his own story and, sometimes, to disdain trappings like a university degree, professional training or corporate affiliation. The citizen activists often frame themselves as truth tellers fighting against an establishment that is hopelessly venal. No matter that the corruption, routinely claimed, is seldom supported by more than innuendo.
Wallace faced accusations that she was naive, ignorant, un-American or a shill for the pharmaceutical companies.
Her often anonymous accusers aimed their venom at a reporter who spent more than three months interviewing dozens of people for a 7,000-word piece that -- like many stories in an impressive career that included a stint at the Los Angeles Times -- betrayed no bent other than a healthy curiosity.
Wallace’s piece did something brave but not atypical for traditional journalism: It delved into a complex and emotionally charged subject with nuance. It presented the best state of current knowledge while acknowledging that true science does not traffic in absolute truths.
The fact that 12 epidemiological studies have found no link between the measles/mumps/rubella vaccine and autism might seem probative to some. But failing an ironclad conclusion, Wallace writes, many parents are more persuaded by anecdotal evidence, numerous tales of children first exhibiting signs of impairment at about the same age -- 18 to 24 months -- that they received vaccines.
Correlation is not causation, any scientist will tell you. But that hardly relieves the anxiety of parents trying to cope with children who aren’t exactly what they were expected to be.
None of this suggests the public should abandon a healthy skepticism toward even well-credentialed authorities. Pharmaceutical companies, with colossal missteps like the dangerous medication Vioxx, have earned suspicions about their motivations.
But there’s something incongruous, as Wallace’s piece makes clear, about an Internet-driven audience easily convinced of the drug companies’ unending duplicity but seemingly unconcerned about the motives of the salesman hawking autism “cures” such as vitamins, enemas and infrared saunas.
The writer profiles Philadelphia pediatrician and vaccine inventor Paul Offit as a champion of science, but the piece makes clear how hard it is for such a traditional researcher to compete for attention with a movement that now has its celebrity spokespeople, the actor Jim Carrey and his partner Jenny McCarthy, whose son is autistic.
The rejection of professional authority has reached an extreme when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, stung by the controversy, has dropped from its immunization panel an array of infectious disease experts.
Vaccinations foregone put not only those individual children at risk but clear the path for infectious disease to spread more easily. That’s not a great outcome, whether we’re collectively battling the measles or this season’s H1N1 flu.
“You can’t minimize your individual risk,” Wallace writes, “unless your herd, your friends and neighbors, also buy in.”
Keen makes abundant sense when he argues that people who have worked hard to gain expertise can’t so easily, and passively, cave in to “the wisdom of the crowd.” He believes experts -- in the media, science, law -- need to drop their “false, almost suicidal, humility.”
Won’t there soon be a time when more of the public embraces not only the vast advances in information but the experts who help bring it all into more clarity?
“It’s great that people can find out more than they ever could before,” Wallace said. “But it seems it will make trusting in experts even more important. More than ever now, we need help sifting through the torrent.”
On the Media also appears on Fridays on Page A2.