A torrid tale of quackbusting in 1920s America sheds light on modern medical scares
By Michael Shermer via michaelshermer.com
Human cognition has a problem — anecdotal thinking comes naturally whereas scientific thinking does not. The recent medical controversy over whether vaccinations cause autism illustrates this barrier. On the one side are scientists who have been unable to find any causal link between the symptoms of autism and the vaccine’s ingredients. On the other are parents who noticed that shortly after having their children vaccinated autistic symptoms appeared. Anecdotal associations are so powerful that they cause people to ignore contrary evidence. In the vaccination case the imagined culprit for autism’s cause is the preservative thimerosal, yet it breaks down into ethylmercury that is expelled from the body too quickly to have a damaging effect (plus autism continues to be diagnosed in children born after thimerosal was removed from vaccines). The story holds power despite the contrary facts.
The reason for our cognitive disconnect is that the brain evolved to be cautious. We favor anecdotes because false positives (believing there is a connection between A and B when there is not) are usually harmless, whereas false negatives (believing there is no connection between A and B when there is) may take you out of the gene pool. Our brains are `belief engines’ that seek connections.
Even in the age of modern science, our faith in anecdotes can make us easy to exploit. Any medical huckster promising that A will cure B has only to advertise a handful of successful testimonials. Enter John R. Brinkley, one of the most notorious medical quacks of the first half of the twentieth century, and his nemesis Morris Fishbein, the quackbusting editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association.
MORE . . .
- Warning: Most Flu Shots Contain Mercury (aftermathnews.wordpress.com)
- Gary Null: Thimerosal – A Serious Reason to Avoid the Flu Vaccine (prn.fm)
- 8 Damn Good Reasons Not to Get the Flu Shot (real-agenda.com)