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Friday, January 14, 2011

Autism, Vaccines, and the Wakefield Study: III: Why Jenny McCarthy Still Believes

Over the last ten days, two articles by the investigative reporter Brian Deer, published in the British Medical Journal, have shown that the research purported to connect vaccination of children with development of autism was not only incorrectly done, but fraudulent in its conclusions. Are you thinking that True Believers will not be convinced by this information, but will go on believing that vaccination causes autism? Yes, you’re perfectly right.

According to the New York Daily News of Jan. 12, Jenny McCarthy, the Joan of Arc of the anti-vax forces, stated that “this hoopla made us a little stronger, and even more determined to fight for the truth”, by which she meant a connection between vaccination and autism, not Brian Deer’s investigation. (And by the way, thanks to Jane Sarwin of Gateway Maternal Child Health for passing this on to me!)

Why does Jenny say this? How can it be that she’s MORE convinced than ever when she receives information that says Wakefield was wrong? In fact, this is exactly what often happens when the facts contradict strongly-held beliefs. The first real demonstration of this phenomenon was described in a 1956 book, When Prophecy Fails, by the social psychologists Leon Festinger, Henry Riecken, and Stanley Schachter. Festinger and his co-authors studied a cult of UFO believers who were convinced that a flood would destroy the world and they alone would be rescued by a ship from another planet. The psychologists had to infiltrate the group, whose members were secretly preparing for their rescue by giving away their property. Of course, the predicted time arrived, and the world did not end. Most of us would have guessed that the cult members would go home in disgust, after telling the leaders in no uncertain terms what they thought of them and feeling thoroughly embarrassed at having been fooled this way. But no, the opposite was true. The believers became more thoroughly committed than ever and began to publicize their beliefs, to seek converts, and to provide flattering explanations for the failure of the prophecy. Similarly, we can expect Jenny McCarthy and her followers to become more active than ever in their support of Andrew Wakefield’s claims.

Sometimes, thank goodness, people do change their minds when new information shows they have been mistaken. Intensified belief seems to occur only under particular circumstances--- and those circumstances are present for Jenny McCarthy and other Wakefield supporters

The first necessary circumstance is that the belief is deeply held and that it is associated with some real-world behavior; the believer acts in ways dictated by the belief. (This is certainly true of the beliefs about vaccination and autism. Like most beliefs about our children, they involve serious commitment. This belief also dictates not only decisions about vaccination, but spoken and written opinions expressed in public ways.)

Second, the believer must have committed himself by an action that would be difficult to undo. (Public statements of support for the anti-vax cause, leadership in the cause, the collection or donation of money to support that cause-- all these are commitments that are so public and well-known that they can hardly be recanted. At least one person in this group even made death threats against the noted vaccine researcher Paul Offit. )

Third, the belief must be specific and related to real world events, so it’s possible for those events clearly to contradict the believer’s expectations. (This condition is present in the vaccination-autism case, but not in such a clear form as occurred for the UFO group. Understanding the evidence for cause and effect in the present case requires more sophisticated thought than simply noticing whether the earth has been destroyed by a flood.)

Contradictory evidence must occur and be noticed by the believer. (Publicity about Brian Deer’s investigation must be making it almost impossible for anti-vax believers to be unaware of the report.)

Finally, the believer must have the social support of other believers-- if social support is missing, an isolated believer is more likely to yield to the evidence. (Organizations and groups of committed individuals have provided social support to anti-vax believers for a decade and a half.)

As we see, then, the circumstances are nearly perfect for an intensification of anti-vax belief on the part of Jenny McCarthy and others who believe that vaccination causes autism. Paradoxically, the overwhelming case put together by Brian Deer makes McCarthy’s group more strongly biased against vaccination at the same time that it convinces those of us who were neutral or opposed to Wakefield’s claims.
If this seems hard to understand, consider what it would mean to Wakefield believers, what they would need to accept about themselves, if they were to accept the investigative report -- that they have essentially made fools of themselves in public, and that they must therefore be foolish people as well as mistaken; that they have been defrauded by someone they sincerely admired and trusted, and that therefore their judgment is poor; that they have risked their children’s health by mistaken choices and are therefore bad parents. Adopting the belief that the report is a tissue of lies or a fraud perpetrated by the pharmaceutical companies is a far more attractive position for believers to take, and it appears to be the position that Jenny McCarthy will espouse.


  1. But of course it raises the question, if cognitive dissonance causes the opposite reaction from what we want, how can we ever persuade these True Believers? Is what's needed just a tiny contradiction at a time-- and how could that be managed? It's difficult.

  2. Thanks for this! Not only does this explain the continued beliefs of the truly dangerous anti-vaccination believers in the face of evidence, it also explains Primal Wound true believers in adoptionland, as seen on a recent blog exchange on FMF.

  3. " can we ever persuade these True Believers?"

    It's simple. A little child in the crowd needs to yell out, "The emperor has no clothes on!"

  4. I'm afraid that little child would immediately be diagnosed by the emperor as having Reactive Attachment Disorder.

  5. I'll put it on my calendar for about July... not sure which year though.

  6. The "study" doesn't prove that vaccinations don't cause autism. A true study needs to be done to prove or disprove that hypothesis. Furthermore, a lot of people who don't vaccinate don't care one way or the other about autism, but about the other diseases and disorders that have grown as the number of vaccines has grown.

  7. How would you propose to do the study you think is necessary, chittisterchildren?

    And could you fill me in on the disorders other than autism that you suggest result from vaccination?