“Things are seldom what they seem, Skim milk masquerades as cream,” sing two disenchanted characters in Gilbert and Sullivan’s H.M.S. Pinafore. Things are rarely as they seem in the autism wars, where agenda-driven groups with strong, anti-science biases spin unproven claims for credulous ears. Anyone reporting from the front lines needs to be familiar with the science and politics of autism, or risk being duped.
The AP’s Matthew Barakat recently covered anti-vaccination protests outside a St. George’s County courthouse, where a Maryland judge is enforcing a state law which says schoolchildren must be vaccinated against dangerous diseases. The story appeared in the Baltimore Sun and other major news outlets.
Maryland health officials had become alarmed at large numbers of schoolchildren who had skipped some or all of their scheduled vaccinations. It was was one of the strongest efforts made by a U.S. school system to ensure kids receive their shots.
While children received their court-ordered vaccinations inside the courthouse, a noisy throng of demonstrators gathered outside. About one protester, Barakat wrote:
Several organizations opposed to mass vaccinations protested outside the courthouse. While the medical consensus is that vaccines are safe and effective, some parents and researchers believe immunizations are responsible for a rise in autism and other medical problems.
“People should have a choice” in getting their children immunized, said Charles Frohman, representing a physicians’ group opposed to vaccines.
Things are seldom what they seem. Charles Frohman is not a researcher, nor does the “physician’s group” he represents do credible research. Frohman is a paid lobbyist for a fringe anti-vaccine group with the Orwellian name Health Freedom. To Mr. Frohman, this means the freedom to sell untested potions free of health and safety regulations which require conventional medical treatments be proven safe and effective.
Barakat is not the first reporter to be played by a lobbyist, but he could have avoided being duped if he had exercised some basic critical thinking skills by keeping a few simple questions in mind.
First, what is the evidence for the claim? Barakat already knew that “the medical consensus is that vaccines are safe and effective.” That alone makes Frohman’s claim extremely suspect.
Also, what motivates the demonstrators? This is a far more interesting story than the mere presence of protesters on the courthouse steps. Frohman’s motivation is money – he works for a group that wants government out of the way so it can sell suspect potions to an unsuspecting public. But what of the others? What motivates parents’ groups to expose their children to hepatitis and polio and diphtheria?
We already know that the science tells us.