"The first principle is that you must not fool yourself--and you are the easiest person to fool." Richard Feynman
In the 18th and 19th century when navigational technology was primitive and shorelines were often poorly mapped, there were "wreckers," people who would set out false signals at night to lure ships on to rocks. Once the ship was helplessly aground, the wreckers would murder any survivors and steal the damaged vessel's cargo.
The days of the "wrecker" is passed but there are still those who use false signals to deceive. Consider how the Dutch painter Hans van Meegeren (1889-1947) could fool art experts and make himself a fortune by "finding" (forging) hitherto unknown works by the Dutch master Vermeer.
The trick: Meegeren knew that art experts use all an artist's known works to determine whether a newly found painting was done by the artist in question. So once a forgery has been authenticated by a single expert it becomes part of the data used by other experts to judge whether a given painting is a real Vermeer or not. The forged painting with its style and technique now becomes part of the "real" body of Vermeer's work and it makes the next forgery more likely to be accepted as real.
In our personal lives, we work like art experts in that we use our whole set of understandings and beliefs to determine whether something is believable or not.
So, if we have been duped into believing something not true, our ability to judge has been rendered less effective when confronted with other dubious matters. Philosophers call this "poisoning the well." (George, 2017)
An example of well-poisoning with more directly dangerous (and potentially fatal) consequences may be found in the case of a gastroenterologist named Andrew Wakefield who, along with twelve colleagues set out in 1995 to make a lot of money by creating a company "Carmel Health Services, Ltd." that would diagnose a condition they had invented called "autistic enterocolitis." In 1998, the group with Wakefield as lead author published a small clinical study that announced the "new" disease (autistic enterocolitis) and also purported to find that there was a possible link between it and vaccination with the MMR (mumps, measles, rubella) vaccine. Wakefield's company would make lots of money by diagnosing the new ailment which you will have noticed was "discovered" before the study was conducted. (Deer, 2011)
Even though the study was based on a small (n=12) sample of children and had no control group, and its conclusions were highly speculative, it was widely publicized and caused "MMR vaccination rates to begin to fall because parents were concerned about the risk of autism after vaccination." (Rao and Andrade, 2011)
The work of a journalist named Brian Deer had tracked down the real story by careful investigation. (Deer, 2011) Deer's work resulted in Wakefield's co-authors withdrawing their names from the article and eventually causing Wakefield to lose his license to practice medicine. Further, the study has been thoroughly discredited by a very large number of research studies so that both physicians and parents can be confident that when children receive the MMR vaccine they are not being placed at risk of autism. (Jain et al., 2015)
But the story doesn't end there.
Wakefield has since moved to Texas where, while he no longer practices medicine, he appears regularly in settings "calmly discussing his work" in front of admiring audiences.
One reporter witnessed him at a meeting in a local church where as "they passed by a whiteboard with a message that asked attendees to express their thoughts to Wakefield. Many complied with lavish thanks: 'We stand by you!' and 'Thank you for the many sacrifices you have made for the cause!' When he finally took the podium, the audience members, mostly parents of autistic children, stood and applauded wildly." (Dominus, 2011)
As with Meegeren, even a superficially convincing falsehood about MMR vaccine has poisoned the well as shown by the development of an "anti-vaxx" movement in which parents risk the very real dangers of measles because they fear a phony one.
In a study of a database of 1.9 million social media posts contributed by 40,056 users and viewed some 20 million times, researchers identified a narrative framework in which "it is taken for granted that vaccines and not vaccine preventable diseases which pose a threat for children...because vaccines are seen as a threat, parents focus on sharing successful strategies for avoiding them, with exemption being foremost among these strategies...when new parents are exposed to this endemic narrative framework in the threads they read and to which they contribute...it may influence their health care decision making. (Tangherlini et al, 2016)
And it apparently does according to data from the Texas Department of State Health Services "measles vaccination coverage in certain Texas counties is dangerously close to dropping below the 95% coverage necessary to ensure herd immunity and prevent measles outbreaks."
According to Dr. Peter Hotez at the center of the resistance to vaccination is the Texans for Vaccine Choice that uses Wakefield's "outspoken views and writings" as the basis of advocating that parents seek to exempt their children from immunization. (Hotez, 2016, p. 2)
Deer, B. (2011). How the case against the MMR vaccine was fixed. BMJ, 342. doi:10.1136/bmj.c5347
Deer, B. (2011). How the vaccine crisis was meant to make money. BMJ, 342. doi:10.1136/bmj.c5258
Dominus, S. (2011). The Crash and Burn of an Autism Guru. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/24/magazine/mag-24Autism-t.html
George, A. (2017). Poisoning the Well. New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/27/opinion/our-forger-in-chief.html
Hotez, P. J. (2016). Texas and Its Measles Epidemics. PLoS Med
PLoS Medicine, 13(10), e1002153. doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.1002153
Rao, T. S. S., & Andrade, C. (2011). The MMR vaccine and autism: Sensation, refutation, retraction, and fraud. Indian J Psychiatry
Indian Journal of Psychiatry, 53(2), 95-96. doi:10.4103/0019-5545.82529
Tangherlini, T. R., Roychowdhury, V., Glenn, B., Crespi, C. M., Bandari, R., Wadia, A., . . . Bastani, R. (2016). ‚“Mommy Blogs,” and the Vaccination Exemption Narrative: Results From A Machine-Learning Approach for Story Aggregation on Parenting Social Media Sites.
JMIR Public Health and Surveillance, 2, e166. doi:10.2196/publichealth.6586
Dr. John Holton
Dr. John Holton joined the S²TEM Centers SC in July of 2013, as a research associate with an emphasis on the STEM literature including state and local STEM plans from around the nation.