Monday, July 16, 2007

On modern superstitions

Dr Andrew Wakefield and two of his colleagues are facing disciplinary action over their conduct related to the study that purported to show a link between the MMR vaccine and autism. From what is alleged, this seems entirely appropriate.

One thing I'm not sure about, though, is the way the MMR scare was used by various commentators as an example of a modern anti-science superstition. It may well be that for many this was indeed the case - I wouldn't know. But doesn't it show a mistrust in government, rather than science - and post-BSE, was this entirely irrational?

I had my son vaccinated for the following reasons:

1) The weight of scientific evidence disagreed with Dr Wakefield.

2) I was swayed by the argument that autism was detectable around the time infants get vaccinated so many people were confusing causation with correlation.

3) I knew a friend of the family had not had her daughter vaccinated, yet she still developed autism.

I'm not sure my reasons were impeccably rational. On point 1), I didn't actually read any of the research, on the grounds that I probably wouldn't have been able to understand it even if I had. Point 2) shouldn't be decisive, I wouldn't have thought - and point 3) was irrelevant - yet it had an impact on my decision-making.

Thing is, I was like most Scots - who showed themselves more likely than either the English or the Welsh to have their children vaccinated. It may be - but I doubt the difference here has anything to do with Scots being more 'pro-science' or rational than our friends south of the border.

Another example of modern irrationality that's sometimes used is people playing the National Lottery. Not convinced by this either. I'd agree it's irrational to think you're likely to win, or that the numbers you've chosen have some kind of magical properties. But playing it, in and of itself, isn't that irrational, is it? The odds are extremely high, obviously - but then the stake is extremely low. It's more a lack of imagination that's the problem, I reckon. People purchase a ticket and enjoy fantasizing for a short while about what they would do with all the dosh if they won. I just take it a stage further and imagine I've bought a lottery ticket.

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