How Many People Need to Experience Something for That Something to Be True?

I think I need to start this blog post by clarifying something that several people have failed to understand when reading what I write or listening to me talk about the so-called “vaccine-autism connection.” I don’t have any children, so I don’t know what it is like to be a parent. My parent-like experiences range from helping mom raise my younger brother, to looking out for nieces and nephews, to looking after quadrupeds around the house. I’m sure raising my own child will be a far more challenging task than any of these things. I’m also sure that it will not be easier if The Child™ has special needs. So I am in no way stating that parents of autistic children have an easy go of it, or that they are lying or making things up.

So quit it with the letters to employers and the school claiming that I’m making fun of autistic children or their parents.

Recently, a district attorney in Texas has become the newest darling of the anti-vaccine crowd by claiming that his child became autistic shortly after the child’s MMR vaccine at 18 months of age:

“We had a very normally developed child, meeting all the marks as a child—walking, eye contact…and after his 18-month vaccination we had a very different child… And our story is not alone. I mean, there’s thousands of parents out there that have the same story. So my opinions are just my opinions as a daddy, as a husband who happens to be the DA.”

Yes, this story is repeated over and over again, particularly by anti-vaccine parents. (I’ve heard of very few non-anti-vaccine parents claiming this about their autistic children.) One particular parent, who is very active in anti-vaccine circles, can’t keep his story straight on when his child “caught” autism. But, him aside, do these many parents claiming a similar story mean that there is something there? In essence, is there fire because there’s smoke? Is there are river over the hill because you hear water running?

We humans are funny creatures. Our memories are very fallible, and we tend to say that X caused Y if X came before Y, whether or not X is at all associated with Y. If we see lightning, we expect thunder. If we hear thunder, we find ourselves surprised if we didn’t see lightning. And, if we see a flash outside in the rain, we start counting in expectation of the thunder. That’s just what we do.

lightning_plane
Aaaaaaah! 1 Mississippi… 2 Mississippi… Aaaaaaaah!

The National UFO Reporting Center has received 3,498 reports of UFOs through August of 2016. Does that mean that we’re being visited by aliens from other planets, or beings with advanced technology from an alternate dimension, or time-travelers who are toying with us, or the Government is up to something with some fancy aircraft? No. All that these reports tell us is that there have been that many observations by people, observations of something up in the sky that cannot be explained.

To explain it, we can use science. We can analyze video and photographs and determine what was really seen. For example, thousands of people saw a set of lights over Phoenix in 1997. Many of those people were convinced that there were alien spacecraft floating over a major American city then. Through careful and scientific analysis of the evidence, we now know that these were military aircraft. An astronomer looked at the lights through a telescope and saw the aircraft, something not a lot of people then wanted to know:

“That night Mitch and his mother, Linda, were in the backyard and noticed the lights coming from the north. Since the lights seemed to be moving so slowly, Mitch attempted to capture them in the scope. He succeeded, and the leading three lights fit in his field of vision. Linda asked what they were.

“Planes,” Mitch said.
It was plain to see, he says. What looked like individual lights to the naked eye actually split into two under the resolving power of the telescope. The lights were located on the undersides of squarish wings, Mitch says. And the planes themselves seemed small, like light private planes.

Stanley watched them for about a minute, and then turned away. It was the last thing the amateur astronomer wanted to look at.

“They were just planes, I didn’t want to look at them,” Stanley says when he’s asked why he didn’t stare at them longer. He is certain about what he saw: “They were planes. There’s no way I could have mistaken that.”

He was so certain, his mother didn’t bother to look in the scope herself. And she thought nothing of it until the next morning when she heard radio reports that hundreds of people had thought they had seen something extraterrestrial. That day at work, she told her fellow Honeywell employee and amateur astronomer Jack Jones what her son Mitch had seen in the telescope.

When Barwood made her appeal and the story began to appear in local newspapers, Jones attempted to let people know of Stanley’s sighting. He called Richard de Uriarte, reader advocate at the Arizona Republic, as well as Barwood, directly. To both, Jones said that a local amateur astronomer had examined the lights through a large telescope and had seen that they were airplanes.

Jones says both promised to have someone call back who would take down his story and contact Mitch Stanley.

Neither one did.”

Because it’s perfectly human to want to believe. But how were they planes when everyone saw them flying low and with no sound? The story continues:

“But whose planes were they? Sightings place the group north of Prescott about 8:15 and south of Tucson by 8:45. That’s 200 miles in 30 minutes, which suggests an air speed of 400 miles per hour. Many witnesses swear that the group was moving slowly and was near to the ground, perhaps as low as 1,000 feet. But from the ground, such naked-eye estimations–particularly of shapeless lights–are unreliable. If the group seemed to go only 50 miles per hour when it was really going about 400 mph, the group must have been very high indeed. Such is the stuff of simple physics. Some quick trigonometry based on Holthouse’s memory of the group’s angular speed suggests a height of 6,000 feet. Other witnesses claim that the group seemed so slow as to have almost no angular speed, which suggests a much higher altitude (and might explain why no sound was heard on the ground).

Mitch Stanley’s sighting jibes well with witness reports that the configuration of the lights changed over time. In Prescott, for example, witnesses claim that one of the lights trailed the rest. Such evidence supports the claim that the lights were separate objects rather than one large craft.”

But, come on, they had to be aliens, right? No, they were a bunch of planes, and illusory contours made them look together like one big spacecraft. But we want to believe.

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It’s all fun until someone gets probed.

This is pretty much the case with the “thousands” of parents reporting a sudden onset of autism in their children occurring “immediately” after the administration of a vaccine. If Andrew Wakefield had committed his fraud with the Tdap vaccine instead of MMR, odds are that these parents would be reporting this transition in their children shortly after the Tdap instead of the MMR. If he had committed his fraud with the Hepatitis B vaccine, odds are that these parents would be reporting this transition in their children since birth. (And some do, by the way… They really do claim that their newborn wasn’t born autistic until the Hepatitis B vaccine was given. Figure that one out.)

However, through careful and scientific analysis of the evidence, we have found no link between vaccines and autism. By “we,” I mean scientists, epidemiologists, health care providers, etc. Researchers in different academic settings, working for different pharmaceutical companies (companies that compete with each other), working for different governments, and working in different parts of the world. None of them has found a link between vaccines and autism. Unless we’re all getting paid millions of dollars to cover up the truth, there really no link between vaccines and autism.

Look, I’m not denying that there are plenty of parents who notice a change in their children’s development around the time that their children get their childhood vaccines. Absent everything else, these two events (vaccines and autism diagnosis) would seem to be causally related events. But autism (and immunology) are very complex things. Our brains are very complex things. The world is very complex. And our understanding of that world requires an understanding of very complex systems. So I’m not surprised that it can get so confusing.

The universe is a really big place, too. It stands to reason that there is life out there, somewhere. So it doesn’t surprise me that we want some of that life to find its way to us. We want to believe… We don’t want to be alone. And, like so many parents of autistic children, we want answers and we want to be right.

It’s what we humans do.

I'm a doctoral candidate in the Doctor of Public Health program at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health. All opinions posted here are my own, of course, and they do not necessarily reflect the opinions of my school, employers, friends, family, etc. Feel free to follow me on Twitter: @EpiRen

6 thoughts on “How Many People Need to Experience Something for That Something to Be True?

  1. In my day, I’ve seen plenty of UFO’s, indeed, while being on military airfields, some were of interest in those operating said airfields and flights sent out to investigate a visual and radar contact.
    Upon which, they became identified flying objects of entirely earth borne design, usually, civilian or military aircraft that were flying in unexpectedly and didn’t pop up on the IFF system for a variety of reasons.
    I’ve also witnessed what appeared to be a hovering object, but was actually a distant city whose lights were being reflected by a distant inversion and carried over the horizon to us.
    On a few occasions, I saw a UFO that, well, officially remains unidentified, as its existence was a military program vehicle that remains classified. Heh, some, the observation remaining classified, while the aircraft itself no longer is classified. Yeah, things get weird in classified data land, even an openly reported news report can remain classified and speaking of it lands one into very serious trouble.

    I can neither confirm or deny my very existence, whether in this place, no place or even of this universe… 😉

    As for the rest, people automatically see patterns, whether those are valid patterns of nonsense that the brain mistakenly recognize, one such phenomenon is pareidolia.
    Hence, the butterflies in the clouds, Jesus’ face on toast and even that familiar face that disappears in a crowd.
    With all of the processing that goes on within the wetware, it’s amazing more errors don’t creep in!

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