First, let’s just get to the links. A recent study, published in Pediatrics, shows no association between thimerosal and autism:
CONCLUSIONS In our study of MCO members, prenatal and early-life exposure to ethylmercury from thimerosal-containing vaccines and immunoglobulin preparations was not related to increased risk of ASDs.
This was apparently a long awaited study. Here are some links with comments about the study by doctors whose blogs I like to read. Their posts might help to understand the study. The first post by Steven Novella explains the background of the study as well. Actually, if you read any of these links, that’s probably the one to focus on. (It’s the shortest and easiest to read.)
And here’s Orac’s take on it.
And here are a whole bunch of other links you can read, if interested. This list is courtesy of Orac. Well, not exactly courtesy. I’ve simply swiped the link to Liz Ditz’s blog from his blog.
While I found Steven Novella’s post very helpful, I was slightly depressed to read his conclusion:
No one study, especially an observational study, is ever very compelling. I don’t think this one new study changes the scientific picture of vaccines or thimerosal and autism. But it is one more study that fails to show any correlation between thimerosal exposure and risk of developing autism or ASD. This comes on top of multiple independent lines of evidence all pointing away from the notion that vaccines or thimerosal are a significant cause of autism.
The scientific community is likely to see this as further confirmation of a lack of association between vaccines and autism – just one more piece of the big picture. The anti-vaccine community is likely to dismiss it as either hopelessly flawed or as part of the conspiracy. In other words – this study is unlikely to change anyone’s mind on this issue.
Sure, maybe not. I haven’t been trying to be a spokesperson for vaccines for very long, so maybe I’m not jaded yet. I’m still sorting out how to talk to people about this issue without offending them or freaking out myself, which is what I’d like to discuss in this post.
Colin gave me some props lately for speaking up on Facebook about vaccines. And well, thanks, but honestly, I’ve screwed up as a skeptical spokesperson a few times, too. It has been really hard to find my voice, and I’ve unfriended two people over this issue. But I think I’ve finally achieved some kind of competence after some trial and error. Here are my basic rules for presenting information without devolving into bad feelings.
1. Give information–links, studies, or what have you–in writing. Email is good. Facebook works. Posting comments is fine. Debating verbally is absolutely pointless for me. I just say, “I can email you some information if you’d like to read it.” I’m not a doctor or a scientist. I’m just a geek who reads a lot about vaccines, so I’d rather let the information do the talking. I am on two mommy support boards, and of course there are tons of woo types on both. Anti-vaccine loons, people advertising amber teething necklaces–oy. It’s tough. Rather than go head to head, I just try to present the facts in writing–other people’s writing.
2. This advice is actually from the moderator of one of those blogs, and I think it’s good, although I balk somewhat at the compromise-like quality of this language. Use “It is my understanding that” or “From what I have read” when presenting information. This kind of toning down of facts does tend to take the emotional charge out of your statements. I think it kind of waters them down, but it pisses people off less, which might make them actually look at what you’re presenting. And in all honestly, it’s just the truth. This is what I have read and understand to be true. To claim any more than that is a little arrogant really. Speaking or writing this way also implies that you’re open to additional information and willing to read and understand more. The moderator was actually posting this information to cut off a thread about homeopathy in which I apparently offended some people by saying that homeopathy doesn’t work. On the sly, many people from the support board emailed me to say thank you for having the “courage” to speak out against the “homeopathic vaccinations” that were being touted by one poster. But these people were too scared to speak up themselves and face the vitriol they might incur. I got more supportive responses than mad responses, but let me tellya’, the mad responses are pretty daunting. People can be super mean, and I don’t enjoy conflict like that. I spoke up because I didn’t want anyone to get a homeopathic vaccination and then have their kid get measles. I felt a responsibility to say something, so I did.
3. This point is my own, and it’s really hard for me, but I’m getting better. Be prepared to walk away from a debate without winning. When you’re posting on blogs or mommy boards, you’re in front of an audience, and I think it’s important to make your point and get the heck out without getting upset. The two boards I post on are for emotional support, so bringing up topics that are polarizing just wrecks everyone’s mood. So I try to make it clear that I’m posting for everyone’s information and that I understand everyone can read and make their own decisions. I do believe that people (like the people who emailed me about my homeopathy posts) are grateful for the information, and I might sway someone who is mostly quiet on the boards. But the regular posters who are all about the woo and the conspiracy theories–meh, it’s best to just respond politely but briefly with links and factual information and leave it at that. Debate isn’t helpful, and people are watching. I try to handle myself politely and respectfully (even if I feel not at all polite or respectful). I suppose it’s a good rule of thumb for many situations anyway, but my point here is that in the end it is probably more persuasive to those who are sitting on the sidelines and reading. At least I hope so.
4. Try to remember when you didn’t have the information either. This one is tough for me, too. I’ve done so much reading at this point that it is almost impossible for me to believe that other people haven’t done the same reading, but they haven’t. A friend with a new baby asked me if I spaced out my shots, and why was there so much autism when there were more vaccinations, and it was all I could do not to scream in frustration. This is a guy from a great school, so why doesn’t he know what’s up? But I took a breath and remembered having a newborn myself and facing all those fear mongering rumors, the terrifying videos of autistic kids on YouTube, the first Google searches that turned up the wackaloon, misguided information–look, that stuff is scary. When I think about it now, it’s actually amazing that I didn’t freak out and do the “alternate schedule.” I live in the epicenter of that kind of thinking. But I have a lot of skeptical friends, so I found the good information and followed the vaccine schedule without fear. (Well, almost. I admit I was somewhat nervous when we went to get the MMR–and I’m embarrassed to admit that now, but that’s where my friends are probably at, too, so it’s good to remember my own twinges of fear.) When I think about how scared I was, it helps me to be reassuring when I say I feel totally comfortable with the vaccine schedule. And it’s better to be helpful and reassuring than to be mind meltingly frustrated that this topic still even comes up. At least, that’s what works better for me.
Any other advice from those of us who are on the front lines of rationalism? I am really hoping that in some small way, I can contribute to my son’s elementary school actually not being at risk for a measles outbreak, which according to an LA Times Article from last year, it is. Vaccination rates have dropped so low that herd immunity is now at risk. Oh California, I love you but you frustrate me.
What do you keep in mind while trying to be a skeptical spokesperson?