On Feb. 15, McGill’s department of psychology hosted “Critical Thinking and the Vaccination Debate,” a forum designed to present a range of topics and case studies to help students critically analyze the issue. Dr. Amir Raz of McGill’s psychology department set the stage for a highly contested debate on autism and its presumed causal link to vaccination, with attention to the research, evidence, and social and historical factors that affect the debate.
The forum was part of a regular McGill psychology course taught by Dr. Raz, called “Critical Thinking: Biases and Illusion,” which aims to make information as comprehensible as possible, opening the floor to critical thinking by allowing students to question information that is popularly accepted as truth.
One featured speaker was Dr. Brian Ward, a professor affiliated with the Research Institute of the McGill University Health Centre, who offered his biomedical perspective in a discussion on common vaccination myths and realities. Ward gave an historical overview of successful vaccination stories, drawing upon statistical evidence to make claims in favour of vaccinations’ accomplishments.
“The risk of vaccines is contextual. You have to think of them in terms of relativity,” Ward said. “Context changes with the epidemiology of the disease.”
The event’s second speaker was Seth Mnookin, a former investigative journalist, writer, and lecturer at MIT. Mnookin recently published a book called The Panic Virus: A True Story of Medicine, Science, and Fear, in which he explores the controversies over vaccines and how people decide what counts as truth.
“I don’t think there is any type of evidence that is going to convince true believers [that vaccines don’t result in harmful childhood development] … you cannot un-scare the fear that has already been instilled,” Mnookin said.
Dr. Raz added that there is still no precise definition available for autism, no genetic marker, and no way to consistently and effectively detect and diagnose children younger than six months old. Since standard immunizations can be given to children as young as two months of age, the coincidence of development has led to the appearance of a correlation between autism and vaccination.
“One of the most common errors … as a scientist, in the press and the general media, is the confusion between correlation and causation … unfortunately our intuition can lead us astray,” Dr. Raz said.
Because of limited public knowledge about autism, a family member of someone diagnosed with autism can be intimidated by the disease. This perspective must be taken into consideration to gain a better understanding of the vaccination debate. Dr. Raz suggested that families struggling with a child’s onset of autism may jump to conclusions and seek alternate answers in hopes of understanding their situation.
“When the stakes are high, people are much more likely to jump to conclusions, and that’s just a psychological fact,” Dr. Raz said.
“If there is no answer scientifically, people will look to alternative sources,” Dr. Ward added.
According to Mnookin, it is difficult to remain objective when faced with these emotional and compelling testimonials.
“[The] majority of the actors in the drama … are acting with the best of intentions—parents who reverently believed their children were harmed,” Mnookin said.
Discussions ended on a positive note, as speakers offered pragmatic advice for improving how we gather and interpret information. Both speakers emphasized the need to help individuals and families harmed by vaccinations, to work toward improving the overall safety of vaccines, and to promote widespread use of vaccines as a primary component of health care and, according to Dr. Ward, a fundamental human right.
In his closing statement, Dr. Ward described what he feels is at stake for the world of biomedicine in this debate.
“We are losing ground … the society we live in is losing confidence in vaccines. We have to meet these challenges with science and passion,” he said. “We have to find a way to get back at least a little bit of this magic.”