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Don't look for the facts about vaccines to change beliefs

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Haddayr Copley-Woods
Haddayr Copley-Woods lives in Minneapolis and is a writer, blogger and mother.
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By Haddayr Copley-Woods

When my oldest son was 3 years old, he stepped into my boots and slung my breast pump over his shoulder. 

"Where are you going?" I asked him as he headed for the door.

"Work!" he said. "I'm a mommy!"

"Daddies work, too," I told him.

He scowled at me for this obvious falsehood. "No," he said patiently. "Daddies work at home, taking care of us. Mommies work at a job."

"No, really," I said. "Some Daddies work at jobs, too. As a matter of fact, most do."

My son flat-out refused to believe it, and he became quite angry with me for telling him the truth. 

People are irrational creatures. We believe what we believe, and evidence to the contrary angers us rather than changing our minds.   This phenomenon is described by a group of researchers from Northwestern University, UNC Chapel Hill, SUNY Buffalo and Millsaps College as "motivated reasoning." Because we suffer from uncomfortable cognitive dissonance when we hear information that conflicts with our existing beliefs, we cling even more tightly to our original opinion. We selectively seek out what we can to support our opinion and ignore everything else, even if our opinion relies on shaky logic and suspect data.

My first commentary on MPRNewsQ was about the ways that media report science, and it touched on various topics, including the erroneous connection between vaccines and autism. I received a huge pile of comments on this article. Many of them were from anti-vaccination activists who were doing this "motivated reasoning," linking to flawed papers and ignoring the 20 solidly built, peer reviewed studies that show no link. The responses online and to my personal e-mail address were passionate, and many were incredibly hostile: One woman called me hateful, another expressed the wish that her unvaccinated children might make mine sick.

This phenomenon, and my personal experience with it, is why the recent news hasn't excited me like it should. Yes, The General Medical Council, Britain's medical regulator, has rebuked Dr. Andrew Wakefield -- the doctor who started the incorrect rumor that autism and the MMR vaccine are linked -- for unethical and irresponsible practices. (Among other things, he did not randomize his data, nor did he disclose that he had taken money from anti-vaccination groups.) The Lancet, one of the most reputable medical journals in the world, has retracted the paper in which he made the erroneous link. The Lancet pretty much never retracts papers. This is a big, big deal.

But I am not sure how many minds will change. His supporters will accuse Big Pharma of silencing him through conspiracy. And if you are the sort of person who genuinely believes your kids' immune system will successfully fight off polio without a vaccine, these sorts of revelations are hardly going to make an impact on your opinion.

My only hope is that this censure will influence people who have not yet made up their minds: people who quite rightly distrust the pharmaceutical industry (remember thalidomide?), but who also understand that rumors started by flawed and possibly falsified studies are just that: rumors.  My fear is that the damage has already been done: to our herd immunity, but also to the hearts and minds of people who have just decided to believe the doctor, and their extremely subjective personal experiences, instead of the facts.

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Haddayr Copley-Woods, Minneapolis, is a copywriter, blogger and mother.