Are vaccines safe? It's a question that is on the mind of many parents. Yet answers to this seemingly simple inquiry are often murky and elusive. Most newspaper and magazine articles do little but provide more confusion to it all, and misinformation campaigns are rampant. We've read dozens of articles, and we're frustrated to find that very few, if any, seem to address the sources behind all the confusion. So we wrote this article in hopes that it does a little better in outlining to everyday parents exactly what the controversy is all about.
Searching for Patterns
We must start the discussion by exploring the psychology of the concerns. Our brains are programmed to remember those times when something appears to be correlated much better than we remember times when it isn't. Humans also have a strong tendency to look for patterns where none exist. No debate about vaccines and the potential side effects can even begin without first addressing these two natural human thought flaws. They serve as the basis for separating randomness from cause and effect.
Millions of children in the U.S. get vaccines every year and don’t develop autism or other side effects. Yet we quickly dismiss or forget such evidence and instead pay attention to those children who had vaccines and ended up developing autism or some other serious condition along the way. We remember such cases better. Our brains process the information better. This is what is known as confirmatory bias. If we're sitting in our house thinking about a friend, when at that very moment they happen to call, we're quick to notice such an event and attribute it to premonition. Yet we fail to remember all the times when we’re thinking about someone and they didn't call, because it wasn't a memorable event. Random events are remembered more when they confirm our beliefs or result in novelty, while random events which are meaningless are quickly discarded, thus skewing perceptions and causing us to find patterns that aren't really there.
Vaccinations or not, thousands upon thousands of kids in the U.S. are going to fall ill tomorrow due to normal environmental causes. Inevitably, some of the thousands of kids who are destined to fall ill will have just received a set of vaccinations. Therefore it can seem like there's a correlation between the vaccinations and illness, when in reality the correlation is nothing more than two random events beside each other. Since virtually all children receive immunizations, some children who develop conditions (or whose parents for the first time notice those conditions) are going to develop them (or notice them) around the time when they get vaccinated . . . something that, as you probably know, occurs at numerous times throughout childhood, offering several opportunities for chance coincidences.
In fact, it would be statistically impossible for there NOT to be seemingly powerful associations that would leave some parents absolutely convinced that their child was sickened or harmed by the shots. This is why most scientists and doctors are skeptical of some of the various adverse events reported. If a child gets vaccinations and then gets sick, it's easy to say that the vaccination caused the sickness. But correlation doesn't necessarily equal causation.
So does this mean all the fuss over vaccinations is all just one big mix-up caused by our tendency to try and find patterns where none exist? Not necessarily. Knowing this thought flaw, and knowing that we all have a tendency to do this, and understanding that this is probably providing a great deal of the worries, is just a necessary starting point for the debate. Now let's explore the controversy:
Let's start out with the easiest vaccine-related myth to debunk: the fear that vaccines might cause autism. It's also one of the most widely-discussed questions in the media. It started several years ago when a study with an extremely small sample size claimed to have found a link between autism and vaccines. The study has yet to be duplicated, and all but one of it’s original authors has since rebuked its finding.