A possible tipping point in this trend came last week in the Hannah Polling case, in which the government conceded that:
In sum, DVIC has concluded that the facts of this case meet the statutory
criteria for demonstrating that the vaccinations CHILD received on July 19,
2000, significantly aggravated an underlying mitochondrial disorder, which
predisposed her to deficits in cellular energy metabolism, and manifested as
a regressive encephalopathy with features of autism spectrum disorder.
Therefore, respondent recommends that compensation be awarded to petitioners
in accordance with 42 U.S.C. § 300aa-11(c)(1)(C)(ii).
Many have trumpeted this as a turning point in the battle to prove that vaccines cause Autism (See this link for militantly anti-Vaccine Web site). John McCain also endorsed the idea (see earlier post and this link). There is, fortunately, plenty of solid response posts to the Polling case and the McCain issue, including a well-done round-up of the Polling case from Respectful Insolence (post here via Instapundit and Volokh Conspiracy).
My question is how did we arrive at this point? There is a growing body of science which disputes the vaccine connection and there a fair amount of circumstantial evidence that Autism has genetic origins. Why are we still debating this?
There are numerous factors, but one major factor is that there is a credibility gap in science and medicine. It's related to the old cliche that "Friends come and go, but enemies accumulate." People have a long memory for scientific failures, but a short memory for achievements. The ravages of science and technology receives the most attention while the staggering achievements of science and medicine as run-of-the-mill or possible curses in disguise.
There have been major failures. For instance, the science of child-birth and breastfeeding in the mid-20th century was woefully wrong, misguided, arrogant, and sexist. In the case of breastfeedingm, it took modern medicine only a single generation to nearly wipe-out a practice that had been very successful for millions of years. Fortunately, better science has prevailed and breast-feeding is now mainstream. But, that is the beauty of science, better science will prevail.
Skeptism about science has been exasperated by poor science reporting, poor marketing, and poor decision-making in the private sector, including hype surrounding the often contradictory science of nutrition (eggs are bad for you, eggs are good for you), the prevalence of anti-bacterial products and over-sanitation, and the botched introduction of genetically-modified foods.
While these failures have cost lives and injury, caused environmental degradation, and caused general confusion, they should not overshadow the achievements of science. Before the advent of modern science, infant mortality was high, life expectancy was lower, many people succumbed to diseases which have been wiped out. We have made amazing strides in these areas and we are on the cusp of many, many more. This is an unequivocal societal good.
I think few people feel this way. Many people believe that science is co-opted by profit and greed, that we were better off when we were "closer to the Earth," and that they can find better answers and treatments from the alternative or peripheral community. The problem with investing emotional and mentally in the alternative community is while they provide a correct every once in awhile, they far more often led people down a false path. For every Dr. Bradley, there are far more Dr. Nicks. Many studies are not peer-reviewed, or when they are disputed, the scientists behind them continue to promote their views despite the evidence. True, good, and well-done science can be proven wrong and will yield to even better science. Somehow, poorly done science on the periphery seems to linger. For this, there is not yet a vaccination.