Thursday, April 21, 2011

News Brief: Portrait of an Ostracized Autism Theorist

Emily Clark

A timely piece addresses the life behind that scientist who, with one research project, initiated a cascade of controversy about whether there was a vaccine-autism link. While the medical establishment has repeatedly discredited Andrew Wakefield’s scientific integrity, revoked his medical license and retracted the original 1998 article from the Lancet, he continues to hold a curious position of power. Journalist Susan Dominus visits Wakefield in his adopted state of Texas and witnesses the way he holds sway over families impacted by autism. It is an interesting transformation that she describes from a man who once was a respected physician and researcher to one who is seen in the media as a fraudulent, slippery and unethical appropriator of science for profit, yet who sees himself as a martyr. The image she paints is one of a man devoted to his theories like a preacher is devoted to his beliefs, and who dismisses scientific scrutiny in favor of faith. Wakefield is widely blamed for the current decline in vaccine rates and for scaring parents away from immunizations without adequate evidence. It is easy to see how he’s been able to hold this position in the eyes of someone who has seen autism develop in a child. He presents an absolute certainty and trust in the idea that “parents know best”. This is something they often don’t feel like they get from visits to doctors. As one mother professed, “I think that validation is all that parents want - just that someone is taking the symptoms that we report and looking at them to see what we can do about it.” The incidence of autism in children is creeping up nationwide, and without a definitive treatment or any evidence about what parents can do to protect their children, the fact that Wakefield is able to defend his theories just enough to convince parents that he is onto something has huge implications.

Reference: Dominus, Susan. “The Crash and Burn of an Autism Guru” New York Times. Web. Apr 20 2011.

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