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Anti-Science Trends at Mid-Decade

Behavior & Belief

Stuart Vyse

January 23, 2015

I recently had the opportunity to revise a chapter I contributed to the 2005 book Controversial Therapies for Developmental Disabilities: Fad, Fashion, and Science in Professional Practice.[1] A dizzying array of unsubstantiated treatments has been promoted to parents of children with developmental disabilities, and autism in particular has been described as a “fad magnet.”[2] As a result, Controversial Therapies has become an important volume for parents and professionals, and a second, updated edition of the book is scheduled to appear in 2015.

While revising my chapter and thinking about the turning of the year at mid-decade, I began to think more generally about the current state of science and pseudoscience. What successes and failures have we encountered in the decade since Controversial Therapies first came out? It seems to me that the results have been decidedly mixed. Here are a few example cases:

The Vaccine Wars

Ten years ago, the vaccine wars were just getting underway. Andrew Wakefield’s fraudulent paper purporting to show a relationship between childhood vaccination and autism was published in The Lancet in 1998, but it was not until the actress Jenny McCarthy started speaking out against vaccination that the movement really got going.

To examine the current state of this phenomenon, I used Google Trends to plot the popularity of a number of search words. The first phrase “Vaccines Cause Autism” produced a rather troubling curve.[3]

Google Trends curves for Vaccines Cause Autism, Jenny McCarthy Autism Figure 1. Google Trends curves for the indicated search terms.

Google Trends does not provide the absolute numbers of searches in these graphs. Instead, the highest number of searches in the series is given an arbitrary Y-value of 100, and the rest of the results are plotted relative to this point. So all you get is a trend line with rising and falling relative values. In addition, we can’t know why people searched the phrase in question. It is entirely possible that people who were skeptical of the vaccine-autism connection and committed to vaccination as an important public health policy were interested in the controversy and searched “Vaccines Cause Autism” out of curiosity. But chances are many of these people Googled for the reason we all Google something: to find out more about it. Many of these searchers were probably done by parents who felt they needed to know more about how “Vaccines Cause Autism.” How did we get to the point where “Do vaccinations cause autism?” is a question large numbers of people think they need to know more about?

Part of the answer comes from the lower panel of the figure above: the Google Trends line for “Jenny McCarthy Autism.” Note the relationship between the two panels. First, despite Wakefield’s study having been out and in the media for years, searches about vaccines causing autism are all but nonexistent until after Jenny McCarthy entered the fray in 2007. Second—and rather discouragingly—the vaccine-autism curve does not taper off like the lower curve. Indeed, despite several recent pro-science victories on the propaganda front, the “Vaccines Cause Autism” searches continue to accelerate.

A recent editorial in the Los Angeles Times celebrated a slight improvement in the immunization picture in the state of California, where large numbers of parents have exercised the “personal belief exemption”[4] to decline vaccinations of their children. But as recently as last summer, the release of yet another discredited study (later retracted by the journal) purporting to show a relationship between vaccinations and autism in African American males led to false claims of a cover-up at the Center for Disease Control (CDC). Furthermore, several organizations and websites continue to promote the idea that vaccines cause autism and other developmental disabilities. Later this month, a day-long gathering of anti-vaccine authors is scheduled at the University of Minnesota, Humphrey School of Public Affairs. So, despite some victories in the effort to better inform the public about vaccinations, the evidence suggests this extremely important battle is far from over.

Genetically Modified Food Fears

The controversy about genetically modified organisms (GMOs) has been simmering since the 1990s, but it seems to have gained steam lately. This is an interesting issue because it is not as clearly one-sided as many others. Without question, we should be concerned about how technological innovations affect the safety of our food supply. In addition, genetic engineering could lead to unwanted effects on biodiversity and the environment. At the moment, the evidence suggests that genetically engineered (GE) foods as they are now marketed are healthy and safe. (See Steven Novella’s recent article in the Skeptical Inquirer.) But views on GMOs are somewhat varied. For example, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS)—an organization with a long history of science advocacy—is critical of current genetic engineering practices. UCS makes the following statement on their website:

Policy decisions about the use of GE have too often been driven by biotech industry public relations campaigns, rather than by what science tells us about the most cost-effective ways to produce abundant food and preserve the health of our farmland.

While acknowledging that the risks of GE crops have been exaggerated, the UCS argues that the benefits of GMOs have been oversold. As a result, among other policies, the UCS supports the labeling of GE foods and changes in patent law that would make independent research easier to conduct.

Meanwhile the more militant anti-GMO crowd remains very active and continues to make dramatic and unsupportable claims of health risks. Monsanto Company, Inc., the largest producer of GE seeds, has emerged as a target of the anti-GMO movement, and well-organized anti-Monsanto protests and marches have become seasonal events. So this topic persists and continues to be rife with controversy and misinformation.

There have been a few bright spots in the effort to address the GMO issue more rationally. Last August, Michael Specter’s profile of anti-GMO activist Vandana Shiva in The New Yorker highlighted her unsupported claims about GE crops and her opposition to the use of GE foods specifically aimed at satisfying the nutritional needs of developing countries in Asia, Africa, and elsewhere. Hunger and poor nutrition remain important issues throughout the world, and although GE technologies alone will not solve these problems, they should not be discarded merely on the basis of ideology and misinformed opposition.

Google Trends graph Figure 2. Google Trends graph for the search term “GMOs.”

The continuing popularity of the GMO issue shows up in the Google Trends graph above. Google searches of the phrase “GMOs” decreased from 2004 to 2009 and remained at relatively low levels until 2011. Since then searches have been on a steep incline, which may be an indication of the success of recent anti-GMO campaigns. In any case, it is clear this controversy is far from resolved and, after a slow build, may be ready to reach new heights.

Global Warming

Global warming has been vigorously debated for a long time, and although there is some cause for optimism, this battle is not over. On the positive side, there are indications that the public is coming around to the idea that global warming is real. In September, a Pew Research poll found that 61 percent of Americans believed the Earth is getting warmer, but fewer than half believed global warming to be a serious problem. Furthermore, the Pew data showed that Americans’ views on this issue are sharply divided on party lines. In comparison to Republicans, Democrats were more than twice as likely to believe that the Earth is warming and that global warming is a serious issue.

Google Trends graph for Global Warming Hoax, Global Warming Myth, Global Warming Fake Figure 3. Google Trends graph for the indicated search phrases. The spike in the “Hoax” line in late 2009 and early 2010 coincides with the Climatic Research Unit email controversy, which was seized upon by global warming deniers as evidence of a hoax.

The Google Trends data for these anti-global warming phrases show a tapering off of searches since 2011, which provides some support for the idea that—with the general public, at least—this issue is losing momentum. Unfortunately, global warming is a strongly partisan issue, and the Republican victories last November added even more climate deniers to Congress.[5] At the state level, one of the top agenda items for several newly more conservative state legislatures is weakening the authority of the Environmental Protection Agency. So, even if the reality of global warming is gradually being accepted by the public, conservative victories all but guarantee that government policy will continue to sacrifice the environment in the name of other interests.

The War of Words

These are just a few of the current anti-science issues we face today, but they lead me to some general observations. First, despite the ample evidence for what Chris Moody calls The Republican War on Science, anti-science views straddle both sides of the red-blue divide. As the Pew data show, global warming deniers are clearly more conservative, but both the anti-vaccine and especially the anti-GMO advocates appear to be coming from the political left.

Second, the chosen villain in all these battles is either big business or big government, but it is interesting to see how these two powerful forces are used in each campaign. For the anti-global warming crowd, big government and its (allegedly) anti-business, jobs-killing, economy-strangling regulations are the problem. For the other two causes, the forces of good and evil are reversed. The enemy is (allegedly) the ruthless money-grubbing barons of big business—Big Pharma in the case of the vaccine wars and Monsanto and other biotech firms in the case of the GMO wars. The role of the government in the vaccine and GMO wars is more nuanced. The anti-vaccine crowd argues that the government is in the pocket of the pharmaceutical industry, and it opposes the federal government’s CDC vaccination recommendations. Meanwhile some anti-GMO groups have looked to the government for solutions. For example, Vermont recently passed legislation requiring the labeling of GE foods.

Finally, motive can be a clue but it is not evidence. In any conflict it is appealing to portray your adversary as an enormous shadowy monolith. But big things are not all bad. (For that matter, bad things are not all big.) GMOs were born of capitalist profit motive, but so was my beloved iPhone. Pharmaceutical companies make large profits, but they also have provided treatments—the same vaccines that are currently in dispute—that have contributed to humans having the longest average life expectancy in the history of the species. Of course, the profit motive can fuel unsavory acts. In my opinion, global warming is the controversy among these three whose rhetoric is most directly affected by short-term business interests. But the mere presence of a profit motive does not prove anything. Similarly, the United States federal government—while not immune to ill-conceived actions—does much good for its citizens.

More troubling than the motives of the combatants are the language and evidence used in these debates. Within science, disagreements abound, but they are typically settled by evidence obtained by widely accepted methods. Replication and peer review are essential to the process, and rhetoric plays little or no role. In the case of the three controversies above, the science is clear: vaccines do not cause autism; as of this moment, genetically modified foods are safe; and global warming should be a serious concern for current and future generations.

Difficulties emerge when scientific debates extend into the general public. In the public square, the rules of evidence and critical thinking quickly fall away—sometimes because these modes of discussion are unfamiliar and sometimes because the interested parties deliberately reject reasoned debate in favor of the often more effective methods of sophistry. Where logic and evidence are weak, rhetorical methods often get the job done. So, the skeptic’s challenge is the same as it has always been. Teach critical thinking. Insist on evidence. Reject rhetoric. The view from mid-decade suggests these things have not changed.


[1] Jacobson, J., Foxx, R., & Mulick, J. (2005).Controversial Therapies for Developmental Disabilities: Fad, Fashion, and Science in Professional Practice. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

[2] Metz, B., Mulick, J. A., & Butter, E. (2004). Autism: A late 20th Century Fad Magnet. In J. Jacobson, R. Foxx & J. Mulick (2005). Controversial Therapies for Developmental Disabilities: Fad, Fashion, and Science in Professional Practice (pp. 237–263). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

[3] All these graphs were produced on December 29, 2014, and the trend lines and X axes are taken directly from Google Trends. To reproduce trend plots approximating these, go to http://www.google.com/trends/ and enter the indicated search terms.

[4] Los Angeles Times (2014, December 23). Finally, the anti-vaccine movement is losing steam. http://www.latimes.com/opinion/editorials/la-ed-vaccine-20141224-story.html.

[5] McDonnell, T. (2014, November 5). Meet the Senate's New Climate Denial Caucus. Mother Jones. http://www.motherjones.com/blue-marble/2014/11/meet-new-climate-denier-caucus.

Stuart Vyse

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Stuart Vyse is a psychologist and author of Believing in Magic: The Psychology of Superstition, which won the William James Book Award of the American Psychological Association. He is also author of Going Broke: Why American’s Can’t Hold on to Their Money. As an expert on irrational behavior, he is frequently quoted in the press and has made appearances on CNN International, the PBS NewsHour, and NPR’s Science Friday. He can be found on Twitter at @stuartvyse.