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Vaccines, Balance and Unraveling the Mind

September 29th, 2010 by Jessika

(Photo by Andres Rueda via Flickr)

Every week we are bombarded with words. Whether it’s readings for school, work, pleasure or just to stay on top of current events. This week the majority of my reading related to school. But I must say the articles and book I read held my attention, taking me to places and things I hadn’t thought about.

A nurse stuck me with a needle; a reporter grappled with the concept of balancing both sides of a heated topic; and the human mind revealed just how complex and unique it is.

So, let me at least attempt to show you some of these places and things.


Last week I sat uncomfortably on an examining table, the fresh sheet of butcher paper crumpling under my rear. My annual check up had gone fine so far. I now had to wait for the doctor. When she came in, she greeted me with a smile, and we awkwardly exchanged pleasantries. But before too long, we got down to business. One of the first “business” items she mentioned was about a vaccine.

“There has been an outbreak of pertussis,” she said, recommending that I get the vaccine, which incidentally also guards you from tetanus and diptheria.

I thought I would have a choice in the matter. But before I knew it, the nurse came in and gave me the shot.

Several days after the pertussis shot, one of my teachers assigned “An Epidemic of Fear” by Andrew Zuckerman as class reading. This article immediately brought back my needle-sticking memory from earlier in the week. The article was about vaccines, particularly one doctor’s fight against the anti-vaccine movement.

Paul Offit, a pediatrician who developed a rotavirus vaccine called RotaTeq, has been demonized by the leaders of the anti-vaccine movement for his stance on vaccinations, and especially for his book Autism’s False Prophets: Bad Science, Risky Medicine, and the Search for a Cure.

The anti-vaccine movement has gained popularity in the last few years because of advocates like Jenny McCarthy, a former Playboy model and television personality whose son was diagnosed with autism. She blames his autism on vaccines.

What I liked the most about this piece was not that it attempted to discredit the anti-vaccine movement, but rather that it humanized the anti-vaccine movement’s devil, Offit, making him really seem like not such a bad guy. The writer made it a point to mention that Offit lives in a modest home with his wife and kids and two Toyota Camrys. This picture does not seem to fit McCarthy and other advocates depiction of him as a money-grubbing doctor, taking millions in payouts from the pharmaceutical companies. Though, it is possible he has a stash of Mercedes or far grander houses elsewhere.  In addition, the article mentioned that Offit doesn’t necessarily think all vaccines are good. In fact, he would even consider not vaccinating his children if a vaccine was unsafe.

I also found the discussion about the consequences of not vaccinating your children fascinating. Clusters of unvaccinated kids could lead to outbreaks of diseases that were once virtually eradicated. Enter pertussis, also known as whooping cough, and the nurse who stuck me with a needle. The article even suggests that a pertussis outbreak last year was because the kids weren’t properly vaccinating. After reading this I wondered if the current outbreak is because of this. Is the latest rash of whooping cough cases because the children’s parents didn’t want to vaccinate them? My guess would be yes. But that would only be a guess, because I haven’t heard anything in the news linking the most recent outbreak to vaccines.

My parents made me get all of my vaccines as a kid. I remember sitting at vaccination clinics with hundreds of crying kids. Though I am not a parent (unless you count my dog, who incidentally does get vaccinated), I would have to wonder if the risks of vaccinating outweigh the risks of not vaccinating. I understand how anti-vaccine parents could make the connection between autism and vaccines. But I also understand that there is a lot of research out there that doesn’t link the two. More research needs to be done. This is a good example of how a small group has blinded science.


That brings me to the next article. “Blinded By Science” by Chris Mooney takes a look at the idea of balance in science reporting. Should journalists give equal credence pseudo and fringe science as it does to traditional science? Should journalists feel obligated to mention that wacky point of view for the sake of mentioning the other side?

Last fall, I took a class called Media and Society that grappled with this issue. The professor on multiple occasions would present us with a scenario. “If you are writing about evolution, should you also include something about creation?”

To many, the answer to that question was unequivocally no. Why would you give credence to an idea that argues the world is only 6,000 years old when science has shown that it clearly is billions of years old? Creationism has nothing to do with evolution and there is no reason to give credence to it. Despite my thinking on the matter, there are many other people who think an article about evolution should mention creationism.

This idea of balance has many consequences. Not only does it give some credibility, no matter how small, to fringe beliefs, but it also makes scientists wary of reporters. Why would a scientist trust a reporter if she know the reporter will mention that some people believe global warming is a sham?

Mooney quotes Stephen Schneider, a Stanford climatologist as putting the dilemma this way, “…A climate scientist faced with a reporter locked into the ‘get both sides’ mindset risks getting his or her views stuffed into one of two boxed storylines: ‘we’re worried’ or ‘it will all be okay.’ And sometimes, these two ‘boxes’ are misrepresentative; a mainstream, well-established consensus may be ‘balanced’ against the opposing views of a few extremists, and to the uninformed, each position seems equally credible.”

While Schneider deals primarily with reporters on climate change, his words ring true for many other topics.

In an effort to look fair and balanced to readers, reporters are actually doing readers a disservice. Reporters should dare to be one sided. We have an obligation to our readers, not to fringe beliefs.

Unraveling the Mind

A few weeks ago, I began commenting on a book I had started reading, Human The Science Behind What Makes Your Brain Unique by Michael Gazzaniga. Well, I have now finished that book and am now compelled to write about it again.

In my last response to this book, I left off with the vivid image of scientists fighting over a bone like dogs. So, I though it fitting to start with another fantastic image. Hershey’s Kisses. Gazzaniga describes pyrimidal cells, or dendrites, as Hershey’s Kisses with hairs sticking out from them. This description made me think of the old Hershey’s Kisses commercials with rows of Kisses moving to music. While I don’t think the Hershey’s Kisses in our brain quite move like the dancing ones, Gazzinaga definitely got his point across, evoking an image that stuck with me to the end of the book (his description came toward the beginning). I will always remember that dendrites, brain cells that form columns of cells, look like one of my favorite candies.

Not all of Gazzaniga’s descriptions worked, however, to create such vivid images, and I often found myself turning the page in the hopes of finding a diagram of the human brain or a comparison illustration of a human vs. a chimp brain. My mind at times got lost in much of the jargon, and I found my head swimming in a sea of words, a sea that left most words just out of reach.

However, I did find myself particularly intrigued (and understanding!) Gazzaniga’s exploration of the moral compass within. Gazzaniga lists a set of moral intuitions: suffering, reciprocity, hierarchy, coalitions and in-group/out-group bias, and purity. He looks at each of these concepts and applies them to evolution. How are each of these intuitions adaptively beneficial?

For example, the ability to recognize pain and suffering in other people and animals allows is a good adaptation for a mother raising a child, because this recognition would increase the child’s chance of survival. Disgust, the human reaction that protects purity, also helps increase the chance of survival. We are disgusted by food that’s gone bad or people that look sick. This disgust leads to avoidance, preventing us from getting sick from that moldy cottage cheese.

This breakdown of basic human intuition really made me think. And it kind of wanted me to look at all of human behavior under the lens of adaptive advantage. How would our perceptions of each other and the world around us change if we looked at things on a purely biological level?

As an undergrad, I remember sitting in one of my biology classes, listening to the professor talk about animal mating displays and rituals. He also broke humans down to this level, citing the need to look good for the opposite sex. The application of makeup and dressing well for a date at their basest can be seen as the human equivalent of a mating ritual. As he said this, I remember a sort incredulous silence fall on the room. How could we be just like other animals?

Gazzaniga’s book breaks us down to evolutionary terms. At the same time, though, he makes it a point to reveal aspects of the human brain (the larger left side of the planum temporale, for example) and human behavior (disgust) that make us unique. So, no matter how similar we are to other animals on an evolutionary level (i.e. our behaviors developed from the biological need for reproductive success and survival), we are very different in how we have adapted.

For one thing, we have developed artificial intelligence, AI. I can’t think of any other animal developing computers and robots. Many would argue AI is not in fact intelligent, but the day may come when robots do exhibit human traits, like thinking, feeling and moving on their own. I must admit, though, that this thought is kind of scary. Images from the Will Smith movie AI come to mind.  Would our creations one day turn on us? The answer to that question is predicated on the development of such a robot. Perhaps  one day something will blur the line between man and machine. Until then, though, I am happy with the Roomba.

AI may come in a different more powerful form, however. It may come in the from of gene therapy. Gazzaniga writes about the possibility of being able to control the negative and positive traits humans express. Some therapy’s are already beginning to do this. For example, the book mentions the successful treatment of a few immunodeficiency diseases using somatic gene therapy to replace the defective DNA with good DNA. The possibilities of this technology are exciting. We may one day be able to cure many diseases this way. At the same time, though, this is very frightening. Gene therapy in the wrong hands could lead to horrendous results. (Think about the Nazis and eugenics.) Should we really be tinkering this much with our DNA?

Arguments on both sides of that question would make valid points. But whether or not you agree with gene therapy, it will continue to happen just like the development of AI and the discoveries we make about the human brain. The future holds so many possibilities. We will have to wait and see how the evolutionary cards unfold.

2 Responses to “Vaccines, Balance and Unraveling the Mind”

  1. When you have a child who is born healthy, robust, and meets all milestones and you watch them get sick directly after vaccination….then sicker after the next round….and yet sicker after the next round…until finally after the next round you lose them into another world, it becomes quite obvious to the parent. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist…just a mother watches her child slip away. This is the ‘New Autism’ meaning yes, some children are ‘born’ with classic autism, but the new 600% increase in ‘autism’ is medical. Most of our children have autoimmune encephalopathy, metabolic encephalopathy, measles encephalopathy and many other ‘side effects’ or ‘reactions’ to the vaccine…autistic symptoms are just a result of that injury to the immune system.

    As for Offit-he does directly benefit and profit from his vaccine. He is NOT a doctor. He is an entrepreneur. Should he drive a lexus or BMW to make him more credible to the public? Unfortunately, I will not be able to convince you or the majority…that is fine. You won’t get it unless it happens to you. It is not just Autism we are speaking of…the increase in Altzheimers, MS, Childhood Cancer, Juvenile Diabetes, Chronic Fatigue….it all can be traced back to viral (live viruses in vaccines) or the preservative used in them (nuerotoxins).

    The good news is our children are recovering…because it isn’t AUTISM (can’t recover from). FYI-Jenny’s son doesn’t have autism anymore. My son doesn’t either, but he has to get a monthly 7 hour 6K IV to fix the damage done to him by the pharmaceutical company. They are money makers…

    Google Hanna Polling-her family just won 1.5 million from the gov’t and an estimated 20million over her lifetime. They conceded that her mitochondrial disorder (aka Autism) RESULTED from vaccines but that vaccines did not cause her autism. They will never admit it w/o playing these semantic games because it would cost zillions of dollars to admit they are wrong and they would lose zillions from not selling their vaccines.

  2. jrwalsten says:

    Thanks for your comment Kersten! I really do appreciate it and what you have to say. I do not have children of my own, and I am by no means and expert on either vaccines or autism. My response to “An Epidemic of Fear” came from what I know. But I am more than willing to learn more.