[Don’t] Trust The Narrative

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The truth of a story is not proportional to our investment in it.  The Marvel Cinematic Universe, for example, is a movie franchise worth nearly 23 billion dollars and has no basis reality other than locations.  And still, despite being complete fiction, people are obsessed.  We treat the characters as if they’re real, repeat their lines, cosplay to participate in the fantasy, and it does seem that many would rather be lost in this exciting world of make-believe than live their actual lives.

It is really interesting how outside observers of religions (other than their own) have no difficulty dismissing the beliefs and practices.  The claims of L. Ron Hubbard, or Joseph Smith, or Muhammad ibn Abdullah aren’t all that compelling to non-adherents.  I mean, come on, riding through the sky on a horse with a woman’s head and the tail of a peacock sounds more like a crazy acid trip than something to take seriously, right?  But for this raised in an Islamic country, this makes more sense than Trinity or resurrection.

I’m quite certain that the Biblical narrative, whether Genesis or the Gospels, would have been far less believable had I not been indoctrinated as a child.  I mean, it made sense to me then.  My parents and every other respectable adult that I knew held to this belief system.  It would actually be rather strange had I rejected this outright.  It was only later that the vast differences between even various Mennonite sects, and facing challenges to my assumptions, that I even knew how to question.

Of course, this doesn’t make those raised outside of organized religion any more rational.  Secular ideas, like Evolution and Global Warming, have taken on their own narrative framework, similar to religion, that far exceeds the actual evidence.  Not all of the gaps can be explained by Natural Selection.  And climate apocalypticism has strange similarities to the “end times” prophecies common with many caught up in Evangelicalism.  Al Gore is basically Harold Camping with corporate sponsorship.

Most of these narratives can’t be entirely falsified.  The decades and decades of dire predictions from climate alarmists haven’t come true, yet they keep moving the goal posts, even making claims in contradiction to those prior, and the next generation of conscientious young people are none the wiser.  Likewise, the doctrines and practices of traditional religions evolve and get twisted every which way, to the point that you can’t get people raised in the same denomination to agree.  

The strangest thing is how these various movements never die even when their claims are falsified.  For example, the Seventh-day Adventists arose from the false Millerite prophecy that Jesus would return on October 22, 1844.  The date came and went without event.  But, despite this Great Disappointment, some who saw their central claim proven false still regrouped and continued on their way again.  Perhaps the investment made was too much to simply give it up?  

It’s sort of like I don’t expect the “believe science” midwits to ever comprehend how many times the experts get it wrong or reconsider.  They’ll probably go on praising Dr. Fauci as a saint even after the puppy experimentation scandal, even after the NIH now admits to funding of gain-of-function research, and probably because it would cause too much discomfort to consider that their trust may have been misplaced.

It takes a boatload of evidence to overturn these narratives we have built up in our minds.  Bad ideas, like Marxism, even if they fail miserably in one place, are often recycled and reintroduced.  At the same time, credit for plain luck is given to whatever a person wants to have credit.  A boom economy, with the President you voted for, and it is obviously a product of wise leadership, right?  The sun came up right after you prayed?  Must be the grace of God.

All religion, all political ideologies, the trust we have in certain institutions or people, is part of our embracing narratives.  Whether you believe vaccines cause autism or ended Polio depends more on who (or what) you accept as an authority than the actual evidence.  Past narratives might seem irrational to you, like the idea that autism was caused by “refrigerator moms,” yet made complete sense to many influential and intelligent ‘scientific’ people at one time.  Those who go against the currently popular ‘expert’ consensus can expect persecution.

All this to say that we aren’t as good at discerning truth as we imagine.  In many cases what we believe is nearly as much fiction as Captain America fighting against Hydra.  It isn’t just the conspiracy theorist kooks buying into narratives despite evidence to the contrary, we all do, we all believe a blend of religious propaganda, political indoctrination, and out-of-context or unqualified facts stitched together, and much of it as absurd as the narratives we reject.

Amish Lies: I read it on the internet…, part 2

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I was not planning to do a blog about immunization and autism.  However, an article posted by a social media friend, along with comments from US Senator Rand Paul made recently, prompted my response.  The article makes two claims about Amish, immunization and autism (presented in questions) in the title; and both claims turn out to be false. 

Claim: Amish Do Not Vaccinate

It seemed plausible at first brush, especially given that this small Christian sect mandates an austere lifestyle and rejects many modern conveniences, that they would also not vaccinate.  However, I have an advantage in that I know some Amish people.  But, more significantly, I have a sister (Dr. Olivia K. Wenger, MD) who led a study on Amish and their attitudes towards vaccinations. 

The research of Dr. Wenger and her colleagues, although addressing primarily the opinions of Amish parents about vaccinations and not vaccination rates, is sufficient to disprove the idea that Amish do not vaccinate.  This is some of what they found:

“Among 359 respondents, most (68%) stated that all of their children had received at least one vaccine, and 14% of those surveyed said their children had received no vaccines.”

Amish, in fact most who responded in the study cited above, do vaccinate.  So the idea that Amish do not vaccinate is a myth and lie.  That false claim alone is enough reason to dismiss any other claim found in the article, but in case you are unconvinced, I will address the other claim in the title as well.

Claim: Amish Do Not ‘Get’ Autism

The anti-vaccination article claims there are only three known cases of autism amongst Amish people.  Again, I could’ve accepted this as valid, but mostly because there’s a strong possibility of autism being undiagnosed in this community that is as insular and closed as the Amish community.

However, this too was easily refutable despite no studies directly addressing the topic.  I found research, by Dr. D. Holmes Morton, MD and others, that triples the number of cases of Amish children with autism symptoms:

“In March 2006, Drs. Kevin
Strauss, Holmes Morton and others documented 9 autistic Amish children, which could raise the autism rate of Lancaster Amish community Olmstead supposedly investigated to almost 1/5,000 all by themselves.”

So, both claims are untrue based in readily available evidence.  Unfortunately stories like this are posted as true over and over again by those who are anti-vaccination or sympathetic.  It is soaked up as proof of a link between autism and vaccines, yet it is demonstrably false information.

If your primary cause is truth, then carefully vet your sources!

As a believer in individual freedom, religious liberty and one who is respectful of conscience, I am doubly offended by articles like this.  Quite frankly I am embarrassed to see these types of spurious claims circulated by those associated with my political leanings and religious faith.

Yes, opposition to vaccinations crosses political and religious lines, but is often a topic of conversation amongst my Libertarian and Christian peers.  That some of them regularly repeat this sort of thing as legitimate or present it without question is a source of serious frustration for me.  It does a disservice to even good questions about vaccinations.

Nothing is gained by linking falsehoods to what is true.  If anything, people who are not ignorant of science will ‘throw the baby out with the bathwater’ and reject all that is associated with the falsehood.  In a world awash with information, why should they waste time on a source that lied to them once and/or doesn’t carefully vet their sources?

“Do not spread false reports.”  (Exodus 23:1a)

I realize not everyone is a scientific or critical thinker.  I myself struggle with the discipline required for serious research and that is part of the reason I would not make a career of it.  That said, we do need to take responsibility for the information we disseminate online and owe others our due diligence verifying claims with reliable sources before repeating it.

Sadly, anonymous articles with sensational headlines garner more attention than these unsung heroes who are actively creating solutions for sick Amish children.  There are sources far more reliable than an article that does not even include the name of the author.  Professionals like Dr. Morton and Dr. Wenger have dedicated their careers to studying Amish genetics and medical disorders. 

Footnote: I cite secondary sources for the research of Dr. Wenger and Dr Morton, but if you want to read the original studies, the links are below:

Underimmunization in Ohio’s Amish: Parental Fears Are a Greater Obstacle Than Access to Care

Recessive symptomatic focal epilepsy and mutant contactin-associated protein-like 2.