Just-so Stories: Vaccines, Autism, and the Single-bullet Disorder

Bearman, Peter Shawn

When should we believe in science, especially in scientific explanations of the causes of health, ill or otherwise? One line of argumentation is that scientific evidence based in robust ecological data, supported by previously tested animal or biological models or double- blinded randomized control trials trumps intuition or just plain ‘‘common sense.’’ Another line of argumentation suggests that common sense is a powerful heuristic. For example, we pretty much know that parachutes work to cushion jumps from highflying planes even though there has not yet been a randomized control (RC) double blind study to support this intuition (however, see Smith and Pell [2003] for a counter opinion). Likewise, thousands of people think that Kipling’s (1912) explanation of why camels have humps makes a lot of sense. Recall that Kipling argues that the camel’s summary refusal to be a beast of burden—his ‘‘hmmphh’’— led God to give him (and all other camels) a hump. Yet the weight of scientific opinion suggests otherwise perhaps because the ‘‘hmmphh’’ hypothesis lacks a plausible animal model or biological mechanism (not to mention support from a RC double-blind study). Who needs such models when the phenomenological reality of camels is precisely centered on their orneriness? How far should we trust just-so, common sense accounts of complex phenomena? Why are scientists and ordinary people so driven to embrace single-bullet explanations? What does all this say about trust in science? These are the questions considered in this essay, focusing on the purported relationship between autism and vaccines.


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Social Psychology Quarterly

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Interdisciplinary Center for Innovative Theory and Empirics
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April 24, 2019