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ON THE MEDIA / JAMES RAINEY Childhood vaccines, autism and the dangers of
group think Amy Wallace deftly delved into an emotionally charged topic for
Wired magazine. The strong critical response to the story is a troubling
sign.

James Rainey

November 4, 2009

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Los Angeles writer Amy Wallace knew there would be blow back when she wrote
a story for Wired magazine debunking the idea that autism is caused by
childhood vaccinations. But she didn't imagine anything like this.

Two weeks after the story hit the Internet, the e-mail keeps flowing. A
majority voice support for “An Epidemic of Fear: How Panicked Parents
Skipping Shots Endangers Us
All.”<http://www.wired.com/magazine/2009/10/ff_waronscience>But at
least one in five disagrees. Many seethe with indignation. A few
sling vile names and veiled threats.

The rebuttals bristle with epidemiological jargon, screeds about risk and
anguished testimonials of struggling with autistic children. But there is
also another thread.

"They will say, 'Who do you think you are to tell me?' or 'Who does the
government think it is to tell us what is best for public health?' " Wallace
told me this week. "They say, 'You can't know my child like I know my
child.' "

Wallace has run smack into an abiding, perhaps growing, phenomenon of the
Internet Age: Citizens armed with information are sure they know better.
Readers who brush up against expertise believe they have become experts. The
common man rebels against the notion that anyone -- not professionals, not
the government and certainly not the media -- speaks with special authority.

Where it stops, nobody knows. But already we see a wave of amateurs
convinced they can write a pithier movie review, arrange a catchier song,
even assess our planet's shifting weather conditions, better than the
professionals trained to do the job.

Unhappy with the scientific consensus that man's activities have exacerbated
global warming? Then just find and promote the academic naysayers. Or merely
post your personal musings: "Climate change, bah, there's a foot of snow on
my lawn."

"What's happening is a general crisis or challenge to authority and you see
it in mainstream media, in politics, in law, in medicine," says Andrew Keen,
a cultural critic and author of "The Cult of the Amateur." "More and more
people challenge the traditional meritocracy both in philosophical terms --
is the meritocracy just? -- and also by doubting what its real benefits
are."

The rise of computer literacy, high-speed Internet connections, blogging and
social networks has emboldened the common man to tell his own story and,
sometimes, to disdain trappings like a university degree, professional
training or corporate affiliation. The citizen activists often frame
themselves as truth tellers fighting against an establishment that is
hopelessly venal. No matter that the corruption, routinely claimed, is
seldom supported by more than innuendo.

Wallace faced accusations that she was naive, ignorant, un-American or a
shill for the pharmaceutical companies.

Her often anonymous accusers aimed their venom at a reporter who spent more
than three months interviewing dozens of people for a 7,000-word piece that
-- like many stories in an impressive career that included a stint at the
Los Angeles Times -- betrayed no bent other than a healthy curiosity.

Wallace's piece did something brave but not atypical for traditional
journalism: It delved into a complex and emotionally charged subject with
nuance. It presented the best state of current knowledge while acknowledging
that true science does not traffic in absolute truths.

The fact that 12 epidemiological studies have found no link between the
measles/mumps/rubella vaccine and autism might seem probative to some. But
failing an ironclad conclusion, Wallace writes, many parents are more
persuaded by anecdotal evidence, numerous tales of children first exhibiting
signs of impairment at about the same age -- 18 to 24 months -- that they
received vaccines.

Correlation is not causation, any scientist will tell you. But that hardly
relieves the anxiety of parents trying to cope with children who aren't
exactly what they were expected to be.

None of this suggests the public should abandon a healthy skepticism toward
even well-credentialed authorities. Pharmaceutical companies, with colossal
missteps like the dangerous medication Vioxx, have earned suspicions about
their motivations.

But there's something incongruous, as Wallace's piece makes clear, about an
Internet-driven audience easily convinced of the drug companies' unending
duplicity but seemingly unconcerned about the motives of the salesman
hawking autism "cures" such as vitamins, enemas and infrared saunas.

The writer profiles Philadelphia pediatrician and vaccine inventor Paul
Offit as a champion of science, but the piece makes clear how hard it is for
such a traditional researcher to compete for attention with a movement that
now has its celebrity spokespeople, the actor Jim Carrey and his partner
Jenny McCarthy, whose son is autistic.

The rejection of professional authority has reached an extreme when the
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, stung by the controversy, has
dropped from its immunization panel an array of infectious disease experts.

Vaccinations foregone put not only those individual children at risk but
clear the path for infectious disease to spread more easily. That's not a
great outcome, whether we're collectively battling the measles or this
season's H1N1 flu.

"You can't minimize your individual risk," Wallace writes, "unless your
herd, your friends and neighbors, also buy in."

Keen makes abundant sense when he argues that people who have worked hard to
gain expertise can't so easily, and passively, cave in to "the wisdom of the
crowd." He believes experts -- in the media, science, law -- need to drop
their "false, almost suicidal, humility."

Won't there soon be a time when more of the public embraces not only the
vast advances in information but the experts who help bring it all into more
clarity?

"It's great that people can find out more than they ever could before,"
Wallace said. "But it seems it will make trusting in experts even more
important. More than ever now, we need help sifting through the torrent."

On the Media also appears on Fridays on Page A2.

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Twitter: @latimesrainey

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