When It Comes To Vaccines And Autism, Why Is It Hard To Refute
July 22, 20195:01 AM ET
Heard on Morning Edition

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For years scientists have said that there is no link between vaccines and
autism. There are still many people who are reluctant to vaccinate. But,
one woman has changed her mind about vaccines.


Scientists have said over and over for years that there is no link between
vaccines and autism. But there are still a lot of people who are reluctant
to vaccinate themselves and their children because they believe there's a
risk, which leads to a question - why is it so hard to refute
misinformation? NPR's Shankar Vedantam has the story.

SHANKAR VEDANTAM, BYLINE: In 2012, when Maranda Dynda was pregnant, her
midwife told her a story that she couldn't get out of her head. The midwife
said that years earlier, something bad happened after she vaccinated her
son - he stopped hitting his milestones. One minute he was fine, she said,
and the next, he was autistic. She said the light had left his eyes. So the
midwife decided not to vaccinate her other children.

MARANDA DYNDA: And she very much implored me to do the same and to look
into it. So I did.


VEDANTAM: Dynda started on Google. It led her to Facebook groups.

DYNDA: It's very easy to find them. So yeah, if you - even if you just
Google, you know, support groups for parents who don't vaccinate, you will
find a lot.

VEDANTAM: The moms in these groups echoed Dynda's midwife.

DYNDA: And they welcomed me with open arms and immediately were just
practically bombarding me with information, telling me, your midwife's
right. This is why you shouldn't vaccinate. This is why I don't vaccinate.
This is what happened to my child who I did vaccinate versus my child who I
didn't vaccinate - things like that.

VEDANTAM: Everyone was caring and attentive. They didn't just talk about
vaccines; they talked about regular mom stuff, things that Dynda found hard
to talk about with anyone else.

DYNDA: Diapers and birth plans and hospitals and midwives and breast pumps
and stuff like that.

VEDANTAM: Dynda trusted them.

DYNDA: To me, it seemed so clear. It seemed like I had just found this
secret information that only some people come across, and I thought, why
would I not use this information?

VEDANTAM: What Dynda was experiencing was something researchers call social

CAILIN O'CONNOR: Social trust is a really important aspect in understanding
how people form beliefs.

VEDANTAM: Cailin O'Connor is a philosopher and mathematician at the
University of California, Irvine. She studies how social networks spread
information and how they shape our core beliefs.

O'CONNOR: No other animal has this ability to sort of transfer ideas and
knowledge dependably from person to person, over generation after

VEDANTAM: Now, you might think, I don't just accept what people tell me; I
look for proof - not so, O'Connor says.

O'CONNOR: Ninety-nine percent of the things you believe, probably you have
no direct evidence of yourself. You have to trust other people to find
those things out, get the evidence and tell it to you.


VEDANTAM: This power that others have to put useful information in our
heads comes with a downside.

O'CONNOR: When you open a door for true beliefs to spread from person to
person, you also open the door for false beliefs to spread from person to
person. So it's this kind of double-sided coin.

VEDANTAM: In December 2012, Dynda's daughter was born. She named her
Ramona, after the song by Bob Dylan.


BOB DYLAN: (Singing) Ramona, come closer. Shut softly your watery eyes.

DYNDA: Ramona, as a newborn, she was very active. She was very bright. She
was a great baby, honestly. She was a wonderful baby.

VEDANTAM: When the doctors said it was time to vaccinate Ramona, Dynda was
ready. She had a script she had been practicing in her head for months.

DYNDA: And I said, no, thank you. I have decided that I do not want to
vaccinate. Thank you very much.

VEDANTAM: Occasionally, she encountered information that conflicted with
her decision - a pamphlet at the doctor's office, a website.

DYNDA: I just very quickly went, that's not true; I don't agree with that.
And I moved on.

VEDANTAM: And that leads us to another thing about deeply held beliefs -
once they form, we defend them. Tali Sharot is a cognitive neuroscientist
at University College London. She studies the phenomenon of confirmation

TALI SHAROT: Confirmation bias is our tendency to take in any kind of data
that confirms our prior convictions and to disregard data that does not
conform to what we already believe.

VEDANTAM: Sharot put this idea to the test in a research study a few years
ago. She presented statements to two kinds of people - those who believe
that climate change was real and those who did not. She found that for both
groups, when the statement confirmed what people already thought, this
strengthened their beliefs. But when it challenged their views...

SHAROT: When we see data that doesn't conform to what we believe, what we
do is we try to distance ourselves from it. We say, well, that data is not
credible, right?

VEDANTAM: As we move through the world, quickly sifting through news
headlines and the flow of information on social media, confirmation bias
gives us a feeling of stability.

SHAROT: However, it also means that it's really hard to change false
beliefs. So if someone holds a belief very strongly, but it is a false
belief, it's very hard to change it with data.

VEDANTAM: So to recap - we tend to accept information from people we trust,
and once we do, we are resistant to changing our minds.


VEDANTAM: Two years after saying no to vaccines for her daughter, Maranda
Dynda began to have doubts about those moms on Facebook.

DYNDA: I started to slowly but surely question in the opposite direction,
and I found other stories online from moms who didn't vaccinate and then
started to.

VEDANTAM: She became immersed in new groups online, and she began to Google
again. But this time, she realized that science had not shown a link
between vaccines and autism. She got her daughter vaccinated and has never
looked back.

DYNDA: Once I did start vaccinating Ramona, nothing happened. She was fine.
She was and still is bright, happy, brilliant and healthy.

VEDANTAM: Most of us think we arrive at our beliefs through logic and
reason. Sharot and O'Connor's work suggests that there are forces that may
matter even more - our feelings, our social networks and our relationships
with other people.

Shankar Vedantam, NPR News.


MARTIN: You can hear more about how people share information both true and
false on Shankar's podcast. It is called Hidden Brain.