Autism, vaccines and public choice

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Kevin Drum points us to the news that Alison Singer, the former spokeswoman for Autism Speaks, has resigned her post over the organization's continued support for research into the discredited autism-vaccine connection:


In general, I disagree with a policy that says, "Despite what this study shows, more studies should be done." At some point, you have to say, "This question has been asked and answered and it's time to move on." We need to be able to say, "Yes, we are now satisfied that the earth is round."

...My feeling is that if there was an unlimited pot of money at the NIH [National Institutes of Health] from which to fund autism science then it would be fine to say let's study it more. But we don't have that. We have very limited resources and every dollar we spend looking where we know the answer isn't is a dollar we don't have to spend where we might actually find new answers. In general, yes, more research is always better than less. But again, we have limited dollars to spend and we have to use our limited money wisely in ways that are likely to yield new information for families.


 I've been working this beat for a while and thus seen how the vaccine issue has played out  across various sectors, including the presidential campaign (during which it spread across the political aisle). But this development is fascinating evidence that private advocacy groups are subject to similar incentives as politicians.


Specifically, Autism Speaks historically has not been one of the groups devoted to anti-vaccine advocacy. (They actually focus on initiatives which are productive.) In fact, the organization's founders famously repudiated their own daughter's anti-vaccine advocacy - the mother of the child who inspired them to start the organization. Yet they were willing to lose one of their top people - who, as shown by the linked Newsweek piece, clearly knows how to use the media against them - rather than disavow a certain agnosticism on the discredited theory.  Why?


Because, in ensuring as much support as possible for their advocacy, Autism Speaks is subject to the same incentives faced by politicians in delaing with well-organized, passionate constituencies for narrow issues: whether to, in the words of Jonathan Rauch, "[v]ote against the lobby and weather a blizzard of hate mail, or vote with it and reap its "Honorary Dairyman of the Year" award." As anyone who has ever written about the subject knows all too well, the supporters of a vaccine-autism link are inexhaustible in their efforts to persuade people to agree with them. But if that doesn't work, they'll settle for constant harassment and invective.  It thus makes sense that Presidential candidates would see the tactical wisdom of appeasing them on the campaign trail, scientifically baseless as the claims may be.  

 

In the past, some pragmatic accomodations have been made to the anti-vaccine forces. For example, one major study was partially designed by the head of SafeMinds, an organization committed to the thimerosal-autism link.  While many observers criticized her inclusion as granting legitimacy to the anti-vaccine forces, it worked out well in the end, as the study showed no such link and the head of SafeMinds was forced to find torturous rationalizations for disavowing the study she had helped design. Fortunately, the position of the anti-vaccine activists has weakened as the contrary evidence has piled up.  Most notably, the Combating Autism Act originally contained a provision authorizing $45 million for directed research into "a broad array of environmental factors that may have a possible role in autism spectrum disorders" (read: vaccines, mercury and other obsessions), but that provision was removed from the final version of the legislation.

 

Finally, for organizations like Autism Speaks that want to speak for as large a population as possible, it also makes sense to try to keep the vaccine-hysterics within the organization's big tent.  In fact, Hal Holbrook's famous maxim "follow the money" is usually used in connection with political contributions (as befits its Watergate origins), but it is much more relevant with respect to organizations who depend on contributions, such as Autism Speaks.  And the Hollywood nitwits who are the noisiest supporters of the nonexistent link between vaccines and autism are invaluable sources of money and publicity, which Autism Speaks and other such organizations need to survive.  Apparently, Autism Speaks was willing to lose one of its key people rather than alienate the Hollywood set, despite the fact that they don't really believe the argument. This should qualify its heads to run for President in the next election. 

 

NOTE: An incomplete version of this post was inadvertently published on January 30.

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Dr. Manhattan

Dr. Manhattan is the pseudonym of a lawyer in New York City who represents, among others, clients in the investment management industry. He started blogging in early 2002, when the entire NYC-based blogosphere could gather in one room (which they often did). In between his frequent retirements, he blogged about politics, baseball, Israel and autism (especially vaccine-related matters) at blissfulknowledge.com. With the regulatory system up for grabs, for this project he has decided to try the novel approach of blogging about matters which bear some relationship to the topics that come up in his day job (within the strict limits of professional obligations, of course). In case anyone was wondering, none of his opinions expressed on this blog are necessarily those of his clients, employer or colleagues.
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