It appears that there is a great deal of consensus today on the idea that a large segment of the population is deficient in critical thinking skills. The funny thing is that I see this opinion espoused by people on all sides of every issue. It even comes from some people I consider to be entirely devoid of critical thinking skills. Apparently, there is no consensus on what constitutes critical thinking. A lot of people seem to believe that “critical thinking” means criticizing the hell out of someone who disagrees with you. It doesn’t. It means examining all sides of a subject and weighing the information you receive to determine what is likely to be closest to the truth, while keeping in mind that no one has the whole truth.
The best place to teach critical thinking – to my mind – is in history class, the one place where it is virtually absent until you get to the college level, by which time most students have dropped it. (For some background on this read Lies My Teacher Told Me, by James W. Loewen.) In recent years, I have become a reader of non-fiction books about history. It turns out that history is fascinating when well-written and well-researched. Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals , about Lincoln’s candidacy and presidency, was eye-opening. Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel reshaped my world view, and helped me to understand the rise of “civilization” in a whole new way, and Patton, by Ladislas Farago, gave me insight into what went right and wrong in World War II, militarily speaking.
What historians do in the course of their work is analyze as many primary sources as possible, and only resort to secondary sources when absolutely necessary. A primary source is a document or physical object which was written or created during the time under study. The reason historians use primary sources such as letters, diaries, and newspaper accounts is because they recount direct experience of the events that are being discussed. Secondary sources interpret and analyze primary sources and are removed by at least one step from the events in question.
Using primary sources tends to give a historian more credibility than using secondary sources. In other words, if you’ve analyzed the original data yourself and done your own thinking about it, chances are good that you have come closer to the truth than someone who is only listening to others’ interpretations of events.
When it comes to the vaccine debate, most of the information the average person encounters will be secondary sources, the mainstream media. The information comes in pre-digested, pre-analyzed chunks. Don’t believe me? My first assignment in Critical Thinking 101: The Vaccine Debate is to find a mainstream journalism account that “debunks” the “vaccine link” to autism. Read the source for what it is, an analysis of the information, not the information itself. Then go to the original – primary – source of the information, usually a scientific study that’s just been released. See if what you read matches up with what the headlines say. If you do this once you may think that it is a fluke that all the articles you can find in the mainstream media get it not just wrong, but very wrong. Do this a number of times and you can come to one of only two conclusions: Either the reporters involved have no understanding of science, or there is a calculated pattern of disinformation going on. Either conclusion will ensure that you never blindly accept a mainstream publication on the subject again.
There is another “primary source” that is frequently utterly dismissed in the vaccine/autism debate: the parents of children with autism. If you read media accounts of people who are questioning vaccines, they rarely give you the parents’ words themselves. They give you an interpretation of those words. Often the interpretation is built on the opinion of someone who gives the appearance of a primary source, such as a doctor or autism researcher. But one of the doctors frequently quoted is Dr. Paul Offit, a man who has never treated a child with autism. He’s an expert on vaccines, not on autism. He cannot be a primary source on the subject of causation of autism. He can only be an interpreter of the information he’s received on autism – an interpreter with a huge built-in bias, but we’ll get to that.
Parents of children with autism, however, are the primary sources when it comes to their children’s autism and its progression. In most cases, they are the people who know those children best and can tell you exactly when things started going wrong. Some will tell you their children have been autistic from birth. Others will tell you, they watched their children regress immediately after their “well-child” visit at the age of one, two, or three, when they received a total of nine, or twelve, or sixteen different vaccine strains in their shots. The mainstream media insists that parents in the first group are correct, and all children with autism have been autistic from birth; the parents in the second group just missed all the signs of autism along the way. I don’t know about you, but I find that a patently ridiculous attitude. Parents, in general, are far keener observers of their own children than anyone else. To arbitrarily dismiss a large number of keen observations, because they don’t fit preconceived notions is unscientific at best. Isn’t it likely that almost all of the parents involved know how autism progressed in their children, the ones who say their child has been autistic since birth and the ones who say their child regressed sometime later on?
Does that mean – instead of blithely dismissing parents’ accounts as “anecdote” – we should automatically trust the accuracy of every word of their account? I hope you know me well enough by now to know that my answer is a big fat OF COURSE NOT. Just as a historian understands that all primary sources, even the eyewitness accounts, come with a bias, or “spin” as Bill O’Reilly would call it (who, rather ironically, seems completely unaware of his own bias), we need to understand that our primary sources will also come with biases that need to be explored to get at the truth of the matter.
Second assignment in Critical Thinking 101 is to first find a story on the vaccine debate and read all the comments, keeping in mind that the story is written by someone with a bias, published by an entity with its own bias (the two often line up, but not exactly), and every commenter will also have a bias. You can usually determine the bias easily enough by the words being used.
It is not enough to just dismiss everyone with a generalized, “We’re all biased,” though. Assignment 2, Part B of the course is to determine the relative credibility of the writer, publisher and commenters. Every historian worth his or her salt has to weigh the credibility of his or her sources. Credibility can be affected by a number of factors: the intelligence of the source, the specificity of the information, willingness to answer a direct question, the tendency of the person to use personal attacks in order to invalidate an opposing viewpoint, the overall level of aggression in the style, and how closely someone aligns to your generally held views can all factor in to your assessment of a source’s credibility. Generally, an intelligent source, who tends to see other things in the same way you do and offers specific factual information that can be checked in direct response to a question without resorting to name calling is someone who should score highly on your credibility meter, while an unintelligent person who attacks anyone who disagrees and offers nothing but sweeping generalizations ought to be at the bottom. But what about those intelligent people, that you agree with on a number of important subjects, who offer specific links to generalized rants, while insulting the intelligence and/or sanity of anyone who disagrees? Or the not-quite-as-intelligent people with whom you don’t agree on anything – abortion, the death penalty, gun control, gay marriage or even campaign finance reform – who offer their specific personal experience while being attacked? Credibility issues are a bit tougher to address in those instances, aren’t they?
Many people metaphorically throw up their hands at this point and give up. They feel that there is no way to tease out the truth, so they go back to where they started because they haven’t found any convincing argument to move them away from their starting point. But that attitude isn’t going to get you an A in Professor’s class. To get to a deeper understanding of credibility, you have to analyze the possible motivations driving the words, and the relative rewards or penalties likely to be accrued for saying them. For instance, when Paul Offit says something like, “A baby’s immune system could actually tolerate perfectly well 1,000 vaccines,” while someone else says, “My baby regressed into autism and a number of co-morbid physical illnesses immediately after receiving the MMR vaccine,” you need to be able to assess their relative credibilities. It might be tempting to cede the floor to the “expert” in vaccines, who is obviously intelligent and can probably spew specific facts at you fast enough that you can’t keep up, but what about his motives for saying this? Should the fact that he’s made millions off a vaccine he invented factor into your assessment? Or how about the fact that he’s made a career out of being the most visible spokesperson for the vaccine industry? What are the possible rewards and penalties for this statement? Well, the potential rewards are pretty high: vaccine manufacturers made $27 billion dollars in profit on vaccines last year. They can afford to make life very comfortable for someone who champions their cause. While the only penalties I can think of is getting a direct question from Jake Crosby now and then, and being called “Dr. Profit” by a small number of people. These facts should be enough to send up a warning flag in your brain not to take his words at face value without delving deeper.
Now what about the credibility of parents who claim the MMR caused their children’s autism? How does that stack up? Well, as noted previously, unless there is something to mitigate it, parents are the primary source on the subject of their own children’s autism progression. Now what is a parent’s motivation for making this claim on a public website? Is it, as some have claimed, millions in vaccine court money? At this point in time, people should understand that very few families will get any vaccine court dollars for injuries that resulted in an autism diagnosis, while most have already shelled out their life savings and many have gone deeply in debt to finance their children’s therapies and treatments. For the vast majority of parents, there is absolutely no hope whatsoever of financial gain from making claims about vaccine injury.
Or is the parents’ motivation that it “feels better” to “have something to blame” for their child’s condition? Actually, that notion is easily “debunked” by talking to parents who believe that vaccines caused their children’s autism. I should know. I have talked to hundreds of parents who have children with autism, and I can safely say that the vast majority of those who think their children’s autism was caused by a genetic anomaly “feel better” than those who think their children’s autism was caused by vaccines. Think about it. If you believed that there was nothing you could do to prevent your child’s autism, would you blame yourself? Probably not. But what if you believed that you allowed someone to inject a substance into your child that caused severe illness? The parents who believe that vaccines injured their children are among the most tortured, guilt-ridden people I have ever met – and as the parent of a child who died, I have a lot of experience with tortured, guilt-ridden parents. It takes tremendous strength of mind to believe that your child is vaccine-injured and get beyond the guilt. Believe me, this is not a belief anyone “chooses” in order to “feel better.” So perhaps, the parents’ motivation is just what they claim it is: They honestly believe that vaccines caused their children’s autism, and they don’t want to see another family go through what they went through.
And what are the possible rewards and penalties for parents speaking what they believe to be the truth? The only reward I can see is the satisfaction of helping others to avoid devastating harm, while the potential penalties are enormous: They are ridiculed, abandoned by family and friends because of their “crazy beliefs” or “obsession,” and called selfish baby-killers. Heck, they may even be putting their jobs at risk! And yet, as parents of autistic or other special-needs children, they are still choosing to spend what little precious free time they have telling others their story. That’s got to keep the critical thinker from just dismissing what they have to say as “anecdote” and moving on.
One thing the books on President Lincoln and General Patton both gave me was an appreciation of just how much one person’s talents and personality can do to shape the world around him or her. I aspire to be that one person brave enough and honest enough in my daily life to affect the people whose lives I touch. If we all commit to being that one person, imagine how many lives an army of us can change for the better.
TMR: changing the world, one family at a time.
For more posts by the Professor, please click here.