In The Politics of Autism, I discuss autism quackery. During the campaign, Trump raised the discredited notion that vaccines cause autism.
Epistemic uncertainty—the idea that traditional sources of knowledge cannot be trusted—has long been exploited by disingenuous medical gurus to attract patients. ... Epistemic uncertainty undermines rational evaluation. Emotion and tribalism, already significant factors in determining one’s worldview, becomes the dominant source of beliefs. Vaccines might cause autism. Zapping might cure cancer. Climate change might be a Chinese hoax. A man in New Jersey might have been behind the Democratic National Committee hack. After all, who can you trust when the the Food and Drug Administration is run by Big Pharma?
Yet even in a world infected by epistemic uncertainty, not everyone falls for quackery. Not everyone votes for Trump. Those who do are likely also facing existential panic, which in turn can cause a crippling case of tunnel vision. Existential panic occurs in the face of a grave threat to physical well-being, personal identity, or worldview. Take a story I reported for Wired, about two doctors, Jim and Louise Laidler, whose two sons were diagnosed with autism. Despite being steeped in traditional medicine (Jim has an additional Ph.D. in biology), their desire for the “normal” life they had envisioned was so strong that they became advocates of alternative therapies, putting their children on gluten-free, casein-free diets and subjecting them to myriad unproven treatments. They attended conferences, which Jim Laidler described as being more like rallies, collections of enthusiastic people with contradictory theories, united only in their opposition to everyone else.
In health and medicine it’s easy to touch off existential panic, because there are still lethal and debilitating conditions for which science has few answers: cancer, autism, Alzheimer’s, ALS. Trump did the same in the political sphere: Instead of harping on rising rates of disease, he invoked rising inner-city crime. (Both, in fact, are falling.) Throughout the campaign, Trump offered rhetoric that characterized the American lifestyle—and even American life itself—as being on the cusp of complete collapse. Instead of toxins, terrorists.