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Monday, September 3, 2018

Postmodernism and the Antivax Movement

In The Politics of Autism, I look at the discredited notion that vaccines cause autism.

Brett Bricker and Jacob Justice have an article at Western Journal of Communication titled "The Postmodern Medical Paradigm: A Case Study of Anti-MMR Vaccine Arguments."
This essay analyzes the arguments of the antivaccination movement, arguing that many analysts have misdiagnosed the root causes of vaccine skepticism. It is no longer productive for argumentation scholars to discount scientific skepticism as simply a problem of an ignorant public, religious zealots, or conservative ideologies, because antivaccine beliefs transcend ideology. The authors argue that simplistic accusations of blame on one political or cultural subgroup are inaccurate, and that the emergence of powerful antivaccine advocates points to the power of a conspiracy theory supported by anecdotes.
From the article:
The appeal of antivaccination discourse in its most powerful form is linked to two aspects of the postmodern medical paradigm. First, antivaccination advocates counter appeals to scientific consensus by relying upon anecdotes and highly emotional personal stories. These anecdotes typically involve the firsthand testimony of parents of autistic children who are convinced of the vaccination–autism link and use their own experiences to caution the audience against vaccination. Although educated and scientifically literate audiences may rightfully be skeptical of such anecdotal appeals, lay audiences often find them persuasive because of the sincerity of the featured parents and their seemingly common-sense arguments. Second, antivaccination arguments utilize conspiracy theory rhetoric to discount provaccination counterarguments, alleging a concerted effort by the media, government agencies, and pharmaceutical industry to conceal the truth about the vaccination–autism link. This argumentative technique casts doubt on the scientific consensus, by implying that the vaccination–autism link could be definitively proven were it not for widespread collusion to stifle the flow of information, creating an atmosphere of pervasive skepticism and uncertainty that is not conducive to rational, evidence-based persuasion. In what follows, we describe these two themes in greater detail and, illustrate their form and function within antivaccination discourse.
The postmodern medical paradigm is at least partially to blame for skepticism of the scientific evidence supporting MMR vaccine efficacy and safety. Although postmodernism is an intentionally slippery term, when applied to medicine the postmodern medical paradigm has three characteristics:
  1. Hostility toward singular truths
  2. Aversion to scientific objectivity
  3. Decreased trust in expertise