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Trump, Vaccines and Expertise: Descent into the Dark Ages

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Donald Trump’s apparent embracing of the world’s leading vaccination conspiracy theorist demonstrates something both serious and frightening about his world view – and ours.

As reported in Politico, Trump appears to be offering solace and support to Andrew Wakefield, the disgraced researcher who fabricated results linking childhood vaccination and autism. Before we go any further, however, be clear about one thing: Wakefield’s work has been categorically shown to be fraudulent and absolutely no link between vaccinations and autism has ever been shown to exist.

Wakefield was formally investigated by Britain’s General Medical Council which determined that three dozen charges against him were proven to be true. One of its striking conclusions was that Wakefield had acted "dishonestly and irresponsibly" in his research and The Lancet, the medical journal originally publishing his work, fully retracted the fraudulent study saying that the work was “utterly false” and that the journal had been “deceived.” The findings by the General Medical Council led to Wakefield losing the ability to practice medicine in Great Britain.

And yet Wakefield is back, promoting a movie he produced designed to rehabilitate his fraudulent work. He’s quoted as saying that when he met with Trump (what you may ask was Trump doing meeting with someone convicted of perpetrating a major medical fraud, but that’s a different story!), Trump told him, “I’m gonna do something about this because I know it happened, I’ve seen it in people who worked with me and their children.”

Politico noted that just last week Wakefield said, “And I believe him. If he does say he’s going to do something, he does it.”

Which brings us to Trump’s world view. Forget the lying, the exaggeration and the posturing. Behind all of that reside two things that are terribly troubling. The first is a deeply seated distrust of expertise and the second is the inability to distinguish between anecdote and data.

Whether the issue is climate change, evolution, vaccination or any other technical topic in which there is virtual unanimity of expert opinion, the experts are simply dismissed as being biased and mistaken. The fact that they are experts on a topic, in the minds of many, discredits them completely. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been attacked for promoting the teaching of evolution by people arguing that since I have a Ph.D. in the subject, my views should be categorically discounted and replaced by those of people who have no such knowledge or, therefore, stake in the outcome.

It goes without saying that experts are occasionally wrong but rarely are they all wrong. Beyond that, though, where would society be if expertise were summarily and regularly dismissed? What would the role of education be if the more someone learned, the less they were considered to know?

Which brings us to the second troubling aspect mentioned above: the inability to distinguish between anecdote and data. Our brains are wired to find patterns, even when patterns don’t exist. One of the most important aspects of science is to allow us to determine when the patterns we think we see are real and when they are mere coincidence. If we give up the power provided by science and statistics to make just this sort of sense of the world, we’re left with opinion and superstition.

What we want isn’t necessarily what is. And if we don’t understand what is, we’ll never know enough to be able to create the world we want.

One more point. We can’t become complacent and assume that Trump is unique in his disregard of expertise and his substitution of anecdote for data. On these two issues, at least, he’s reflecting an all-too large percentage of the public, representing individuals of all political persuasions. This is something that our educational system has to better address if we are not going to give up all of the advances science has offered us.

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