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Observations

Opinion, arguments & analyses from the editors of Scientific American

The Bachmann Files: Don't Let the Facts Stand in the Way of Incendiary Politics

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http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/6/60/Rooster_portrait2.jpg/240px-Rooster_portrait2.jpgThe Rooster Syndrome holds that the bird's crowing makes the sun edge up over the horizon. Beware post hoc ergo propter hoc, wail the logicians.

People's brains are hard-wired for error, finding mental connections everywhere that none exist (e.g. "I slipped after I stepped on that crack in the sidewalk"). Sometimes these false beliefs spread like pathogens. Toxoplasmosis, no. Madness of crowds, si. Typically, evolutionary theory bursts forth as explanation: better safe than sorry on the Paleolithic savannahs.

Of course, the best example of contagion is the vaccine and autism scare, a fear repeatedly disproved by the science. This week we saw an example of elevating this meme of erroneous memes—vaccines insert an evil incubus into mind and body—to unparalleled new heights. Presidential candidate Michele Bachmann put forth what she said was the case of a woman who had told her that her child had become mentally retarded after being vaccinated for human papillomavirus. "It can have very dangerous side effects," she said on NBC's Today. "This is the very real concern, and people have to draw their own conclusions."

The thing about Gardasil, the most common HPV vaccine in question, is that, as a bioactive molecule, it is remarkably safe. Forget retardation and consider, for a moment, the Grim Reaper. As of mid-June, there had been 32 ascertained deaths among those who received Gardasil. That's 32 following distribution of 35 million doses of the vaccine. Let’s keep our post hocs straight, though, and consult the CDC: "In the 32 reports confirmed, there was no unusual pattern or clustering to the deaths that would suggest that they were caused by the vaccine and some reports indicated a cause of death unrelated to vaccination."

The 2012 presidential campaign has started early. We shouldn’t let our error-prone crania prevail. When it’s all over next year, better that science should not turn out as the big loser.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

 

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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