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Of Cats and Causation PDF Print E-mail
Swift
Written by Jeff Wagg   

gouldcatI was playing a card game with my grandmother and my girlfriend, many years ago. The game is called "Frustration," and it involves laying down a large number of cards on the table from time to time. My grandmother had a cat named "Misty," who I believe was named by someone fluent in German. Misty liked to be where the action was, and would often jump up on the table and wander from person to person, looking for attention.

After a particularly long round, I laid down my cards. Just then, Misty hopped up on the table and faced my girlfriend, with her tail gently swishing over my carefully organized cards. I gave her a gentle tug on her tail. And with an alleycat yowl she lashed out at my girlfriend, narrowly missing  a cheek with her furniture-shredding talons. I had apparently tugged a bit too hard for Misty's liking, and Misty punished the wrong person. My girlfriend, surprised, lashed back - swatting the cat and sending her scurrying. The cat avoided my girlfriend ever after, fearing another unprovoked tug and smack.

Why did this happen?

The answer is obvious. I was behind the cat, unseen, and the cat's focus was on my girlfriend. The cat automatically associated the tail-tug with my girlfriend because that's the context she was in. Misty was justified in lashing out — someone was tugging her tail! — but her chosen victim was also innocent, and unrelated to the problem. My girlfriend rightfully defended herself, not knowing that I had actually caused the cat's reaction.

How could we explain all that to Misty?

I believe we see a similar reaction in parents who have children diagnosed with autism. Something has happened to their child. It's a doctor reporting it, the same doctor who recently gave the child a vaccine, and the same doctor who has no cure. A parent's instinct is to lash out when their child has been injured, but alas, who is tugging the tail that is autism? No one actually knows, but it's easy to point one's claws at the medical community, which from the parent's perspective has had all the control in the situation. And the medical community (which includes skeptics) lashes back at the parents, creating a toxic conflict that benefits no one.

Enough, I say.

Parents of children with autism need our support, not our criticism. If they're convinced that vaccines caused their autism or that diet can cure it, we should treat them with respect and offer our evidence to the contrary. Politely. Calmly.

As frustrated as we might get at their blatant refusal to look at simple data, anger isn't going to help the situation. Consider it from their point of view: They're encountering groups that promote anti-vaccination rhetoric, and those groups welcome them with open arms, camaraderie and support. The skeptics, on the other hand, often react negatively, telling distraught parents that they're wrong and harming other people's children. Guess what? That's factually correct, but that doesn't mean we need to be harshly confrontational. We need to be supportive.

It's not easy, and it goes against our emotions, but the burden is ours. When the cat lashes out, we can understand what's going on. In fact, we're the only ones who can. It's up to us to set the tone.

I don't say this to belittle parents or to let Jenny McCarthy off the hook. There is a huge difference between the soccermom who looks at the wrong website for her info and a person with a powerful media presence who actively promotes false information. Attack Jenny, but embrace the soccer mom.

And as for the tail tugger that is the root cause of autism, we'll just keep looking. Together, hopefully.

(Thanks to Andrew Gould for the cat photo!)

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written by MattC, April 23, 2010
I fear I cannot agree with your metaphoric description of events, for the simple reason that behavioral expectations of humans and cats differ greatly. Were I, for example, to accidentally overstride and kick your heel while walking behind you I would certainly not expect you to punch the person beside you, even though you may have been focused upon them at the time. Though you may have felt pain, there is a great difference between letting your emotions run away with your good sense and rationally evaluating what's happened.

The problem I see with the autism debate is that rationality is the first thing abandoned once fear takes over. It is no secret that the causes for autism are not well understood and that there is no miracle 'cure,' so I think fear on the part of the parents natural. People as a rule fear what they do not understand, and random chance is least understandable of all. The anti-vaccination movement gains strength not from any particular scientific merit (which has been pointed out in the several court cases) but from its proffering of an enemy and assignment of blame. "No," they say soothingly, "It was -not- the randomness of genetics but rather that doctor in the white coat, who you thought you could trust, HE injected your precious baby with this known-to-be-dangerous vaccine!"

This provides a convenient outlet for all of the frustration, anger and helplessness felt by the suffering parents, while the dignity of the profession prohibits a doctor from responding in kind to what are really base insults reflective of his/her professional competency. It also stops the parents from having to think or evaluate circumstance - there's an organization doing that for them, spearheaded by an actress no less!

The problem I have with the anti-vaccination supporters is the very idea that their child's suffering (or, even worse, their "mommy instinct") permits them to ignore or dispute scientific evidence contrary to their views. It's an egocentric viewpoint fed by the anti-vaccination movement to retain supporters despite repeated reverses, and I'd like to think that a parent is emotionally mature enough to put their ego behind their desire for their child to do well. This viewpoint strives to preserve the ego of the parents rather than actually doing what's demonstrably best for the child, which is something I cannot bring myself to excuse.

I agree with you that support must be offered, but in return I think it perfectly just to demand the attention of those we are attempting to support. In this regard I think a major step for the antivaccination movement would be to fund research in an attempt to experimentally bolster their side of the debate (through research grants, for example). This would demonstrate interest in discovering the reality of the problem and actually meet Mr. Wagg's suggestion that we investigate the root causes of autism 'together' rather than single-handedly.

The anti-vaccination movement's lack of effort to discover the nature of the beast it claims to fight suggests an unwillingness to engage in a scientific discussion of the reality of their championed situation, and I cannot stand behind the idea that parents of autistic children deserve ephemeral emotional crutches rather than practical utility. This does the children no good.

~ Matt
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Autism
written by skepticnj, April 23, 2010
Dr. Harriet Hall put it very well some time back. To paraphrase, with details a bit sketchy but the point remaining intact: a woman was driving her daughter to the pediatrician for a shot or two. In the car, the girl had an epileptic seizure, her first ever. She was treated quickly, as well as possible. Imagine if the seizure had come an hour later, after her visit to the pediatrician. NO POWER ON EARTH WOULD BE ABLE TO CONVINCE THE MOTHER THAT THE SEIZURE WAS UNRELATED TO A VACCINE. This is what we're up against, and it's tough.
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But then again...
written by KWC, April 23, 2010
If we are to let off the "soccermom" that looks at the wrong website we can't really have much issue with Jenny McCarthy either. You encourage us to look at it from their point of view. Ok but then McCarthy is a mother who believes that vaccines are destroying children's lives. She has the money and resources to protect them (in her eyes) and it would be irresponsible to not do so. What is not okay is that she blatantly ignores facts to the contrary to her viewpoint yet continues to argue for something that is very dangerous. This is the same thing that all the other moms are doing though!

I'm not saying that we said be confrontational, I'm just arguing against your last point. If we forgive moms for having misinformation despite having access to real data, then we have forgiven the thing that makes McCarthy such a modern villain.
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written by Otara, April 23, 2010
They think they're protecting theirs and other peoples children.

It comes down to that really. Its not necessarily ego making them ignore it, its more likely fear. Overcoming fear for something that big a deal is not easy, and once a particular fear is in place, it will not disappear by simply yelling at the person they're being silly, see how you go with that strategy with someone who is simply afraid of spiders let alone a fear for their children. It generally needs a lot of work and information to work with these issues, not a simple web board argument.

Attributing motivations is one thing we need to be cautious of with these issues. It is always easy to make it about selfish or bad motives with issues we strongly disagree with.
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written by Mark P, April 23, 2010
In some ways society is suffering now from an excess of rationality, with which many members have yet to reconcile themselves.

In the past the moving of the world was mysterious. No-one really thought to explain it very much. "The mystery of God" sufficed as to why some people suffered and others didn't. People grew up not expecting explanations.

Now science proposes that there is an explanation for everything. What many people can't reconcile is that we can't always figure out that reason. The cry goes up after every disaster, great or small, that "someone must be to blame". This is where some feel a need to finger a culprit in autism. They can't accept that no-one did anything wrong. They need a villain, because that gives a reason. Something can then be done.

We also see it with the ridiculous tendency to over-protect ourselves. Every death or injury by mischance promotes calls for legislation to prevent anything similar. This is what drives the more and more zealous registration of sex offenders, for example. Something must be seen to be done, even though studying it rationally will show it is not effective. No longer will people accept that some bad things cannot be prevented.

Issues of failure to understand correlation and causality don't help. Not because they drive the original desire for a "reason", but because few people are sure enough of themselves on such things that they will stand against a zealous mum on a crusade. Because smoke sometimes does mean fire, they are unwilling to fight a zealot.
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written by jimgerrish, April 24, 2010
So, did the autistic cat ever get vaccinated?
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written by GayIthacan, April 24, 2010
"If they're convinced that vaccines caused their autism or that diet can cure it, we should treat them with respect and offer our evidence to the contrary. Politely. Calmly."

Reason is not a magic tool. It cannot work for those who do not believe in its power. -- Ayn Rand
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written by latsot, April 24, 2010
Jeff, I too have a couple of issues with your analogy although I agree to a large extent with your conclusion.

First, as has already been pointed out, humans differ from cats in that they are capable of understanding that causation is a bit more complicated than that, particularly when it comes to medicine. This means that we don't have much of an excuse for coming to silly conclusions when they are contradicted by bloody great piles of evidence.

Second, we're not talking about an immediate and shocked reaction, we're talking about a long-term, supposedly reasoned position. Misty wasn't able to accumulate any further evidence because of her limitations. This just isn't the case with people: we have every opportunity to become properly educated on this point. If people decide not to take advantage of this opportunity, that's a matter of choice. Misty didn't have that choice.

Or let me put it another way: many anti-vaxers happily believed what their doctors told them their entire lives, up to the instant of the autism diagnosis. I'm not saying we should unquestioningly believe what doctors tell us, but that it is not justified to suddenly change our criteria for evaluation if we hear something we don't like.

Parents of autistic children do indeed need our support. One of the ways we can support them is to tell them the truth about their child's condition. How can this help? It can stop them from participating in the anti-vax effort, which is harmful to research and to everyone else's kids. It can stop them from dedicating their lives, as some have, to finding someone to blame.

And I think it can bring comfort. There's no conspiricy. People's kids aren't being hurt by the people who are supposed to be protecting their health. And above all, it's not your fault as a parent if your child develops autism.

I agree that we need to treat the parents of autistic people with compassion but I'm wary of the message that polite and calm is the only way to approach this problem or necessarily the only respectful one. Sometimes anger or ridicule (at and of beliefs, not believers) are useful tools and this is such an important issue that we should really be playing with a full deck.

Am I saying that we should ridicule people with autistic kids? Of course not. But there are good and honorable reasons for comedians, say, to ridicule anti-vaxers in general. It's a means of innoculating the public against this silly belief and creating an environment where it's much harder for it to thrive.

Am I saying we should behave angrily toward people with autistic kids? It depends what they do. Certainly not for having autistic kids or even for believing crazy things about how they got that way. But we should be angry with the likes of Jenny McCarthy because she abuses her position. She's had more opportunity than most to learn the truth, she understands the influence she has, and yet she deliberately hasn't taken that opportunity. Calm reason and sympathy aren't going to help here. Anger might be useful, though: it can show people that her's isn't an acceptable position. It's common for people to shrug off ridiculous and even dangerous behaviour like this as just another weird behaviour. We don't want to offend people or be seen as offensive. Showing people that it's actually OK to be angry at this woman and her message, despite our sympathy and compassion at her personal tragedy, has utility. Shouting at a bewildered and desperate parent probably does not.

Of course, the people we should really be angry at are the real villains of this piece. These are not people like Jenny McCarthy, or even people like Andrew Wakefield. They are the media, which constantly gives publicity to anti-vaxers, consistently fails to present the evidence that vaccines don't cause autism and generated the entire issue from almost nothing in the first place. These are the people and institutions who catapulted Andrew Wakefield into the limelight and gave his views and followers countless hours of exposure. Even today, more than a decade after this issue began in the UK, the press continues to present the vaccine-autism link as though it has some sort of spurious validity. Just last week there was a story in the BBC news that said something like "some people believe there's a link between MMR and autism" but conspicuously did not say that this belief has been shown to be false. They are the people and institutions who need to be told that what they are doing is unacceptable.

Unfortunately, they already know this and they don't care. They won't care until people start voting with their feet.
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written by lytrigian, April 24, 2010
It's late, I'm tired, so I'm not going to say this very well. But I have no qualms about telling parents of autistic children not to be idiots about vaccinations, and in so many words.

I'm one myself, and I feel no need to be patient with people in my situation who cannot bring themselves to be rational.
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