We live in an era when science has become politicized. We regard scientific arguments as unintuitive while simultaneously claiming to be rational human beings. Within society fallacious statements spread like a virus going from person to person and getting amplified in social platforms. By way of contrast, scientific thought is usually conveyed via articles and textbooks. The message that sticks to mind is not about credibility but about who conveys the same. People are swayed by social influence and value personal experience more than scientific verbiage stemming from unknown sources. They may turn down explanations if they know that other people, similar to themselves, have turned them down. This Is how social influence manipulates people’s opinions and behaviors. When these social groups are massive, decentralized and aimed at challenging established policies, we call them movements (think of the antivaccine movement and neurodiversity). People tend to believe that the choice made by others in a group conveys information. In this regard, people conform to what others say, even if subconsciously. This is herding; a type of convergent social behavior that aligns our thoughts and actions with those of our social network.
There is no wisdom in crowds. If different opinions are not considered, then your belief system is based on dogma. This is how cult movements and superstitions get started. Indeed, when we cannot link events in our lives with natural explanations, we readily provide supernatural ones. Eudora Welty once famously wrote that, “The events in our lives happen in a sequence in time, but in their significance to ourselves they find their own order”.
The internet provides a platform for the placement of ideas of the more radical. The loudest voices are the ones heard. For many parents, vaccines provide an easy explanation and a cop out explaining autism. You really do not even need to understand the explanation to like it. Less is more. Lies are provided in sparse words. Positions do send signals and taking one that is anti-science, when science has not helped you, denotes anger. It is therefore not surprising that the anti-science movement has generalized to every stage of medicine attacking many areas related to autism: research, treatments, vaccines, epidemiology, genetics, and psychiatry.
People lack exposure to scientific information as the same is often difficult to understand. Many years ago, I had the pleasure of meeting Alan Alda, the American actor and comedian. Although we were discussing the condition of one of his family members, the conversation soon veered to his efforts at teaching doctors how to better communicate their science with clarity and passion. Some 15,000 people have gone through the Alan Alda Communication Training in the art of talking plain sense. The Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science helps professional scientists, researchers, and graduate students to explain their work and its significance clearly and vividly to their target audiences. In essence, if you cannot communicate something in simple words then, it is more than likely, that you do not understand the problem yourself.
Engagement is the key to communication while gaining the attention of the patient is the best way towards establishing a dialogue. In the field of autism, doctors have done a poor job of listening to their patients, engaging with them and answering their questions. They wait for you to bring problems to their attention instead of making you aware of potential pitfalls in the windmill of social media. Patients in turn become engaged with social media rather than their physicians. The more you are exposed to social ideas, the more likely you will see them as familiar and accept the same. Don’t confuse intuition and passion with rational thinking. If we are to move forwards rational thought will have to prevail.