The so-called autism epidemic is just a conspiracy theory. Or is it?

In The lure of the conspiracy theory (subscription required, full article here), author Patrick Leman discusses some thoughts on the nature of conspiracy theories and why people believe them (or don’t). I learned of the article from the blog Schneier on Security, in which Schneier excerpts some key points.

From the perspective of an autism parent, and my discussions with others on the subject, this paragraph jumped out at me the most (emphasis is mine):

To appreciate why this form of reasoning is seductive, consider the alternative: major events having minor or mundane causes — for example, the assassination of a president by a single, possibly mentally unstable, gunman, or the death of a princess because of a drunk driver. This presents us with a rather chaotic and unpredictable relationship between cause and effect. Instability makes most of us uncomfortable; we prefer to imagine we live in a predictable, safe world, so in a strange way, some conspiracy theories offer us accounts of events that allow us to retain a sense of safety and predictability.

Though I hesitate to make the comparison to the need for religion, believing in a conspiracy theory model for something like autism seems to fulfill much the same need in people: the need for life, and what happens in it, to have a meaning, if not a purpose.

A couple of other interesting paragraphs:

Other research has examined how the way we search for and evaluate evidence affects our belief systems. Numerous studies have shown that in general, people give greater attention to information that fits with their existing beliefs, a tendency called “confirmation bias”. Reasoning about conspiracy theories follows this pattern, as shown by research I carried out with Marco Cinnirella at the Royal Holloway University of London, which we presented at the British Psychological Society conference in 2005.

The study, which again involved giving volunteers fictional accounts of an assassination attempt, showed that conspiracy believers found new information to be more plausible if it was consistent with their beliefs. Moreover, believers considered that ambiguous or neutral information fitted better with the conspiracy explanation, while non-believers felt it fitted better with the non-conspiracy account. The same piece of evidence can be used by different people to support very different accounts of events.

This fits with the observation that conspiracy theories often mutate over time in light of new or contradicting evidence. So, for instance, if some new information appears to undermine a conspiracy theory, either the plot is changed to make it consistent with the new information, or the theorists question the legitimacy of the new information. Theorists often argue that those who present such information are themselves embroiled in the conspiracy. In fact, because of my research, I have been accused of being secretly in the pay of various western intelligence services (I promise, I haven’t seen a penny).

It is important to remember that anti-theorists show a similar bias: they will seek out and evaluate evidence in a way that fits with the official or anti-conspiracy account. So conspiracy theorists are not necessarily more closed-minded than anti-theorists. Rather, the theorist and anti-theorist tend to pursue their own lines of thought and are often subject to cognitive biases that prevent their impartial examination of alternative evidence.

How then can we predict who will become believers and non-believers? My hunch is that a large part of the explanation lies in how individuals form aspects of their social identities such as ethnicity, socioeconomic status and political beliefs. The reasoning and psychological biases that create believers or their opposites are fostered by social origins. For conspiracy believer and non-believer alike, there is a kind of truth out there. It’s just a rather different truth that each seeks.

Reading through this, I’ve come to understand better one of the reasons that I don’t post as much as I used to, or participate in various autism related forums more. Most people have already set their opinions, and are not likely to change them based on anything I, or anyone else, has to say. I’m sure that I am as guilty of this as other people, though I do believe that my opinions and beliefs in this area are somewhat flexible.

I only have to look back at the early days of this blog to see how my opinions have changed. When was the last time your views on autism, its causes, its nature, and its future changed?

6 thoughts on “The so-called autism epidemic is just a conspiracy theory. Or is it?

  1. I tend to agree with you from a number of different perspectives. I heard on NPR a while back about how our opinions become set in our early thirties [I thought it was forties] and that without some life altered drama such as a death of a loved one etc., you were pretty much stuck.Cheers


  2. Nah, the notion of autism epidemic does not come from conspiracism (it comes from administrative databases which most people think provide an approximate count of autistic children – they do not). However, many of the things believed by those who promote an epidemic of autism are classic grand conspiracy theories, e.g. the FDA, the pharmaceutical companies and governments (even Bush himself) buying off researchers to “cover up” a purported link between vaccines and autism, and so forth. Some even going as far as New World Order / Illuminati type of stuff. And yet, there are no whistleblowers.


  3. That’s why I like the blog and having everything out there in a way — it can show how views evolve with learning and knowing other autistic individuals, our own children. There is an honesty to that.My ideas about autism have certainly changed from before I began the blog — at the time of Adam’s diagnosis.


  4. …Most people have already set their opinions, and are not likely to change them based on anything I, or anyone else, has to say. …Having had the enjoyable experience on a local (biomed dominated) listserve of someone thanking me for posting another perspective that they had not considered, I would urge you to keep posting. You never know when a post of yours might open others up to new possibilities.Joe


  5. Estee and Joe, thanks for sharing those thoughts and experiences. The beauty of blogging, even if I don’t blog very frequently, is that it is always there. I go through my referrer logs periodically, and am always pleased to see when someone finds an old post that (hopefully) helps them answer the question they have.My real reason for continuing, though, is to try to reach those people who are new to the question and are trying to figure out what they believe. Only when these folks get as much info as possible can they come to an informed position of their own.Unfortunately, I don’t have the marketing budget of Autism Speaks. But every hit on this site helps get the word (my word, at least) out there.


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