When Prophecy’s Faked

The following is a guest post—which originally appeared here—from Jay Livingston, of Montclair Socioblog. Special thanks to Jay for allowing us to share his post!


It turns out that the only scientific evidence linking autism to childhood vaccinations was a fraud. The doctor who reported it, Andrew Wakefield, faked the data, most likely because he was in cahoots with lawyers who were suing vaccine makers. (The story is here and many other places.)

What does that mean for autism-vaccine believers like Jenny McCarthy, who has been one of the more noticeable vaccine skeptics and one of Dr. Wakefield’s strongest supporters?
Jonah Lehrer writing in Wired draws a parallel (which I’m embarrassed not to have noticed) between this turn of events and the origins of “cognitive dissonance,” particularly When Prophecy Fails.

Much of the early research on cognitive dissonance, a term coined by Leon Festinger, came out of the social psych. lab – all those contrived experiments by Festinger and others. But the idea had its origin in a real-world study. In 1954, Festinger noticed a newspaper article about a small group of believers who were predicting that the world would be destroyed on Dec. 20 of that year.

Festinger and (I think) two colleagues joined the group, pretending to be believers (no IRBs in those days) and regularly attended its meetings. They were especially interested in how the group would react when, come Dec. 21, they were all still on this planet. The group had gathered on the fated night and waited for the spaceships to rescue them from the great destruction. But nothing happened. How would they resolve the dissonance between their belief (about the end of the world and its causes) and the evidence?

It should be no surprise that they held to their basic ideas. Instead, their leader (a Mrs. Keech*) relayed the latest message from the space aliens: the heroic efforts of this little group had created such a powerful force for good that God had chosen to spare the world. Both the world and their belief system were saved.

The other, possibly surprising, outcome was what happened next. You might think that the group members would lose their enthusiasm and that the group would gradually dissipate. Instead, they vowed to redouble their efforts and turn outward. Before, they had been content to save themselves. Now they set out to proselytize.

The same thing apparently is happening on the autism-vaccine front. Lehrer quotes Jenny McCarthy:

This debate won’t end because of one dubious reporter’s allegations. I have never met stronger women than the moms of children with autism. Last week, this hoopla made us a little stronger, and even more determined to fight for the truth about what’s happening to our kids. [Lehrer’s emphasis]

He adds, “That’s right: the demonstration of fraud has made McCarthy even more convinced that vaccines cause autism.”

After prophecy fails, it’s only logical (well, psycho-logical) to claim that your beliefs are even stronger and to go out and proselytize. In the face of disconfirming evidence, you have to work even harder to convince yourself. And, as we teachers well know, one of the best ways to clarify and strengthen your own ideas is to go out and teach them to others.

* Not her real name.

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