Crap Detection 101: Vaccines and Autism

While reading chapter 2, “Crap Detection 101: How to Find What You Need to Know, and How to Decide If It’s True,” of Net Smart, I was waiting with bated breath for Rheingold to bring up the controversial subject that has caused great debate, disagreements, and “unfriending” in my social media circle in recent years: vaccines and autism in children. But, he didn’t.

As a parent, do I have concerns that autism might be linked to the vaccines my children receive? Absolutely. Do I vaccinate my children? Absolutely. Do I worry that I might be making the wrong choice after each vaccine? Absolutely. (To date, my sons–fifteen and eight–do not have autism).

So, what are we as parents to do? Rheingold recommends to “chase the story rather than just accepting the first evidence you encounter.” To chase the story, the first thing to do is to search for information online. But what words do I search for and which link(s) do I click? Rheingold also states that “when you get the results from a Web search engine and click on a link, you can’t be sure that what you get is accurate or inaccurate information, misinformation, or totally bogus.”

I Googled “vaccines and autism” and then clicked the “Images” link. From here, the search results were already conveniently categorized for me by “chart”, “don’t cause”, and “for children”. The results also showed screaming babies and needles—scary stuff for any parent. Mixed in with these images, were other cartoons and infographics that were pro-vaccine, one even had support from Bill Gates.


How can I tell if any of it is real? Which side of this controversial debate do I take? Rheingold suggests to “think skeptically, look for an author, and then see what others say about the author.”

But how is this possible when even doctors, nurses, and government agencies—all have credentials and are highly regarded as experts—can’t even agree?

Rheingold also states that “digital media and information abundance may complicate people’s confidence in and knowledge of who is in authority” and that the “social aspects of critical evaluation can be powerfully useful, but they also can be misleading.”

Just because a link displays at the top of a search engine, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it is the best source of information. Nor does seeing disturbing photos of needles sticking into babies convince me that vaccines are harmful.

To complicate things even further, Rheingold states that when searching online, we “write the answer you want to get when formulating your search query.” So if I enter “vaccines cause autism”, I will probably get rhetoric on how vaccines are bad; and if I enter “vaccines do not cause autism”, I will get information on how the two are not related. This is also referred to as the “echo chamber effect.” We are all guilty of focusing our attention to only things that align or reinforce our own beliefs or behaviors. Is this why AutismOne has 14,000 Twitter followers?

Or why there are now children’s books that urge children to get vaccinated against Measles? Would a parent who refuses to give their child vaccines allow that child to read a bedtime story on the importance of being vaccinated? Probably not.

With this abundance (overload) of information, this is where my “well-tuned internal crap detector comes in handy.” However, he then cautions that “people who bet their health on online medical information […] the stakes in this detective game are high.” To get my answer on vaccines and autism, I could triangulate–check an author’s name, enter the URL of a site into a productivity index or hoax site, and type “criticism” or “background” in a search–to get at least three things that indicate whether an online link is credible.

Yet, this is not enough as Rheingold claims “well-intentioned yet dangerously misinformed people, quacks who sincerely believe that their ineffective cures will save the world […] abound online. It’s not just that uninformed consumers of bad medical information can harm themselves; people who link and forward without checking closely are part of the problem. When it comes to medical information […] believing or forwarding bad info can be unhealthy or fatal.”

If you believe some of the stories online, there are large portions of elementary schools with unvaccinated children in California. Other stories cite celebrity Jenny McCarthy as a dangerous advocate of anti-vaccines. There are blogs written by people who grew up without vaccines but are now reformed and many social media pages and groups that are anti-vaccine that it becomes difficult to figure out which information is useful or accurate. Did you know that World Anti-Vaccination Day is November 11? Neither did I.

I’m not sure when the controversial debate that autism might be linked to the vaccines children receive will be settled. Will it take a scientific breakthrough? Will it be when previously eradicated diseases reemerge? At this time, it seems that the only thing to do is to keep asking questions and to think like a detective to try to determine the credibility of online information so that you can make the best choice for your family. James Madison summarized it best when he put it, “knowledge will forever govern ignorance: And a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”

About peahleah

Youngest of four, left home at 17, traveled the country, and wound up in Austin.

Posted on October 19, 2014, in Society, Trust and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. natashajmceachin


    I also enjoyed the chapter on “Crap Detection 101”, and what stood out to me the most was the author’s advice to stick to tried and true tangible sources aka books. This would seem like such common sense, but I think the majority of us have forgot that books are more likely to contain credible information than Joe Smoe’s Blog. I’m a bit of a hypochondriac when it comes to online medical diagnoses, and it’s always relieving to be reminded I’m probably reading nonsense. I can definitely relate to this post!

  2. Good post this week!

    What I find interesting in your statement is the length of “detective work” needed now that there is an increased volume of information available. I also like that Natasha pointed out the author’s advice on sticking to tangible sources. The paradox to this advice is that there is a rapid decline in printed sources, and Turkle points out that longer forms of arguments (aka books) do not receive the attention they deserve. I made the connection between the two, but would be happy to hear feedback from fellow students. What do you think?

  3. What a great topic. While we have access to so much more information, a ton of it isn’t true. And when it comes to vaccines, it’s tough to know what’s the right answer. I liked how you brought out Rheingold’s echo chamber effect, because I think that’s an essential aspect to include when talking about the crap factor. Unless someone really wants to know both sides, it is easy to just ask a leading question and get stacks on stacks on stacks of information to support your theory. Is it getting harder to find the truth among all the crap?

  4. Humans have always debated and argued with one another but the Internet might have made it just a tad worse. Now, people can just spew all kinds of crap on the Internet which is immediately accessible by the entire world.

    Also, people get what I call “monitor muscles” when they sit at a computer. It makes you feel a bit powerful when you have the entire world at your fingertips. However, when the most annoying types on this planet are given this same access to the world… it usually isn’t pretty. It’s similar to the concept of “liquid confidence” or “beer muscles” when one consumes alcohol. We get loosened up and often become more willing to do things we wouldn’t normally do completely sober.

    The Internet gives us the monitor muscles we need to defend ourselves or attack others with snarky comments. Take a look at Every single discussion thread turns into an argument between two people that have nothing better to do than furiously type back and forth with a complete stranger. The arguments also completely deviate from the topic of the article.

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