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Science as Story: Letting Go of Unquestioning Belief

jaferr's picture

One of the things that we have spent the most time discussing in this class in the past few weeks is the idea of viewing science as a story rather than absolute, indisputable truth.  In our first class meeting, we were asked whether we thought the Earth was flat or round.  The majority of the class seemed to agree with the story that the Earth was round, but when pressed to answer questions about the reasons why they believed that particular story, everyone who agreed with that story essentially said that they believed the Earth was round because that was what they had been taught by their teachers at a young age, and because that was the scientifically accepted story.  As far as we can see from our own observations, the Earth is flat, and yet these everyday observations do not change or challenge our common knowledge that the Earth is round.

I think that one of the reasons why people in our class have had such a hard time accepting the idea that literature and science are related through their shared aspect of storytelling is because from a young age, we are trained to believe that stories are essentially fiction, not fact, and that science does not tell us stories, but rather it tells us the indisputable truth.  In spite of the incredible rate at which scientific knowledge evolves and changes, we seem to be unable to let go of the belief that the latest scientific conclusion is fact.  This is especially true of people who are not a part of the scientific community.  Many of my friends and relatives who do not consider themselves to be “science people” do not even bother to question scientific stories, because they believe that the process leading to these stories is much to complicated for the average person to understand.  Paradoxically, we are taught within the scientific community to question every scientific study, story, and conclusion to the point that in every science class I have taken as an undergraduate, one of our assignments has been to read a published scientific study and find as many flaws within it as we possibly can.

An especially prominent example ofthis phenomenon can be found in the recent and ongoing debates within the media and scientific community about the causes of autism.  A few years ago, a group of scientists in the United Kingdom analyzed twelve patient records at a local pediatrician’s office and noticed a correlation between the children who had received the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine and those who had autism (Doja).  In his subsequently published study, Wakefield and his colleagues speculated that the correlation between the MMR vaccine and autism may be more than a coincidence, and that the MMR vaccine may have been a factor in the children’s later development of autism (DeStefano).  This tentative theory sparked a media frenzy in which the speculative story was represented as absolute fact (Offit).  Since then, mothers of autistic children have created advocacy groups and written novels, such as Jenny McCarthy’s Louder Than Words: A Mother’s Journey in Healing Autism (2007), founded on the story that the MMR vaccine is largely or wholly responsible for the development of autism (McCarthy).  As a result of intensemedia coverage of this story, there has been a decrease in the number of parents giving their consent for their children to receive the MMR vaccine in recent years (Smith).

As a result of the popularity of this story, members of the scientific community have spent years researching and publishing new stories in order to disprove the now well-known story about the MMR vaccine and autism (DeStefano, Doja, Farrington, Taylor, etc.).  In spite of the proliferation of new literature discounting the story that autism is caused by the MMR vaccine, including Autism’s False Prophets: Bad Science, Risky Medicine, and theSearch for a Cure (2008), there are still plenty of people who choose to believe this story.

Obviously, the subject of this story is a very personal and emotional one, and I understand why so many parents and potential parents of children with autism would like to believe that autism is something that is preventable and controllable, rather than something that is caused by a myriad of other factors, some genetic and some environmental, as another popular scientific study proposes (Smith).  Given that not so long ago, the commonly held belief was that children developed autism because they had cold and unloving mothers (Offit), we can see that the story of autism is still fluid and changing, and that it will continue to change in the future.  However, it is especially obvious inthe case of the story about the MMR vaccine and autism that there is a cultural tendency to accept scientific stories that we like as accurate representations of the truth.

The story of the MMR vaccine and autism has now been around long enough that it has become part of our collective body of knowledge that is rarely disputed.  As a result of this small and speculative study that has been shown to be flawed and faulty in multiple other scientific studies, people still cling to the story that Wakefield’s study tells.  Because so many people have heard this story represented as fact by news sources, famous parents of autistic children, and various scientists, this story has gained a power comparable to the power that the story of the Earth being flat held in the time of Galileo Galilei.  The heated debates, criticisms, accusations, and vendettas within and without the scientific community that this story has sparked are reminiscent of the accusations of heresy that Galileo faced upon his proposal of a heliocentric universe.  Ironically, I feel that as Bryn Mawr students, we are taught to question many things; authority, stereotypes, religious faith, the gender binary, etc. However, we are rarely asked to question science, which is why so many people in this class are still grappling with the idea of science as a story.  Learning to question science is our next step.



DeStefano, F. “MMR Vaccine and Autism: A Review of the Evidence for a Causal Association.” Molecular Psychiatry. Vol. 7, suppl. 2, pp. S51-S52. 2002.

Doja, A; Roberts, W. “Immunizations and Autism: A Review of the Literature.” Canadian Journal of Neurological Sciences. Vol. 33, no. 4, pp. 341-346. Nov 2006.

Farrington, CP; Miller, E; Taylor B. “MMR and Autism: Further Evidence Against a Causal Association.” Vaccine. Vol. 19, no. 27, pp. 3632-3635. 14 Jun 2001.

McCarthy, Jenny. “My Son’s Recovery from Autism.” 4 April 2008.

Offit, PA; Coffin SE. “Communicating Science to the Public: MMR Vaccine and Autism.” Vaccine. Vol.22, no. 1, pp. 1-6. Dec 2003.

Smith, Allen; Yarwood, Joanne; Salisbury, David M. “Tracking Mothers’ Attitudes to MMR Immunization 1996-2006.” Vaccine. Vol. 25, no. 20, pp. 3996-4002. May 2007.

Taylor, B; Lingam, R; Simmons, A; Stowe, J; Miller, E;Andrews, N. “Autism and MMR Vaccination in North London; No Causal Relationship.” Molecular Psychiatry.Vol. 7, suppl. 2, pp. S7-S8. 2002.

Waterhouse, Lynn. “Autism Overflows: Increasing Prevalence and Proliferating Theories.” Neuropsychology Review. Vol. 18, no. 4, pp. 273-286. Dec 2008.


Clint Ballinger's picture

All correct historical explanations are just so stories

“Contingency is just so”

Anne Dalke's picture

Science's Audiences

I see you doing three things here:
*identifying the neat paradox that--while scientists question everything
--those outside of science accept its findings as “the indisputable truth”;
*giving a striking concrete example of this process, in the current popular attribution of MMR vaccine as a cause of autism;
*positing a reason for that difference (“that people want to believe in something that is preventable and controllable”; that is, “we like” the kind of stories that give us a sense of control over the world).

If you’d like to explore further what seems the “next question” in your study—how we might teach those ‘outside’ science to question scientific claims in the way that scientists do- you might want to look @ an archive, on Serendip, of a series of conversations that were held @ Bryn Mawr a few years ago on “Science’s Audiences.”

I have a clear memory of the first session, in which an historian of science followed a "scientific fact" from the laboratory into the social world, through multiple levels of filtration, discussion, conversation, translation, and adaptation to accessible language. She also gave some interesting history to this process, explaining how science legitimized itself by becoming a public activity and finding a "virtual audience.” (The example she used was that of Boyle's experiments with a vacuum, which he performed initially for witnesses, and then--needing a broader audience for legitimacy--in writing which was distributed to the society of mechanical philosophers. But because the audience, in this process of virtual witnessing, was "not in front of the air pump," Boyle had to use descriptions to convince them of what he had done. But those audiences were actors with their own agendas, interpretations and reactions; a feedback process was thereby initiated, and the explanations changed in reaction to audience response.
I guess the nudge I’m giving you here is to think some more about the role that the process of representation—of writing—plays in the paradox you describe. It is not just that psychologically we want more certainty, but that in reading/viewing what we have not experienced ourselves, we have to rely on others’ accounts….?