Tragic Choices: Autism, Measles, and the MMR Vaccine
Department of Biology
University of Oklahoma
This case explores the purported connection between vaccines in general, and the MMR vaccine specifically, and autism. Students examine results from the 1998 Lancet article that ignited and still fuels the anti-vaccine movement; students are then asked to design a better study to test the causal relationship between the vaccine and the disorder. This case was developed to help science-phobic undergraduates understand the distinctions between good science, bad science, and pseudoscience. Most importantly, the case shows how "thinking scientifically" is a learnable skill that can empower students to make intelligent choices for themselves and their families. As such, the case would be suitable for any course introducing students to the nature of science, good (vs. not-so-good) experimental designs, appropriate interpretations of data, science as a self-correcting process, etc. Opportunities exist to expand the case to focus on issues related to research ethics, responsible journalism, and the interface between science, society, and the law.
- Critically analyze and evaluate a scientific claim.
- Identify the control group and the experimental group in a study.
- Understand the distinctions between clinical studies and epidemiological studies.
- Understand the importance of "sample size" in scientific investigations.
- Understand the importance of replication when evaluating scientific claims.
- Understand how undeclared conflicts of interest can lead to bad science.
- Appreciate that peer-review is an important fire-wall against bias and bad science, but is not infallible.
- Design their own experiment to test a causal relationship between vaccines and autism.
- Appreciate the emotional, medical, and economic difficulties faced by families touched by autism, especially severe forms of the disorder.
- Understand the importance of herd immunity in protecting communities against disease.
- Evaluate the ethical implications of choosing whether or not to immunize one's children.
- Employ critical thinking when analyzing media reports about a scientific claim.
- Appreciate that "thinking scientifically" is an important (and "learnable") skill that will help them make intelligent choices for themselves, their families, and society.
KeywordsAutism; clinical study; conflict of interest; epidemiological study; experimental design; herd immunity; immunization; measles; nature of science; pertussis; sample size; spurious correlation; uptake rates; vaccination; vaccine
Topical AreasEthics, Scientific argumentation, Scientific method, Pseudoscience, Science and the media
Educational LevelHigh school, Undergraduate lower division, Undergraduate upper division, General public & informal education, Continuing education
Type / MethodsAnalysis (Issues), Dilemma/Decision, Discussion, Interrupted, Journal Article
Subject HeadingsBiology (General) | Epidemiology | Science (General) | Science Education | Teacher Education | Medicine (General) | Nursing | Public Health |