The cultural production of ignorance.

This Thursday’s episode of an ABC court drama perpetuates the groundless and harmful myth that vaccines contribute to autism. Why are the penalties so low for spreading these falsehoods? Why does junk science (in its actual rather than its corporate bumper-sticker formulation) continue to attract such a following?

The presidential campaign can be depressing and dishonest. At least it beats prime-time TV.

This Thursday’s episode of the ABC series, “Eli Stone,” features a heroic, Grisham-style litigator who takes down a vaccine manufacturer for $5.2 million over “mercuritol,” a compound which the show coyly presents as a possible cause of autism. The whole thing is a thinly-veiled allusion to the thimerosal controversy. Despite all evidence, this faux debate persists because of the sincere but harmful actions of eccentric Congressman Dan Burton and a misguided segment of the autism advocacy community.

There is no scientific debate over the alleged link between vaccines and autism. A New York Times story by Edward Wyatt reports the story well. Good people believe that vaccines have harmed their children, but there is no evidence this is true. Among the reasons not to believe it:

• The effective removal of thimerosal from vaccines brought no observable impact on autism rates.

• Unvaccinated autistic children show the same age of onset as do vaccinated autistic children.

• Major studies, and reports by the Institute of Medicine, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the World Health Organization, and others have investigated this issue exhaustively, and found no reason for worry.

Unfortunately, the same social undercurrents that lead people to fear vaccines also lead people to dismiss the messengers and messages that might assuage these fears. Elaine Showalter’s Hystories appeared ten years ago. Too bad, because the vaccine-autism controversy provides near-perfect illustration of how hysterical epidemics are spread through an interaction of sympathetic victims, underlying cultural anxiety, and the modern media.

The vaccine-autism controversy features heart-wrenching testimony from parents who faithfully took their child to the pediatrician for shots, only to witness the onset of autism soon after. On the other side, it features pharmaceutical companies, often poster boys for corporate greed. It taps into public distrust of scientific medicine, and our resentment of our dependence on these same experts. It taps into public fears about strange chemicals in novel combinations that penetrate our bodies to do strange things.

The controversy also reflects complacency about infectious disease. The initial Salk vaccine brought real dangers. Early manufacturing errors infected hundreds of children with polio. 1950s America tolerated the risk, because people had only recently lived in fear of using the town swimming pool. We take our herd immunity for granted. Many people, Ron Paul among them, chafe at mandatory vaccination.

Public health practitioners rightly fear that shows such as “Eli Stone” will discourage people from getting flu shorts or immunizing their kids. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, failure to immunize toddlers was a major cause of the 1989-91 U.S. measles epidemic, which resulted in 11,000 hospitalizations and 120 deaths. More to the point, a 1998 study that alleged an autism link convinced many British parents not to vaccinate their kids. The study was discredited, but not before it stoked needless measles outbreaks in which hundreds of children were hospitalized and a few died. There is much evidence that fictional television accounts influence peoples’ attitudes and behavior in public health.

My own displeasure is personal. As a caregiver for a man suffering from a genetic condition linked to autism spectrum disorders, I see how families are easily drawn to quackery and hokum. I have also seen how difficult it is for medical science to compete for airtime with unfounded theories and worthless therapies. It is always irresponsible to falsely blame vaccines for health difficulties. There is something especially heartless about a television network that coyly spreads myth in this area.

We are used to politicians who doubt global warming and evolution, the cranks who claim that Jewish doctors are spreading AIDS. Of course, the problem goes deeper. The reality-based community is embattled because reality so often fails to provide the answers and the consolation people seek. Hence the perpetual lure of magical thinking.

And there is always someone willing to make a buck on it. If ABC comes under enough criticism, maybe it will make a showy donation to some autism-related cause. Today’s paper reports that ABC as been shamed into running a disclaimer with links to government web sites. The network claims to show both sides, a statement that would apply with equal merit to the debate over whether HIV causes AIDS.

I suspect that ABC will get good ratings. It is depressing how low the market and social penalties really are for unethical corporate behavior The misleading story line will remain, though its sole connection to reality will be ironic: A handsome trial lawyer sways a pliable jury and television audience to believe something that isn’t true. John Grisham, I have an idea for your next book.

Author: Harold Pollack

Harold Pollack is Helen Ross Professor of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago. He has served on three expert committees of the National Academies of Science. His recent research appears in such journals as Addiction, Journal of the American Medical Association, and American Journal of Public Health. He writes regularly on HIV prevention, crime and drug policy, health reform, and disability policy for American Prospect,, and other news outlets. His essay, "Lessons from an Emergency Room Nightmare" was selected for the collection The Best American Medical Writing, 2009. He recently participated, with zero critical acclaim, in the University of Chicago's annual Latke-Hamentaschen debate.