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How to Debunk Myths About Autism

An interview with Andrea Kitta about anti-vaccination, fake news, and the academic discipline that’s seen it all before.

By David M. Perry


Robert F. Kennedy Jr. speaks at a rally on Capitol Hill calling for healthier vaccines on June 4th, 2008, in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images)

In the middle of February, President Donald Trump asked Jane Quenneville, the principal of a Virginia school that focuses on special education, about “the autism.” He wanted to know whether Quenneville had seen an increase, then asked what was going on. Trump said: “When you look at the tremendous increase, it’s really such an incredible — it’s really a horrible thing to watch, the tremendous amount of increase. Do you have any idea?”

Unfortunately, Quenneville wasn’t prepared to tell the president that there is no autism epidemic, or that the increase, as recently explained by NOS Magazine, is due to changes in how we diagnose the condition. Further, Trump’s comment raised fears that Trump would soon return to undermining confidence in vaccine safety: Vaccine skepticism is one of his most consistent positions over the years. He met with skeptic Robert Kennedy Jr. in Trump Tower during the transition, and as president he has the power not just to reinforce bad ideas about vaccines, but also to appoint the people who oversee our public health.

Beyond the White House, alarmism over vaccines has wealthy and powerful proponents. It used to be Jenny McCarthy leading the Hollywood antivax league, but now Robert de Niro has taken the spotlight. He and Kennedy recently offered $100,000 to anyone who could prove vaccine safety to their satisfaction (which will never happen). No matter how many studies prove otherwise, and like so many other issues for which there is scientific consensus (global warming, evolution, etc.), anti-vaccine hysteria feels impervious to facts.

How do we fight back? I put that question to Andrea Kitta, associate professor of English at East Carolina University. Kitta is the author of Vaccinations and Public Concern in History: Legend, Rumor, and Risk Perception, a book that applies her expertise as a folklorist to the spread of anti-vaccination myths. Alas, she is not optimistic.

Let’s start with the basics. What, as an academic discipline, is folklore?

Folklore studies informal culture. Folklore doesn’t seek to prove or disprove a point a view, because the purpose is to understand why people do something, it becomes an entirely different way of looking at a particular issue. Folklore also focuses on the function that certain activities or stories have on an individual’s life and on their place within their folk groups. Folklorists are also very interested in transmission — so how do these activities/stories get around? Who knows who? How? Where are they expressing themselves?

Transmission of ideas like the anti-vaccination myths? What does folklore tell us about those?

So many things! I started my work in 2003, when a lot of the literature had people in either an anti-vaccination camp or a pro-vaccination camp, when there are so many spaces in between. It was also a time when physicians were just clueing into how much their patients were using the Internet and trying to figure out how to handle that.

There was also this idea that there were “types” of parents — one of my participants called them “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly”: Good parents vaccinated, bad parents were too lazy/stupid to vaccinate, and the “ugly” parents were the ones that didn’t listen to their doctor and did their own research online. Of course, it’s so much more complicated than that. There was also the idea that education was the solution — but I (and a few others) quickly started to notice that the people we were talking to who were delaying or refusing some vaccines were very educated, I found most of these parents had at least one advanced degree; most had more than one between them. The population, their activities, their networks, where they found information was all very different from what many people thought.

As a folklorist, can you help us figure out how to stop the spread of these ideas?

You can’t stop this stuff, only mediate it.

That’s not a super optimistic message!

Yeah, but it’s truthful. We can change people’s minds, but it might not be easy and it’s certainly not something we can do overnight.

So we have to construct counter-folklore?

The counterpoint already exists — it needs to be brought to the forefront.

In this era of “alternative facts,” it seems like folklore — or rather the people who study folklore — have a lot to contribute.

There are a lot of cases where folklorists really know what’s actually happening. Folklorists are all over the fake news and alternative facts while others are still struggling with proper language and terminology. So I guess what I’m saying is that people (like journalists) need to contact places like the American Folklore Society, the American Folklife Center (which has a great blog), and the International Society for Contemporary Legend Research, whenever they have a question.

So what do we do now?

I still think that storytelling is a powerful tool and people are more influenced by stories than they are by facts. I maintain that if older physicians who remember childhood diseases we no longer see would share their stories more often, those stories would be very powerful tools. I also think folklorists help us understand the complexity of belief — people don’t make up their minds overnight, nor do they completely ignore information that disagrees with their worldview. Belief is complicated and personal; folklore helps us understand why and how it works.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.