Vaccines and autism: The Internet did it. Oh?

Like the Vox video says, get your vaccinations. Check out all their great work on YouTube.

An author of yet another study (of studies) showing no connection between vaccines and autism has an answer for what we’re all wondering: How’d this erroneous idea that vaccines cause autism come about?

“With the rise of the Internet and the decline of print journalism, anyone can put anything on the Internet,” explained co-author Margaret Maglione to USA Today.

Let’s ignore the fact that the real answer is a complex one involving more than technology, and just assume all the blame can be placed on the Internet. OK, done. Now, let’s reword what she said to get at what’s packed inside it:

If we still lived in a print-only era that tightly controlled the distribution of knowledge, misinformation like this never would have gone anywhere.

Now, some nuance.

It’s not just that the tools of knowledge distribution are different; it’s that knowledge itself is different because of those tools. Not my idea. David Weinberger wrote about it in this book: Too Big to Know.

In short, knowledge is now a conversation, not an edict. That shifts responsibility for building truth to how we build the “rooms” in which conversations take place.

The autism and vaccines “room” is screwed up.

Part of the problem lays with Andrew Wakefield’s 1998 study, which was retracted by the journal that published it, while Wakefield was banned from practicing medicine in Britain. Another aspect belongs to the disproportionate power wielded by celebrities in our culture. A few decided that vaccinations caused autism, and had enough fame to gain access to media stages from which to spread that opinion through the room. What else? Who else? It’s as varied as the Internet.

So how to build a better room?

Weinberger has a very unInternet idea on how: Restrict who you invite into the conversation.

He explains it to The Atlantic:

“To make a smart room — a knowledge network — you have to have just enough diversity. And it has to be the right type of diversity.”

For example, let’s say you’re on a mailing list that’s talking about how to bake the perfect cheesecake, and someone enters who wants to talk about how cheesecake will clog your arteries, how it diverts precious resources from those in need, and how it relies upon agricultural techniques that are killing the planet. Those are three reasonable objections to making cheesecake, and your list may want to pursue them. But it may not. It may want to stick with figuring out how to make tastier cheesecakes. It will therefore need some norms that say how off-topic a thread can become and what happens to offenders. It may also adopt a forking technique that is very helpful online: those who want to talk about the morality of cheesecake have plenty of space on the Net where they can have that discussion while the cheesecake recipe thread continues. Many such environments benefit from having moderators. Many use some form of peer filtering to vote comments up, down, or away. Whatever the techniques, if a knowledge network is to be smarter than its members, it needs to incorporate enough diversity and the right types of diversity, and it needs ways to deal sensitively when that diversity threatens to disrupt it.

In other words:

  • The goal of the conversation builds the rules of the conversation;
  • The rules let people in or push people out;
  • And someone needs to be watching the conversation so to enforce the rules.

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