President-elect Trump is planning to appoint an ardent critic of childhood vaccines to head up a commission looking into a link between vaccines and autism. In an odd way, the move illustrates the point about populism, to a T.
“We never evolved a probability network and thus folk intuitions are ill-equipped to deal with many aspects of the modern world,” or so said Michael Shermer in Scientific American in 2008.
The point here is that evolution is an imperfect process, and can sometimes equip us with the wrong tools. When we were hunter gatherers, frequenting the plains of Africa, we needed certain skills and certain abilities. But those same skills may be less relevant today. For example, or so it appears, evolution never did hardwire into us a good sense of grasping probability.
Let’s take an example, and this is an example, by the way, that shows how the author is among those who does not have an intuitive grasp of probability.
Imagine you are on a game show and there are three doors, behind one is a car; behind the other two a goat. You choose a door, the host, who knows where the car is, chooses another door, and reveals a goat. He asks you to guess again, do you change your mind or stick with the original guess?
Most of us – including the author – would say it makes no difference. In fact, it does. The probability of the car being behind the original door is one in three, but the probability of it being behind the other door is one in two. So, it pays to switch.
Not many of us get that. But mathematicians, so called experts of whom we are told we have had quite enough – assure us that this is the case.
And from this same lack of intuitive understanding of probability we see superstition – we see people confuse randomness with causation, and we get lucky jumpers for example, or gamblers blowing on a dice, because it worked once.
Back in 1998, a paper appeared to show a link between the MMR vaccination and the development of autism. The paper was subsequently showed to be fraudulent. But the paper also tapped into our inaccurate sense of intuition, appearing to provide evidence of something many people thought was true anyway. In fact, any link is random. Autism often develops at the same age that the MMR vaccine is given, and when applied to millions of children, simple probability shows that some people will show signs of autism soon after receiving the jab.
In 2010, the author of the initial report, Andrew Wakefield, was found guilty of serious professional misconduct on four counts of dishonesty and 12 involving the abuse of developmentally challenged children, and ordered that he be struck off the medical register.
But the results of all this was disastrous, in 2002/03, 5,000 people in Italy were hospitalised with measles. In 2008, and for the first time in 14 years, measles was declared endemic in the UK. Some experts even claimed that the paper was responsible for killing children.
That’s what happens when the views of experts are dismissed because they do not chime with a public intuition, despite clear evidence that our intuition is sometimes wrong, especially if it involves large numbers.
President-elect Trump is planning to appoint Robert Kennedy Jr, a well-known sceptic on vaccinations, to head-up a commission on ‘vaccination and scientific integrity.” Mr Trump has himself been a critic, suggesting in 2015 that childhood vaccinations were linked to autism.
But populism is all about playing to the views of people, even when those views may be based on an incorrect interpretation of facts, such as the view that immigration is hurting the economy, or globalisation is making the world poorer.
And as the sad tale of the MMR and autism saga shows, the results can be disastrous.