Society for the Teaching of Psychology: Division 2 of the American Psychological Association

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Using the Vaccines-Autism Myth to Foster Critical Thinking

15 Nov 2017 2:59 PM | Anonymous

By Valkiria Duran-Narucki, Ph.D., Patricia J. Brooks, Ph.D., & Elizabeth S. Che, College of Staten Island, CUNY

With the proliferation of “fake news” and the ever-present need to “fact check” information, we all need to exercise the critical thinking skills that accompany scientific research in our everyday lives. Efforts to curb the amount of poor quality information on the Internet are futile, particularly if we want to live in an open society with a freeform Internet where everyone has the opportunity to craft content and express themselves. A more effective and just approach would be to help our students to become educated citizens who can apply scientific thinking and research skills to make sense of current affairs and become more discerning consumers of information. In this blog post, we describe an activity developed for a research methods course in psychology and how we adapted it for an honors section of Introductory Psychology to develop critical thinking and research skills.

Valkiria Duran-Narucki first introduced the activity in one of the first classes of a semester-long research methods course. Although, in many instances, a research methods course might not be appreciated by students because of the lack of connection between research methods and everyday problems, Dr. Duran-Narucki sought to demonstrate how research and critical thinking skills could help students evaluate information relevant to a pervasive “fake news” claim that vaccines cause autism. Students were asked to watch two videos in order to gather information about autism and vaccines.

Video 1: CDC Whistleblower Confesses to Vaccine-Autism Fraud. In this video Andrew Wakefield described how the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lied about the safety of immunizations and includes a comparison to the Public Health Service involvement in the Tuskegee Study.

Video 2: Vaccines: An Unhealthy Skepticism. In this video, The New York Times’ RetroReport describes how a measles outbreak in Disneyland brought attention to parents who chose not to vaccinate their children and the bias a growing number of parents have against vaccinations.

After watching the two videos, they were asked to write answers to the following prompt:

A Facebook friend posted that she doesn’t know whether she should vaccinate her baby.

What advice would you give her based on the evidence from the videos? How do you know whether the information you tell her is from a reliable source? If you wanted to share one of these videos on Facebook, which one would choose and why?

Students were encouraged to talk to each other or use their cell phones to search for information connected to the topic, but they had to write out their responses individually and turn them in. The assignment was graded pass/fail and served as a demonstration of the kinds of in-class assignments that would be used throughout the semester to help students develop skills in locating scientific evidence and evaluating claims from the media.

Patricia Brooks and Elizabeth Che adapted this activity for their honors section of Introductory Psychology. At the start of the semester, we administered a 25-item Myth Busters quiz that included items such as "We only use 10% of our brain and If students do not drink sufficient amounts of water, their brains shrink." Although our first-year students did pretty well on the quiz overall, 40% of them endorsed the statement that "Vaccines can cause autism," which suggested that they had heard this view and assumed it to be true.

In a subsequent class we showed students the two videos about the presumed risks and benefits of vaccinating infants, and asked them to take notes while watching each video. We then demonstrated how to check the facts about vaccines and autism using Google Scholar. We discovered that many of our first-year students had never heard of Google Scholar and had never looked at primary source research articles. We used the search terms “autism” and “vaccination” and pulled up numerous articles that disputed the myth that "Vaccines can cause autism," as well as articles such as Venkatraman, Garg, and Kumar (2015) documenting a proliferation of anti-vaccination views on the Internet, as identified via searches on Google and YouTube. We used time in-class to read the abstracts of journal articles retrieved, which provided for some students their first exposure to scientific discourse.

We then looked up Andrew Wakefield on Wikipedia to learn more about his medical career, his 1998 paper in the Lancet that claimed evidence for an association between the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine and occurrence of autism, and the subsequent allegations of scientific fraud, retraction of his research papers by journal editors, and the loss of his license to practice medicine.

The first-year students, for the most part, were open to changing their beliefs about vaccines and autism. We then discussed the psychological phenomenon of illusory truth as a way of understanding how pseudoscientific beliefs are established through exposure to fake news and false claims. We also introduced the concepts of confirmation bias and belief perseverance to explain how people have biases to notice things that confirm their preexisting beliefs and to discount evidence that contradicts their beliefs.

In both courses, the controversy around vaccines and autism proved to be fertile grounds for discussing how fake information is spread via social media and our responsibility, as informed citizens, to fact check what we read before jumping to conclusions. Most importantly, through activities like the one described, it is possible to show the relevance of critical thinking to real “life and death” situations, and to the everyday challenges that students experience in their current and future lives.


Venkatraman, A., Garg, N., & Kumar, N. (2015). Greater freedom of speech on Web 2.0 correlates with dominance of views linking vaccines to autism. Vaccine, 33(12), 1422-1425.

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