Notes – The Well-Trained Mind, Part I

These are my notes from the first part of “The Well-Trained Mind: A Guide To Classical Education At Home”. It covers concepts and instruction from the typical kindergarten through fourth grade period of education. My notes will remain fairly rough for now; later I may go back and compile them into a comprehensive “1 sheet summary” to classical education for home schooling. For now I will just provide my notes chapter by chapter, with the understanding that there is a mixture of direct quotes with clarifying commentary or analysis from me personally.

Chapter 2, A Personal Look at Classical Education: Susan

The author states that her personal experience with classical education applied at home was like this:

Our education was language-centered, not image-centered; we read and listened and wrote but we rarely watched.

Trivium

A classical education revolves around three core disciplines: grammar, logic and rhetoric. These three disciplines become an organizing principle for a home school family attempting to follow a classical education, and a model of the individual child’s intellectual development:

  • Grammar stage, the building blocks for all other learning are laid
  • Logic stage, cause and effect, relationships among different fields of knowledge, the way facts fit together into a logical framework, learn and apply the scientific method
  • Rhetoric stage, write and speak with force and originality, express conclusions, begin to specialize knowledge, specialized training

As the authors suggest, a child will go through three distinct “parts” of their education mirroring these stages; within each discipline or educational topic they’ll also individually progress through these stages.

Principles of classical education:

  • Language-focused, language requires the mind to work harder; images allow the mind to be passive
  • Three part pattern, the mind must first be supplied with facts and images, then given the logical tools for organization of those facts and images, and finally equipped to express conclusions (grammar, logic, rhetoric)
  • Mastery in skill areas, discovery and exploration in content areas; workbooks and textbooks are valuable for building skill areas; content areas are fields of study that are open-ended and can’t be mastered, we steer away from textbooks in the content areas, and towards collections of “living books”, books written by single authors, exploring particular issues and ideas
  • All knowledge is interrelated; history as an organizing outline of knowledge

Twelve years of education consist of three repetitions of the same four-year pattern: ancients (5000 BC to AD 400), medieval period through the early Renaissance (400-1600), late Renaissance through early modern period (1600-1850) and modern times (1850-present). The student will end up visiting each of these historical periods once each in the grammar, logic and rhetoric stages.

Move forward chronologically and organize the bulk of your history by time period, rather than by individual country. The traditional American method of studying history by region does nothing to help students draw connections between events, vital to critical thinking about history.

They suggest a 4-year pattern for sciences instruction:

  • biology, classification and the human body
  • earth science and basic astronomy
  • chemistry
  • basic physics and computer science

The classical pattern lends coherence to the study of history, science and literature.

Virtuous men and women can force themselves to do what they know is right, even when it runs against their inclinations. Classical education continually asks a student to focus not on what is immediately pleasurable but on the steps needed to reach a future goal.

“The Great Conversation”: the ongoing conversation of great minds down through the ages.

Part I, The Grammar Stage K-4

Chapter 3, The Parrot Years

A classical education requires a student to collect, understand, memorize and categorize information.

Your goal is to supply mental pegs on which later information can be hung.

The elementary years are ideal for soaking up knowledge.

The child should be accumulating masses of information: stories of people and wars; names of rivers, cities, mountains, and oceans; scientific names, properties of matter, classifications; plots, characters, and descriptions.

Seize this early excitement. Let the child delve deep. Let him read, read, read. Don’t force him to stop and reflect on it yet.

The immature mind is more suited to absorption than argument.

There is nothing wrong with a child accumulating information that she doesn’t yet understand. It all goes into the storehouse for use later on. [like language]

Children like lists at this age.

The goal of grammar-stage instruction is not to restrict your child but rather to protect her love of learning. Children mature out of the grammar stage into the logic stage at different times. Children mature unevenly. Give your children the time and space to mature, in each subject area, from grammar into logic-stage thinking.

Prioritize reading, writing, grammar and math.

A child who reads and writes well will pick up surprising amounts of history and science as he browses.

Chapter 4, Unlocking the Doors: The Preschool Years

She’s learning that words are used to plan, to think, to explain: she’s figuring out how the English language organizes words into phrases, clauses and complete sentences. [sportscasting with an infant]

Repetition builds literacy.

After you read to your toddler, ask her questions about the story.

As soon as your child begins to talk teach her the alphabet.

Teach a child from the beginning to hold a pencil correctly.

Start with counting: fingers, toes, eyes and ears; toys and treasures; rocks and sticks.

Most four-year-olds have microscopic attention spans, immature hand-eye coordination and a bad case of the wiggles.

Children can listen to and enjoy books that are far, far above their vocabulary level. Audiobooks stock a child’s mind with the sounds of thousands of words.

Many children are ready to read long before they have the muscular coordination to write. Why delay reading until the muscles of the hand and eye catch up?

Do “daily” math by adding and subtracting in the context of everyday family life.

Do lots of addition and subtraction with manipulatives (beans, buttons, pencils, chocolate chips).

Chapter 5, Words, Words, Words: Spelling, Grammar, Reading and Writing

Your goal, in grades 1 through 4, is to make the proper use of language second nature to your child.

Begin the academic year with three-ringed notebooks, a three-hole punch, and lots of paper, both lined and plain. Also lay in a boxful of art supplies: glue, scissors, construction paper, colored pencils (good artist-quality ones like Sanford Prismacolor), stickers and anything else that strikes the child’s fancy. For elementary language arts, you’ll want to make use of two of these notebooks. Label one “Literature” and the other “Writing.”

Always spend as much time on one level as you need and progress on to the next level only when your child has mastered the previous one.

Three levels of reading:

  • Instructional level, the student is still working hard at the mechanics of reading, and rarely has the comprehension to match
  • At-level reading, the student knows all of the letter combinations and words she’ll encounter, tends to be slow and requires concentration
  • Below-level (or “fun”) reading, these are the books that use only the words and combinations that the student is completely comfortable with, and is important because it allows the child to enjoy reading and it improves reading speed

Aim for the “reading periods” to include all three skills, each week.

Try to give the child simplified versions of the original literature that he’ll be reading in the higher grades or introduce him to a writer he’ll encounter later.

After a child reads, you can ask questions about the reading and the oral answers are called narrations.

Learning how to identify one or two items about a book as more important than the rest is a vital first step in learning to write; a young writer will flounder as long as he cannot pick out one or two of the ideas in his mind as central to his composition.

Children in the 3rd or 4th grade can write down their own narrations after reading. Instead of learning to complete fill-in-the-blank questions, the child uses all his mental faculties to understand, remember, and relate the main points of a story.

Every three or four weeks, the child should also memorize a poem and recite it to you. Memorization and recitation of poetry is an iomportant part of the reading process; it exercises the child’s memory, stores beautiful language in his mind, and gives him practice in speaking aloud.

Spelling is the first step in writing.

We don’t think you should allow spelling to consume your language arts time.

It’s important to allow students to progress at a natural pace in each of the language arts areas without frustrating them by limiting their progress to the speed of their worst subject.

Grammar exercises should be done orally with 1st and 2nd graders.

Early writing instruction should focus on developing those tools, rather than demanding a great deal of original content.

How to more quickly develop writing capability:

  • Most people try to teach children to express ideas at the same time they are writing them down, Inarticulate idea -> Idea in words -> Words on paper
  • We recommend you separate each step into a discrete action, ie, first Inarticulate idea -> Idea in words, then Idea in words -> Words on paper

The young writer practices putting ideas into words, and then putting words down on paper, before trying to do both simultaneously.

The classical pupil learns to write by copying the great writers.

Chapter 6, The Joy of Numbers: Math

Mathematics is a language because it uses symbols and phrases to represent abstract realities.

Mathematical literacy (numeracy) involves learning both the procedures and the reasons why they work (conceptual math).

Two primary methods of learning math:

  • Spiral approach, assumes students learn best when they practice a skill at a basic level, move away to other skills, and then return to the first skill and practice it at a slightly deeper level.
  • Mastery approach, teaches fewer topics per year but focuses on each longer

Chldren aged 5 through 7 usually need concrete objects; children aged 8 through 10 begin to shift into “mental image” mode. Abstract thinking begins around age nine or ten, which coincides with the beginning of the logic stage.

Firm principle of elementary mathematics: no calculators.

Math is a science of not being wrong about things, its techniques and habits hammered out by centuries of hard work and argument. With the tools of mathematics in hand, you can understand the world in a deeper, sounder, more meaningful way.

Chapter 7, Seventy Centuries in Four Years: History and Geography

The history of the world is but the biography of great men.

Thomas Carlyle

History is the study of everything that has happened until now. Unless you plan to live entirely in the present moment, the study of history is inevitable.

Keep one central fact in mind: history is a story.

The logical way to tell a story is to begin at the beginning and go on till you come to the end.

The history curriculum covers seventy centuries; America occupies only five of them. [don’t over-emphasize your time and place in historical study]

The goal of the classical curriculum is multicultural in the true sense of the word: the student learns the proper place of his community, his state, and his country by seeing the broad sweep of history from its beginning and then fitting his own time and place into that great landscape.

Tackle original sources.

[why does the history curriculum begin with 5000BC, what about pre-history? biological history? spread of mankind over the globe?]

Three goals of studying history:

  • to give students an overall sense of progression of historical events from ancient times to the present
  • to develop skills in reading and writing
  • to teach geographic awareness.

Progressing chronologically from your chosen starting point gives students an organized and orderly way to think about history; the majority of your history study should be done with a worldwide focus, not country by country. [comparing and contrasting simultaneous developments]

Follow the same basic pattern:

  • Read the material to your child as they follow along; as they gain reading skills, alternate the reading responsibility
  • Make a narration page.
  • Ask the child to illustrate what has just been read, or color a picture related to the story
  • Find the geographical area under discussion on a globe, wall map, etc. and color the appropriate black-line map
  • Go to the library to find more books on the subject

Give priority to reading, grammar, spelling, writing and math. History and science follow on these basic abilities.

History should be a delight-centered activity for the grammar-stage child. Allow him to explore, do activities and projects, and have fun; you can always hurry over (or skip) later chapters without injury.

Chapter 8, Investigating the World: Science

Two important attitudes to cultivate: a sense of amazement; a commitment to look hard at the world around us.

Parents who are themselves scientists have told us that they prefer to teach the sciences as connected to each other rather than related to history.

Chapter 9, Dead Languages for Live Kids: Latin (and Other Languages Still Living)

Reasons to study a “dead language” like Latin:

  • Latin trains the mind to think in an orderly fashion.
  • Latin-trained mind becomes accustomed to paying attention to detail.
  • Latin improves English skills
  • Latin prepares the child for the study of other foreign languages.
  • Latin guards against arrogance.

A foreign language “provides one with entry into a worldview different from one’s own… If it is important that our young value diversity of point of view, there is no better way to achieve it than to have them learn a foreign language.”

Whole-to-parts Latin instruction is frustrating and counterproductive, and breaks down the very skill that systematic Latin lessons develop– the habit of systematic thinking.

Conversation is the only path to fluency.

Chapter 10, Electronic Teachers: Using Computers and Other Screens

During school-time, we read books, do experiments, and write about what we’re learning. It’s hard work, but the more the student reads and writes, the more natural reading and writing become.

Chapter 12, Finer Things: Art and Music

Art for elementary students should cover art techniques and elements, and learning about great artists.

Two years is the minimum time that it takes to begin to enjoy an instrument, rather than simply struggling with it.

Why Homeschooling?

This is adapted from an email I recently sent to a friend, who asked, “Why do you plan to homeschool your child?”

Education is informed by parenting and values

When we think about the purpose of parenting, we take a page out of Maria Montessori’s handbook and assume that our Little Lion basically has everything he needs already inside of him to be who he is going to be. It is not our job to give him personality, values or direction in life. Since we brought him into the world through no choice of his own and in a helpless state, it is our job to care for him and aid him in his own natural development so he can achieve independence and be whoever it is he will be. We hope to provide positive models and examples of what kind of person he can be and believe we will inevitably teach him the only thing we can teach him — who we are — by simply being authentic around him, but we don’t see it as our job to select values for him and teach him that he should value them.

We think this is different from a “traditional” parenting model which is built around the idea of the parents instructing the child in a particular set of values so they can become a “good” instance of that kind of person. For example, a Catholic parent might hope to raise a “good Catholic” and make religious values part of the child’s upbringing and instruction. A sports enthusiast might hope to see his child become a “good golfer”, and so instruct the child on the techniques and discipline necessary to excel at the sport. Thinking culturally, a Chinese person might see it as important to raise a “good Chinese child” with all the cultural implications that entails in terms of diet, attitudes toward life, behaviors and interests.. A materialist might think it important to raise a child who is a “good moneymaker”. And so on. We don’t see “goodness” as a goal of our efforts as parents, necessarily.

Our value framework

That being said, we are people and we do have values. We operate within a paradigm of what we see as desirable behavior, values and goals and what we see as opposed or detrimental to those things. This can’t seem to be avoided as thinking, acting beings– every moment we are faced with choices and the act of choosing implies moving toward some things and away from other alternatives. If one’s life has any consistency, these values and choices add up and create some coherence. Our coherence forms around interdependence and voluntaryism. We prefer a paradigm where people interact with one another on a peaceful basis, out of mutual desire and aimed at mutual benefit. This stands opposed to the narrative of “zero sum” and “dog eat dog”, where some must be slaves and some must be masters. We don’t see value in “using” people, which is one reason why we don’t plan to “use” our son to fulfill our own desires to create a good X.

By not pursuing “traditional” parenting, we have to use some other system of values to guide our choices and this is it. It inevitably informs our education decisions.

Education is socialization

Our theory of education is that education inevitably involves two concepts: grasping cause-effect relationships existent in reality and the pattern of facts that occurs as a result, and transmitting a system of values explicitly and implicitly about the role of individuals in society (what people refer to as socialization). Far from naively believing that education should only be about teaching cause-effect and facts, we embrace the reality that it is the very selection of which cause-effect relationships and which facts to focus on in a system of education that is itself a form of meta-socialization, before even formal social instruction is reached.

The intersection of parenting, values and education

Now I will try to put these three pieces together– our desire to give our child sufficient degrees of freedom to realize his inherent potential free of interference or intervention from us or others, our own system of values which idealizes free exchange, and our belief that education accomplishes two things in instructing a student about the nature of reality and also about their social role.

There seems to be an appropriate educational means to each set of values or goals in life. If you want a religious society, you need an education system focused on religious instruction. If you want a democratic society, you need an education system open to all and controlled by the government. If you want a free society, you need an education system (or lack of one!) that acknowledges individual differences and caters to them.

When I think about some of the alternatives we can consider when educating our child, they seem to fall short in various meaningful ways. Public or private, our child’s education will largely be guided by dictates of minimum standards and required instructional curricula handed down by people we don’t know from hundreds of miles away. We are socializing our child to understand that parents don’t have an important role to play in developing and implementing an educational program in their child’s life, this is something that can be given to “society” and its representatives, therefore, the child is to serve society because it is being instructed in things society deems it important for it to learn.

We will be telling our child that what it thinks is interesting, exciting, or important to learn is not germane to the process of education. We will be telling our child that education is something that happens in a prescribed place for a prescribed amount of time under tutelage of people who are “approved to teach.”

This seems like an overly regimented way to approach learning that denies the diversity of learning opportunities we believe actually exist. Our child won’t be able to listen to their own mind and body in knowing when to focus on studying something and when to take a break. And they will be inculcated into a pattern of hoop-jumping and test-taking that will push their sense of self outward, to what other people think about their competencies and capabilities, rather than inward in terms of what they think of these things relative to their values and goals.

It’s possible specific, market-based institutions can serve an educational role in our child’s life at various times and for various reasons, but it’s unlikely our educational habits will ever involve the kind of structure where we say goodbye to our child in the morning and hello in the afternoon, Monday through Friday. Homeschooling seems to meet our needs better.

How we plan to homeschool

So what does our homeschool curriculum look like? There are really only three “subjects” we think it is important we instruct our child in, at his own pace and based on his own developing interest– reading, writing and arithmetic. If our child learns to read, he will be able to follow his own interests by studying texts and other written resources imparting knowledge to any degree he would like. If he can write, he can communicate his ideas in another way besides verbally and improve his ability to connect and exchange with others. And if he can do basic math, he can think about personal circumstances (finance, time-keeping, etc.) and the nature of reality (“science”) in more sophisticated ways. These three disciplines are the fundamental building blocks of all other subjects of human knowledge he might like to instruct himself in. We would encourage him to consider learning these things and make every effort to provide him excellent instruction whenever he desires it until he has competency or mastery over them.

From there, the world is his oyster. He can be a self-guided learner and follow his passions, instincts and curiosities wherever they might lead. And we believe that by creating a paradigm for him from the get go that moves at his pace, he will maintain more innate enthusiasm for learning and growing than if he is faced with a “mandatory curriculum” and told he has to learn things he isn’t interested in and doesn’t care about, which don’t help him solve real problems he is facing. And we believe that by observing us, he will come to see the desirability of reading, writing and arithmetic because it will allow him to have more meaningful interactions with us.

Acknowledging our limits, embracing a child’s potential

Beyond that, we just don’t think we’re competent, as parents, people or anything else, to successfully predict what his life will be like and what knowledge he’ll need to be “successful” at it. As a result, our plan is to put a lot of trust and faith in him to figure it out with limited initial guidance. We’re excited to see who he will become and we hope this approach will be less stressful and more loving for all involved when we let go of the standard parent temptation to fight a child’s nature and try to shape them into something more “desirable” or good, from the parent’s point of view.

And this is why we’re interested in RIE, by the way, we feel it is laying the groundwork for the type of relationship we’re planning to build with our Little Lion, and we think it dovetails with our belief in trusting him to be who he is and giving him the framework and structure to thrive as such.

Review – The Vaccine Book

The Vaccine Book: Making the Right Decision for Your Child

by Dr. Robert W. Sears, published 2011

How many people who are “pro-vaccine” have read a book about vaccines?

How many people are aware of the frequency, severity and treatability of diseases which have vaccines available before deciding to take the vaccine? How many people understand the common, rare and potentially severe side effects, the physical components in the vaccines, the method by which the vaccine is manufactured and the availability of competing vaccine brands and production methods?

How many people understand the common vectors of each vaccine treatable disease and thus how to potentially avoid exposure to it entirely?

Who is likely to be better read on the subject of vaccines (even if you argued that they are ultimately misinformed)– your average vaccine taker, or your average vaccine skeptic?

Dr. Bob Sears is “pro-vaccine”– he believes vaccines have done more good than harm in the history of medicine and that they are an important part of individual and public health practices and he believes the standard vaccine schedules for infants and adults should be followed with few exceptions. So why is he having his medical license put under review because he supposedly gave a “non-evidence based” recommendation to a family to not vaccinate their child?

Because it’s hard to imagine a world in which a doctor would come under the scrutiny of authorities for giving a pro-intervention recommendation to a patient that was “non-evidence based”, perhaps we can assume that it is because Dr. Bob has challenged the medical establishment on the most fundamental level possible by writing a book which posits that patients should be informed about their choices and should ultimately provide knowledgeable consent before proceeding with a potentially dangerous treatment regimen such as infant vaccination. Sadly, if you ask most doctors to explain why they want to treat you the way that they do, what you get is not “evidence based” dialog about your choices, but sarcastic reminders about whose medical school plaque is on the wall.

It’s sometimes more like a priesthood than a profession, even though that doesn’t necessarily mean their advice is wrong or should be ignored.

So that is the controversy, but what does Dr. Sears actually say about vaccines?

The first twelve chapters of the book are dedicated to one disease each and its respective vaccine; the remaining chapters explore vaccine research, vaccine safety, vaccine ingredients, vaccine side effects and other topics.

The disease chapters outline the common course of each disease including symptoms, severity and treatment, followed by the common vaccine options available on the market including their preparation method and ingredients and common and rare side effects. There is a “pro” and “con” section exploring reasons to consider administering the vaccine and reasons why people/parents have not wanted to take the vaccine, and then Dr. Sears weighs in with his own take on how important the vaccine is. Each chapter helpfully summarizes the information with simple boxed call outs indicating whether the disease is common, severe and treatable (without a vaccine).

The common/severe/treatable approach is interesting. I found a lot of the diseases covered not-threatening because of the various combinations they “checked” in each category: a disease might be severe and treatable, and not common, or common, but not severe and treatable. The worst combination would be common, severe and untreatable– I don’t remember any disease with that profile. Just the opposite, in fact. According to Dr. Sears, with thanks mostly to widespread vaccination, most of the diseases mentioned are not common (to the point that they’re actually or practically eradicated in the US/West) so there is almost no chance of catching it, vaccinated or not. Several others are typically so minor in their symptoms, especially in infants (versus adults), that they might be mistaken for a common cold if caught. And those that are potentially severe seem to be treatable with antibiotics in most cases, especially if diagnosed early in the course of the illness.

That being said, some of these diseases have the potential to put the victim in the hospital if the disease is not checked early, or it happens to be especially challenging to an individual’s immune system. In such a situation, even with a full recovery and no lasting damage the experience itself is likely to be stressful, costly, traumatic for the child and heartbreaking for the parents to watch– it’s not a joke as far as risks go, and it needs to be considered seriously. And a few of the diseases, if caught and if particularly intense in the course of the disease, do risk permanent neurological or organ damage even if successfully treated. That’s a terrifying possibility!

Reading between the lines a little bit here, Dr. Sears seems pretty clear that whatever risks there are for an unvaccinated child in contracting and fighting any of these diseases, they are even smaller for a child who is breastfed and avoids day care or other germ-ridden public child environments. Assuming this is the course a parent is following with their infant (as we are), it seems a lot more like a judgement call between accepting the risks of rare disease complications the child is likely never to get, or accepting the risks of vaccine side effects (short and long-term) which are inevitable and seemingly random in their frequency and severity. There are several diseases/vaccines mentioned which simply pose no risk whatsoever (chickenpox), or for which the illness can not be contracted by the infant without an infected mother who transmits it during pregnancy or birth, or for which the illness and vaccine do not become relevant until adolescence or adulthood (such as HPV, a sexually-transmitted disease). Taking what’s left, and given our commitment to breastfeeding and homecare/homeschooling, it just doesn’t look like vaccines make a lot of sense for our family.

That was the part of the book I struggled with the most, when Dr. Sears recommended a vaccine not for the infant’s safety, but for public health reasons, such as to maintain low prevalence of a disease across a population, or to protect at-risk family members or caregivers who could catch the disease from the infant and have a more difficult time fighting it (for example, Dr. Sears talks about how a pregnant school teacher could catch a disease from unvaccinated students that could harm her unborn child). This is all good information to have and consider in the event of one of these complicating circumstances actually being relevant to a family’s situation, and certainly the “moral” issues are worth considering and debating, but it seems clear that if the question is simply put as “Does this vaccine represent a worthwhile risk/reward profile to the individual being vaccinated?” the answer we arrived at was often “No.” That’s a very different question from “Is it our job to take health risks with our child to protect other people/children from health risks?”

Interestingly, smallpox has been eradicated but the vaccine is no longer given to preserve herd immunity. Instead it is controlled by the US government as a national defense reserve. In identical situations where a disease, such as polio, has been practically eradicated, Dr. Sears still recommends getting the vaccine for public health reasons, but with smallpox there is no suggestion that the public needs to keep getting vaccinated to be protected from an eradicated illness. Why the different logic?

Another item I made special note of was the relationship between traveling, domestically and internationally, and vaccination of an infant. Dr. Sears is explicit in saying that flying around on airplanes is not an easy way to catch a vaccine-preventable disease, and that there is essentially no risk of this happening for travel within the US, and there is very little chance of this happening for travel outside the US. He does suggest that people who are essentially “living in the bush”, doing missionary work in remote locations or areas where these diseases are endemic in the population, are at special risk for some of these illnesses, but again this doesn’t apply to us because we aren’t going to be traveling to poverty-ridden areas or where access to clean water might be an issue. It was comforting to know that travel as part of our lifestyle doesn’t really need to be changed because of our decision not to follow the recommended infant vaccination schedule.

The other thing I wanted to mention is Dr. Sears’s opinion about the state of vaccine safety research. In short, he says a lot of the studies are wanting. Here are some especially troubling quotes:

Some vaccines aren’t studied alone. Instead, they are given along with several other vaccines, so there is no way to know what their actual side effects may be.

[…]

Most vaccine side effects are monitored for a short time via parent questionnaires.

[…]

Out of the twenty-three major studies done to date that show no link between vaccines and autism, eighteen have some conflict of interest involving vaccine manufacturers. Similarly, the addition of the hepatitis B vaccine to the infant schedule was driven largely by research done by doctors who worked for the vaccine manufacturers.

[…]

What about the statistical chance that your child might get a severe, life-threatening case of one of these diseases? To my knowledge, that information has never been determined accurately through precise scientific statistical analysis. [… Dr. Sears estimates these risks as follows:] A very rough total of 55,000 cases of severe diseases each year in children. We know that the current US population of kids twelve and under is about 60 million. Dividing 60 million by 55,000 cases means that each child has a 1 in 1090 chance of suffering a severe case of a vaccine-preventable illness over the first twelve years of life. Note that flu and rotavirus are responsible for most of these cases. If one were to run the numbers without those two diseases, the risk of suffering a severe case of one of the uncommon disease is only about 1 in 6000. Most severe pediatric cases occur during the first two years of life. An estimation of severe cases in children two years and younger would be about 34,000 cases divided by 10 million kids, or about 1 in 300.

[…]

What is very clear, however, is that vaccines have triggered autism in a very small number of children. A phrase I recently heard sums it up very well: Vaccines don’t cause autism… except when they do.

[…]

If we were to throw out all research that has some conflict of interest, we would actually be left with very little on either side of the [vaccine-autism] debate […] the right type of research has not been done yet.

In addition, here is what Dr. Sears would consider to be the minimum standard for a valid safety research study, which might be helpful for people trying to evaluate various studies in making up their mind about the risks posed by diseases and their vaccines:

  • Prospective: the study group is selected and then followed in real time. Virtually all current research has been retrospective, looking back into the past at data on groups of children who have since grown up (for which the outcome is already known).
  • Randomized: test subjects are selected at random and placed in either the study or the placebo group in a random manner to avoid bias.
  • Placebo-controlled: a study group exists that is not receiving the treatment in question (in this case, vaccines). This is the primary way to be able to draw conclusions with a high degree of accuracy.
  • Double-blind study: the researchers and the study subjects don’t know who is receiving the test treatment (vaccines). This prevents bias as the researchers observe and collect, and the test subjects report, data.
  • Large-scale research: this is needed for a study to be considered statistically significant and to prove the findings aren’t simply due to chance.

Interestingly, he explains why these studies haven’t been performed to date, and I am not surprised to report it is not an example of “market failure”! The government, as usual, plays a big role here.

A final note: There are several instances where Dr. Sears refers to a disease which has been practically eradicated, but which in recent memory has experienced a sudden outbreak in a localized community before being contained. Aside from a generic geographic description, such as “a neighborhood in Ohio” or something like that, there is no demographic data given about these outbreaks, if it is even collected and publicly known. Wouldn’t it be interesting to know that? If these periodic outbreaks are restricted to specific socio-economic populations, wouldn’t that change the implied incidence of risk for the population as a whole? I’d want to know that information, but the current state of medical research in our country considers this unscientific and irrelevant, so much so that it is politically incorrect to wonder about it. How can facts be offensive? It seems like there is an attempt to control political dialogue here, which I find disturbing.

This book has many virtues but its greatest one is that the information is both comprehensive and well organized, while still remaining succinct. It’s very easy to approach the question of vaccination, its risks and benefits, from a number of angles and find all of them anticipated by this book, and more.