Calling out false “balance” on vaccines and autism

Manufactroversy.

It’s wonderful, made-up word that describes a phenomenon so aptly, so brilliantly, that I like to use it all the time. Basically the word describes a manufactured controversy that is motivated by either extreme ideology (virtually always crank ideology) and/or profit that is intentionally stoked to create public confusion about a scientific issue that is not in dispute. Such efforts are often accompanied by conspiracy theories involving deception and polemic rhetoric (and sometimes fraud). There’s also another term that is related to the word “manufactroversy,” and that’s “denialism,” which is used to describe the phenomenon that is behind manufactroversies: The denial of science that is not in major dispute. Examples abound: Anthropogenic global climate change denialism, evolution denialism, and, of course, vaccine denialism, a frequent topic of this blog. Vaccine denialism involves n unshakeable belief not based in evidence that vaccines cause autism and has resulted in direct threats to public health through fear mongering that has had the effect in some areas of causing vaccine uptake rates to plummet. Perhaps the most famous example is Andrew Wakefield’s bogus study from 1998 that he used, sadly aided and abetted by the U.K. press looking for sensationalistic stories and opportunistic politicians, to fuel a fear of the MMR vaccine that led MMR uptake to plummet. The result was entirely predictable, namely the resurgence of measles in the U.K., with outbreaks that continue even to today. Only now are MMR uptake rates recovering.

All of this points to the critical role of the press in either aiding and abetting denialist manufactroversies, such as antivaccine fear mongering, or countering them, which is why it’s good to see an article in the Columbia Journalism Review by Curtis Brainard entitled Sticking with the truth: How ‘balanced’ coverage helped sustain the bogus claim that childhood vaccines can cause autism. The article basically says something that I’ve been saying all along, namely that the journalistic fetish for “balance,” which is fine for political and policy debates, can be utterly harmful when it comes to denialist campaigns because it gives the false impression that pseudoscience is on par with science. Brainard uses, appropriately enough, the example of Andrew Wakefield, pointing out that the manufactroversy played out in the press for over 15 years and, in fact, continues to do so, and then writes:

Among scientists, however, there really was never much of a debate; only a small group of researchers ever even entertained the theory about autism. The coverage rarely emphasized this, if it noted it at all, and instead propagated misunderstanding about vaccines and autism and gave credence to what was largely a manufactured controversy. As Ben Goldacre, a British doctor and media critic, wrote in his 2008 bestseller, Bad Science: “[Y]ou will see news reporters, including the BBC, saying stupid things like ‘The research has since been debunked.’ Wrong. The research never justified the media’s ludicrous over-interpretation. If they had paid attention, the scare would never have even started.”

The consequences of this coverage go beyond squandering journalistic resources on a bogus story. There is evidence that fear of a link between vaccines and autism, stoked by press coverage, caused some parents to either delay vaccinations for their children or decline them altogether. To be sure, more than 90 percent of children in both the US and the UK receive the recommended shots according to schedule, but in 2012, measles infections were at an 18-year high in the UK, reflecting low and bypassed immunization in some areas. In the US, vaccine-preventable diseases reached an all-time low in 2011, but the roughly one in 10 children who get their shots over a different timeframe than the one recommended by the medical establishment, and the less than 1 percent who go entirely unvaccinated, are enough to endanger some communities. And American and British authorities have blamed recent outbreaks of measles and whooping cough on decisions to delay or decline vaccination.

The rest of the article is a depressing account of how the manufactroversy over vaccines and autism has spread fear, uncertainty, and doubt (FUD) over vaccines, as all manufactroversies are meant to, mentioning some key “journalists” who fed the story: David Kirby, with whom we’re all familiar, who wrote Evidence of Harm, a book “exposing” how the mercury in the thimerosal preservative that was used in some childhood vaccines in the US until around 2002 causes the “autism epidemic.” It didn’t. Then there was our old “friend” Dan Olmsted, now the “managing editor” of the antivaccine crank propaganda blog, Age of Autism, promoting his “Where are the autistic Amish?” bit of nonsense. Unfortunately, the false “balance” continues even to today, with Brian Lehrer having included his daughter, a noted vaccine-autism crank:

In part one, MacNeil interviewed his daughter, Alison, whose son has autism, and let her make unfounded claims about vaccines. MacNeil, who narrated the series, told viewers there was no scientific evidence to support those claims, but it was a throwaway line that allowed MacNeil to claim “balance” while sowing serious misunderstanding about vaccines.

Elsewhere, Brainard notes:

While it’s somewhat reassuring that almost half the US stories (41 percent) tried, to varying degrees, to rebut the vaccine-autism connection, the study raises the problem of “objectivity” in stories for which a preponderance of evidence is on one side of a “debate.” In such cases, “balanced” coverage can be irresponsible, because it suggests a controversy where none really exists. (Think climate change, and how such he-said-she-said coverage helped sustain the illusion of a genuine debate within the science community.) A follow-up study by Clarke and Graham Dixon, published in November 2012, makes this point. The two scholars assigned 320 undergrads to read either a “balanced” article or one that was one-sided for or against a link between vaccines and autism. Those students who read the “balanced” articles were far more likely to believe that a link existed than those who read articles that said no link exits.

Which is exactly why, when it comes to science journalism, “balance” with respect to pseudoscience and quackery like vaccine denialism is no balance at all. It’s false balance that inflates the seeming plausibility of pseudoscientific claims. In other words, it matters. Fortunately, as Brainard notes, journalists seem to be starting to “get it” a bit more, and there are now a large number of watchdogs (mostly bloggers) who didn’t exist 15 years ago to pounce on examples of false balance. Still, the problem persists.

One area where Brainard gets it wrong is an example he chooses to conclude the story with to illustrate how the principle of “once bitten, twice shy” might cause journalists to be wary of covering real vaccine safety stories. It’s potentially a legitimate concern, but he uses the example of Pandemrix and narcolepsy in Sweden and Finland, for which the evidence, while suggestive, is not nearly as slam-dunk as he makes it sound and is, in fact, a complex situation that might involve multiple factors. Basically, the point strikes me as overplayed and, ironically enough, an attempt to insert a little “balance” into Brainard’s story.

Not surprisingly, Anne Dachel, Age of Autism’s “media editor” (which in most cases means posting links to stories critical of vaccine-autism pseudoscience, the better to alert her flying monkey patrol to swoop down on the comments of the articles and let fly their poo), is very unhappy at Brainard’s article, using her usual Orwellian turn of phrase to entitle it Columbia Journalism Review Casts Eye on Vaccine Safety Writers. No, Ms. Dachel. You are not a “vaccine safety writer.” You are a crank who refuses to face reality. But, then, we all knew that. Nice try, though.

Dachel trots out the usual canards, of course:

Do those high journalistic standards include blindly trusting health officials and medical journals? Did Brainard ever once consider that citing studies and claims from the agency that runs the vaccine program isn’t real proof of anything? Was Brainard aware that hundreds of individuals at the CDC have conflict of interest waivers because they have financial ties to the vaccine makers? Did he know that the last head of the CDC, Dr. Julie Gerberding, a longtime denier of any link, is now the head of the vaccine division at Merck?

Didn’t it tell Brainard something that when undergrads heard arguments on both sides of the vaccine-autism debate, they were more likely to believe there is a link?

Uh, Ms. Dachel. It’s psychology. If two conflicting viewpoints are placed side-by-side as apparently equal, of course more people will believe there is a link. That was the entire point of Brainard’s criticism of false “balance.” Ms. Dachel, of course, will have none of that:

I’ve monitored how the press covers autism for over ten years and almost nothing has changed. No matter how bad the numbers get, how clueless officials are or how much science disproves it, THERE IS NO LINK.

Brainard thinks that the coverage has been too balanced? In truth, we’ve never had real fair and balanced coverage of this issue. We never hear about the independent researchers raising serious concerns over vaccine safety or about the more than 200 studies that they’ve produced. I’ve personally seen hundreds of times where the press failed to cover this issue honestly and thoroughly from both sides Because reporters are gullible, ignorant, conflicted, frightened, or just plain lazy, we’ve not been told the truth about what vaccines are doing to our children.

Or maybe it’s that many journalists can recognize cranks when they see them, as encountering cranks is an occupational hazard, or that the reason “THERE IS NO LINK” is not because there is a coverup but because that’s what the data show (or, more specifically, the data fail to show a link). Of course, Ms. Dachel’s idea of “balanced” coverage would be to give credence to very vaccine-autism crank who crawls out from under a rock and declares that vaccines are The One True Cause of Autism.

Amusingly, elsewhere, Ms. Dachel cites some old articles by the CJR about the alleged “vaccine autism link” to conclude that Columbia Journalism Review (CJR) Was For Free Speech Before They Were Against It. Of course, that’s also part of the point of Brainard’s article. The CJR did publish some bad articles with false “balance,” and Brainard explicitly acknowledged that fact, noting that “CJR, too, played a role in sustaining the vaccine story,” before launching into praise for Brian Deer, the journalist who got it right with respect to Wakefield and without whom Wakefield might never have been exposed as having been a scientific fraud in the pay of trial lawyers seeking to sue over vaccine injury. More importantly, there is nothing wrong with changing one’s mind if one realizes he has been mistaken. Insistence on rigid consistency, particularly when it comes to science, is the mark of a crank, not a scientist or, I hope, a journalist or news organization.

No wonder Ms. Dachel insists on it. To her, changing one’s mind in the face of evidence is something that is just not done. If it were, she wouldn’t still be using AoA to send her flying monkeys hither, thither, and yon to contaminate comment threads with pseudoscience and quackery.