Tuesday, January 18, 2011

autism, vaccines and the science of science writing

Salon today posts a great interview with Seth Mnookin, author of "The Panic Virus", which investigates the "anti-vaccine campaign that linked childhood vaccinations with autism, a link that has been scientically debunked. He particularly calls attention to the role the media played in accelerating the panic and, in so doing, casts a light on not just bad science (writing), but bad reporting in general. Sometimes there just aren't too sides to a story, and sometimes the good story, the dramatic one, isn't the right one.
Here's an excerpt:

The other entity that you indict pretty strongly is the media and journalists for playing a huge role in propagating a lot of false myths. I should say at this point that you have a really tough chapter devoted to a 2006 article written by Robert F. Kennedy Jr., and which Rolling Stone and Salon co-published. That was a specific case in which the story tried to link autism to the thimerosal. That has been thoroughly debunked by every serious inquiry. Was that report typical of the sort of journalistic problem you saw?

I do think that the media has more -- we have more responsibility for this than really any other single entity. There are a number of reasons for that. One is this false sense of equivalence. If there's a disagreement, then you need to present both sides as being equally valid. You saw with the coverage of the Birther movement; it's preposterous that that was an actual topic of debate. The fact that Lou Dobbs addressed that on his show on CNN is an embarrassment. It's not a subject for debate just because there are some people who said it was. I think you see that a lot in science and medicine, for a number of different reasons including the ways in which it can be hard to explain basic fundamental issues -- so I think that is a huge, huge issue and that's the huge issue that doesn't come into play in the story. And I think it's an absolute cop-out for reporters to say, "I've fulfilled my responsibility by presenting two sides." Sometimes there aren't two sides.

The false equivalency comes into play, really, in the situation of the MMR [measles-mumps-rubella] vaccine with Andrew Wakefield; you had him and a handful of researchers versus millions of doctors and researchers. I'm not talking about initially when his study first came out, but several years later when there had been all of these follow-ups. And obviously, you can't quote millions of doctors in one story; on the one hand this person thinks this, and this person thinks this. You're not talking about one person versus another. If I said that, oh, I have a report that Derek Jeter's going to quit baseball, no one would run that because it would be embarrassing. Because there's no information to support it. If I said that I have good information that Boeing is about to buy IBM, you know, people wouldn't run that. But for some reason when it comes to health and science, you don't get that. Instead of feeling embarrassed by running stories that people agree aren't true, it's kind of like, oh, we want to get out ahead of this controversy.

Then there's the other type of reporting in which (and this is true of a lot of journalists) they're looking for a really good story, and maybe they have preconceived notions about the way government works and you know corporations tend to be out for their own interest, not the public's interest. That's a different kind of journalism that created problems on the story.

Definitely. And I think that gets to another issue that comes into play with science and medicine. I'm not entirely sure why this is, but more so than in other areas there is a willingness to have people write about and cover these issues who don't have any background in them. You wouldn't ask me to go write about hockey, because I don't know anything about hockey. But if something came in over the wire about a cancer study, often times, especially now with the cutting of science sections, that assignment could end up on a general reporter's desk. You wouldn't ask me to cover business or the movie industry without knowing something basic about it. I don't know how this happened, but I think there has to be some sort of movement away from, oh, like, we're going be the first ones with this juicy story. And then in the days and weeks to come, we'll figure out what the reality is as to, you know, what it would be really embarrassing if we were the first ones on a story that ends up being completely ridiculous. And ultimately, that's going to hurt our credibility with viewers, readers, whatever.

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