Tuesday, February 27, 2018

False Balance in the Media

Just the Vax is recommending a post by Joel Harrison, PhD, MPH has published on Science Based Medicine. Enjoy.

[Note that the full article can be accessed by clicking here and a downloadable PDF version is available by clicking on the note at the top of the article]

The So-Called Vaccine Debate, False Balance in the Mass Media & The Risk to Public Health

Executive Summary

by Joel A. Harrison, PhD, MPH

February 26, 2018

The San Diego Union-Tribune (UT) recently published two opinion pieces on vaccine mandates, responding to California Senate Bill 277 which removed the “personal belief” exemption to vaccine requirements for children entering into day care, elementary or secondary schools. The bill was passed by the California Legislature in 2015:

Mark Sawyer, MD is a professor of clinical pediatrics in the Division of Infectious Diseases in the UCSD Medical School. Terry Roark is the advocacy director in California for the nonprofit National Vaccine Information Center.

Each piece was given equal length, giving the impression that each side represented a legitimate position, creating a false balance. In all fairness, the UT has posted articles and editorials on other occasions that clearly supported vaccines and the science behind them, e.g., “In a win for science and for student safety, school vaccination rates are the highest they have been in California in at least 15 years” (The San Diego Union-Tribune Editorial Board, 2017). The problem is that people often have short term memories, may not have read the previous pro-vaccine articles in the UT, or, seeing two articles, were influenced more by the one than the other.

As will be shown in this paper, the article by Terry Roark is full of inaccuracies, falsehoods, and misrepresentations, cultivating readers to form an opinion that is invalid. Like Roark, the vast majority of antivaccinationists lack the basic understanding of the science underlying vaccines, view the world as all or none, subscribe to paranoid conspiracy theories, and their certainty of the rightness of their opinion clearly reflects research that shows once people form opinions, they seldom change them and, remarkably, when confronted with evidence that they are wrong, they often embrace their point of view even more tenaciously (Tavris, 2007). Some of this can be attributed to the Dunning-Kruger effect, which posits that people often fail to grasp their level of competence (or more to the point, incompetence), which precludes their ability to form credible opinions.

Summary and Conclusion

In publishing Roark’s opinion piece, in my opinion, The San Diego Union-Tribune is guilty of creating a false balance. My intent is NOT to single out the UT as this is a problem belonging to our mass media in general. However, as the UT is my hometown newspaper, it provided an excellent example.

As I’ve demonstrated in this article, not one point made by Roark is valid. The underlying premise she is coming from is based on a lack of the basics of science, thus, a bogus opinion on vaccines, a lack of understanding of the economics of vaccine production, and a misleading quote, taken out of context, from a Supreme Court decision. Her affiliation with the National Vaccine Information Center and its Co-Founder and President, Barbara Loe Fisher, as shown by Fischer’s statement, leaves little doubt that besides a lack of scientific knowledge, antivaccinationists suffer from paranoid delusions of conspiracy theories, project their own, often vicious, attacks on the integrity and honesty of those promoting vaccines, including threatening statements, and see the world in terms of the Nirvana Fallacy (for more on Barbara Loe Fisher as the main spokesperson for the National Vaccine Information Center, see Orac, 2017). Attacks on the integrity and honesty of scientists says more about the attackers than the scientists. Such attacks indicate that antivaccinationists are incapable of systematically and validly using microbiology, immunology, epidemiology, biostatistics, and the history of infectious diseases to make their case and display, in my opinion, a crass lack of integrity and decency, basically anything and everything goes to influence people’s opinions, regardless of how unscientific, illogical, and including threats and character assassination.

Given that The San Diego Union-Tribune has, on the whole, been supportive of vaccines, it would behoove them, as well as our mass media in general, to re-evaluate their choice of opinion pieces and even letters that clearly do not reflect, have NO validity, on other issues as well. The UT’s policy regarding Letters to the Editor, “It is also our policy to attempt to publish letters supporting or opposing a particular issue in a ratio reflecting the number received on each side,” when one side is clearly taking an unscientific, invalid position, promotes false balance and is a disservice to readers (The San Diego Union Tribune. Letters and Commentaries).

Joel A. Harrison (2018 Feb). The So-Called Vaccine Debate, False Balance in the Mass Media, and the Risk to Public Health: Terry Roark’s Opinion Piece in the San Diego Union-Tribune (Oct 5, 2017) , “Exemptions should be option for parents”. Science-Based Medicine.

Joel A. Harrison, PhD, MPH is a retired epidemiologist who has been writing articles over the past years supporting vaccinations for Every Child By Two, an excellent non-profit founded in 1991. Every Child By Two has changed to Vaccinate Your Family, expanding its mission to include vaccines for people of all ages. You can find Executive Summaries of his previous ECBT articles that hyperlink to the complete articles as well as his brief biography on the archived ECBT Expert Commentaries page. Dr. Harrison has studied and worked in several countries, including Sweden (where he earned his doctorate) and Canada (where he earned a Masters degree). Having experienced both the Swedish socialized health care system and the Canadian non-profit single-payer system, over the past 30 years he has devoted considerable time to studying health economics and health care systems, concluding that, though the Swedish system is excellent, given American culture, he believes that a non-profit single-payer system would be best option for the United States. Dr. Harrison is a long time member of Physicians for a National Health Program.