Stop the Reduction of Science into Shouting Matches

When news becomes entertainment, it often devolves into shouting matches, and I don’t know about ratings or advertisers, but I suspect that these shouting matches are good for both. Bring together two people who staunchly support opposing positions, and–bam!–shouting match entertainment. But you know what they aren’t good for? Facts, and scientific facts in particular.

So inviting both Dr. Corey Hebert from Louisiana State University and Christina Hildebrand of A Voice for Choice on The Ed Show on MSNBC last month did absolutely nothing to further science. The discussion, which was supposed to center on Carly Fiorina’s statements about so-called parental choice and vaccines quickly devolved into hashtag-driven accusations about the horrors of vaccines and the impossible task of trying to refute these simplistic falsehoods by explaining complex science in mere seconds. Take a look:

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Of course, something that could have been a discussion about the balancing of rights when it comes to vaccine mandates became a discussion about vaccines and autism. When you invite an anti-vaccine activist onto your show, be aware that they only have two rabbits in their hat: vaccines cause autism (they don’t) and the CDC is evil (because evil).

The media is culpable, of course, because being salacious rather than sticking with the facts leads to outbreaks and perpetuates myths. And false balance is a real problem when it comes to science reporting, but especially journalism concerned about vaccines.

There is no clearer way to say it then this: vaccines do not cause autism, and there is no debate about concerning it. There are not two sides to vaccines and the science is not a political issue. The media need to keep this in mind when framing their stories.

One could make the case about the validity of discussing public policy and how best to require vaccines for school. However, that discussion is never going to happen meaningfully with an anti-vaccine activist because of those two rabbits I mentioned earlier. They only agree to media interviews so that they can perpetuate their long-disproven myths. They aren’t there for policy discussions. They are there to scare parents away from vaccines.

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And this is where everyone else in the world comes in. There are too many new journalists always coming into the industry who have immunization stories thrust at them even though they have no background in science reporting. False balance will always be an issue unless we do something.

I know how much we feel pulled to answer interview requests because we want to explain how safe and effective vaccines are to the public. It is a public service to go on television and make sure the news gets it right. But if we share space on the page or on TV with an anti-vaccine activist, we are only helping to give them the opportunity to sell their myths and we legitimize them by making their ideas seem equivalent with the science we are presenting. I put that in bold because if you read nothing else, I want you to understand that.

We need to stop agreeing to interviews when anti-vaxxers are being interviewed for the same story.

And I have done this. I am minor and easily replaceable, but it is a matter of principle. A minor cable news channel called and asked me for an on-camera interview. I asked immediately who else was being interviewed and found out they were also interviewing an anti-vaccine activist. So I said no. As luck would have it, they immediately called a friend of mine who told me about the request, and I was able to share with her what I’d learned. She, too, turned down the interview. What did they do? After watching the interview, it appears they stopped some random person in the parking lot and asked his opinion. Instead of the anti-vaxxer being given equal weight with a non-profit director, she was given the weight of a random guy from the parking lot. I wasn’t thrilled she was interviewed, but she didn’t seem as legitimate as she might have.

No matter who you are: a doctor, a public health official, a parent, etc., if someone calls and asks to interview you for a media story, the first words out of your mouth should be, “Who else are you interviewing?” If they are interviewing an anti-vaxxer, just say no. They might find someone else to interview, unless we all agree to stop being complicit in perpetuating false balance. But I hope, over time, they will just stop calling the anti-vaxxers and realize that the real battle is against preventable disease and not a cage match involving opposing sets of facts.

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One thought on “Stop the Reduction of Science into Shouting Matches

  1. A painful truth. As Lord Robert May was reported to have said of a debate with a creationist “That would great on your CV, not so good on mine”.
    Richard Dawkins does a lovely impression of him saying this here:

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