Respectful Insolence

In response to my post yesterday castigating J. B. Handley of Generation Rescue for hypocritically accusing the American Academy of Pediatrics of “manipulating the media” when manipulating the media is Generation Rescue’s raison d’être, Mike the Mad Biologist turned me on to a rather fascinating article in the New York Times by its Public Editor Clark Hoyt entitled The Doctors Are In. The Jury Is Out. It discusses a topic very near and dear to my heart, namely how newspapers report scientific or medical controversies, specifically, how the NYT covers controversies in which one side is the consensus scientific view and the other is a fringe, specifically addressing the question of when a newspaper should abandon the neutral voice and giving equal time to the two sides; in other words, when is one “scientific viewpoint” considered sufficiently fringe that it doesn’t deserve to be considered seriously as a scientific option? Or, as the NYT puts it:

When does fairness demand that a newspaper walk down the middle in a scientific dispute, and when does responsibility demand that it take sides?

It is hardly a new question, and The Times, historically, has been slow to declare victors. In 1979, fully 15 years after a landmark federal report said that smoking was dangerous, articles in The Times still quoted Tobacco Institute spokesmen arguing that it had not been proved. By the end of the next year, when another government report called smoking the leading cause of preventable death, the newspaper made no effort to present “the other side.” The issue was settled.

Even better, one of the examples used was a NYT article on the ABC television show Eli Stone, which featured a storyline straight out of the Generation Rescue playbook of pseudoscience in which the hero takes on the cause of an autistic child whose mother is suing a pharmaceutical company because she believed that that company’s vaccines caused the child’s autism and wins a $5.2 million judgment, even though science does not support such a verdict. I praised the article as for once not showing a false equivalence between the claim that mercury in vaccines causes autism and the science that says that it does not. Advocates claiming such a link such as David Kirby and Don Imus were, not surprisingly not happy at all about the reporting.

Here’s what Clark Hoyt said about the NYT story on Eli Stone:

On Jan. 23, Edward Wyatt, a culture reporter in the Los Angeles bureau, reported on the cover of The Arts section that the first episode of “Eli Stone,” a legal drama on ABC, was stepping into the debate over whether childhood vaccines cause autism — “and seemingly coming down on the side that has been all but dismissed by prominent scientific organizations.”

In the episode, the lawyer-hero of “Eli Stone” wins a big jury verdict for the mother of an autistic child by arguing that there was proof that a mercury-based preservative in a flu vaccine caused the boy’s condition. But in studies over the years, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Food and Drug Administration, the Institute of Medicine, the World Health Organization and the American Academy of Pediatrics have all found no evidence to support a connection between vaccines and autism. Thimerosal, the preservative in question, was removed from children’s vaccines in 2001, and autism rates have not gone down.

The pediatricians, fearing that the episode would cause some parents to stop vaccinating their children, appealed to ABC to cancel it. The network refused, but added a disclaimer directing viewers to a government Web site that discredits any link between vaccines and autism.

Wyatt’s article made clear that there is a debate but did not give equal weight to the two sides. The Times has not since 2005, when two reporters investigated every scientific study and thousands of documents from parents convinced of a link between autism and vaccines, and came down pretty clearly on the side of the scientists.

Wyatt said he relied on that report and read extensively about autism when he got the first hint of what the “Eli Stone” episode would say. “The show seems to portray it as, ‘No one knows,’ ” he said. “My conclusion was that that is not the case.”

Indeed, the door on this controversy seems to be closing, but the Centers for Disease Control is conducting one more study, expected to be published next year.

This is about as close to the right approach as we’re likely to see from a major newspaper. Moreover Wyatt shows amazing insight. Portraying the controversy as a scientific one and and the question of whether vaccines cause autism as so unsettled as to be characterized by saying “nothing knows” is exactly what groups like Generation Rescue want. But this issue goes far beyond the ideological controversy (it is not a scientific one) over vaccines. There are a number of other issues where the press could do with a healthy dose of how the NYT has decided to handle the “thimerosal/autism” claim. Chief among these, of course, is “intelligent design” creationism. Far too often, when I see an article or story about evolution ID creationists are given equal time with evolutionary biologists as though what they have to say has anywhere near the same weight, thus giving the impression of a real scientific controversy. Another beneficiary of this “report both sides” tendency of the press is so-called “complementary and alternative” medicine (CAM). In fact, for CAM often the position is reversed, with the claims of unscientific practitioners being given the most prominence and the side of science- and evidence-based medicine being represented by a single soundbite from a token skeptic. Indeed, the same is true of claims of the paranormal or other fringe science, be it ghosts, bigfoot, UFOs, alien abductions, or whatever. Indeed, just tonight I saw a story on the local news about seeing images of the ghosts of relatives in family photos, with almost no skeptical viewpoint to be seen.

As admirable as the NYT’s policy is regarding pseudoscientific claims, there are lots of forces acting against such a sound policy. For one thing, fringe claims are exciting and interesting. They can also be compelling. For example, it’s far more interesting to find a “cause” of autism by human hands (vaccines) than it is to report that it’s due to genetic causes having nothing to do with vaccines. It’s far more exciting to report that Bigfoot might exist than to report that there’s no evidence that he does. It makes far more compelling television to report that ghostly images on photos might be the spirits of long dead relatives than it is to show that it’s just optics and other artifacts of photography.

Another such force is the inherent obligation of fairness, to report both sides, to give “both sides” a chance to have their say. In many areas of reporting, this is, of course, not only admirable, but absolutely essential. One such area is politics. If a politician accuses his opponent of doing something dishonest, a reporter must try to interview the accused. If there is a political controversy, advocates of both sides must be given the opportunity tell their points of view. Another such area is crime. If the story is about someone being accused of a crime, then it is incumbent on reporters to try to give the accused the opportunity to defend himself. This dedication to fairness at all costs or framing of most stories as conflicts between competing viewpoints of roughly equal validity becomes problematic in issues of science. Let’s face it, in science and medicine there are viewpoints that are so far on the fringe and so unsupported by evidence that it is indeed irresponsible to present “both sides” as though they have anywhere near equal validity. In fact, the one quibble that I have about Hoyt’s analysis is that I don’t see nearly the conflict between “fairness” and “responsibility” that he does.

Perhaps the most intractable force arrayed against accurate reporting of fringe science in its proper context (i.e., no scientific support) is few reporters are either qualified to determine what is a valid, albeit minority, scientific viewpoint and therefore deserving of the full “report both sides” treatment, and what is pseudoscience and therefore unworthy of being presented alongside legitimate science. Consequently, there is a strong tendency to give the fringe view the benefit of the doubt and present it as a valid alternative. Remember, the NYT can attract the best and the brightest science and medicine reporters. It can afford to let two reporters investigate an issue like whether vaccines cause autism or not long enough to come to the correct conclusion. Few media outlets have either the trained reporters, the resources, or, it appears to me, the inclination to apply a similar level of rigor to a scientific issue.

The penalties, however, for not trying to increase the level of scientific rigor of science reporting is the credulous reporting of pseudoscience. One such example is a story about vaccines and autism that appeared on a local Oklahoma City newscast. (Hat tip: ERV.)Note how, although a physician presenting the scientific consensus that vaccines don’t cause autism is allowed to present his point of view, he is presented on at best equal footing with the anecdote of the parents blaming vaccines for their son’s autism and one Dr. Delmar Geen arguing that vaccines do cause autism. Meanwhile, the story uses a graphic, figures, and claims of “toxins” in vaccines straight out of last week’s Generation Rescue ad. Folks, medical reporting doesn’t get any worse than this, and antivaccinationists are already gloating over it, with J.B. Handley himself pleased as punch that the story parroted the Generation Rescue ad that ran in USA Today last week.

So what can we as scientists do to avoid such debacles? Clearly one thing is to be available to the media when they call. Another is to avoid letting fear of seeming dogmatic keep us from pointing out in no uncertain terms when science definitely does not support a fringe viewpoint. Finally, we need to make our voices heard when we see examples of such egregious reporting, be it through letters to the editor, letters to producers of newscasts like the one above, and even phone calls. Blogs, too, are a great way of deconstructing bad science reporting. We have to remember that advocates of pseudoscience are not silent. Mark Blaxill, for instance, is most unhappy at Hoyt’s article and has written a whining complaint to Hoyt about how unfair the NYT is being to his viewpoint, how many “scientists” support the view that vaccines cause autism, and how advocates are being included on important government panels investigating autism. (I told you that the mercury militia would use this to its advantage.)

Sadly, pseudoscientists never rest when it comes to getting their message to the public, and we as scientists cannot afford not to do the same anymore.

Comments

  1. #1 SLC
    February 19, 2008

    One waits with bated breath for the first post from denier Mr. cooler.

  2. #2 Kevin B. O'Reilly
    February 19, 2008

    As a health care reporter, I’ve a few thoughts on how to convince reporters that a “fringe” view really is fringe and either should not be reported or given considerably less than equal time/space:

    * Explain in a succinct, easy-to-understand way the biological implausibility or impossibility of the fringe view. This isn’t always the case, but if something is medically or scientifically impossible, that makes it a fringe view by definition.

    * Help the reporter find the most recent, comprehensive peer-reviewed literature on the subject and contact the study authors.

    * Provide easily accessible context for the controversy. FAQs, timelines, etc. are helpful for orienting a reporter who may be new to the beat or who has not covered the issue before.

    * Cite authority. Ideally, this shouldn’t matter to evaluating the issue on the merits but in the real world it is important. If major medical or scientific organizations have staked out positions on the issue, say so and explain the respective importance of the organization. If nothing, it demonstrates the relative fringeyness/mainstreamness of a certain viewpoint.

  3. #3 Joe
    February 19, 2008

    There are two good articles about this, using the ID movement as the example.
    http://www.cjr.org/issues/2005/5/mooney.asp

    http://www.csicop.org/scienceandmedia/id/

    At the time of the first, cited article, my NPR (US public radio) station broadcast a piece on the dangers of vaccination. I told them they were being irresponsible, and provided the article. The news director said he had timed the vaccination pice with a stopwatch, and both sides had been given equal time. That’s the way they do things Full Stop.

  4. #4 Mark P
    February 19, 2008

    It is pointless to expect the general news media to make this kind of judgement. As you say, virtually no news organizations have qualified staff or time to make a judgement about whether a particular position is based on science or is just BS. As I have said many times before, the news media are in general the least well-educated of all professionals. The “Y2K reporter” of a major Atlanta newspaper rationalized their credulous Y2K coverage by essentially admitting to my view point. She said reporters are trained to look at documents and ask people questions; they have no specific training that can allow them to make any kind of competent judgement about complex issues. There are a few reporters who can do this, even some in relatively small markets. But they are very few and very far between.

  5. #5 Mark P
    February 19, 2008

    It is pointless to expect the general news media to make this kind of judgement. As you say, virtually no news organizations have qualified staff or time to make a judgement about whether a particular position is based on science or is just BS. As I have said many times before, the news media are in general the least well-educated of all professionals. The “Y2K reporter” of a major Atlanta newspaper rationalized their credulous Y2K coverage by essentially admitting to my view point. She said reporters are trained to look at documents and ask people questions; they have no specific training that can allow them to make any kind of competent judgement about complex issues. There are a few reporters who can do this, even some in relatively small markets. But they are very few and very far between.

  6. #6 Mark P
    February 19, 2008

    Please forgive the double post. I kept getting “internal server errors” when I tried to post my comment.

  7. #7 John Fryer
    February 19, 2008

    The injection of protein into humans causes anaphylaxis and the fact that 1 infant in 500 dies from SIDS is a cynical way to provide the rest of us with vaccines and say its completely healthy and safe.

    The work on anaphylaxis was done more than 100 years ago and time and purifying and reducing antigens from 30 000 to a handful only reduces the danger and can never eliminate it.

    This isn’t peer reviewed 2008 science but established scientific fact embedded in basic science and not subject to whims fancies or ONE MORE STUDY.

  8. #8 HCN
    February 19, 2008

    John Fryer (who used to be a chemist, but is not any longer) wrote “The injection of protein into humans causes anaphylaxis and the fact that 1 infant in 500 dies from SIDS is a cynical way to provide the rest of us with vaccines and say its completely healthy and safe.”

    Do you have any evidence to this very broad assertion that the level of SIDS is that high? You know, something kind of sciencey like a actual study, or public health data showing that the level of SIDS is that high. Newspaper or web articles on someone being unfairly conficted of murder does not count.

  9. #9 ebohlman
    February 19, 2008

    Clearly one thing is to be available to the media when they call.

    That’s not good enough in today’s media climate. Modern media outlets much prefer to run stuff from the people who come to them, not the people who expect the media to contact them. Remember that the two most important concepts in any media operation are “budget” and “deadline.” The less staff time involved in producing a piece, the more likely it is to run. That’s why so much of the “news” is celebrity and entertainment coverage; the majority of the costs of producing such coverage are borne by publicists rather than the news organization. It’s also why when there’s a religious controversy, most of the comments you see in the media come from the far religious right: the hardline churches uplink their almost-completely-produced responses straight to the media, while the mainline churches invite the media to send people out to interview them. And to a news producer, “send” has a ‘p’ in it.

  10. #10 ebohlman
    February 19, 2008

    Clearly one thing is to be available to the media when they call.

    That’s not good enough in today’s media climate. Modern media outlets much prefer to run stuff from the people who come to them, not the people who expect the media to contact them. Remember that the two most important concepts in any media operation are “budget” and “deadline.” The less staff time involved in producing a piece, the more likely it is to run. That’s why so much of the “news” is celebrity and entertainment coverage; the majority of the costs of producing such coverage are borne by publicists rather than the news organization. It’s also why when there’s a religious controversy, most of the comments you see in the media come from the far religious right: the hardline churches uplink their almost-completely-produced responses straight to the media, while the mainline churches invite the media to send people out to interview them. And to a news producer, “send” has a ‘p’ in it.

  11. #11 ebohlman
    February 19, 2008

    Clearly one thing is to be available to the media when they call.

    That’s not good enough in today’s media climate. Modern media outlets much prefer to run stuff from the people who come to them, not the people who expect the media to contact them. Remember that the two most important concepts in any media operation are “budget” and “deadline.” The less staff time involved in producing a piece, the more likely it is to run. That’s why so much of the “news” is celebrity and entertainment coverage; the majority of the costs of producing such coverage are borne by publicists rather than the news organization. It’s also why when there’s a religious controversy, most of the comments you see in the media come from the far religious right: the hardline churches uplink their almost-completely-produced responses straight to the media, while the mainline churches invite the media to send people out to interview them. And to a news producer, “send” has a ‘p’ in it.

  12. #12 clone3g
    February 19, 2008

    John Fryer said: “The injection of protein into humans causes anaphylaxis.”

    At your age, is that really a concern any more?

  13. #13 Sastra
    February 19, 2008

    Don’t forget that in many cases one of the forces acting against the ability of the media to take a stand on pseudoscience is religion, and the cultural desire to support — or at least not ‘judge’ — anything which smacks of faith. Creationism, alternative medicine, and the existence of ghosts can all fall into the category of spiritual belief, where repeating the phrase “nobody knows for sure” is de rigueur in most circles.

    You’re not supposed to “take away” anyone’s faith. This can seem like a problem when the facts are getting in the way. Best to play it safe with a “you be the judge” attitude.

  14. #14 Sastra
    February 19, 2008

    Don’t forget that in many cases one of the forces acting against the ability of the media to take a stand on pseudoscience is religion, and the cultural desire to support — or at least not ‘judge’ — anything which smacks of faith. Creationism, alternative medicine, and the existence of ghosts can all fall into the category of spiritual belief, where repeating the phrase “nobody knows for sure” is de rigueur in most circles.

    You’re not supposed to “take away” anyone’s faith. This can seem like a problem when the facts are getting in the way. Best to play it safe with a “you be the judge” attitude.

  15. #15 Hank Roberts
    February 19, 2008

    Would it be too cynical to say, has anyone counted up the advertising pages purchased by the companies involved in maintaning the uncertainty and checked whether the coverage fell off when their payments to the publisher declined?

    I know, I’d be shocked if this happened. Utterly shocked.

    The Register has a good take on how US media work now:

    http://www.theregister.co.uk/2008/02/13/science_biofuel_reports/

    —–excerpt follows—–

    … the perfectly awful figures still deserve some reporting. For example, the New York Times story on the reports ignored ugly figures like the percentage losses in feed crops contrasted with increases in emission, perhaps figuring correctly that the average reader is too stupid and easily bored to tolerate them. Since the Times has been a cheerleader for miracle alternative energy solutions, the reports were surely hard for it to swallow. One could imagine the nervous gulping in the paper’s second sentence. It noted that ethanol mania, therein called the “benefits of biofuels,” had come under attack and that the articles in the magazine would “add to the controversy.”

    This is what happens now in the US when fairly clear cut, inconvenient and unpopular peer-reviewed science shows up in the public arena. As far as mainstream journalism is concerned, it generates a “controversy.” In the current political context, controversy is good because it can be used as cover, deployed by the various interests who stand to make a fortune from a boom predicated on previous received wisdoms now contradicted by more rigorous thought.

    —– end excerpt—-

    Would ya look at all the big words in that?

  16. #16 Phillip Wochner
    February 20, 2008

    Certainly positions such as creationism, Intelligent Design “Theory”, and denial of global warming are not as scientifically well grounded as the scientific consensus, and do not deserve equal time. But this position can be taken too far. Down through the years such ideas as continental drift, catastrophic _local_ floods, and others have been ignored, derided,and shunned, to eventually be universally accepted. I can easily see how this mentality can simply become “ignore the fundamentalists, and silence them.” Opposition to abortion and to embryonic stem cell research are moral issues, based on sound ethical principles. Like the boy who cried “wolf” they may make scientific claims; I can not evaluate them that well. But “considering the source” does not make them less valid.
    As has been said here, most reporters, and most people, are not well prepared to deal with complex scientific issues. But giving the reasons, in understandible form, for the position of the scientific majority, can do some good. And often when scientists are all saying the same things, and seemingly moving in lockstep or like a herd, that may be the best reason for skepticism.

  17. #17 Dave S.
    February 20, 2008

    Certainly positions such as creationism, Intelligent Design “Theory”, and denial of global warming are not as scientifically well grounded as the scientific consensus, and do not deserve equal time. But this position can be taken too far. Down through the years such ideas as continental drift, catastrophic _local_ floods, and others have been ignored, derided,and shunned, to eventually be universally accepted.

    The situations are not equivalent. The latter ideas you mention were supported by actually doing the science…testing hypotheses which flowed from the proposed theory and getting the confirmation after conducting the tests. These were what eventually brouight people around. In the former cases (ID, other forms of denialism) there is no theory from which to extract testable hypotheses. Everything depends on the negative arguments, attacking the mainstream theory. Such positions are scientifically sterile and only capable of being persuasive rhetorically to those already inclined to believe for resons having little to do with science.

  18. #18 Scogostology
    February 20, 2008

    Since the media is so powerful because they can reach and influence millions of people instantly, they should not be taking sides in any social, political and economic issues. The sole role of the media should be to report news, not just bad and destructive news as they are presently doing but also good and positive news. Period.

  19. #19 MartinM
    February 20, 2008

    One could argue that giving reality and nonsensical crap equal time is taking sides.

  20. #20 Dangerous Bacon
    February 20, 2008

    “And often when scientists are all saying the same things, and seemingly moving in lockstep or like a herd, that may be the best reason for skepticism.”

    Skepticism is fine, but one wants to avoid falling into the altie fallacy of denying solid science by saying “They’ve been wrong before, so my bizarre theory should be taken seriously!”

    When it comes to things like gravity, or the value of immunization in preventing infectious disease, I’m happy to move with the “herd”.

    Where I see true sheep-like behavior is among alties who fancy themselves too smart to fall for mainstream propaganda, but are easily led around by the nose by anyone who claims to be a free thinker persecuted by the FDA and Big Pharma.

  21. #21 SLC
    February 21, 2008

    If the mercury militia was really concerned about mercury, they should be going after the administrations’ stifling controls on emissions from coal burning power plants. The intake of mercury from those emissions far exceeds any that might be found in vaccines.

    http://www.scienceprogress.org/2008/02/fishy-government/

  22. #22 David Marjanovi?
    February 21, 2008

    One could argue that giving reality and nonsensical crap equal time is taking sides.

    Bingo.

    Besides, not all issues even have two sides. Some have one, others three or five or…

  23. #23 Prometheus
    February 21, 2008

    “Down through the years such ideas as continental drift, catastrophic _local_ floods, and others have been ignored, derided,and shunned, to eventually be universally accepted. I can easily see how this mentality can simply become ‘ignore the fundamentalists, and silence them’.”

    This is a common canard used by the “alternative” medicine apologists – that the history of science is full of ideas that were initially dismissed but later found to be true. It is often expressed in shorthand as, “They laughed at Galileo…”

    In fact, continental drift, the Missoula floods, H. pylori causing stomach ulcers and the heliocentric solar system model were all initially dismissed, and at times “laughed at”. It was only when sufficient data had accumulated that they were taken seriously. None of these ideas were simply “accepted” on faith, which is why they remain accepted (albeit with some modifications) to the present day.

    Perhaps some of today’s “woo-woo” ideas will eventually be shown to be correct. However, the history of science tells us that for every correct idea that is laughed at in error, thousands are laughed at with justification.

    Being dismissed by “mainstream science” is not an indication of correctness.

    They may have laughed at Galileo (or even Einstein), but they also laughed at Lysenko and Von Daniken.

    And they’re still laughing at Lysenko and Von Daniken.

    Prometheus

  24. #24 Prometheus
    February 21, 2008

    “Down through the years such ideas as continental drift, catastrophic _local_ floods, and others have been ignored, derided,and shunned, to eventually be universally accepted. I can easily see how this mentality can simply become ‘ignore the fundamentalists, and silence them’.”

    This is a common canard used by the “alternative” medicine apologists – that the history of science is full of ideas that were initially dismissed but later found to be true. It is often expressed in shorthand as, “They laughed at Galileo…”

    In fact, continental drift, the Missoula floods, H. pylori causing stomach ulcers and the heliocentric solar system model were all initially dismissed, and at times “laughed at”. It was only when sufficient data had accumulated that they were taken seriously. None of these ideas were simply “accepted” on faith, which is why they remain accepted (albeit with some modifications) to the present day.

    Perhaps some of today’s “woo-woo” ideas will eventually be shown to be correct. However, the history of science tells us that for every correct idea that is laughed at in error, thousands are laughed at with justification.

    Being dismissed by “mainstream science” is not an indication of correctness.

    They may have laughed at Galileo (or even Einstein), but they also laughed at Lysenko and Von Daniken.

    And they’re still laughing at Lysenko and Von Daniken.

    Prometheus

  25. #25 Prometheus
    February 21, 2008

    “Down through the years such ideas as continental drift, catastrophic _local_ floods, and others have been ignored, derided,and shunned, to eventually be universally accepted. I can easily see how this mentality can simply become ‘ignore the fundamentalists, and silence them’.”

    This is a common canard used by the “alternative” medicine apologists – that the history of science is full of ideas that were initially dismissed but later found to be true. It is often expressed in shorthand as, “They laughed at Galileo…”

    In fact, continental drift, the Missoula floods, H. pylori causing stomach ulcers and the heliocentric solar system model were all initially dismissed, and at times “laughed at”. It was only when sufficient data had accumulated that they were taken seriously. None of these ideas were simply “accepted” on faith, which is why they remain accepted (albeit with some modifications) to the present day.

    Perhaps some of today’s “woo-woo” ideas will eventually be shown to be correct. However, the history of science tells us that for every correct idea that is laughed at in error, thousands are laughed at with justification.

    Being dismissed by “mainstream science” is not an indication of correctness.

    They may have laughed at Galileo (or even Einstein), but they also laughed at Lysenko and Von Daniken.

    And they’re still laughing at Lysenko and Von Daniken.

    Prometheus

  26. #26 MarkH
    February 27, 2008

    I think it’s actually very easy to tell when they shouldn’t walk down the middle of a scientific controversy. I outlined 5 simple rules to tell when someone is selling scientific BS. I’m going to have to start giving lectures to journalists.

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