Wednesday, February 11, 2015

False Balance

Wikipedia describes the phenomon of  false balance as follows:
False balance, also referred to as false equivalence, is a real or perceived media bias, where journalists present an issue as being more balanced between opposing viewpoints than the evidence actually supports.  Journalists may present evidence and arguments out of proportion to the actual evidence for each side, or may censor information which would establish one side's claims as baseless.
Classic examples of "false balance" in the media are the debates over climate change and evolution.  Frequently, the media goal behind false eqivalence is simply to generate sensationalism.  Producers hope that, by presenting a story as a contentious debate, it will attract more readers or viewers than a more accurate account of the issue.  Of course, in the process, the public receives false information, which interferes with its ability to make well-informed decisions. 

I made the mistake last night of tuning in to a news broadcast by a local CBS affiliate.  And the story was the continuing "controversy" over vaccinations, especially vaccinations for measles.  It was truly horrifying.  In this debate, they pitted Jeff and Jessica Murphy, parents of a two year old, against Dr. Craig Shrift, a Board certified pediatrician.  As far as I could tell, the Murphy's had no formal medical training whatsoever.  At one point, however, Jeff claimed as his authority his father, who was a chiropractor.

So intent was the broadcast on creating a controversy, it falsely presented a Mayo Clinic article on vaccines.  At one point, the reporter states, "These parents believe a diet of organic food will give their daughter natural immunity to fight disease much stronger than vaccines.  But is it true?  The Mayo Clinic says yes."  A quick review of the referenced Mayo Clinic report reveals that it says no such thing and, indeed, says nothing about an immunity advantage from eating organic foods.  

Rather, the article, Childhood vaccines: Tough questions, straight answers says this: "A natural infection often provides more complete immunity than a series of vaccinations...."  In other words, if you're lucky enough to survive a disease without any ill effects, your immunity may be stronger than one produced by a vaccine.  The article also points out that taking this route to obtain immunity involves considerable risk:

a natural chickenpox (varicella) infection could lead to pneumonia. A natural polio infection could cause permanent paralysis. A natural mumps infection could lead to deafness. A natural Hib infection could result in permanent brain damage.
Anyway, here is the grotesque broadcast:

The fact is:  these false balance reports about vaccinationcan be harmful .  The Guardian cites research that shows that stories about vaccines that include false balance are actually more dangerous than those that are purely anti-vaccine.   See Anti-vaccination activists should not be given a say in the media.. One author sugests that, because it is spread so easily, measles presents a more serious health threat to an unvaccinated population than ebola.  See Understand the Measles Outbreak with this One Weird Number .

Now, as many of you know, I am a big proponent of the notion that all knowledge is provisional.  So, probably, we have a lot more to learn about immunity.  But that does not mean that you don't go with the best you've got at the time, or that you give credence to clearly erroneous views.  We don't have the final answers, but we know a lot that are wrong.

Finally, just like the creationists, there's no value in attacking the anti-vaccination people as immoral or stupid or selfish.  As Scientific American points out, Vilifying Parents Who Don’t Vaccinate Their Kids Is Counterproductive.  While there's no point in criticizing the anti-vaccination people, a report suggesting that their view might be valid is irresponsible and, pure and simple, is not news. 


James R said...

So, the market place of ideas is not a truth, or, at least, not one that you should grasp to tightly? How about art?

Big Myk said...

I don't oppose the marketplce of ideas. If you don't allow an idea to be aired, you may be straining out the one key insight that will lead to greater wisdom. This is the thinking of the Pharisee Gamaliel. When the Sanhedrin wanted to persecute the early Christians, he counseled against it: "Leave these men alone! Let them go! For if their teaching is of human origin, it will fail. But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God.” We'll never know which ideas are from God unless we give them a chance to be expressed.

But, while news broadcasts are part of the marketplace of ideas, they are not themselves the marketplace. It is simply not possible to air all the millions of bits of information and viewpoints in an hour of half-hour time slot. Therefore, news shows must and should be heavily edited to broadcast the most important news from the most reliable sources.

I say people like the Murphy's should be allowed to get their messsage out in any they they see fit. We'll never know if it's a crackpot notion unless its given the oppotunity to be tested in the idea marketplace.

But, should news organizations use their precious airtime to give people like the Murphy's a forum, and squeeze out uncounted other ideas that are more valid and worthy of the public's consideration? I don't think so. Beyond that, by setting up the "false balance," news organizations are saying in effect hat this view has some legitimate scientific basis. And that is deceitful.