Categorized | Children's Health

Couric’s anti-vaccination segment a symptom of wider scientific illiteracy

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Because Katie Couric did a show giving
voice to meritless anti-vaccine forces
, people are
going to die. You really can’t get around that; the deaths may be
decades from now, and the links from here to there may never be
recognized even by the people around whom the threads are tied, but
somewhere in the Katie Couric audience there are going to be people
who are not going to vaccinate their children against a deadly
disease because Katie Couric put it in their heads that there was
risk in doing it that simply is not there, and
those children are going to someday get that disease, and they are
going to die from it. Think of any defense you like, but the
outcome is the same. Oh, but we were just raising
 is the well-worn excuse of sensationalists
everywhere, but if you are raising questions where there are, in
fact, no serious questions, you are doing harm.

The problem here is, once again, scientific illiteracy.
Presenting a mother who believes her daughter died from a vaccine
and that other daughters are dying from a vaccine does not count as
evidence of it happening, and certainly does not count as
counterargument to vast reams of evidence
demonstrating the opposite. I could not go on television and claim
that if my daughter died ten days after watching Dora the Explorer,
it was clearly Dora the Explorer that killed her. I could not go on
television and claim that because I ate a cheeseburger only days
before my neighbor had a car accident, cheeseburgers are a cause of
neighborhood bad luck. I could claim these
things, mind you, but even the more gullible minds among us would
not generally think that those claims were worthy of a television
appearance. You would not have programs devoted to the Dora the
Explorer hypothesis, programs that were just asking
 as to whether Dora was mass-murdering our
children via some unknown force. You would not have
magazines asking the cheeseburger question on
their covers, even after the statistical evidence confirmed that
almost every car accident in America happened to someone who lived
in a neighborhood where some other person recently consumed a
cheeseburger. At least, we hope we would not–there is still room
for surprise, I suppose.

Frame the same questions about a subject that people have a more
tenuous or abstract knowledge of, however, and suddenly the single
anecdote holds sway. In the scientific realm, vaccinations and
climate change are regularly “debunked” by assertions that “someone
somewhere died in the same month that they were given a vaccine for
something” or “it is cold today, therefore the climate is not
changing.” Because the anecdotes are easy to understand and broad
statistical measurements are, for many people, not, the anecdotes
are given more credibility. The less a subject is understood, the
easier it is for cranks to pretend expertise at it in front of
people who know even less, and the more eager journalists are to
pit the improbable sensationalist in the some people
camp against the sum total of all the world’s hard-won
collective knowledge on the subject.

God help us if a single anecdote actually
prove true, in the single instance provided, as that
shifts the question from scientific illiteracy to statistical
innumeracy. The rarer the event, the more difficult it becomes for
the human mind to recognize it as rare. One man bitten by a shark
on one beach becomes cause for alarm; two men bitten by two sharks
on two separate beaches becomes an epidemic. Are sharks
becoming more aggressive? Should you even enter the water this
summer? Is the human race doomed?
 Take it to the
political realm and you have nationwide machinations to protect
against voter fraud premised on “evidence” of
fraud usually consisting of, nationwide, perhaps tens of people, or
demands that we do less to feed the poor because one fellow saw one
fellow who did not seem all that poor to him.

Do journalism schools teach statistics? Do they teach the
scientific method even in the broadest sense, the barest minimum of
how to tell evidence from coincidence? Why the hell not? Would this
not be a key tool of journalism, every bit as
much as in any other fact-seeking endeavor?

These are not difficult questions or a difficult story, and
Katie Couric and her producers are not gullible people.
There is no evidence that
the HPV vaccine is unsafe. There is no evidence that serious side
effects are anything but rare, and the vaccine is already well on
its way to cutting HPV rates in
 since it was introduced in 2006.

What we have here is not a story about Katie Couric and her
producers going for a sensationalistic story and misfiring. What we
have here is another instance of the profession’s ongoing
scientific illiteracy, an illiteracy that leads to a great many
quacks and cranks and great mountains of professional and well-paid
bullshit artists being propped up as public experts whose testimony
must be given exactly as much weight as concrete, measurable
evidence to the contrary. It is excruciatingly damaging. It can
kill people.

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