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Archive for December 29th, 2008

The fallacy of “balance” and “fairness” about unscientific health claims in the media: A case study

For those of us who have dedicated ourselves to promoting science-based medicine, one of the most frustrating impediments to our message is the media. Time and time again, I’ve complained about how the media takes unscientific health claims, particularly when it comes to vaccines, and gives a credulous hearing to them. Sometimes, it’s a filmmaker with a distinct ideological axe to grind who is not making even the pretense of trying to be objective. Sometimes it’s a reporter with a clear bias favoring the antivaccine movement parroting the most idiotic of unscientific lies. Other times, it’s celebrities who think their “education” from Google University trumps science, clinical trials, and epidemiology, often given aid and comfort by sympathetic physicians. Add to that others inclined to support pseudoscience against science-based medicine, such as Don Imus, Larry King, and others, and is it any wonder that the media seems like one huge cesspit of woo?

However, more often, it’s none of these things. As much as they infuriate me, I believe that most reporters in the media do really want to get it right. However, they are hobbled by three things. First, many, if not most, of them have little training in science or the scientific method and are not particularly valued by their employers. For example, witness how CNN shut down their science division. Second, the only medical or science stories that seem to be valued are one of three types. The first type is the new breakthrough, the cool new discovery that might result in a new treatment or cure. Of course, this type doesn’t distinguish between science-based and non-science-based “breakthroughs.” They are both treated equally, which is why “alternative medicine” stories are so popular. The second type is the human interest story, which is inherently interesting to readers, listeners, or viewers because, well, it’s full of human interest. This sort of story involves the child fighting against long odds to get a needed transplant, for example, especially if the insurance company is refusing to pay for it. The third type, unfortunately, often coopts the second type and, to a lesser extent, the first type. I’m referring to the “medical controversy” story. Unfortunately, the “controversy” is usually more of a manufactroversy. In other words, it’s a fake controversy. No scientific controversy exists, but ideologues desperately try to make it appear as though a real scientific controversy exists. Non-medical examples include creationism versus evolution and the “9/11 Truth” movement versus history. Medical examples include the so-called “complementary and alternative medicine” movement versus science-based medicine and, of course, the anti-vaccine movement.

But the thing that most prevents the scientifically accurate evaluation by the media of unscientific health claims has to be the “tell both sides” culture of “balance” demanded by journalists. Telling both sides is, of course, very important when one side is not obviously correct compared to the other. Examples of such a situation include virtually any political controversy, where there almost always are two (and usually more) sides to an issue. In contrast, in science and medicine, there are not always two sides to an issue. (Again, think of creationism versus evolution.) In science and medicine, there is often a side supported so overwhelmingly by evidence, experimentation, and observation that the “other side” does not warrant being told, as it has already been considered and rejected by science. An excellent example of this is homeopathy. Another excellent example of this is the antivaccine movement, and, unfortunately, a prime example of “telling both sides” of the “vaccine debate” reared its ugly head a couple of weeks ago. Worse, it reared its ugly head on a show that ostensibly claims to be medically accurate, so much so that it features four doctors as its hosts.

I’m referring to a TV show called The Doctors. If the episode segment I’m about to discuss, which aired on December 11, is any indication, these are Doctors that anyone seeking scientifically sound information about medicine should run, not walk, away from.
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Posted in: Health Fraud, Medical Academia, Science and the Media

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