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How many unicorns does it take to match a draught horse's weight?

I've just watched a television program in which there was a supposed debate about vaccination. There was a paediatrician who is also an expert on vaccination and a self-taught author in there to provide balance. The vaccine denier made several outrageous statements that can easily be refuted (measles is harmless, vaccines are harmful, fever is really good for children, …) and the paediatrician was too polite to forcibly challenge the nonsense. The show hosts tried to direct the conversation but didn't help much by trying not to be partisan. Viewers were left with the impression that the vaccine denier might have made some valid points.

I won't mention the name of the show or its hosts because this sort of thing is not unique to them. It is endemic in the media that some, but not all, sorts of nonsense require some sort of balance whenever there is a story. (To its credit one popular current affairs program told a friend of mine who appeared on it that they will not have vaccine opponents on for any reason. Promotions for the segment subtly ridiculed the anti-vaccination position. Ratings do not appear to have suffered.)

This false balance philosophy does have its limits, however. When there is an airline disaster nobody seems to need to interview someone who believes that crashes could be averted if only Boeing and Airbus would employ the secret alien aeronautical science locked in a vault at Area 51. When there are floods in Queensland you don't see people being given media space to say that this is a result of the secret HAARP project in Alaska to control the weather (although you might see a climate change denier or two). When an economist from a bank appears to discuss fluctuations in exchange rates you don't see him being balanced by someone arguing that fiat currencies are fiction and the world economy is going to collapse if we don't return to the gold standard (or a fully barter system).

You might think I'm exaggerating by comparing vaccine deniers to alien believers and people who believe in bizarre conspiracies. I'm not. They have just as much science on their side as any believer in aliens, UFOs or the Illuminati.

I have been battling vaccine deniers for many years. I have in front of me a book written in 1998 which is full of untruths about vaccines. Two of the three authors are still highly visible today, repeating the same lies they were telling fifteen years ago. And how do we know they are lies (because you can't accuse someone of lying if they don't know the truth)? Because they do know the truth and it has been pointed out to them many times. Vaccines are not "injected into the bloodstream", vaccines do not "contain parts of aborted foetuses", vaccines do not cause autism, SIDS or Shaken Baby Syndrome. Anybody who says that they have spent time studying vaccination who repeats these and other untruths is either lying, seriously misinformed or insane.

Let's talk about studying for a moment. The paediatrician on the show has the standard combined Bachelor of Medicine/Bachelor of Surgery that all doctors have, plus Master of Science and Doctor of Medicine degrees. (MD in Australia is a research degree which requires at least two years working following MB,BS before admission. It is not the same as a US MD degree which is basically an entry level qualification comparable to MB,BS.) The anti-vaccine person gave her qualifications as extensive reading of medical literature. I have read a lot of spy and detective novels over the years but I'm not about to go on television as an expert on the inner workings of ASIO or the CIA or to argue with someone from the Australian Federal Police about the correct way to investigate the importation and distribution of illegal drugs or weapons.

One of the problems with media coverage of matters like vaccination is that bad news and controversy sell better than good news and people agreeing with each other. This can be managed, however. All it takes is for the person on the right side to be a bit aggressive and jump in whenever the kook says something wrong or stupid. I was invited onto a show once to talk about a brand new UFO sighting that was sweeping the Twitterverse. I pointed out that the audio on the YouTube clip obviously didn't match the visual and went on to note that the video was about a minute out of a fourteen-hour recording. I gave the name of the speaker, the date the video was shot on the Space Shuttle, the name of the experiment, what the experiment was testing, what the two moving lights were and the fact that all of this had been known for about ten years. In the following ad break I apologised to the host for being a bit short with the UFO expert. He thanked me and said he wanted more of the same. I would have no trouble with false balance if every media outlet followed this policy.

A problem that interviewees have is that they can often be unprepared for what the other person might say. In the UFO case I was able to get the facts together before the show but that isn't always possible. Even so, anyone going into an interview situation should at least try to become familiar with the sort of arguments that they might be faced with, and when they get there go in hard when they hear something that they know to be wrong.

There is no debate about vaccination. There is science, research and real life evidence. Most people alive today (including doctors) have never seen a case of polio, smallpox or diphtheria. Many have never seen whooping cough, measles, mumps or chicken pox. These things didn't go away by themselves (and they haven't just been renamed as anti-vaccination campaigners like to pretend). They disappeared because of vaccination, something which has saved more lives than anything except clean drinking water. To deny this shows a detachment from reality that in other circumstances would have observers calling for the men in white coats.

Anti-vaccinators love to say that there are two sides to everything. Well, a photograph has two sides, but one of them is blank.

This article was published on the Yahoo! 7 News Blog on May 25, 2013
Yahoo! 7 News

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