Friday, January 18, 2013

What The Daily Beast’s Absurd Vaccine Truther Screed Tells Us About Journalism

I’m not going to link to the execrable anti-vaccine screed published on The Daily Beast today. I’m not even going to link to the thoughtful, well-written counterpoint they published by a infectious disease specialist. To do either would reward a transparent attempt to gin up a pageview-inducing “controversy.” Moreover, it would treat the two pieces as if they were two sides of an argument, as opposed to medical fact and conspiratorial lunacy.

If you must read something on the topic, here‘s how many people die of influenza in the United States and here‘s an explanation of why vaccine panics aren’t worth taking seriously.

What’s particularly galling about The Daily Beast‘s vaccine “debate” is that it treats science criticism like punditry. Political writing is plagued by a consensus of bores, commentators who all have opinions within the same narrow band of “acceptable” views. The online journalism revolution opened this up a bit, but not nearly enough. Hence, as a matter of inclination, I’m reflectively skeptical about claims that editors should refuse to publish authors with certain political opinions simply because they’re “out of the mainstream.” More often than not, such arguments serve more to defend staid political views from challenge than anything else.

Science journalism has, if anything, the opposite problem. The basic task of a science journalist is to explain complicated scientific findings to people who don’t have the time or the expertise to learn it from primary sources. Increasingly, science journalists are acting as science critics as well as science expositors, but that doesn’t undermine the need to fully understand and embrace scientific methodology (if anything, it intensifies it). Science journalism, sadly, often fails in both of these roles. This generally happens when writers lack the time or background knowledge necessary to properly digest and explain the research in question.

That last problem is particularly pronounced because people have a tendency to accept science as fact. Setting aside (wrongly) politicized disciplines like climate science for the moment, people without scientific expertise reading write-ups of research findings are reasonably likely to accept them as fact. So science journalism needs to correct its flaws by more gatekeeping, not (as in politics) less. Editors should work to make sure that only people who are fair and knowledgeable observers of scientists’ work are in a position to explain easily-misinterpreted research to the public.

By setting up vaccination as an issue up for debate in the same way that political questions are, the Beast articles can leave a reader who isn’t aware of the overwhelming scientific consensus might simply throw up their hands (as happens in the climate debate) and say “who knows whose research is right?” But that’s not how it is. People who conclude that there’s a real case that the flu vaccine might do more harm than good are less likely to get flu vaccines, for them or their family. That makes people more likely to get sick and, possibly, die. There isn’t any real debate about this among epidemiologists. This should be settled.

Science journalism isn’t like political writing: it really could benefit from tighter editorial control on the sorts of views expressed. Judging by today, I wouldn’t look to The Daily Beast to point the way forward.


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