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Anti-Science by anecdote vs evidence-based scientific method

December 8th, 2013 · 2 Comments

Katie Couric took on the journalistic challenge of hosting a show on the HPV vaccine. And, with this show, Couric demonstrated a serious case of anti-science syndrome. Truthfully put, Couric almost certainly put people’s health, safety, and lives at risk.

Very briefly, as explained by Michale Hiltzik of the LA Times,

The anti-vaccination movement has long been a public menace. It’s responsible for the resurgence of numerous serious diseases that were on the decline, including measlesmumps and whooping cough.

Now the movement has been given a big booster shot by Katie Couric, who devoted a large portion of her daily talk show Wednesday to some highly emotional and scientifically dubious claims by critics of Gardasil, a leading vaccine for human papillomavirus, or HPV.

The segment focused on a mother convinced that her 20-year-old daughter died after a cycle of Gardasil immunization, and a second family whose 14-year-old daughter fell ill after the shots. Neither presented any medical evidence to support their claims.

Around the country, an increasing number of people are refusing vaccines — in no small part due to media reporting like Couric’s.  And, this is putting them at risk.  Consider measles.  According to the director of the Center for Disease Control (CDC), amid a surge in US cases, about 90 percent of US cases this year are people who did not get the vaccine. As a commentator put it,

The measles vaccine is one of the triumphs of public health; Katz and his co-creators are believed to have saved the lives of 30 million children. Over 50 years, measles has been chased entirely out of the Western Hemisphere. Yet keeping it from becoming re-established, and eliminating it from the rest of the world, requires increasing vaccination at a time when so many are turning away.

In his thoughtful examination, Couric’s anti-vaccination segment a symptom of wider scientific illiteracy, Hunter tied this to a larger challenge:

Oh, but we were just raising questions 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.

Hunter discussed the challenge of complex science, in the popular discussion, confronted by the “anecdote”.  How does mathematics, statistical analysis, long-trend surveying, and otherwise stand up to the “anecdote” of Aunt Martha’s certainty that the common cold is cured by hopping on one foot while chewing on garlic?

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.

And. let’s be clear, the “anecdote” might be true. After all, for example, people do die during heart surgery and get injured by car air bags even if the surgeries and air bags — in general and in balance — save people’s lives.

Hunter continued in a rather ‘unscientific’ appeal to a greater deity.

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.

Yes, it might snow in Washington, DC, today.  Putting aside the minor issue of it being December, with all due respect to Jim Inhofe (R-Exxon), that white stuff won’t disprove climate science and suddenly stopped global warming.

While I recommend Hunter’s thoughtful and passionate discussion, my key take-away was this post’s title: that our society (U.S. and global) faces a serious challenge in our public discussion of a wide range of issues.  Whether in the media, popular discussion, or political debate,

we are all too often (faced by)

anti-science by anecdote

when we should be (discussing options and making decisions on the basis of the)

evidence-based scientific method.

The first will kill people, is causing damage, and undermines our prospect(s) for the future.

The second strengthens society.

The choice should be clear.


For readers of this blog, a reminder that Katie Couric merits credit for one of the best questioning re climate in American political reporting when she asked 10 questions of the 10 leading Presidential campaigns in 2007 and included this: Is the Global Warming threat overblown? While not the question I would have asked, it did make differences quite clear.  In any event, my reaction at that time:

To be honest, I simply do not know what to write or say in the face of that question. The real value, as someone said to me, is that it did offer the opportunity to respond: “No. Actually, it is being far understated.”

Sadly, none of the candidates answered that way.


Amid the many excellent discussions of challenges to science in the United States, I would highly recommend Shawn Lawrence Otto’s Fool Me Twice and Chris Mooney’s Unscientific America. You cannot go wrong with either (actually recommend both) of these.

One key element (in both) is how anti-science syndrome suffering skews across the political spectrum and its impacts in political discussion/policy making differ across the political spectrum.

According to work done by Stephen Lewandowsky, et al, the climate denial skews very strongly with the “right” and the Republican party while they were unable to make a strong linkage to the “left” with anti-vaccine and anti-GMO attitudes.

Among American Conservatives, but not Liberals, trust in science has been declining since the 1970’s. Climate science has become particularly polarized, with Conservatives being more likely than Liberals to reject the notion that greenhouse gas emissions are warming the globe. Conversely, opposition to genetically-modified (GM) foods and vaccinations is often ascribed to the political Left although reliable data are lacking.

Lewandowsky, in a note to this author, commented that

there is Libertarian opposition to mandatory vaccinations (e.g. HPV) that’s allied with the political right. In my study, that effect was stronger than the slight left-wing bias (although the latter shouldn’t be dismissed outright).

Note 4:  For some additional sources re Couric, see Tara Haelle’s two interesting/complementary pieces:

When it comes to certain issues–such as the risk-benefit analysis of vaccination and the existence of climate change–there are not actually two sides to the issue. There is only the scientific evidence and the consensus about what it means. The “other side” consists of the denialists who simply refuse to accept the science–or to accept the consensus that there is no evidence of serious side effects.

To present “both sides” is to commit the sin of false balance, or false equivalence. Emily Willingham defined  that in Forbes as “giving equal weight to arguments that don’t carry equal weight of evidence.” (The Tracker previously covered an excellent CJR piece by Curtis Brainard about the media’s irresponsible reporting with false balance on vaccines.)

I also wanted to gather some of the best links I found about the show to post here. Ironically, I have been gathering research for an extensive myth-busting post about the HPV vaccine, but that’s a ways off still. I have my work cut out for me with formerly credible journalists like Couric helping to tear down any progress that’s been made in getting accurate information out about the HPV vaccine. ….

Honestly, about the only heartening thing about this whole disaster of a show was that when I googled “Katie Couric HPV vaccine” to see if there were any good articles I missed, every single results on the first two pages was a critical take on just how many ways Couric screwed over science yesterday.

Note 4:  Skepticism vs (science) Denial

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Tags: anti-science syndrome · science

2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 John Egan // Dec 9, 2013 at 6:20 pm

    Adam –

    On this issue, as with so many others, your intent may be well-meaning, but your application is profoundly ineffective.

    Just last month you reposted the diary on returning to subsistence agriculture. And, as I said then, not only was it hogwash, but it had zero chance of even being heard.

    You and Jerome pushed the major savings to be had from wind. And now most Europeans face a doubling of electric prices. And then the refrain becomes something about the necessity to do so no matter what.

    And you wonder why the poor and working poor are fleeing left parties in Europe? You wonder why the Tea Party listens to the ignorant drivel coming from Sarah Palin and Rush Limbaugh?

    The Democratic Party should be getting 70% of the vote – regularly – in nearly all jurisdictions. With, perhaps, the exception of a few small towns in Texas and Utah.

    I think a large majority of Americans realize that the Goppers are bat-shit crazy – even a large portion here in Wyoming. But when they see thing such as what you have posted, that core, swing demographic has second thoughts about the Dems, too.

    The best example is the 2006 senate election in Connecticut between Lieberman and Lamont. Everyone in the left blogosphere delighted in calling him LIE-berman (Ha-Ha) and describing his supporters as Neanderthals. Even Lamont’s campaign director described Waterbury – a center of Lieberman support – as a place where evil and slime intersected.

    Just a few problems, though. First, Lieberman could run as an independent under Connecticut law. And Lamont would need to win over a large segment of Lieberman supporters to win the general. You know how it turned out.

    For the past six years, your positions have come straight out of the Lamont playbook. In the case of HPV – to force parents to vaccinate their junior high children against not only their will, but more importantly, their beliefs – is a losing issue in the long run.

    You can try to silence the media. You can attempt to portray persons who talk about the backlash as anti-science. But, in the long run, you will lose.

    That’s the kind of politics you operate.

  • 2 ShellaWinchCombe // Dec 18, 2013 at 2:57 am

    On the other hand, Hayes fails to cite other studies, such as those conducted by Du – Preez et al, that do not support his findings ‘ something a reputable scientist would
    do. In other words, in 2003, one out of 211 children was identified on the autism spectrum.

    Gas chromatography is basically the process of passing a vaporized sample in an inert gas, through a narrow tube filled with granules.