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,
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.
- For example, generally, anti-vaccination anti-science attitudes are perceived as being ‘liberal’/'left-wing’ – but these do not drive policy-making and are rather rarely embraced by significant political actors/politicians. The ‘anti-science’ elements exists ‘on the left’ but, writ large, remain on the margins of, rather than dominating, policy approaches.
- On the other hand, climate denial skews very heavily to the right and this dominates today’s Republican elite which, in fact, is far more anti-science/climate-denial dominated then the ‘average’ registered Republican.
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:
- Re journalism, Anti-vaccine fear-mongering back in the mainstream: Katie Couric trades fact for emotion
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.)
- Oh Katie Couric, let us count the ways you screwed up HPV vaccine coverage is a post with links to numerous discussions re Couric
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
- “Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire …” Differentiating Skeptic from Denier. Amusing, very accessible, elementary-school sounding, but scientific-method linked differentiation.
- Denier vs skeptic: links to over a dozen discussions of this issue
- Sourcing Skepticism … what factors drive questioning of Global Warming?