The book The Panic Virus by Seth Mnookin inspired my blogging project for the summer, which was vaccines. The author explores why the myth that vaccines cause developmental disorders persists despite extensive research that demonstrates just the opposite.

Mnookin follows the course of a theory by a now discredited British gastroenterologist, Andrew Wakefield, that the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine causes autism. How Wakefield’s theory found fertile ground in the minds of parents struggling with an autistic child and with their search for answers is well-developed in the book and exposes two problematic aspects of science and science reporting.

In reviewing the meeting of a group of 51 specialists who had reviewed HMO patient records via the Vaccine Safety Datalink at the request of the Centers for Disease Control, Mnookin considered both how science works and the importance of accurate scientific reporting.

Mnookin reminds us that the central distinction between science and ideology is through the theory of “falsifiability”. This theory asserts that, in order for a subject to be a legitimate topic for scientific study, it must have a single, corresponding null hypothesis that can be disproven. This is fundamental to the scientific process in that, since it would be impossible to prove a negative, the closes one can come to proof for any theory is through a thorough effort to prove the null hypothesis.

There is a complexity in the null hypothesis that means that scientific reporters have to understand science sufficiently to be able to communicate this. Also the “debate” on vaccine safety has suffered by the journalist’s ethic to provide “balanced” reporting. This has meant, in some circumstances that the “balance” has been a false. To illustrate this, Mnookin cites a study from Cardiff University in Wales. Towards a Better Map: Science, the Public and the Media by Ian Hargreaves, Justin Lewis and Tammy Spears: This study examined how the media affects the public’s understanding of science, using studies on a link between MMR vaccine and autism. The study found that 70% of media stories related to MMR vaccine mentioned a link with autism in contrast to 11% that reported on the vaccine’s safety record. “Balance” for the overwhelming safety record of the vaccine was provided by the “junk scientists” whose research was poor, if not unethical. The result of this “balanced” reporting was that most people began to believe that the MMR vaccine, and vaccines in general, were not safe.

Mnookin outlines some of the tragedies caused when the safety of vaccines is questioned and the public health benefit they provide is disregarded:

  • In 2009, six unvaccinated children in Pennsylvania were infected with Hib, a disease previously eliminated in the United States. Two of these children died.
  • In October 2010, the California Department of Public Health reported 5500 cases of whooping cough. This was the highest number of cases in California since the pertussis vaccine had been introduced in the 1950’s.

Physicians, as well as the public, are now aware of more and more outbreaks of diseases across North America that are known to be prevented by vaccines. Mnookin accounts for this by the platform journalists have provided to “junk science” in the name of “balance”. He also noted that several states have introduced laws mandating education on “both sides” of previously proven scientific tenets, e.g. evolution or global warming or vaccine safety. This is not education and it’s not “balance” either.

Why does the “balance” of journalism trump the truth? I would say because tragic stories sensationally told sell the news. Mnookin tells the story of how the use of vaccines as an important public health measure have been undermined by the media. His book gave me the tools to further advocate for vaccine use and I recommend to anyone for whom vaccine safety is at all in question.


3 thoughts on ““Balance” or Bias: My Favourite Vaccine Book

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