Deluded Ideologues and a Frivolous Media: A Deadly Combination

In the interest of fairness and balance, and before I get negative and nasty, here are a couple of genuine media achievements to cheer about. Just don’t get carried away: any notion that mainstream media are dedicated to presenting the truth would be naive. With that caveat, I propose three hearty cheers for the British Medical Journal and award-winning journalist Brian Deer for his meticulously documented report about a major scientific fraud that led to a significant public health problem. To quote the Journal’s sharply worded introduction:

In the first part of a special BMJ series, Brian Deer exposes the bogus data behind claims that launched a worldwide scare over measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine, and reveals how the appearance of a link with autism was manufactured at a London medical school.

Also, a somewhat restrained Hip Hip Hooray for ABC's Anderson Cooper, who conducted a scathing interview with Andrew Wakefield, the disgraced British researcher Deer caught in the headlights of his first-rate investigative journalism. The contemptible Wakefield moved to Texas in 2001 and subsequently became a hero in the weird world of the U.S. anti-vaccination movement. He has been embroiled in problems stemming from his infamous 1998 MMR-autism study since at least 2004. Last May his medical license was revoked for “serious professional misconduct” related to that study. Predictably, Wakefield and his supporters claim he is the victim of a conspiracy by the vaccine makers and their allies in the medical establishment.

I am hesitant to praise Anderson Cooper, mainly because of the shoddy medium he works in, with its history of cynical pandering to popular myths and misconceptions. But I'll make an exception in this case while remaining keenly aware that corporate TV news coverage is not going to improve (e.g., by valuing facts and well-reasoned analysis), at least not in my lifetime.

My disdain for mainstream media, especially for its chronically inept science coverage, is shared by many in the scientific community. Dr. David Gorski, writing at the Science-Based Medicine blog site about Wakefield's ethical problems, referred to the mainstream news media as “useful idiots.” Generally, prominent charlatans and sincere but deluded ideologues like the anti-vaxers have little to fear from popular network “news” and “documentary” programs or even from the mainstream press. More often, they can count on “fair and balanced” network TV to directly or indirectly promote their unproven medical, paranormal, political, and religious claims.

I offer The Oprah Winfrey Show as exhibit number one. Oprah has consistently been one of the prime media culprits, irresponsibly providing an uncontested national platform for all kinds of pseudoscience, quackery, New Age mysticism, and woo. Two of her star guests were the irresponsible anti-vax celebrity spokespersons, actress/whatever Jenny McCarthy and her former boyfriend, the noted scholar, Jim Carey. Amazing, and shocking, that a couple of deluded actors can persuade millions of people to doubt or reject the scientific consensus on a simple, affordable procedure that saves on the order of 9 million lives a year and could save almost twice that number if all children were immunized. What these prominent anti-vaxers are doing is nothing less than a life-and-death proposition for some victims of their misinformation campaign. Just check out this web page at for a sample of the quality of McCarthy’s evidence and reasoning. You have to be impressed by her “warrior spirit” persona and her emotional appeals, like this one:

What number will it take for people just to start listening to what the mothers of children who have seen autism have been saying for years, which is, “We vaccinated our baby and something happened.” 

Something happened. Wow, that’s great, Jenny, I guess correlation is causation after all. Thanks for the enlightenment. I was sort of under the impression that autistic symptoms often are noticed around the time children receive their first vaccinations, but from now on I’ll get my information from mothers. I know there are skeptics who say your son is not autistic, that he most likely had a different condition with similar symptoms to autism. But who are they to question the assertions of an indigo mom of a crystal child whose autism was cured by chelation therapy? Or of a mother who wrote the foreword to Dr. Andrew Wakefield’s latest book? I guess I was too busy reading all that sciencey stuff to pay proper attention to you and Oprah.

Okay, enough of that, except that it’s pretty typical of what the U.S. has come to in terms of the kinds of messages that influence people. Oprah, with her millions of adoring viewers, is but one prominent culprit – the liberal Huffington Post also provides a national platform for McCarthy, Carey, and their ilk. As the estimable Brit Dr. Ben Goldacre points out at his Bad Science blog,

. . . the media have systematically and irresponsibly misrepresented the evidence on MMR. . . . MMR vaccine uptake has dropped from 93% to around 75%, and to below 50% in London. Furthermore, the media have shown no sign of recognizing and acknowledging their role, and so it seems likely that they will go on to cause further harm on this but also, more importantly, on many other issues.

So that's what's been going on, in Britain and in the U.S., and it will likely persist as long as a gullible public continues to uncritically swallow an endless variety of ignorant, manufactured, and misleading claims made by celebrities and interest groups distinguished mainly by their lack of knowledge and appropriate credentials. All the while the purveyors of misinformation continue to become more sophisticated and effective in persuading the public to reject scientific findings (e.g., evolution and climate change). I attribute this lamentable state of affairs in part to the failure of our educational system to teach anything remotely approximating critical thinking or an appreciation of scientific method.

Call me a cynic if you want, but it's basic: corporations and interest groups are not going to spend millions to sponsor accurate and honest programming that challenges viewers’ biases and interests. They and the networks want nothing as much as high ratings, and truth is often an annoyance and a casualty. Yes, it is almost that simple: If most viewers believe in spooks – and they do – then you don't debunk spooks or other popular paranormal or pseudoscientific beliefs, certainly not in prime time. The monied class has appropriated the medium and the message to its own advantage – no surprise there.

Are the broadcasters and sponsors really that cynical? I say yes, absolutely, certainly, without any doubt – that is who they are and what they do. Deception in news and so-called documentary programming is so pervasive that the public has become desensitized and indifferent, so that when nut jobs like Sarah Palin start shrieking about “death panels,” there is little or no outrage, no proportional response. Basically, they just get away with it. For another thing, lots of citizens want to believe deliberate claptrap – there’s a huge market for reasons to hate Obama, liberals, gays, etc., and it matters not to that market if the information is true or false. The torrent of dangerous misinformation is now so overwhelming that those who might be moved to express their outrage don't even know where to start. So when someone tells me to temper my anger and be more loyal to the country – and it has happened – my immediate inclination is to ask, “Loyal to what?” But that’s another topic for another column.

A few conclusions:

Vaccination stands as one of the great triumphs of medical science. The current vaccination schedules are safe, and opposition to them is irrational and harmful.

If the eminently sensible, science-validated precaution of getting one’s children vaccinated can be undermined in just a few years by well-funded groups of mostly sincere but misguided ideologues, what hope is there that this country will get back on a rational course?

Journalists in mainstream news media have largely abdicated their responsibilities and sold out to the infotainment demands of their corporate employers, who expect them to pander to or manipulate a gullible public. Instead of aggressively investigating and exposing deceptive practices, today’s crop of journalists downplay or ignore those practices. Honest, investigative reporting is increasingly relegated to dedicated bloggers such as Drs. Goldacre and Gorski who work from ethical conviction rather than for money. But then almost all the best information and analysis I read these days comes from people who do it for free, out of a sense of ethics and public service rather than for monetary gain.

Ideologies are often faith-based, unsupported by sound evidence and reason; and committed ideologues are extremely resistant to facts and rational arguments, much like religious fanatics, maybe worse.

A major reason for public acceptance of dangerous nonsense is the failure of the education system to teach a basic understanding of and respect for the methods of scientific inquiry and critical thinking.

We in the reality-based community must take the initiative in an aggressive and organized fashion and form what amounts to an army of truth squads. Scientists, educators, journalists – everyone who respects science and reason – should get involved to the best of their ability, as some few already have. We must start speaking out consistently and forcefully to counter the toxic messages of deluded ideologues and corrupt media. Responses to falsehoods should be timely, widely disseminated, and sustained. And consistent: Even if the deceivers are on our side, any public figure or organization that deliberately misleads the public should be ruthlessly exposed – named, shamed, and shunned (audio interview). What is true must take its rightful place as our foundation value.

In my previous column I proposed that ideological commitment stems from human nature. It once served us well during our evolutionary era, but no longer. Ideologies now collectively pose the greatest threat to peace, prosperity, and survival. People in advanced nations must get serious about transcending many of homo sapiens’ natural inclinations if we’re going to safely navigate the treacherous currents of the 21st Century.