Pseudo-Science and the Media: Problems and Lessons

By Thomas R. DeGregori
January 31, 2003

Two recent articles in my hometown newspaper show how hard a time the media have understanding and explaining science.

The “Organic Foods” Story

On the same day that new laws were implemented concerning the labeling of organic foods, there was a long story in the Houston Chronicle titled “Getting to the Root of the Issue,” on the first page of the Lifestyle section. The Chronicle does a lot of good work — and sometimes carries pieces of mine — but this particular article was written by a features writer with no apparent knowledge of the scientific issues involved in “organic” agriculture. The visual hook was a half-page colorful picture of packages of “organic” foods seemingly growing out of a small, cultivated patch of land. The story was largely “boosterism,” as admitted to me by the journalist in an e-mail exchange. I would have used a much stronger term than “boosterism.” Other than a brief quotation from a USDA official on the formulation of the rules for “organic” labeling, the only people quoted were advocates, owners of “organic” stores, and their customers.

Needless to say, the narrative had a warm feeling, depicting good people protecting the environment and producing or wanting wholesome, safe, clean food. Unless previously informed otherwise, the reader left the article with the belief that “organic” food was safer more nutritious and better for the environment, none of which is even remotely true.

One cannot fault the author of a story from using pictorials or graphics to attract readers. And what could appear more reasonable for a story on “organic” labeling than to ask those who are involved in promoting it? I took the time to write a lengthy e-mail to the author, which began a cordial and civilized exchange as I pointed out error after error in the article, offering to provide more documentation and have my publishers send him copies of my books on these issues — all to no avail.

Problem Number One: Journalists will quite naturally turn to activists who are more than willing to give of their time (since they do not have any productive use for it) to provide all the right-sounding statements. A features writer covering an issue such as “organic” food production will not even begin to know how to identify and locate scientists and others with a differing point of view. In some instances, such as the controversy over transgenic food production, there are no scientists of any professional stature who support the activists’ position.

Once the story is run, any attempt at correction becomes old news, and even if the writer wanted to run another story, it is unlikely that the editors would run it, so the propaganda in the article becomes part of a cumulative, self-reinforcing “truth.” The journalist in this case was honest enough to tell me that the next story on “organic” agriculture would likely be given to someone else. The first reporter’s story, by reinforcing existing preconceptions and misinformation, did far more harm than good and should have been run as an advertisement for the “organic” food industry rather than as a news story.

Lesson: Advocates of sound science are at a disadvantage. Somehow, we have to educate assignment editors and journalists to the fact that there are scientific views other than those of the activists. If sound science isn’t in the story, we must flood them with (good) letters to the editor. Sound science, which is fundamentally cautious, will always operate at a disadvantage because we neither can nor wish to match the certainties of the ideologues and their warm good feelings. Until we have a public that is more literate in science, ideological certainty and clever phraseology will most often trump the probability statements of scientists.

Additional Lesson: For decades, most of us have considered the advocates of “organic” agriculture to be a strange and harmless bunch of zealots. And harmless they were, for a while at least. The scientific community largely ignored them. Unfortunately, since the “organic” claims made over the decades went unchallenged, many people including reporters came to assume that they must be true. The lesson is that falsehoods should always be challenged, no matter how absurd they may be.

The “Autism and Vaccinations” Story

The following month, the newspaper’s Sunday edition carried a front-page story on autism and immunization, a long and well-researched one. The article opened with the stories of children who had developed the overt signs of autism shortly after being vaccinated, or so it was believed. This was interwoven with a description of what we know about autism, the heart-rending hook being used to draw the reader into the larger story.

Problem Number Two: This one is almost too obvious to mention. In any story about children being harmed by medical science or by toxins in the environment, the readers’ sympathy for children tends to cloud their judgment about the theories offered to explain the children’s health problems. If the response of my students the day after that story ran is any indication, the thing readers retained was the plight of the autistic children. They should have known the larger issues because we had discussed them in class.

Lesson: It is difficult to fault reporters, who may have spent weeks researching a story, for using a lead that plays upon the readers’ sympathy to hold their attention throughout the article. We have to find ways of showing sympathy for the children while separating the issue of their grievous misfortune from the scientific issue of the cause of their misfortune. (For more on that subject, see ACSH’s new book Are Children More Vulnerable to Environmental Chemicals?)

The reporters did contact a variety of genuine scientific experts on the subject and did include data and references to sources refuting the claim that various vaccines cause autism in children. They clearly stated the various problems with the anti-immunization claims, but most of the good science tended to be towards the end of the story, by which point many readers have already made up their minds.

Additional Lesson: One scientist who has been involved on various advisory committees on vaccines, clearly stated that they have been “tested every which way and no link to autism has ever come up…They’re safe.” Quite clearly, had the scientist been pushed on the issue, she would have made it clear that safe meant something other than absolute certainty but nevertheless so overwhelmingly likely to be safe that any reasonable person would consider vaccines as safe as any human endeavor can possibly be. The other references in the article supporting the no-link position used more circumspect language.

One would hope that an open-minded individual reading the article would recognize that the preponderance of scientific evidence was in favor of the safety of the vaccine, since there was no scientific evidence presented to substantiate the autism connection. However, the reporters never presented the evidence to seal the deal. The reporters could argue that their task is to report an issue and not to promote one side or the other. But by presenting the plight of the children with autism and the alleged connection to immunization, they had planted seeds of doubt. It was therefore their responsibility to present the issue in a manner that allowed the reader/parent to make a rational choice — and overcome doubt, if the science warranted it.

Problem Number Three: If all I knew about the issue was what I read in the article, would I as a grandparent recommend measles-mumps-rubella vaccination (MMR) for my grandchild Alejandro, who was due to receive his MMR shots shortly after the article was printed? The answer is unequivocally no! Why? Even though overwhelming scientific is against an autism connection, the probability is not zero, so why put Alejandro at risk when he could be a free-rider and obtain the benefit of other children’s risk taking? We will call this paranoid but strategic view the Alejandro factor, and it is an increasingly serious problem.

The vaccination article contained a statement that there are some “who worry about the effect of the allegations” of an immunization-autism link and who argue that “society is vulnerable because people don’t know what it was like before vaccines, when diseases such as diphtheria and polio claimed thousands of lives a year.” If I were a reader unfamiliar with the underlying issues, though, my response to talk of past plagues might be: that was then, this is now — Alejandro is the present and future.

In spite of the general professionalism of the authors, there was not a clear statement of the risks to Alejandro and other children from not being immunized. One might have inferred it from the description of conditions before widespread immunization, but now, with immunization widespread, readers might still come away thinking they would be wise to avoid being the ones to try vaccination. Back when the article was being written, I gave one of the authors of the article references to medical journals, magazines, newspapers, and my own books that provided tales — just as heart-rending as the autistic children’s plight — about the harm that has resulted from children not being immunized. The references now at the author’s disposal included data on the increase in mortality and morbidity rates from diseases like measles caused by parents who, out of fear, did not have their children immunized. The author now had access to data on an upsurge in death and disease as a result of concerted campaigns against immunization by proponents of “alternative” therapies. Some of the material in medical journals was quite graphic, providing a more than adequate emotional counterweight to the story of the autistic children. I am at a loss to explain why none of these references, particularly those to prestigious medical journals available online, were used.

Lesson: Once again, somehow we have to teach assignment editors, journalists, and journalism professors that no story on risk is complete unless it compares the risk under investigation with the risk of foregoing the action or thing from which the alleged risk arises. “Risk vs. risk” ought to be programmed into journalists’ minds. In other words, risk vs. risk should be a basic rule of professional journalism. If we can just get this one idea to become common practice, it alone will bring a palpable improvement in risk reporting.

Unfortunately, risk reports have become a media stable such that many believe that modern life is dangerous despite the fact that we are living longer and healthier lives than ever before. Given the fuller understanding of risk vs. risk, Alejandro’s parents (with the enthusiastic support of all of his grandparents) continued with the process of having him receive his recommended shots and he is and will be far safer and healthier because of it.

Additional lesson: The quote about “what it as like before vaccines” was “balanced” by reference to a local researcher who claims, probably legitimately, that she is unable to obtain funding to study the “theory that in some people the immune system attacks itself rather than the vaccine’s viral material.” She may indeed be having difficulties researching that theory, but the article might have helped readers if it had told them of scientists in the United Kingdom who complain that they have had to spend so much effort following up false theories about harm from vaccines that they do not have the time and resources to follow what they consider promising leads on the likely cause or causes of autism. False fears of health risks, spread by activism, force funding for research up blind alleys and thereby divert efforts from potentially life-saving research, just as articles focusing on imaginary risks divert attention from real ones.

Thomas R. DeGregori is professor of economics at the University of Houston and the author of two recent books: “The Environment, Our Natural Resources” and “Bountiful Harvest: Technology, Food Safety, and the Environment” (Cato Institute).