Robert T. Carroll of the excellent Skeptic’s Dictionary site offers some insight into why the forces of Antivax seem so prevalent in the media and have taken hold of the US in an unprecedented (and dangerous) way. (I’ve blogged many times on the Antivax movement.) You see, it’s all about presentation, and incompetence. I’ll let him tell the sad tale, which is sparked by one of Carroll’s correspondents named “Jan” on a related but different topic:

Of course, the news media whether it be Fox (that arm of the Republican party) or the liberal elite media (that arm of the Democratic party) report the anecdotes, not the RCTs [randomized controlled trials]. Two recent stories illustrate the kind of evidence Jan counts and the kind that the media thrive on.

One story involves a young woman who developed a weird neurological disorder (dystonia) ten days after getting a flu shot. The nature of the story makes it clear that there must be some connection between the young woman’s health problems and the flu shot. The reporters don’t have to come right out and say that the shot caused her problems. That’s clearly implied by having the report at all. Reporters aren’t paid to encourage viewers to think, however. So, don’t expect them to investigate other possible causes of the young woman’s problems. They won’t report that 9 days before her illness, she drank 20 shots of tequila. [For those of you who can’t figure it out for yourselves, I’m making this stuff up about the nine days of Christmas for illustration purposes.] Eight days before her illness, someone spiked her drink with ecstasy. Seven days before her illness, she ate a hamburger at McDonalds. Six days before her illness, she spent time in a toxic building where the DMV is located. Five days before her illness, she fell out of bed. Four days before her illness, she drank some bottled water that a friend gave her. Three days before her illness she watched a whole movie in fast forward mode. Two days before her illness, she took a neuroleptic for facial pain. And the day before she got ill, she rode a roller coaster for three hours. Why didn’t the reporters note these things? Why didn’t they go back eleven days and beyond to see if there might not be something people might causally connect to the illness? Because the flu shot is the current bogeyman. Next year it could be ground beef.

The reason for this is all about drama, and using emotion to “hook” the reader/viewer/listener:

Obviously, an emotional anecdote will be more persuasive than a dry report on RCTs and statistical probabilities of being harmed versus being protected by a vaccination. Also, the fear of possible harm carries more weight that the hope of possible protection from harm. Further complicating the data is the values issue that’s involved here. Getting vaccinated or not affects the whole community, not just oneself. For most people, protecting themselves and their children is a higher priority than protecting strangers. By getting a vaccination and avoiding the flu I not only protect myself but prevent myself from infecting others who aren’t vaccinated and who might be greatly harmed by the flu.

Since this is not a tangible, observable benefit in people’s favor, they ignore the good that vaccines do. They concentrate, instead, on the harm it might do them … which if it came to pass, would be tangible and observable to individuals.

Anyway, the issue with the antivaxxers is more a matter of emotion than evidence. It doesn’t matter that 28 pregnant women in the US have already died from swine flu and no pregnant woman has been harmed by the vaccine. It doesn’t matter to antivax parents that the chance of their child being harmed by a vaccination is near zero. It doesn’t matter that there is an almost certain benefit to their child and the community at large by having the child vaccinated. It doesn’t matter that 43 children in the US have died recently from swine flu* and none have been harmed by the swine flu vaccination. They have an anecdote: an 8-year-old boy died a week after his swine flu vaccination. It must have been the vaccine that killed him even if health department officials deny it. Their denial is proof they’re covering up something. And so it goes.

The problem is not just that Americans lack critical-thinking skills. That’s true, and it’s quite bad enough. But even those who are capable of thinking critically, are denied access to information they could use, by a mass media which is hell-bent on playing up the drama behind everything and withholding information that runs contrary to the dramatic narrative, because it might tend to dilute the drama and thus fail to “hook” viewers/readers/listeners sufficiently.

This is insidious, folks, and it needs to stop. The mass media must begin to take responsibility for what they’ve done … not only in the case of building the Antivax movement, but in many other areas too. Journalism in almost any field is rife with misinformation and artificial drama, and too full of informational holes to be of any use to those not subject to being emotionally hooked. No one is served by this … no one … except maybe the media outlets themselves, in the form of higher ratings. They ought to be ashamed of themselves. And Americans should no longer tolerate it.

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