“False balanced” reporting of autism-vaccine manufactroversy

In the real world of science-based medicine, the link between autism and vaccines (particularly, the MMR vaccine for measles, mumps and rubella) has been thoroughly debunked, quashed, and discredited. In the delusional world of the vaccine denialists, the link between autism and vaccines is based on MrAndy Wakefield‘s paper alleging a connection between MMR and autism that has been retracted by the Lancet medical journal.

Then why is there even a debate about this manufactroversy (a manufactured or invented controversy)? Well, researchers actually examined this false controversy in a recently published article, by Graham Dixon and Christopher Clarke of Cornell University, in Health Education Research. They investigated how the news media and journalists try to “falsely balance” their reporting about the debunked link between vaccines and autism. The journalists create this false balance, “despite a strong medical and scientific consensus backed by rigorous epidemiological studies indicating no link between autism and vaccines.” Dixon and Clarke also state that “research suggests that journalists in the United Kingdom and United States often report this controversy by presenting claims both for and against a link in a relatively ‘balanced’ fashion. In some cases, so-called ‘falsely balanced’ reporting fails to mention which claim is supported by a scientific consensus.” An overwhelming scientific consensus, by the way.

In their study, 320 undergraduate students, randomly selected from a broad background of education, were recruited to read recent (within the past year of the study) news stories about the vaccine-autism “controversy.” Immediately afterwards, “participants answered a questionnaire assessing their evaluation of how their respective article presented the autism–vaccine link (the manipulation check); how certain they are about vaccine safety and how certain they think scientists are about vaccine safety and intention to vaccinate oneself and their future children.”

Each participant was asked to read one article of four different types:

  1. No-link (presenting only the perspective that vaccines do not cause autism), 
  2. Link (presenting only the perspective that vaccines could cause autism),
  3. Falsely balanced’ (presenting both perspectives without mention that a scientific/ medical consensus rejects a link),
  4. Control’ (non-health-related article).
To prevent any of the subjects from attempting to manipulate the results, they also had to identify which of the four types articles that they had read. 
So what did Dixon and Clarke find? First, they found that subjects who read the falsely balanced article were less certain that vaccines are safe than participants in the no-link and the control groups. However, they were more certain about vaccine safety than those who read the “link” article. 
In a post hoc comparison test (a statistical measurement that consists of looking at the data—after the experiment has concluded—for patterns), the authors discovered that the “falsely balanced” readers reported that scientists were “less certain” of vaccine safety than were the readers in the “no-link” group.
Dixon and Clarke made some interesting points in the article’s discussion:

This study suggests that falsely balanced reporting of an alleged autism–vaccine link heightens readers’ uncertainty regarding vaccine safety and lowers their intention to vaccinate their future children. Whereas similar research has found that one-sided, anti-vaccine-only website messages lower individuals’ vaccine intentions our results suggest that two-sided news messages with claims both for/against an autism–vaccine link can have a similar effect.

The authors then conclude that “results suggest that balancing conflicting views of the autism–vaccine controversy may lead readers to erroneously infer the state of expert knowledge regarding vaccine safety and negatively impact vaccine intentions.” In other words, manufacturing a controversy, where there is no controversy, does a great disservice to readers who are looking for information about vaccines.

In case there is a concern about the evidence that thoroughly dismisses any link between vaccines and autism, here it is:

If you want to find real, peer-reviewed, published in high impact journal, evidence supporting a link between vaccines and autism, here you go:
Vaccines Save Lives

Key citations

The Original Skeptical Raptor
Chief Executive Officer at SkepticalRaptor
Lifetime lover of science, especially biomedical research. Spent years in academics, business development, research, and traveling the world shilling for Big Pharma. I love sports, mostly college basketball and football, hockey, and baseball. I enjoy great food and intelligent conversation. And a delicious morning coffee!

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