Coverage of the Vaccine-Autism “Debate”

Hello all,

This being the week on science/journalism interactions I wanted to put forth an example where miss-communication and miss-representation (debatable) of scientific data have had some pretty serious effects on public health. Some recent Measles and Mumps outbreaks in California have some non-trivial connections to the drop in vaccinations due to parental fear of autism or other developmental consequences.  Reading this http://www.everydayhealth.com/autism/vaccines-autism.aspx article, how do you feel about the coverage? Would the structure of the article cause readers to walk away thinking about the expert/scientific information presented, or the speculations of the writer? Who gets the last word?

Personally, I feel like this is an good example of the fallacy of balance that can sometimes arise in science journalism. Oftentimes journalists seek to find both sides of an issue, where the scientists with whom they interact seek to find out which side is correct. By presenting both sides of a “controversial” topic the author can intentionally or not mislead readers into a middle ground position that may not actually exist. In this case the originating paper for the link between the MMR vaccine  and autism was discredited and redacted ten years prior to the publishing of this paper.

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About arlefferts

Junior undergraduate Cell and Molecular Biology major at U of M.

11 Responses to “Coverage of the Vaccine-Autism “Debate””

  1. I agree that this article seems to stir up controversy when there might not be enough of a source. The “Parent’s Viewpoint” limits a counterargument to one story, without any other support. However, since young parents are often hyper-sensitive about their new children, they are prone to doubt and fear when making decisions about their children’s welfare, and understandably so. From an outside perspective, this article seems poorly founded, but from a new parent’s perspective, it is probably much more impacting. For this audience, the journalist gets the last word for planting a seed of doubt in a young parent’s mind, despite the heavy support for the research conclusions that vaccines are not linked with heightened cases of autism.

  2. As Maura mentioned, the new parent’s perspective is only backed up with one scenario in which vaccinations cannot be proven as the source of the child’s behavior change. Even though the research says otherwise, it is difficult not to feel some doubt after the personal testimony from Weitzen. This part of the article would make a new parent empathize with Weitzen and want to avoid such a personality change in their own child. To them, the research means nothing if their child ends up with autism.
    The article would have been more helpful to parents making the decision whether or not to vaccinate their child if it had provided information on what the consequences of not vaccinating your child are: risk of being affected by a vaccine-preventable disease, the need to quarantine if there is an outbreak of such a disease, and the threat to others.

  3. The parent obviously gets the last word in because they end off the article. However, I could not help but to bring my own judgment into the story. I found myself criticizing the parent as I was reading his argument. He questions “the undeniable fact is that no one knows what causes autism. So, say skeptics, how can experts claim to know what doesn’t cause it?” Having a basic understanding of the scientific process I know that the parents concern is illogical. It is actually quite easy to prove what does not cause something; the hardest thing to do is prove what does cause something. Like Edison said “I found hundreds of ways how not to build a light bulb.” For me this idea is common knowledge and the journalist choice to interview this parent makes the parent’s concern come off as unintelligible and as a reader my ability to find in him a reliable source wanes. Even though the parent gets the last word in the scientist is the voice that resonates with truth.

  4. The scientific viewpoint has the upper hand in this article. It is given the majority of the content and is explained and supported the most. The opposing side, in which there are still some people who believe there may be a link between childhood vaccines and autism, is presented by a scientifically uninformed source. Who should we trust? The parent who jumps to conclusions and uses inductive logic but claims that it is deductive, or the scientist who backs claims with scientific studies.

    While the doubts and concerns of parents are valid, the way in which these doubts are presented seems silly. I think the scientific portion of the article was well done and clearly explained but the randomly placed source at the end left me wondering why that part was included. If the journalist is skeptical about the scientific viewpoint in the first half of the article, that is not made clear by the selected counter viewpoint.

  5. It’s interesting that nearly right away the author says that there is no proven evidence that childhood vaccines affect autism. This basically shoots down the whole point of the article within the first couple of paragraphs. I felt somewhat lost after reading it, and thought to myself, “what was the point of the article?” It didn’t really prove anything, and I didn’t come away learning much.

    The parent gets the last comment, and who knows, maybe vaccines did give their child autism…I am pretty wary about vaccines myself! However, that was only one testimony. I feel that in order for the argument to be valid the author should have found more parents who had experienced similar situations. The fact that the author didn’t do that pretty much shows that there probably aren’t many other parents in similar situations. I am much more inclined to trust the scientists on this one.

  6. This article from Everyday Health did not expose me to any new information; rather, it made me question what I already know about the link between childhood vaccinations and autism. I thought the lack of multiple sources for an issue with controversy was lazy on the part of the author, especially when it came to having only one parent’s perspective with their one child. I would have like to have heard from varying viewpoints of parents and even medical professionals. What about a parent who was afraid to get their child vaccinated but because of the new research now embraces it? Or a parent who has had the opposite experience?
    The structure presented, with the science first and testimonial later, makes readers remember the testimonials better since it is the last part they are left with.
    Caitlin made the point that I myself was thinking too the whole time, and that was the explanation of what happens to a child who has been vaccinated versus those who have not been vaccinated. Including it would have given readers a clearer picture of the topic.

  7. This article tried to set a debate over the Autism/Vaccination topic, and in my opinion, this is what caused most of the confusion I had when reading it. The author starts by clarifying that there is no evidence for a debate which is contradictory with the last topic (A Parent’s Viewpoint). And, as it was said before, this last topic is poorly supported, and based on a misconception by the father (I strongly agree with Liz in this point). Maybe if the author focused on the actual research, like she did on the first two topics, the article would have been more successful in conveying information about vaccines. The possibility of vaccines being linked with autism could have been approached in a different way, considering that all science is liable to fail.
    Personally, I would also go for a new title. I am a big fan of questions, but in this case, it makes the reader expect to read a debate that is in fact not supported by the article.

  8. I watched a documentary on PBS Frontline about this and it was very interesting in that it highlighted several perspectives from a very objective viewpoint. While I personally lean one way on the subject, I definitely understand the debate. There are two types of evidence being presented. An emotional, anecdotal piece and a statistical, scientific piece. Both have the power to be equally effective when presented well – it depends on the audience, topic, and the actual evidence. As humans, we tend to bias scientific proof. There was actually a Marketing study that showed that even if something is ridiculously wrong, the chances of people viewing it to be incorrect is significantly decreased when the incorrect statement is presented with random neuroscience support. Some of the parents who think that vaccines impact autism may be trying to avoid the natural bias the science has. And thus, they think they’re on the right side of the debate. While this article does not appropriately address these issues since there are flagrant opinions inserted throughout, it is still important to think about why people think the way they do.

  9. As mentioned above, I think the principle fault of this article is in its organization. Ending a piece with an emotional caveat is oftentimes effective in encouraging the reader to reflect further on the issue. However, in this case, not only does the author provide an anecdote that would likely provoke uncertainty in a parent deciding whether to vaccinate their child, but it also suggests that vaccination is a purely individual choice. Nowhere in the article does the author mention that not vaccinating ones children puts both that child and other children at risk of contracting serious diseases. The author poses the issue as a question of “freedom of choice”, without also presenting it as a public health issue. While the author mentions possible reasons for a rise in autism, he does not also mention the recent resurgence of measles in the US, which had been all-but eradicated by successful universal vaccination programs in the 1960s. Though her intent in presenting “both sides” of the debate is understandable, I think the author does a disservice to science and public health by giving too much weight to the sensational and baseless claim that vaccination leads to autism.

  10. Honestly, I felt that this article took me on a bit of a rollercoaster ride. For the beginning of the article, I got the impression that the author did not believe that vaccines cause autism and was trying to push this idea on the reader. I thought this was moderately well done with the incorporation of information from research studies, and the list of reasons that autism diagnoses may have increased at a similar rate to childhood vaccinations. However, throwing in the parent testimony was like the drop after you reach the top of the biggest hill on the rollercoaster. This author made an argument and built me up into believing her, and then she just let me down. Out of nowhere, she threw in the story of one parent and his idea that his son’s autism had to be associated with his vaccinations. Furthermore, she hardly followed up and defended herself after his testimony. More or less, she let him have the last word and threw in the excuse that if a parent is concerned with the connection between vaccinations and autism, they ought to do their research and what they believe is best for their children. As a whole, the article was just very oddly organized and I still do not fully understand what the author’s purpose was.

  11. I feel like the author did not cover enough ground in his article. Granted it was a short article, and though that may have been what he intended, I feel like he did not do the subject justice. This is a complex topic, and needed a longer article to give each side a more comprehensive explanation of their opinions or beliefs. I feel like despite the article quickly noting that it is agreed that vaccines do not cause mental retardation, by the time the article was finished, I felt unsatisfied with either side. Perhaps the author could have included more scientific explanation behind the safety of these vaccines, in understandable terms of course. Or perhaps the author could have indicated some of the reasons why parents turn to blaming vaccines or other environmental factors behind their children’s issue. If the author truly believed in the science behind the safety of vaccines he woud have been more clear and emphatic with the scientific explanation and the need for vaccines. It is nearly disproven that vaccines cause autism, however, it is proven that these vaccines will reduce your chance of having polio. I think putting things in perspective for current and future parents would have emphasized the need for vaccines. Also providing the personal testimony, despite being proven otherwise by science, emotionally affects people to disagree with empirical evidence presented not really in this article, but in general. I feel that was a tug at the heart strings of the reader rather than a legitimate source.

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