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Why is the news media comfortable with lying about science? (arstechnica.com)
54 points by mixmax on Jan 14, 2010 | hide | past | web | favorite | 30 comments

In fact, this really isn't restricted to science journalism. If you talk to people working with prostitutes, they'll tell you that journalists show up looking for quotes to fit into their already determined story, and if you aren't forthcoming with appropriate quotes, they will just make them up. I was friends with many journalism students at uni, and it deeply broke my trust in journalism.

When axod and I worked at our first startup, we would periodically get journalists coming into the office to film a short piece on the company. They always wanted us to put "something cool" on our computer screens (invariably lots of fast scrolling text "like in The Matrix"), and pretend like we were reading and analyzing it. I've always been rather skeptical of journalism since.

I love the implication that the Daily Mail isn't comfortable lying about other subjects.

You all were quoting my court case, fox did argue that technically lying is not a violation of any law rule or regulation fo the FCC. And in order to file a whistleblower case in Florida, you have to violate a law, rule or regulation. see foxbghsuit.com As to the science question- it is possible journalists don't fully appreciate the language of science whicih is quite precise. Journalists are trying to speak to a wide audience, that may account for some of the disparity.

It's Not News, it's fark: http://www.fark.com/2007/book/

Not like the book said anything original, but it has some truly hilarious examples taken from years for following silly stories.

The examples given hardly warrant the breathless title. Neither the Daily Mail (a UK tabloid) nor Fox News (a conservative US news network) have much of a record of objectivity and if they're comfortable with distortion, it's certainly not just about science.

The ABC piece employs the typical journalistic practice of presenting both sides of the issue which, while it can be argued gives undue legitimacy to wackos like Jenny McCarthy, is a very long way from 'lying'.

"Both sides" implies a binary black-and-white issue. Much of science isn't, especially medicine, weather and social issues. Somewhere somebody has indoctrinated us into accepting "both sides" as complete coverage. Usually it amounts to presenting extravagant claims by polarized spokespersons.

It doesn't really imply a black-and-white issue, but it doesn't matter what it implies - it may be lazy or lousy journalism but it's not lying. There is plenty of room for insightful commentary on mainstream journalism, I don't think hyperventilating about how the news media is 'comfortable with lying about science' qualifies, though.

It's very much a recurring habit of media, though, to take two sides, present them equally and call in "balanced". Depending on the issue and the sides picked, it can sometimes work, or it can legitimize nutcases, exclude a middle, ignore one end of a debate, or flatten a complex issue to one dimension.

A lot of issues aren't binary. News outlets are often sloppy reporting on any remotely complex issue.

FOX News actually went to court to defend its right to lie in a newscast.

I can't find a reputable source on this. Would you like to put a source forth?

There are dozens of sources where you can read about this on the internet. Without exception the ones I looked at were of the sort of axegrinding, hissy fitting people that make me distrust their facts.

I did however manage to find the actual opinion from the court is available.

The opinion can be read at http://www.2dca.org/opinions/Opinion_Pages/Opinion_Page_2003...

The paragraph that begins at the bottom of page 3 and finishes on the top of page 4 is the meat.

While WTVT has raised a number of challenges to the judgment obtained by Akre, we need not address each challenge because we find as a threshold matter that Akre failed to state a claim under the whistle-blower's statute. The portion of the whistle-blower's statute pertinent to this appeal prohibits retaliation against employees who have “[d]isclosed, or threatened to disclose,” employer conduct that “is in violation of” a law, rule, or regulation. § 448.102(1)(3). The statute defines a “law, rule or regulation” as “includ[ing] any statute or . . . any rule or regulation adopted pursuant to any federal, state, or local statute or ordinance applicable to the employer and pertaining to the business.” § 448.101(4), Fla. Stat. (1997). We agree with WTVT that the FCC’s policy against the intentional falsification of the news – which the FCC has called its “news distortion policy” – does not qualify as the required “law, rule, or regulation” under section 448.102.

The case was: NEW WORLD COMMUNICATIONS OF TAMPA, INC., d/b/a WTVT-TV, Appellant, v. JANE AKRE, Appellee.

The source (that I found) is LexisNexis' compilation: "FL Courts of Appeal Cases from 1957"

When was this?

Staying away from the global cooling stuff for now, I'll comment on this.

     McCarthy has a long history of dismissing epidemiology, 
     statistics, and all the other evidence-based tools we use 
     to make public health decisions
That's not really true. The problem is that there have been no studies made regarding vaccine and autism. McCarthy believes they are linked and asks to be shown a study proving they are not. (A study that takes populations of vaccinated children and unvaccinated children and compares their autism rates) No studies are available, and years later, that remains true.

Given that this is pretty easy to find out, I think this author has their own little axe to grind.

The problem is that there have been no studies made regarding vaccine and autism...(A study that takes populations of vaccinated children and unvaccinated children and compares their autism rates) No studies are available, and years later, that remains true.

Simply false. Here are studies which compare children given MMR to control children given no MMR vaccines. Both find no statistically significant correlation between MMR vaccine and autism:



There are also temporal studies comparing autism rates over time after the reduction/removal of thimerosal from vaccines (disproving a narrower hypothesis, that thimerosal causes autism):

Hviid A, M Stellfeld, J. Wohlfahrt, and M Melbye (2003). Association between thimerosal-containing vaccines and autism. JAMA 290:1763-1766.

Madsen KM, MB Lauritsen, CB Pedersen, P Thorsen, AM Plesner, PH Andersen, PB Mortensen (2003). Thimerosal and the Occurrence of Autism: Negative Ecological Evidence From Danish Population-Based Data. Pediatrics 112:604-6.

Fombonne E, R Zakarian, A Bennett, L Meng, D. McLean-Heywood (2006). Pervasive Developmental Disorders in Montreal, Quebec, Canada: Prevalence and Links With Immunizations. Pediatrics 118:e139-50.

Fombonne E (2008). Thimerosal disappears but autism remains. Arch. Gen. Psychiatry 65: 15-6.

At the risk of hemoraging more karma, let me make the following observations.

1) The MMR study consists of 288 children, 192 of which were hand-picked to match 96 autistic children. It strikes me that for a condition that is diagnosed in 1 out of 120 children, a population of 300 children is a bit sparse. Is that blasphemy?

2) The MMR study (which the other high karma poster is also quoting, it's the same study) is, after all, an MMR study. That means that of the 30 or so shots http://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/recs/schedules/downloads/child/2... that a child is forced to undergo in the US by age 6, the Measles-Mumps-Rubella shot has been shown apparently (with a sample size of 288 kids) not to correlate with autism. I'm not sure why MMR was singled out, but for many of us, it's not any one vaccine that's the issue, nor is it thimerosal (although I'm glad it's out of there), it's the sheer number of them and how fast they are imposed on young bodies. Many more of them, I may add, than when you were a kid.

I feel that you are not going to be swayed from your position that all is well in vaccination land. I wonder if you have children. When you have a new son (boys are diagnosed at a rate of 1 in 70) we'll see if you aren't more willing to be critical of one or two studies that are quoted so often it seems like there are 50.

My original point still stands. Fund a study of non-vaccinated children. They exist. I have two of them. Compare their autism rate against the general population. Use a sample size that is actually meaningful, and you'll shut up Jenny McCarthy, and you'll let me sleep easier as well.

1.) It's not blasphemy, but it is statistically irrelevant since the study was a case control study.

2.) MMR and thimerosal were singled out because anti-vaccine activists made the claim that they caused autism.

Now that those claims have been disproven, Jenny McCarthy and other anti-vaccine activists are making different claims.

Incidentally, I will be swayed from my position when I see some repeated, statistically significant evidence that vaccines are correlated with autism. At the moment, most of the evidence indicates no correlation.

It strikes me that for a condition that is diagnosed in 1 out of 120 children, a population of 300 children is a bit sparse. Is that blasphemy?

In fact, you don't need large samples to get significant results. If there is a strong effect, even a very small sample will show it. If the effect is small, you will need a larger sample.

300 is, in fact, a pretty large sample. I haven't read the full study, but if its a simple random sample, the an effect would have to be quite weak indeed to not show up (in all probability).

When you have a new son (boys are diagnosed at a rate of 1 in 70) we'll see if you aren't more willing to be critical of one or two studies that are quoted so often it seems like there are 50.

It's human nature. Kids get vaccines every 6 months (or so it feels). If/when they develop autism, as a parent you are bound to wonder what happened. You look back, and the first thing that you can think of is the needle in your son 6 months prior. Nothing else comes to mind.

But that's because we don't have a clue what causes autism. So it's easy to associate any kind of needle, something we don't understand, with the shock. It helps cope.

Back on rational grounds, vaccines definitely have +++++++ effect, and you are trying to argue that there might be a tiny (-) somewhere, which is still very much completely hypothetical. Do the math: vaccines still end up way positive.

It's the same study guys. Same study mentioned four times now. It's got 288 people in it, and it's specific to MMR.

STUDY POPULATION: The 96 cases with childhood or atypical autism, aged 2 to 15, were included into the study group. Controls consisted of 192 children individually matched to cases by year of birth, sex, and general practitioners.

This downvoting crap is starting to piss me off. How about this?

echo " ycombinator.com" >> /etc/hosts

Fuck you guys. I'm going home.

It is indeed easy to find out. If you go to pubmed and search for vaccines and autism, you'll quickly find papers like this:


Which show that it has indeed been studied and that there is no known link. Rather, it is our detection capability that is improving.

There is plenty of information:



Jenny McCarthy is a well known anti-vaccine proponent who refuses to accept the huge number of studies in the area.

Who funded the studies? Money skews the findings, I think we can all agree...

There are multiple studies, all in prestigious peer-reviewed medical journals, that show that there is no link. In 2010, the peak of advancement in our species, you cannot get closer to fact than that.

We in the medical community find it unethical to conduct randomized, placebo-controlled trials when a preponderance of evidence already favors treatment (or nontreatment). Vaccines provide a clear benefit to society; the epidemiology does not suggest that vaccines are linked to autism. There is no clinical equipoise here.

This is why the parents of affected kids don't trust the medical community to address their concerns. They see the impact immediately after the kids get vaccines, but your mind is made up unfortunately.

Someone comes to me without any credible evidence and states "I think statins cause cancer. Let us randomize people with high LDL to statins or placebo." I will reject this study, not because my mind is "made up" and I am stubborn, but because the prior probability is low (due to lack of credible evidence) that statins truly lead to an excess of cancer, whereas the evidence supporting the use of statins to reduce death in those with high LDL is of gargantuan proportions.

So while I am sorry that we as a medical community have not succeeded in making it clear why no randomized trial should be conducted for vaccines given the current evidence, I reject the assertion that this is simply because "my mind is made up."

There's plenty of parents of kids with autism who accept the science and e.g. get their younger kids vaccinated so it can't be as obvious a link as you'd suggest.

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