Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Misguided concepts of balance

A group of thirty leading paediatricians and vaccination experts have written an open letter calling for parents to allow their children to receive the MMR vaccination. (I can't find a copy of the letter itself, but it's widely reported throughout the news media.) They blame 'misguided concepts of balance' in the media for confusing people about the validity of the research that suggests a link to autism.

Done properly, the peer review system should work well at weeding out dodgy research. But it's a paradigm that's very unfamiliar to the mainstream media and to most of those who gain their information from it. 'Person B says that the thing Person A said last year was dangerous isn't so scary after all' isn't a very good headline. How can the reader weigh up the relative merits of the arguments in a very specialised field with a completely different worldview?

The reference to 'misguided concepts of balance' is, I assume, a suggestion that the normal 'two sides to every story' approach taken by the media is counterproductive in this case. It implies equal validity on both sides, and the writers of the letter believe that Dr Wakefield's research is invalid and should be treated in health reporting similarly to the way the BNP is treated in politics journalism. This seems sensible, given the large amount of research suggesting the vaccine is safe, but in a way I can see the point of the opposing argument. Are people not intelligent enough, do we not respect their independence enough, to let them look at the evidence themselves and make up their own minds?

Interestingly, though, the very BBC webpage publicising this story gives, under the 'related links' section, a link to JABS, a group which opposes the vaccine on the basis of Wakefield's evidence, but no site arguing the opposite view, or even a link to the full text of the letter. If it's an open letter, surely it can be republished?

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