Why don’t the mainstream media cover vaccine science with the same scrutiny as other science?
In the New York Times last week, Aaron E. Carroll wrote an article talking about a new Lancet study looking at the risks of drinking alcohol. He talked about how the media was publishing alarming headlines like “There’s No Safe Amount of Alcohol” and reassured readers that a more “nuanced” look at the science puts things into proper perspective.
One of his key points was that the new study was a meta-analysis of observational studies, which have methodological limitations and cannot establish causality because there are too many uncontrolled variables. If we really want to understand alcohol’s impact on the risk of various diseases, there need to be randomized controlled studies.
Last year, Carroll wrote an article also reassuring people with respect to a statement by the American Society of Clinical Oncology that even light drinking could increase the risk of cancer. He pointed out that the increased risk was scary sounding when presented in terms of relative risk, but that we need to understand it also in terms of absolute risk.
Using imaginary numbers just to illustrate, if you enjoy a glass of wine in the evening and are told that having one drink per day puts you at a 50 percent greater risk of getting a certain disease than not drinking at all, this news might greatly alarm you. But if you were told that one drink a day is associated with a risk of just 0.2 percent, you are probably not going to freak out about it.
If an observational study finds that 1 in 1,000 people who never drink alcohol get a certain disease while 2 in 1,000 people who have one drink daily get the disease, you could say that you are at a 50 percent greater risk of the disease if you have one drink a day compared to never drinking. Yet 2 in 1,000 is still just 0.2 percent.
Furthermore, as Carroll rightly points out, this study couldn’t establish that having the one drink per day was the cause of the disease among the drinkers who got it. There would be too many confounding variables to determine that with reasonable certainty. For example, maybe people who have one drink per day also are more likely to smoke, and maybe it is the smoking, not the drink, that puts them at greater risk. Retrospective observational studies can’t control for such confounding factors. To really determine causality, randomized trials would be needed that control for the single variable.
Additionally, Carroll advised his readers to avoid cherry-picking; that is, if some observational studies show that having a drink per day is associated with an increased risk of a certain disease, but other observational studies show that having a drink per day is associated with a decreased risk of another disease, you should take that into account.
Finally, Carroll advises his readers to “Acknowledge the harms, as well as the benefits, or recommendations. Consider both cost and joy.”
This is all good input. The problem is that, when it comes to vaccines, neither Carroll nor the mainstream media in general apply the same standard.
When it comes to vaccines, it’s good enough to say that the vaccine is 50% effective at reducing the risk of the given disease. No need to inform people that this might mean the difference between a 1-in-1,000 and a 2-in-1,000 risk.
When you hear the media tell you whatever some study tells us about the effectiveness of the flu shot, for example, they are telling you the relative risk.
When it comes to vaccines, it’s good enough to treat observational studies as though definitive. When critics of public vaccine policy point out the limitations of observation studies and call for randomized controlled trials examining rates of autism and other long-term health outcomes between children vaccinated according to the CDC’s schedule and children who remain unvaccinated, they are denounced as “anti-vaxxers” who are “anti-science”.
When it comes to vaccines, cherry-picking is the name of the game; the opportunity costs of vaccination are never a consideration! The benefits of early childhood infection with certain diseases are never communicated so long as properly educating people might lead them to conclude that getting vaccinated is not in their best interest.
For example, the fact that studies have shown that early childhood infection with measles is associated with a reduced risk of much more serious diseases later in life is never communicated to the public.
When it comes to vaccines, far from taking the harms of the treatment into consideration, we are supposed to believe that they are “almost nonexistent”.
Those were the words of none other than the same Aaron E. Carroll describing the risks of getting a flu shot in an article earlier this year.
Yet the very study he cited to support that claim in fact expressed alarm at the lack of good quality safety studies.
What is “almost nonexistent” is proper safety studies for children under two and pregnant women, even though the CDC recommends the influenza vaccine for infants as young as 6 months as well as pregnant women.
Carroll’s own source remarked on this alarming lack of studies in children under two by saying that proper safety studies are “urgently required”.
Carroll naturally did not inform his readers that natural infection with influenza can confer a robust immunity that protects you in the future not only from that particular strain of the virus, but other strains as well—and possibly even from non-influenza strains of the virus; that the flu shot does not confer such a benefit.
He naturally does not inform his readers about this opportunity cost of vaccination and how, therefore, getting an annual flu shot might actually increase your risk of illness.
And speaking of cherry-picking, to support his claim that the flu shot confers a “big payoff in public health”, Carroll cited a study that actually concluded that the scientific evidence did not support the CDC’s influenza vaccine recommendation.
In fact, once again, Carroll’s own source from the medical literature went so far in its criticism of the CDC that it accused the CDC of deliberately misrepresenting the science to support its policy.
The irony is that by misleading his readers about what science really tells us about the influenza vaccine, Carroll was just following the example set by the CDC.
It’s past time the media started taking the critically important subject of vaccine seriously and started properly informing the public about the science, rather than glorifying in willful ignorance and hypocrisy.