A recent Slate.com article took on Google’s decision to develop new search engine algorithms to filter out what it views as “inaccurate” websites. The authors are David Weinberger, a senior researcher at Harvard’s Berkman Center, and Dan Gillmor of Arizona State University and author of Mediactive.
The authors chose to begin their article using the example of the vaccine-autism controversy.
In doing so, they presented a number of typical and often-repeated statements, assumptions and opinions, presenting the material as if stating established facts. But are they?
1. The authors called the alternative health site Mercola.com, headed by Dr. Joseph Mercola, a site that is “resolutely anti-vax.”
In fact, a review of Mercola’s vaccine statements reveals more nuance than a stance that can be fairly characterized as either firmly “pro” or “anti” vaccine. It is true that he urges a great deal of caution regarding vaccine safety concerns, supporting his statements with scientific studies and surveys.
For example, in one article, Mercola states, “from my point of view, there can be little doubt that we need to review the safety and effectiveness of the current vaccination program in the US, and this review needs to include methodologically sound investigative studies that are not compromised by conflicts of interest within industry and government.”
However, Mercola stops short of taking a position against vaccines for all. Instead, he advocates the idea of parental choice based on informed consent and factors such as the health of the child and the safety and necessity of individual vaccines.
For example, Mercola advises it’s “a good idea to make sure your baby’s microbiome is healthy before getting any vaccinations.” He also has an article that addresses parents who decide to vaccinate to help them recognize vaccine reaction symptoms and prevent vaccine injuries. in another, he calls it “good news” that more doctors are working with parents to make personalized decisions for children “including delaying vaccinations or giving children fewer vaccines on the same day.”
In these three examples, Mercola is not expressing “anti-vaccine” views nor advising parents against vaccination; he is providing information that purports to help them vaccinate in the safest way.
2. The authors imply that Mercola has presented “lies” and “junk science” in stating that “kids given vaccines have 22 times the rate of ear infections,” and that they have “and 19 times higher odds of Autism.”
It is accurate that Mercola has presented the mentioned claims, attributed to the pertinent survey. It appears he has accurately presented the survey findings. There is no evidence cited in the Slate.com article that indicates why or how the authors have come to the determination that the survey is “lies” or “junk science.” If “junk science” is loosely understood to mean paid-for research that provides false conclusions to advance an agenda, then the survey in question does not immediately seem to fit that definition.
Further, Mercola does not appear to misstate or overstate the survey. In fact, before presenting a table of results, he discloses quite clearly a number of qualifiers. He states that the survey “was initiated by VaccineInjury.info3 to compare the health of vaccinated children with unvaccinated children,” that it was based on “over 7,850 surveys,” that “this is obviously not a double-blind controlled study” and “depends on the individuals submitting the data to give accurate information.”
3. The authors claim there is no “serious argument about the connection between vaccines and autism” and states that “anti-vax sentiment” is “bad science” while everything else is “good science.”
This statement is directly contrary to the serious arguments surfacing on a daily basis. The arguments are not only made on an emotional level, but on a scientific level with many peer-reviewed published studies by respected scientists around the world finding an association between vaccines and autism. The authors’ conclusion that all of these studies are “bad science” is not supported by the facts.
Additionally, there is much more evidence pointing to existence of a serious argument. For example, two senior CDC officials have stated there is a possible association between vaccines and autism, and former head of the National Institutes of Health Dr. Bernadine Healy stated that it’s an open question many of her Institute of Medicine colleagues did not want to address.
Further, a recent Pew study made the following findings:
About one-third of Americans from all income levels believe vaccination should be a decision made by parents versus a government requirement.
41% of young adults (18 to 29 years old) believe vaccination should be a parent’s choice.
Taken as a whole, the evidence does not support the statement that there is no “serious argument.”
On the one hand, it is understandable that the Slate.com authors commit the same error many writers commit: they repeat common misinformation and misconceptions forwarded by the vaccine industry and its government partners. They also make the typical mistakes of: lumping all vaccines together when it comes to the question of safety (which is as illogical as asking people to declare all medicine safe, effective and necessary for all people at all ages in all forms, and calling them “anti-medicine” if they won’t); and lumping viewpoints into two discrete categories (anti-vaccine and pro-vaccine), when studies show many people fall outside that definition. For example, there are many parents who are pro-vaccine in the sense that they vaccinate their children, but they do it on a schedule that departs from the one the government recommends. And there are parents who favor some vaccines for their children but find others too risky for their child’s health profile compared to the potential benefit.
On the other hand, the above-mentioned misrepresentations could have been easily avoided had the authors conducted a modicum of neutral research. As such, the article is awarded Two Little Devils.