The recent measles outbreaks in Canada and the U.S. raise some important questions.
What are the responsibilities of editors and journalists when it comes to science-based topics? Those, like vaccines, rooted in scientific fact? Do they too deserve the balance we conventionally consider our journalistic standard? After all, are such stories really a debate?
The scientist in me wishes media outlets would stop giving anti-vaxxers opportunities to broadcast untruths to others. The vaccine “debate” is an example of a dialogue where both sides should not be given equal podium time and benefit of doubt.
Vaccines need to be framed differently. Rather than, ‘We are going to hear from someone in favour of vaccination’—which is like believing in Thursdays if they are something you have to believe in—and then, ‘We are going to hear from someone against vaccination’—which makes it seem like this is an even-handed subject—we should instead discuss it as a human-interest piece; ‘Why do anti-vaxxers think this way? Why don’t they immunize their children? What are the risks?’ Putting the “pro-vaxxers” and the “anti-vaxxers” head-to-head establishes an inaccurate equivalence.
Editors strive to create balance and avoid bias. Vaccination is not a question of equilibrium however, because there is nothing to equalize. One side is a thousand-ton brick, and the other a feather. Creating parity between them is impossible. Newspapers and the radio think they are engaging lively debate by including different opinions, but sometimes there is no debate.
Often, journalists’ role is to question the status quo. Despite the public’s right to do so, in the context of science, sometimes we should simply accept the facts. Vaccines are one of medicine’s greatest accomplishments. They have eradicated contagious, disfiguring and often deadly diseases like smallpox that plagued humans for thousands of years. Hard evidence over decades exists that is easy to access. If you google, ‘Does the MMR vaccine cause autism?’ and open any evidence-based health page, the answer is a resounding ‘No.’ If you then dig deeper, into someone’s personal Facebook page or blog perhaps, you will find the anecdotal evidence to the contrary. To me, those things are not equivalent.
Vaccination is science, not a political debate. Vaccines are not like discussing foreign policy where one or two or seven or nine opinions might be equally valid. Scientific consensus exists, and then there is anecdotalism that blatantly deviates from that consensus. It is not that I do not want to debate. When considering vaccines however, it is about how and what to debate.
When someone gets cancer we want to know why. We want to believe there's a reason.
However, according to a study by oncologist Dr. Bert Vogelstein and biomathematician Cristian Tomasetti at Johns Hopkins published in the journal Science last month, the explanation is more like losing the lottery—often the real reason is not because you didn't behave well or were exposed to something harmful in your environment, it's just because you were unlucky.
In fact, Vogelstein and Tomasetti found that two-thirds of cancers could be attributed to bad luck rather than heredity or our environment. This bad luck presents itself as random DNA mutations, which accumulate in our bodies as our cells divide and appear to be responsible for several cancers.
Actually, 22 of the 31 these researchers looked at, including leukemia, bone, brain, ovarian, pancreatic and testicular cancer, were essentially due to biological bad luck (random mutations).
Heredity and environmental factors like carcinogen exposure played a more significant role in the other nine types, including colorectal, skin and smoking-related lung cancer.
Early detection in research
Overall, Vogelstein and Tomasetti attributed 65 per cent of cancer incidence to these random gene mutations, which can drive cancer growth. There’s no particular reason for these harmful mutations aside from randomness as our stem cells divide.
These results suggest that lifestyle changes like quitting smoking might help prevent some cancers, but may not affect others. Therefore, more research and resources need to focus on finding ways to detect these cancers early when they’re still curable.
Vogelstein and Tomasetti did not cover all cancers. They excluded breast and prostate because of unreliable stem cell division rates.