NBC just finished their vaccine/autism show called Dose of Controversy.
I was honestly hoping for a more damning portrayal of Dr. Andrew Wakefield, but instead Matt Lauer and NBC went with the standard “balance” that gives equal weight to sides with unequal science behind them. Next week: Flat Earth – hear the startling case for this worldview, and why the government wants you to believe the earth is round!
The first thing I noticed was that every clip of a child about to get a vaccine is represented by a bawling child, being restrained by parents. Way to pull a little harder on the parents’ heartstrings, NBC.
Basically, this started out as a history of Dr. Wakefield’s involvement – how he got into it, what he first noticed, and how it got published in the Lancet.
Brian Deer, the investigative reporter who first shone a critical light on Dr. Wakefield’s paper, seemed to get a pretty fair shake from NBC, describing how the Lancet publisher regrets publishing the original study, how 10 of the 12 researchers who had worked with Dr. Wakefield formally retracted the interpretation in Dr. Wakefield’s study, and how they stated that
no causal link was established between MMR vaccine and autism.
NBC also provided these statements from the American Academy of Pediatrics:
Many careful and repeated studies show no link between vaccines and autism.
Every aspect of Dr. Wakefield’s theory has been disproven.
When NBC confronted Wakefield with these refutations of his work, Dr. Wakefield had a ready-made response to each one, and then said
A belief system has trumped the need for rational debate.
Whaaaa??? I rewound the TiVo to make sure I heard him right. Sure enough, his viewpoint is that the pro-vaccine scientists have let their personal beliefs trump any rational debate. Dr. Wakefield, I believe that’s a case of what psychologists call projection.
Matt Lauer asked Dr. Paul Offit, the author of the book Autism’s False Prophets: Bad Science, Risky Medicine, and the Search for a Cure, to give some straightforward advice, and his response was the best nugget to take away from this episode:
The main job of a parent is to put their children in the safest position possible. And vaccines provide that safety.
Well, wait… He had two nuggets. His second was:
You look at what mainstream medicine has to offer you, which is not a clear definition of a cause or a clear definition of the cure. Here’s a man [Dr. Wakefield] who says I know some things that can make your child better. That’s enormously seductive to parents.
So they explained the controversy, and they had some good takeaways for parents, but all in all, Dateline failed to spend enough time pounding home the multiple studies that have shown no link between vaccines and autism. Sure, they mentioned the conflicting studies in passing a couple of times, but then they spent an entire segment on an 11-year-old getting a controversial treatment at Dr. Wakefield’s Thoughtful House. If they truly wanted to have their show be science based, they would have spent a segment on those other studies.
Dr. Wakefield even got to end on a vague, unchallenged statement that there are…
many, many, many doctors
…who agree with his assertions about autism’s causes. He was not pressed for any indication of who those doctors might be, or what their expertise might be.
Is that a form of Argument from Authority? Basically, his point is that since “many, many, many doctors” agree with him, he must be right.
The deaths caused by a lack of vaccination were addressed only briefly at the end. Dr. Offit again was very well spoken, but again, it was too brief. The show talked about a whooping cough outbreak, but how many people know just how dangerous whooping cough is? No mention at all was made about the loss of herd immunity, and the effect that it can have on those who cannot be vaccinated.
If they had included a segment on Dana McCaffrey towards the end, showing the true effects of vaccine ignorance, that would have been beyond powerful.
Point for NBC, though – they chose to end the show with this statement from the American Academy of Pediatrics, rather than some “debate rages on” blather:
…delaying vaccines leaves babies unprotected when they are most vulnerable to vaccine-preventable diseases…
While it is likely that there are many environmental factors that influence the development of autism, vaccines are not the cause of autism.
I can’t help but feel this was an excellent opportunity missed. It could have been so much worse, I’ll freely admit, but I fear the layperson will come away from the episode with the impression that it’s still a debate – that it’s uncertain. And that’s a shame, because even though there’s no reason for it, more babies will get sick or die when their parents are swayed by unfounded fear and uncertainty.
For more information check out the links throughout the article, or also Dr. Stephen Novella’s excellent piece at http://www.theness.com/neurologicablog/?p=474. There’s lots of information there that wasn’t mentioned in the Dateline episode.
Update: Orac, a cancer oncologist, gives his take on the Dateline’s episode.