“False balance is a serious problem”

The UK has lost its measles-free status, which is deeply worrying.

In response the BBC asks, “why are some children not being vaccinated?”

Dr David Robert Grimes may have part of the answer. On Twitter this morning he posted this:

Asked by regional BBC station to discuss falling vaccination rates – grand, except they wanted me on against someone claiming vaccines are dangerous. Explained this was textbook false balance, unethical, & against BBC trust guidelines. They wouldn’t budge, so I’m not doing it.

Grimes isn’t bashing the BBC here. As he says, it’s a problem across the entire mainstream media.

There is no debate on vaccination. There are not two sides. There is one side, which is where all the facts are, and then there are cranks. To pretend that both sides have equal value costs lives.

The BBC knows this, because it’s reported on it.

Vaccines against preventable illnesses like measles, tetanus, mumps and rubella are safe and effective, but healthcare professionals still find themselves having to push back against vocal anti-vaccination campaigns.

…The problem facing medicine is global, where disinformation about vaccines is readily accepted as having equal or greater value than the work of scientists who have spent their careers fighting disease.

As Grimes wrote previously in The Guardian:

This is the crux of the issue with false balance – no matter how noble the intention of media outlets, presenting science and pseudoscience in an adversarial format gives a false impression that an issue is scientifically contentious. Worse again, it gives free rein for dubious motivations to masquerade as scientific opinion. Whether the issue is vaccination, climate-change, alt-med or anything else, presenting an evidence-free belief as being on equal footing with an established scientific understanding is corrosive to public understanding.

I’ve encountered this too, and refused to go on air with people who flatly deny established facts, or who – often wilfully and maliciously – attempt to mislead listeners about science or the law.

I’ve made this joke before, but: imagine if there was a news story about owls, and the programme demanded the RSPB debate someone who refused to accept that owls exist. We’d be appalled, and yet the only damage that “debate” would do is waste a bunch of people’s time. When people deny settled science, when they scaremonger about things (or people) that are perfectly safe, these so-called debates can lead to very serious consequences. In the case of vaccination, they can kill.

Grimes again:

it’s irresponsible and lazy to contrive a debate over something that has a real human cost.