Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

What is to be done?

Julia Belluz, in Vox, struggles with how to respond to frauds, quacks and cranks such as Oz and RFK Jr. The problem is well known and I have discussed it here. Debunking them on the facts is ineffective in dislodging their followers. In fact, confirmation bias is so strong that telling people why their beliefs are wrong just makes them believe more deeply. And when you try to debate the fraudsters, it a) gives them attention and publicity and b) gives them an opportunity, as Oz is threatening to do no his program, to actually legitimize themselves by creating a simulacrum of legitimate controversy.

She asked for advice from various people, but I'm not sure how helpful it is in the end. They call for the corporate media not to create a false impression of balance ("Shape of the earth: views differ") but I'm pretty sure they're going to keep doing it. It's a reflex. One calls for shaming the enablers, e.g. Oprah viz a viz Oz, but that's not going to work. Oprah is in his corner.

They warn against creating martyrs, but that's the whole problem in the first place. Then there's this:

Just last week, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., a well-known vaccine denier, attended a Sacramento viewing of an anti-vaccine documentary, and told his audience that mass inoculation is akin to "a holocaust."

I asked Dan Kahan, a professor of law and psychology at Yale, how he would suggest covering this event. He said it was important to consider the broader context here: "The fortunate truth of the matter is that there's tremendous confidence by the American public in vaccines," he said. "We have had 90 percent coverage for well over a decade. There are enclaves of people who are concerned. But most parents vaccinate and don't give it a second thought."

So any reporting on vaccine deniers like RFK Jr. should reflect that this is a minority view, Kahan explained. Otherwise reporters risk creating an appearance of significant conflict when there isn't really any — signaling to the unconcerned that they should potentially worry, which could have a negative impact on vaccine rates.
Well sure -- but to report on it, even while calling it a minority view, is to run into all of the above problems. I mean, that's how Kennedy presents himself -- as a brave crusader against a corrupt establishment. He'll be the first to tell you he has a minority view, that's what he's proud of.

But, I can't give up. Truth is the greatest cause.

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