Not All Opinions Were Created Equal

First published in the Lip Almanac 2013

I am a big fan of the internet. I think it has democratised reporting by placing it squarely back in the hands of the people. In the old days, media outlets decided what was published and the tone of commentary around important issues. And the media outlets in Australia were (and still are) primarily concentrated in the hands of two major players, both of whom have links to one political party. But things have changed. Now, if you have something to say, the only thing you need to publish it is an internet connection (and basic literacy).

All this comment floating around leads to a hotbed of discussion. Social networks explode with news before news outlets even have a chance to realise it’s news. Finally, it is the people who are setting the agenda. We are the ones who decide what is discussed, and set the tone for debate. Hardly anyone I know reads newspapers anymore, and if they do it’s a skim over the headlines in the cafe when they’re waiting for their takeaway. We’re the ones who say what’s newsworthy and what’s dross. The only thing the traditional news outlets can do is struggle to keep up, when they wake in the mornings and check their Facebook or Twitter feed to see what’s exploded overnight.

I believe this has led to a confidence among the populace: we feel important because, essentially, we are. We are being listened to, as a mass group, by a larger audience, more than ever before. Social media in particular has meant that we reach a wide audience of people with whom we usually agree (primarily our friendship network), which has meant that anytime we share anything through Facebook or Twitter, we can be reasonably assured that we will get some level of support and validation from our peers.

However, there’s a downside to this newfound confidence in our opinions. The public discourse is becoming skewed; those who know little about a topic are given as much credence as those who do. We are allowing the opinions to get in the way of the facts.

The other day, I had a rare brush with mainstream media. I was sitting in the back of a cab, stuck in traffic, with one ear on the inane talkback radio. By some miracle, the douche of a disc jockey (or, perhaps, his producer), had managed to convince an esteemed climate scientist to go on the show. The scientist was explaining, patiently and in layman’s terms, the ways in which climate change had progressed with the advent and increase of human-produced pollution. This was a man with many years’ experience in studying the effects of humans on climate change, an expert in his field wnad someone who was able to convey with passion and simplicty the scientific facts, the measurements and figures, behind the debate. He was doing well until the DJ allowed callers.

The first was a bloke who we’ll call Rob from Epping (name and suburb changed to protect the ignorant). His comment was phrased like a question – it began with the words “Do you agree that…” – but it was really his attempt to insert his own beliefs into the debate. In essence, he disagreed with the expert. He believed that there was not enough “evidence” of climate change. In his words, “I don’t believe in global warming. Summers were way hotter when I was a kid.”

The DJ said to the scientist, “Well, what do you say to that?” (It was clear where his beliefs lay.)

The scientist was tactful and calm – obviously used to dealing with the wilfully ignorant. He said that the vast majority of climate scientists, people who had studied this for years, agreed that climate change was occurring, and was a direct result of human behaviour. But there was no way he was going to convince Rob, or the caller after him, who said that the radio station had a responsibility to represent a range of views on the topic, so as not to seem unbiased.

But do they? The so-called “climate change debate” is supposedly between those climate scientists who agree that it exists and is caused by human behaviour, and those who disagree. According to the NASA website, that’s 97% of scientists who agree to 3% who disagree. Does that sound like a percentage which deserves the kind of airtime it is given?

Media outlets – no doubt due in no small part to pressure from people like Rob – tend to give airtime to climate change sceptics, even if their credentials are not scientifically valid, ostensibly in the interests of “balance”. But doesn’t this give listeners the impression that this is an equal debate, when in fact this is not the case? And doesn’t that then breed further polarisation in the general population – more Robs running around, spouting their opinions, challenging the people who actually know what they’re talking about?

There is a current feeling that everyone’s opinion is equal, regardless of their level of knowledge on the topic. Rob has as much right to believe that climate change is not a real threat as the learned scientist has to “believe” that it does. And this is the problem: by equating the informed, expert opinions with the misinformed or ignorant, we are encouraging the exposure of misinformation. We know that most people do not critically evaluate everything they hear or read. They absorb and reject messages without always assessing their merits. If we continue to give equal airtime, as the caller after Rob called for, to climate change “sceptics”, we are at risk of portraying the debate as equal, when it clearly is not. We will belittle the experts to the point where they will no longer want to engage with public discourse. To paraphrase Isaac Asimov, people will begin to believe that “my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.”

In the past, I think we relied more heavily on what we saw as “experts” to disseminate information – whether these experts were scientists, politicians, journalists, or talking heads. What they had in common was some kind of qualification or knowledge level which lent them credence on the topic. What seems to be more common now is that, in the interest of “balance,” experts are called in only to be challenged by people whose only qualifications or understanding of the subject are a strongly-held opinion.

And rather than hearing someone’s qualified opinion and thinking, “that’s interesting, I hadn’t thought about things in that way”, our automatic response is to think “you’re wrong.” There is a feeling that there are no longer any irrefutable facts, on which we all agree. Anything can be disproven if the disagreement is loud enough.

I am a parent, I live in the Eastern Suburbs of Sydney, and whether or not to vaccinate your children is a serious debate in my community. My suburb is one of the least-vaccinated areas in Australia. Many parents in this community choose not to vaccinate their children against preventable but potentially fatal diseases such as measles, rubella, chicken pox, polio, diptheria, and tetanus. These diseases (with the exception of chicken pox; that vaccine is relatively new) have been virtually eradicated from our society after the vaccinations were introduced. We see almost no children crippled by polio or scarred by measles, it is extremely rare to lose a child to diptheria now. In my grandparents’ generation, many more children died or were left with a permanent disability as a result of communicable childhood diseases. I was vaccinated as a child; so were all of my peers, and it was never billed as optional to us.

But some of these diseases are coming back, and the most at risk are being exposed to them. Rates of measles almost tripled in 2011, from 26 cases in 2010 to 90 in 2011. Pertussis (whooping cough) was described as an “epidemic” in 2011, with 13,000 reported cases and at least one death.

I have never encountered a doctor who disagrees with vaccinating healthy children. There are some children who have a medical condition – for example, an immunity disorder – which means they cannot be vaccinated. Young children in particular are very susceptible to pertussis, are most likely to be killed by the disease, and cannot be vaccinated before three months of age. It is essential for these children that enough of those around them are vaccinated to ensure herd immunity. Yet in almost every article or feature about vaccination the so-called “link between vaccination and autism” is mentioned – ostensibly in the interest of “balance”.

The link between autism and the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine was first published in The Lancet in 1998 by Andrew Wakefield and eleven other authors. It was discredited through clinical trials in 2004, and it was found that Wakefield had been paid $400,000 to write the article by lawyers whose clients were attempting to sue the makers of the MMR vaccine. Wakefield had also applied for a patent of the single-jab vaccine (i.e. to split out the MMR vaccine into three separate vaccines) before his paper was published. He was struck from the medical register and forbidden from practising medicine in 2010.

In Australia, Wakefield’s discredited research is still sometimes cited as a possible causal link between vaccinations and autism, particularly by the erroneously-named Australian Vaccination Network (AVN), which says on its website that it exists “because every issue has two sides.” Indeed, the AVN are consulted on a wide range of programs, even though they are known for pushing an anti-vaccination stance and have no medical qualifications. They are not experts; they are a small group of people with strongly-held opinions.

In 1998, in response to the AVN’s campaign against measles vaccination, the then Federal Health Minister Dr Michael Wooldridge issued a media release which said:

“I am deeply concerned that media organisations risk giving credibility to the crackpot views of the AVN by publishing, without question, their untrue and deceitful claims. Ultimately, young children who are particularly vulnerable to measles could suffer if their parents were influenced by the anti-science, irrational views of the AVN.”

The link between vaccination and autism has been disproved medically many many times, and yet mainstream media often allow the dissenting voice of people who have no medical background. This is not just dangerous from the point of view of misleading the public; it places children at risk of preventable diseases.

I’m not against dissent: far from it. Healthy debate is an integral part of a working democracy and society would not progress if no one challenged the status quo. But we do need to look at the facts, where they exist: and we need to ask ourselves where our strongly-held opinions came from. Are they motivated by irrational fear? Are they motivated by a desire for comfort or a reluctance to challenge our own behaviour? The clincher is that, while you have a right to hold whatever crackpot opinion you want, we can’t make up the facts. Climate change is a real phenomenon, caused by humans (and thus able to be prevented by us as well). Diseases can be virtually eradicated by vaccination, and vaccination is not harmful to most children. As Daniel Patrick Moynihan said: “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.” If we ignore these facts in favour of more comforting opinions, it is to our own detriment.shutterstock_99510125

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