Week 11: Mnookin & Taylor

November 13, 2011 at 3:24 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

In Taylor’s “Vaccines and the Changing Epidemiology of Autism,” it is asserted that the connection between the MMR vaccine and autism has been overdramatized and essentially proven unlikely due to various population studies. Taylor states that there has been a broadened diagnostic criteria, which makes autism a “spectrum” disease with a wide range of severity of symptoms. He also states that there has been a wider acceptance of the disorder by parents and doctors which makes the disease appear to be occurring more often than in the past (a.k.a. there is a greater prevalence). So the proposed link between MMR vaccines and Autism is exacerbated by the appearance of a greater prevalence, when in reality a variety of other factors such as population and lack of scientific evidence argue against this theory. Taylor also brings up that it is a biological disorder associated with various medical conditions, and that genetics are an important factor in the emergence of autism.

Mnookin’s chapter “Cognitive Biases and Availability Cascades” also discredit the relationship between vaccines and autism. In this chapter it is explained how we allow emotions to help us make important decisions even if our predictions of threat are wrong, thus causing more false positive errors than false negative ones. Biases such as pattern recognition, clustering illusions, and confirmation bias cause us to manipulate the scientific process and observe certain things as having more weight than they should if it means that it would prove our hypothesis. In relation to autism, a large bias that has occurred is called “Availability Cascade,” and is described as the, “Self-reinforcing process of collective belief formation by which an expressed perception triggers a chain reaction that gives the perception increasing plausibility through rising availability in public discourse.” So the increasing availability of an idea in public discourse causes people to have more extreme opinions even if there is no evidence behind what people are saying. The news media is being credited as the common denominator if information in the world, and if certain people are acting as strong advocates for anti-vaccination, then other people’s beliefs will be validated. This will result in convergence of views and broad support for the anti-vaccination movement, thus causing increased availability.

Although I think it is good that people going through autism/raising autistic children have a strong support system, it seems like a dangerous possibility that media will be infiltrated with opinion-based information rather than fact-based information. This would lead to an increased prevalence of the issues discussed in both articles such as giving false hope to parents, or potentially putting other children at risk if less and less people are being vaccinated. It is important that the media keeps the public informed on the various opinions that people have on this issue, but it is important to present factual evidence as well. What do you think is the best way to keep the public informed? What do you think the effect of cognitive biases has on what is presented in the media?

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  1. I believe a change that could be applied to the media representation of complex issues such as scientific findings is to include more full context. Remove and eliminate the strive to dramatize a story in order to sell the news, and fill in the lines with context. This way, any average reader is going to get the point that this is first-cut science, more testing is needed, and that no action should be taken until then. However, I have to ask myself if I was a father, and I heard a news report stating that, while first-cut science, vaccines may cause autism, would I still allow my child to be immunized? The answer may be no. I may want to wait to see the future scientific findings, because why would I take the risk? In this same way, not reporting first-cut science may be depriving citizens of valuable information that is ahead of the curve. Still, context is a better way to keep the public informed. These cognitive biases, however, seem to be a part of human nature itself. We have all stood up for something and accepted it as our own belief based purely on what others have believed. On the smallest scale, if our parents told us something when we were kids, you had better believe it was fact until proven otherwise. Amplified in society, and via the media, the same human nature applies. People believe something, the media picks it up, and more people believe that something. The cascade begins. Thankfully, I believe that this cascade is being misrepresented as a negative thing. The truth, however, can also follow this cascade effect. Perhaps we also need to refine our knowledge.

  2. In order to keep the public informed, I think the best thing to do is to not publish information prior to validating it. We commonly witness journalists publishing stories that have broken and making claims that cannot be backed up with evidence. If journalists hold off on these stories, despite how intriguing they may seem to be to viewers, it may prevent false information from being spread and rumored across the world. If journalists decide that it is important to publish a story under these circumstances, they should be required to make it very clear that the information they are writing about has not yet been proven to be true. Editors of newspapers or new organizations should instill rules about publishing first-cut science, with some sort of recognizable symbol or warning that the information being presented is not necessarily factual. I, too, think that cognitive biases are intrinsic and unavoidable. Every person, from the mere fact that they are human, is going to have be biased in one way or another. Consequently, every journalist and every scientist is inevitably biased in one way or another, for although sometimes we forget, they are humans too. Everything that is published is going to contain some sort of bias. I think the only way to avoid this becoming a problem is for readers to be aware that such biases will always exist, and to keep things like this in the back of their minds when reading scientific or journalistic articles.


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