Tuesday, August 3, 2010

The Evil Forces of Misinformation

There are a lot of things in this world that annoy me. Fundamentalists, Fox News, Jenny McCarthy and the anti-vax nuts...they all make me a little crazy and prone to violent ranting. So does passive-aggressiveness, but that's neither here nor there. The thing that these particular subjects of my ire all have in common is misrepresenting or flat out ignoring facts and evidence. They represent to me a perversion of the scientific method. Rather than developing theories based on evidence, they have agendas that the facts are cut and twisted to fit.

But that in and of itself isn't so bad. It's certainly frustrating, but people everywhere do it all the time. We want certain things to be true, so we look for affirmation of those things and gloss over the contradictions. What inspires mind-exploding rage in me is the depth of impact these particular groups have and how little that matters to them. Fundamentalists don't care that Creationism, for example, isn't supported by a single shred of evidence, they still think it should be taught in schools. It doesn't matter to them that they are misrepresenting or ignoring actual science, or that their distortions spread and are accepted as fact by people all over the world.

Fox News (and honestly most news networks to some degree, but Fox annoys me the most so I'm picking on them) is notorious for bias and regularly reports stories that are puffed up without calling the substance of the data into question. The recent 'Climategate' scandal is a perfect example. Climate researchers at the University of East Anglia had their e-mails hacked and cobbled together to give the appearance that their data did not support humanity as a contributing factor to global warming. This was being covered up in a vast liberal conspiracy designed to sell eco-friendly merchandise. Fox jumped all over this story, which fell apart within a week or two after some basic fact-checking. That apsect of the story was glossed over, however. Still, the negative impact this story had is real. People have a natural tendency to believe what they hear first. Even if the initial story is later debunked or retracted, the damage is already done. Nowadays, information spreads so quickly that the importance of getting the facts straight the first time is greater than ever, but the truth is secondary to ratings and pandering to the audience.

The anti-vaccination movement is an even bigger pet peeve of mine. If I even hear it mentioned I have to take several deep breaths or risk foaming at the mouth with rage. I'm a microbiologist and an immunologist, so the depth of ignorance being circulated on this subject is especially painful to me. A big part of why vaccines work at all is because of something called herd immunity. If most of the people in a population are protected against a disease, it is less likely to spread. This creates a layer of protection for people more vulnerable to the disease, such as children, the elderly and immunocompromised patients. If vaccination rates decrease then that protection erodes, with predictable results. Unvaccinated populations also create an environment in which the microorganism can adapt to the human host, potentially generating new strains that the current vaccines are less effective against.

I have yet to see any data in support of the anti-vaccination movement that hasn't been completely retracted or discredited. People are literally dying, of preventable diseases no less, because of it, and why? To cause fear and perpetuate a scandal? To sell books and bogus homeopathic remedies? None of this makes any sense. The decision to not vaccinate your children doesn't just affect you, it puts them and everyone else in your community at risk. The decision to convince people that they shouldn't vaccinate their kids has the potential to affect society as a whole. Perpetuating this misinformation is probably the most socially irresponsible thing I can imagine.

Well, now that I've ranted and raved about the Evil Forces of Misinformation plaguing society, what is to come of it? There is misinformation everywhere after all, it's not going to disappear no matter what. Even if Fox News suddenly starts doing informative and fair reporting and Jenny McCarthy tells everyone to vaccinate their kids immediately, the problem is bigger than them. With so much information out there, we have to start doing our own fact checking. We have to apply critical thinking to everything we hear, from office rumors to the local news. We need to hold ourselves and others accountable for the accuracy of our statements, because the truth matters and people are listening.


  1. Not only is there misinformation everywhere, there is a LOT of opinionating masquerading as fact. One of *my* pet peeves regarding education in this day and age is the absolute *lack* of critical thinking skills taught/encouraged in a "standard" public-school curriculum. Granted, we can't even seem to equip our young with basic facts...