Adam Smith: Cause or coincidence? TV3's mistreatment of a serious issue

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By Adam Smith

Generally, people are not very good at evaluating evidence from everyday observations. We often see patterns that aren't there and jump to conclusions. Apparently, this now passes as investigative journalism for TV3, whose 3D program gave the very delicate issue of vaccine safety a disastrous treatment on Monday night.

Let me illustrate my point about conclusion jumping with a toy example. Say, you get a new cat. Shortly thereafter, you develop a rare disease named Possibly Cat Disease (PCD). Because the PCD happened after you got a cat, it might occur to you that the cat caused your disease, because that was a recent, noticeable change in your life. This conclusion might be true, but it might not be.

To find out, you might seek scientific studies that have looked into this alleged link between cats and PCD. Scientists carefully collected data from lots of people with and without cats, and compared the rate of PCD between the two groups. If PCD occurred significantly more often among the cat owners, you have evidence for a link between cat ownership and PCD. (Note, this is still not evidence that cats cause PCD per se - just that they are associated. The association could be caused by something else, like having catfood in your house. Establishing cause requires further science).

On the other hand, you might instead ask around your community and discover that a few people with cats have PCD. You might then do some 'research' online and find anti-cat websites and videos showing hundreds of people that contracting PCD after getting a cat. You may talk to grieving mothers who resolutely blame their cat for their child's tragically fatal case of PCD.

However, this does not constitute evidence. What if, for all the hundreds of cat owners with PCD, there were thousands of non-cat owners with PCD? Real evidence comes from comparing rates of the disease among cat owners and non-cat owners. For the comparison to be valid, the data need to be collected using a scientifically robust method. Looking only at anecdotes of cat-then-PCD can tell us very little.

3D's 22-minute piece, entitled Cause or Coincidence, focused on four unfortunate young women with crippling diseases, and two who had died. They, like thousands of other girls in NZ, have had the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine, which reduces the risk of cervical cancer.

The majority of the piece is taken up with Paula Penfold interviewing the girls and their families.

It was shocking and sad, in more ways than one. When asked, some of the girls and parents were convinced that the vaccine was the cause, though some, to their credit, were not. Either way, as much as we feel for them, they are not in a good position to make that judgement. Regardless, Paula Penfold seemed very intent on obtaining these emotive sound bites.

The science, on the other hand, barely got a mention.

Continued below.

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There is no credible scientific evidence for the HPV vaccine increasing the risk of these, or any other, serious diseases or sudden deaths. And there has been plenty of science. For example, in 2013, this BMJ study looked at nearly one million girls in Denmark and Sweden. If an association exists, this study, or one of the many others from around the world, would almost certainly have found it. And no, the study was not funded by drug companies (see footnotes to the BMJ article).

Even if TV3 were intent on ignoring the science, why not provide some balance by interviewing families grieving for those lost to cervical cancer? How about mentioning the non-vaccinated girls with the same diseases as those in the story?

The anti-vaccine movement are lapping up TV3's story and posting it all over social media. People will be drawn to their fanatical websites, which present thousands of sad and scary anecdotes. Sometimes they dress these anecdotes as science by quoting big numbers and making graphs.

This is called pseudoscience, because it has no scientific credibility. Unfortunately, the Information Age also provides platforms for misinformation. Their claims imply that the global medical profession is trying to kill you for a profit. This is simply preposterous.

Vaccines are an obvious target for the blame of frustrated and grieving families. But that doesn't mean that a one-sided selection of even thousands of anecdotes constitutes reliable evidence. Such evidence can only be provided by well-designed scientific study.

I urge the New Zealand public, when deciding on what to believe and whether to vaccinate your children, to place greater weight on the real science and try to ignore the pseudoscience. The scientific evidence here is quite clear, and it comes from literally over a million cases. In the face of it, a few emotive, cherry-picked anecdotes should not persuade you.

Cause or coincidence? TV3's story barely establishes coincidence. It certainly doesn't show correlation. The idea of cause is laughable.

If this is the quality of so-called investigative journalism on TV3, we're better off without it and we should let it die. The sad reality is that this shoddy journalism will likely result in some avoidable cases of cervical cancer, which may lead to the same fate.

Adam Smith is a lecturer in statistics at the Institute for Natural and Mathematical Sciences, Massey University

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34 Comments

Sylvie

-
02:52 pm Tuesday 17 November 2015
You seem to be very naive in your understanding of how the average person operates. I do not share your optimism that most people (or a sizeable minority) would watch this show and see it purely as an entertainment piece.

The show was written to make you think 'what if?' in spite of the mountains of evidence demonstrating vaccine safety.

Unfortunately, most people who refuse vaccinations for themselves (or their children), had the seed of doubt planted by this kind of show/article, and the power of the anecdote in front of them won out over more objective evidence.

First world countries with robust healthcare systems are now at risk of (and are beginning to experience) preventable disease outbreaks due to misinformation and ill-informed choice - so the gravity of the effect of these kinds of 'entertainment' pieces should not be hand-waived away.

Temp8127

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02:52 pm Tuesday 17 November 2015
"The idea of cause is laughable."

You can laugh all you want, but there is no proof - and you can't prove it - that the vaccine did not bring about the health problems subsequently experienced. The vaccine could have provided the catalyst that triggered the disease to flourish. There are risks associated with anything that is invasive to the human body, and different substances affect people differently.

Recreational drugs on their own might not be lethal; alcohol on its own might not be lethal. But putting the two together can be fatal. The drugs don't kill you, the alcohol doesn't kill you, but the combination does. You cannot claim categorically that the HPV vaccine didn't combine with some other benign condition to bring about the crippling diseases. You have no way of knowing what caused those diseases.

By your logic, you would claim that smoking doesn't cause lung cancer or respiratory ailments, and obesity doesn't lead to diabetes. After all, many smokers do not get cancer or respiratory issues, and many lung cancer patients and people with lung problems never smoked. Not all obese people develop diabetes and many people with diabetes were never obese.

Temp8127

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02:39 pm Sunday 15 November 2015
"3D's 22-minute piece, entitled Cause or Coincidence, focused on four unfortunate young women with crippling diseases, and two who had died."

As you state, the piece was about four unfortunate young women with crippling diseases. It was about their experiences and their feelings, and what they wanted to say to the world. It was a human interest story. In other words, it was a talk-show TV program like all other human interest talk-show programs. The participants were interviewed as sufferers of crippling diseases.

The program was not touted as an objective educational documentary or a class for medical students on the merits or otherwise of vaccinations. It was about the lives and experiences of the four young women and everything in the program was real to those participants. Those that believed the cause of their illness was the vaccination, really believed it, they weren't lying.

Viewers can draw their own conclusions, do their own research, and make their own decisions. Surely people can watch a TV program for entertainment - and that is all it was - without being permanently brainwashed? As mind-numbing as TV is these days, people can still think for themselves.

Temp8127

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01:58 pm Sunday 15 November 2015
"3D's 22-minute piece, entitled Cause or Coincidence, focused on four unfortunate young women with crippling diseases, and two who had died."

As you state, the piece was about four unfortunate young women with crippling diseases. It was about their experiences and their feelings, and what they wanted to say to the world. It was a human interest story. In other words, it was a talk-show TV program like all other human interest talk-show programs. The participants were interviewed as sufferers of crippling diseases.

The program was not touted as an objective educational documentary or a class for medical students on the merits or otherwise of vaccinations. It was about the lives and experiences of the four young women and everything in the program was real to those participants. Those that believed the cause of their illness was the vaccination, really believed it, they weren't lying.

Viewers can draw their own conclusions, do their own research, and make their own decisions. Surely people can watch a TV program for entertainment - and that is all it was - without being permanently brainwashed? As mind-numbing as TV is these days, people can still think for themselves.

jimbo

- Port Waikato
01:58 pm Sunday 15 November 2015
Great article but sensational reporting is how you get people to watch the show . Your PCD model could be applied directly to our Government and the Education system in NZ . We have been told a story by a bunch of people that they were the first peoples to settle this land . Our Govt and Education dept suck this up lock stock and barrel and to this day still allow something that is not true to be taught as fact when there is ample evidence that there was definitely other peoples here before or when these so called first inhabitants arrived . If you really want to take someone to task for dodgy reporting techniques how about you give the Govt and education dept a serve .

Hemlock

- Lower Hutt
01:58 pm Sunday 15 November 2015
Thank you for this piece, as someone who lost a brother to sudden cardiac death it needs to be realised that for this there are about 100 people die of this in NZ each year between the ages of 1-40. There may be some where a vaccine was given or some other medical event occurred coincidentally prior, but this isn't necessarily the cause and I am concerned that not only these claims impact medical care regarding vaccines but also play as 'red herrings' when they attribute the cause to vaccines when there is little to no reason to believe this is the case which draws resources away from finding and preventing true causes. People seek a cause, but sometimes there are no answers and it doesn't help to launch out into that vacuum and assign blame wrongly.

Vaccines are not perfect, but they are many times better than having to survive the diseases and illnesses they prevent. It's many times better than having to be treated for dysplasia or cervical cancer as I had to also. I'd never want that for my daughters and damn straight, they are vaccinated for HPV.

Robert O'Callahan

- Mt Eden
01:58 pm Sunday 15 November 2015
"the religious anti-vaxers"?

See here: "In contrast to other disputed science issues, public opinion on the safety and efficacy of childhood vaccines is not meaningfully affected by differences in either science comprehension or religiosity."

Belgarion

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01:57 pm Sunday 15 November 2015
The TV3 report must be endangering hundreds of women. Surely there must be some legal avenue to make TV3 broadcast a retractment? Surely? Or have we sunk so low that this isn't possible?

PePh

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01:57 pm Sunday 15 November 2015
There is no "real science" left anymore - it all depends on who pays for the science and what outcome THEY want, and how far THEY will doctor or spin the results in order to feather their own corporate nest.

Talking Elephants

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01:57 pm Sunday 15 November 2015
I didn't see the show, but just because 3D may have done a poor job of "investigative journalism" doesn't mean we should all believe your assertions. You didn't provide any proof either.

henareho

- Auckland
01:57 pm Sunday 15 November 2015
Thanks for a dose of sanity Adam

MarcW

- New Zealand
01:57 pm Sunday 15 November 2015
Thank you NZH and Mr Smith - probably the best and most accurately researched article published all year. It shows how you don't have to be a skilled and trained journalist to get a good informative story into the media. Most anti-vaxxers are emotional scaremongers and have the same credibility as the old snake oil salespeople - just they have a wider audience because of the internet.

Peter Archer

- New Zealand
01:57 pm Sunday 15 November 2015
This "analysis" is riddled with clever propaganda. For example the use of the term "pseudoscience" and the "anti-vaccine movement" is a tactic to sway the reader.

If the writer of this really wants to understand what he himself is doing here, he should look up Allthusser's theory of the "Ideological State Apparatus", and Foucault's theory of power/knowlege and the dominant discourse, because all he is doing here is being a spokesperson for that (hegemonic) discourse, with this carefully constructed narrative.

TV3 are to be commended for their courage in airing this, and breaking through the barrier of the dominant discourse.

Rational Optimist

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01:57 pm Sunday 15 November 2015
Exactly right. Another ridiculous comparison would be to take a stolen list of confidential house sales, count up the number of people with Chinese-sounding surnames, and then use that as "evidence" to stir up anger against Asian people buying houses in Auckland. The practice is shocking, disgusting and reprehensible.

Anne(Glen Eden)

- Glen Eden
01:57 pm Sunday 15 November 2015
That is the problem. You can't believe the 'scientific' results announced because so many of them are biased, just plain wrong, or actually based on computer modelling rather than real life - no more than a biased person's guestimate.

For the last few decades, we've had eat/cook with vegetable oils. Now it's 'don't' because they cause cancer. It's one case of very many. We've never had access to more information and never been less able to believe any of it.

The sole fault belongs to the biased researchers and funders out there who are utterly convinced of their own rightness and economical with the truth in the name of being able to convince more people of their view.

It suits them to say vaccinating is safe when, for some people, it isn't. Rather they need to be honest, as you say e.g. out of 1,000 people who were vaccinated, three died/were brain-damaged. Then, at least, people know what the odds are and can make real decisions about the risks they're prepared to take. Or if they really don't know, say so.

It's all very well to be sad about the 'odd' adverse reaction but it's a little more serious than that when it's your child/grandchildren.
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