Is the Media Simplifying a Complex Story on Disease Outbreaks?

In recent years, there has been an outbreak of media stories on early childhood disease outbreaks. The press has reported a spike in cases of measles, mumps, and whooping cough in communities from Seattle to Vermont.  In many of the stories, a cause-and-effect relationship to lower childhood vaccination rates has been explicit. (Some journalists, however, have been careful not to follow the herd.) An obvious culprit is the anti-vaccination movement.

But in a provocative post at his Cultural Cognition blog, Dan Kahan asks:

What is the evidence that an “anti-vaccination movement” is “causing” epidemics of childhood diseases in US?

He’s not seeing any, and wonders:

If not, why does the media keep making this claim? Why do so many people not ask to see some evidence?

That seems like a reasonable question. The point isn’t to ding the press. There is something more important at stake here, Kahan explains:

If there isn’t evidence for the sorts of reports I’m describing, is it constructive to make people believe that nonvaccination is playing a bigger role than it actually is in any outbreaks of childhood diseases? Might doing so actually reduce proper attention to the actual causes of such outbreaks, including ineffective vaccines?  Might they stir up anxiety by actually inducing people to believe that more people are worried about the vaccines than really are?

Kahan is forcing me to confront my own biases on this issue. I’ve tended to see anti-vaccination activists as a major threat to public health and in my own mind have made the connection between their rise and the outbreaks of whooping cough and other preventable childhood diseases. I still think the threat posed by a well-organized and vocal anti-vaxx movement is real and needs to be countered. But the larger story is evidently more complex and Kahan is right to call on the media to treat it as such.

[Cover of 2011 book by Paul Offit]

12 Responses to “Is the Media Simplifying a Complex Story on Disease Outbreaks?”

  1. Tom Scharf says:

    When you guys start questioning the link between Sandy and climate change I’ll be impressed with your self introspection. Not holding my breath on that one though.

  2. It may not be obvious from larger state or US statistics, but there are numerous cases of Steiner or Waldorf schools being sources of measles outbreaks. Not only in the US but around the world. And there’s a different anti-vax movement in France that has spawned large problems.

    It is also the case that a new vaccine is in use for whooping cough–developed in part because of criticism of safety of the older one. It seems that is not as persistent at the old one. But–if there was broader vaccination, the waning of the vaccine-based immunity wouldn’t be as much of an issue because the whooping cough wouldn’t be in circulation.

  3. Keith Kloor says:


    I devote a lot of posts to climate change related topics–including asserted connections between severe storms and AGW. That would be the place to leave your rants–and you have.

    Try not pollute every comment thread with your own hobby horse. If you do, I’ll start moderating for on-topic, because I don’t like thread-jacking.

    So to all: Please stay on topic in this thread.

  4. Buddy199 says:

    What about the connection between vaccines and global warming? (I’m KIDDING, don’t ban me!)

  5. harrywr2 says:

    Why have the climate concerned and media (including one Keith Kloor)taken the speculation as to how many coalfired plants are to be built by WRI (an advocacy group) and treated as fact?

    There is nothing new to propaganda. Take a small truth..add a touch of embellishment and imply a scale not supported by facts and magic…mole hill becomes mountain.

    Unfortunately, those who tend to be most vocal about fact checking are sometimes the easiest to fool.

    It is way eaisier to believe an embellishment from one’s own tribe then acknowledge that a tribe member is telling tall tales.

  6. Tom Scharf says:

    I can only be right 97% of the time.

  7. jh says:

    So then, is it a social responsibility to be vaccinated? Should it be a legal responsibility?

    Although the dangers of vaccines are dramatically overplayed by the antivaxxers, some people do have very negative reactions to some vaccines.

    But instead of employing less effective but broadly safer vaccines, perhaps the best solution is to seek ways to identify those – as few as they may be – that are at risk from the more effective vaccines.

  8. Marta Fernandes says:

    Diseases such as whooping cough are on the rise in my country as well, yet we only have minor anti-vaccination issues.

  9. hunterson1 says:

    This is very insightful, on many levels: Media laziness, propaganda vs. information, attribution and coincidence, historical ignorance, the ability of change to surprise us, pattern forcing are some that come to mind.

  10. Joshua says:

    Keith –

    Glad to see this post acknowledging the question of fear-mongering about fear-mongering – lthough I think that Dan might actually be guilty of fear-mongering about fear-mongering about fear-mongering (by speculating, without careful data analysis, about potential harm of linking anti-vaxers to increased disease prevalence without careful data analysis)

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