A fail for 3D

Statistics lecturer Adam Smith writes in the Herald:

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 weren’t. Either way, as much as we feel for them, they are not qualified 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.

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 thousands of non-vaccinated girls with the same diseases as those in the story?

Pretty damning.

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 numbers and making graphs. They claim that the entire global medical profession is trying to kill you for a profit. This is simply preposterous. Unfortunately, the Information Age has also provides a platform for misinformation.

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.

The plural of anecdote is anecdotes, not data.

I urge the New Zealand public, when deciding on what to believe and whether to vaccinate your children, to place greater weight on the scientific evidence. The 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.

So maybe the death of 3D will be no bad thing. As a taxpayer I don’t want my taxes going on hysterical scaremongering. I’m happy to fund some public broadcasting, but not crap like this.

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