Merely 'believing' something does not qualify as 'controversy'
Because Katie Couric did a show giving voice to meritless anti-vaccine forces
, people are going to die. You really can't get around that; the deaths may be decades from now, and the links from here to there may never be recognized even by the people around whom the threads are tied, but somewhere in the Katie Couric audience there are going to be people who are not going to vaccinate their children against a deadly disease because Katie Couric put it in their heads that there was a risk
in doing it that simply is not there, and those children are going to someday get that disease, and they are going to die from it. Think of any defense you like, but the outcome is the same. Oh, but we were just raising questions
is the well-worn excuse of sensationalists everywhere, but if you are raising questions where there are, in fact, no serious questions, you are doing harm.
The problem here is, once again, scientific illiteracy. Presenting a mother who believes her daughter died from a vaccine and that other daughters are dying from a vaccine does not count as evidence of it happening, and certainly does not count as a counterargument to vast reams of evidence demonstrating the opposite. I could not go on television and claim that if my daughter died ten days after watching Dora the Explorer, it was clearly Dora the Explorer that killed her. I could not go on television and claim that because I ate a cheeseburger only days before my neighbor had a car accident, cheeseburgers are a cause of neighborhood bad luck. I could claim these things, mind you, but even the more gullible minds among us would not generally think that those claims were worthy of a television appearance. You would not have programs devoted to the Dora the Explorer hypothesis, programs that were just asking questions as to whether Dora was mass-murdering our children via some unknown force. You would not have magazines asking the cheeseburger question on their covers, even after the statistical evidence confirmed that almost every car accident in America happened to someone who lived in a neighborhood where some other person recently consumed a cheeseburger. At least, we hope we would not—there is still room for surprise, I suppose.
Frame the same questions about a subject that people have a more tenuous or abstract knowledge of, however, and suddenly the single anecdote holds sway. In the scientific realm, vaccinations and climate change are regularly "debunked" by assertions that "someone somewhere died in the same month that they were given a vaccine for something" or "it is cold today, therefore the climate is not changing." Because the anecdotes are easy to understand and broad statistical measurements are, for many people, not, the anecdotes are given more credibility. The less a subject is understood, the easier it is for cranks to pretend expertise at it in front of people who know even less, and the more eager journalists are to pit the improbable sensationalist in the some people say camp against the sum total of all the world's hard-won collective knowledge on the subject.
God help us if a single anecdote actually prove true, in the single instance provided, as that shifts the question from scientific illiteracy to statistical innumeracy. The rarer the event, the more difficult it becomes for the human mind to recognize it as rare. One man bitten by a shark on one beach becomes cause for alarm; two men bitten by two sharks on two separate beaches becomes an epidemic. Are sharks becoming more aggressive? Should you even enter the water this summer? Is the human race doomed? Take it to the political realm and you have nationwide machinations to protect against voter fraud premised on "evidence" of fraud usually consisting of, nationwide, perhaps tens of people, or demands that we do less to feed the poor because one fellow saw one fellow who did not seem all that poor to him.
Do journalism schools teach statistics? Do they teach the scientific method even in the broadest sense, the barest minimum of how to tell evidence from coincidence? Why the hell not? Would this not be a key tool of journalism, every bit as much as in any other fact-seeking endeavor?
These are not difficult questions or a difficult story, and Katie Couric and her producers are not gullible people. There is no evidence that the HPV vaccine is unsafe. There is no evidence that serious side effects are anything but rare, and the vaccine is already well on its way to cutting HPV rates in half since it was introduced in 2006.
What we have here is not a story about Katie Couric and her producers going for a sensationalistic story and misfiring. What we have here is another instance of the profession's ongoing scientific illiteracy, an illiteracy that leads to a great many quacks and cranks and great mountains of professional and well-paid bullshit artists being propped up as public experts whose testimony must be given exactly as much weight as concrete, measurable evidence to the contrary. It is excruciatingly damaging. It can kill people.