Skepticism about science and medicine

In search of disinterested science

NOVA’s vaccine propaganda: Media coverage

Posted by Henry Bauer on 2014/09/18

NOVA’s presentation on vaccination  was obviously one-sided, and a few observers noted as much:

Verne Gay at Newsday recognized  the program to be “designed as an ironclad, insistent, well-reported film that, in the very nicest way possible, tells those who have decided not to vaccinate their children that they are — essentially — blithering idiots. There is no debate, or should be no debate, or if there is a debate, those doing the debating have spent way too much time on the Internet. . . . like an industry film in support of a product”.

Dave Walker at the Times-Picayune allowed the program’s producer, Sonya Pemberton, to confess her bias. She described herself as “from a medical family” and rather immodestly as “scientifically educated”, whatever that might mean substantively. In practice, of course, it’s spin intended to inveigle her audience that she knows what’s science and what isn’t. She was “trying to take people on this journey so that they can come to the conclusions that the science clearly supports”, in other words not presenting pro- and con- but only the one side. As Walker observes, “That point of view will cause some viewers to write off Pemberton’s journey before it starts”; though I would put it that it should cause all viewers to write off Pemberton’s journey.

Paula Apsell, NOVA’s senior executive producer, was fully in favor of making propaganda rather than a documentary: “to present the scientific facts to people in a convincing way . . . . we’re all going to be very curious as to how the ‘anti-vaxxers,’ as they are called, the people who really don’t accept vaccination, react to this film”. Evidently like Pemberton, Apsell thinks “vaccination” is unproblematically good always and everywhere, when in fact any halfway “scientifically educated” person — or anyone with common sense who thinks about it even briefly — can recognize that vaccination against an infectious disease to guard against epidemics could be an entirely different matter than vaccination against something endemic in the population, let alone against something not yet proven to cause any harm at all.

I was curious about the term “anti-vaxxer”, which was new to me. Through Google I was able to trace it to no earlier than 2009. Perhaps it is not coincidental that the HPV vaccine Gardasil was approved by the Food and Drug Administration in 2006, and within a few years some severe adverse reactions were being reported by parents. Perhaps as a result of public concerns over parental rights as well as adverse reactions, Merck claimed to be suspending its lobbying to have vaccination with Gardasil made compulsory for school attendance [1].
That the reports of serious harm from Gardasil and Cervarix have not faded away is illustrated by the 2013 decision in Japan to suspend vaccination “because several adverse reactions to the medicines have been reported” [2]. In Britain, reports of adverse events were allegedly suppressed [3].

There is no need to speculate about why it was in Japan that official public notice was taken of the fact that serious adverse events from Gardasil and Cervarix are far more frequent than with other vaccines: None of the Big Pharma companies  are Japanese-owned. This is not a conspiracy theory: “conspiracy” implies secrecy, and the misdeeds of Big Pharma have been described and documented in dozens of books and articles.
The same non-conspiracy fact explains why the mass media in the USA did not disseminate this action by Japanese authorities.

The Japanese findings also answer a question that the NOVA program posed but did not answer: Why there has been an unusual amount of controversy about Gardasil and Cervarix by comparison to other vaccines? It’s because of the much greater frequency and considerably greater seriousness of adverse reactions to those vaccines.

As with drugs, a largely unrecognized danger is that there exists no systematic monitoring of adverse events once a drug, a medical device, or a vaccine has been approved. Physicians are not well placed to discern whether an adverse reaction results from a drug or from some other condition, typically the ailment for which the drug is prescribed in the first place. A study comparing systematic monitoring with spontaneous reporting found that under-reporting was as high as 98% [4]. In other words, adverse events might be 50 times as frequent as official data reveal.

At any rate, it seems not unlikely that the term “anti-vaxxer” was introduced by determined supporters of mainstream practices as a way of maligning and discrediting those who were bringing to public attention the reports of such serious consequences of vaccination by Gardasil or Cervarix as blindness, convulsions, deafness, paralysis.

Back to media coverage of the NOVA puff-piece:
While a few observers like Verne Gay at Newsday and Dave Walker at the Times-Picayune recognized how one-sided a piece of propaganda this is, others were taken in, or simply too lazy or thoughtless to see it. According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, it was “balanced” and concluding “gently” that vaccines are “safe and effective”, “without dodging or downplaying the mild, occasional serious and rare deadly risks vaccines can pose”. Chris Mooney, whose own biases are worn on his sleeve [5], was gullible and enthusiastic: “If you care about science, it’s something you should watch” is a remarkable and reprehensible comment about a program that avoided any discussion of the scientific issues and argued purely from authority. Mooney was also taken in by the program’s featuring of a “decision psychologist”, citing “our faulty risk perceptions around vaccines”.
I would put this to Mooney, Sonya Pemberton, and other groupies of universal vaccination: The NOVA program mentioned that officially required vaccinations for attending school vary from State to State within the USA, demonstrating that they are not based on science.


[1] Linda A. Johnson, Merck suspends lobbying for vaccine
[2] Cervix vaccine issues trigger health noticeJapan withdraws HPV Vaccine recommendation for girlsJapan’s suspension of recommendation for Gardasil & Cervarix HPV Vaccines for women – Caused by large numbers of unexplained serious adverse reactionsJapan and the HPV Vaccine ControversyJapan: International medical researchers issue warning about HPV Vaccine side effects
[3] UK Drug Safety Agency falsified Vaccine Safety Data for 6 million
[4] A. P. Fletcher, “Spontaneous adverse drug reaction reporting vs event monitoring: a comparison”, Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, 84 (1991) 341-4
[5] Henry H. Bauer, “Not even wrong about science and politics”, Journal of Scientific Exploration, 27 (2013) 540-52 — essay review of Mooney, The Republican War on Science and Berezow & Campbell, Science Left Behind: Feel-Good Fallacies and the Rise of the Anti-Scientific Left


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s