Stephen Sekula

Stephen Sekula at

Let's be careful here. In science, it is quite often the case that there are not "two sides." Therefore, the exercise of free speech falls into conflict with the reliable weight of the evidence. People are free to propose testable explanations for a phenomenon, and then test them and assess their claim, but they are NOT free to hold a position counter to the weight of the evidence - that is considered "useless at best, harmful at worst" to the progress of knowledge in science. As the article notes, we do not give equal weight to a "flat earther" when somebody from the ESA or NASA goes on TV to talk about the latest scientific mission orbiting the Earth. Why do we give equal time to people who use pseudoscience to make a values argument in the vaccination issue?

In science, you draw a conclusion based on the weight of the reliable evidence. Absent such weight, you cannot draw a conclusion. Vaccine efficacy and safety has a clear weight, and that weight is toward supporting vaccination for all who can receive it (e.g. you obviously cannot vaccinate infants before a certain age, and you cannot vaccinate immune-compromised individuals). There is a SEPARATE issue that has much less to do with the scientific assessment, and that is the values issue regarding your policy for vaccination. For instance, you might ask, "What is the balance of personal choice and community good in the vaccination policy discussion?" That is primarily a values issue - and there is little or no scientific assessment of either side, except to tell you the consequences of vaccinating more or less. Raise the values issue, and there will be thousands of sides - thousands of personal nuanced opinions. There is a healthy place for free speech, because there isn't conclusive scientific evidence for one side or the other.

Free speech that flies in the face of the weight of the scientific evidence does a disservice to both science and values discussions. Science journalists should feel NO obligation to give false balance on the matters of vaccine efficacy and safety - there are NOT two sides there. As a society, we need to learn better to separate the scientific issues from the values issues; science journalists are an important part of the solution, learning when fairness in speech is appropriate (e.g. a values question) and when it is not (e.g. opinions counter to the weight of the evidence, and absent their own reliable evidence, deserve no weight in a discussion of a purely scientific question).

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