MD, PhD, FMedSci, FRSB, FRCP, FRCPEd.

Recently, I came across a newspaper asking: “Which vaccine do you trust most?” It turned out that there was a clear favourite according to public opinion. In the present climate of heated debates about COVID vaccines, this seems to make sense.

Or doesn’t it?

What determines public opinion?

There are probably many determinants, but most are dominated by what the public is being told about a subject. If, for instance, the press incessantly reports bad things about a certain vaccine and mostly good news about another, public opinion will reflect exactly that.

What I am trying to point out is this: the man and woman in the street have no expertise in vaccines. They mostly think what they are being told about them. So, public opinion is largely determined by journalists who write about the subject. If then a newspaper presents the public opinion about a vaccine, it is all but a foregone conclusion. The paper might as well just repeat what they have been telling their readers. By presenting a ‘public opinion’ about vaccines they actually go one step further: they amplify their own opinion by pretending it is not of their making but that of the public.

All this seems fairly obvious, once you start thinking about it.

So, why do I go on about it?

If this phenomenon occurs with vaccines, it also occurs with other issues, for instance, so-called alternative medicine (SCAM). We often hear that the public is in favour of this or that type of SCAM. It is supposed to convince us and politicians that SCAM is good. If thousands or even millions are in favour of it, it must be good! Who am I to disagree with the public?

But, as we have just seen with the example of the vaccines, public opinion is merely a reflection of what the press tells people. The man and the woman in the street are not competent to reliably estimate the risk-benefit ratios of St John’s wort, Arnica, glucosamine, acupuncture, etc. etc. They can judge such issues as little as they can judge the risk-benefit balance of a vaccine. They rely on information from the outside, and that information usually reaches them by the press.

What am I aiming at?

Public opinion sounds impressive, and in the realm of SCAM, it often determines much. If the public opinion is in favour of homoeopathy, for instance, politicians are likely to lend their support to it. Yet, public opinion is just OPINION! It cannot be used as an indicator for the efficacy or safety of medical interventions, and it cannot be the reason for using or rejecting them.

It follows, I think, that journalists have a huge responsibility to inform the public correctly on SCAM (and any other matter). On this blog, we have seen numerous instances of journalists who could have done better, e.g.:

Public opinion, it seems to me, can only be meaningful, if the information fed to the public is sound. And when it comes to SCAM, this condition is often not met.

 

 

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