John Stossel: Journalism and the Eradication of Falsehoods
Over the years, Stossel apparently has offended many people, almost all of them on the American Left. His supposed offense is that he does what journalists are supposed to: challenging cherished beliefs -- on subjects like the environment, education, and entertainment. In developing his views, Stossel doesn't rely a lot on polls of public opinion. Instead, he asks if there's any factual basis for common beliefs.
In his recent program, he discussed the widespread fears that vaccines might be harming American children -- perhaps by increasing the number of young people with autism. He cites various scientists who say there's no evidence that vaccines are causing diseases in children. In fact, they're preventing hundreds of thousands of serious illnesses and deaths.
But how we can explain the supposed sharp increase in the number of children with autism, a subject that's made the cover of major newsmagazines? He presents a graph from California showing two lines -- one demonstrating the percentage "increase" of California kids with autism, one showing the decline in those diagnosed with mental retardation. The two lines demonstrate what's really happened: many of the children formerly diagnosed as retarded now get classified as autistic.
There is NO increase in the percentage of autistic children. What we once called retardation, we now call autism. That's all there is to it.
If there's no factual basis for something we believe, then it's obligation as rational, responsible people to revise our beliefs. It's not a matter of being liberal or conservative, but rather of avoiding error and fantasy. We should believe only those things we can prove.
For example, there's no evidence -- as in none -- that silicone breast implants cause cancer or various immune system disorders. That's not the opinion of John Stossel or the various experts he quotes, including those at the FDA. In fact, what they're saying is that evidence doesn't exist linking silicone implants to various diseases. If such scientific evidence existed, which it does not, both Stossel and his experts would love to see it, but there's no one to present it.
But what about the juries that have bankrupted companies (Dow-Corning) and enriched trial lawyers in cases supposedly linking the breast implants to a host of diseases? Those juries were, as the FDA now indicates, wrong. They committed one of the oldest fallacies, which states: post hoc, ergo propter hoc. That means: "after this, therefore because of this."
The women awarded huge settlements did in fact have breast implants. Also, they did in fact have diseases. Yet there was no connection between the silicone and the illnesses. The judgments, the lining of the lawyers' pockets, and the financial devastation of the implant makers all occurred for no good reason.
In one remarkable episode on 20/20, Stossel talks to his college age daughter about a program he did when she was a small child. In that years-ago segment, he'd raised questions about the safety of the vaccine that prevents whooping cough. Influenced by that experience, Stossel refused to let his daughter's pediatrician finish immunizing her against whooping cough.
Subsequently, his daughter ended up in a hospital emergency room. She'd contracted whooping cough, a thoroughly preventable disease.
He told his nonplussed daughter this story. She couldn't believe he -- and his programs -- had interfered with doctors' responsibilities to take care of their patients. Her comment: "If you did that, you did a bad thing."
Can anyone imagine Mike Wallace, Keith Olberman, or Wolf Blitzer devoting a portion of their programs -- in such dramatic fashion -- to their own past errors? I can't.
In his program, Stossel used focus groups of children and parents. Members of the two group expressed their major fear: the high probability of children being kidnapped. The mothers, fathers, and children all believed that kidnapping is a real possibility in their lives. They're scared stiff. They've all heard of cases like those involving Elizabeth Smart, Jessica Lunsford, Polly Klass, and Adam Walsh.
Most people think the number of child kidnappings is much greater now than it was in the past. They're wrong.
In fact, what most of us call kidnapping -- stranger abductions -- is very rare. On the 20/20, the head of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children says, "Over the years, the number of such kidnappings has remained remarkable constant."
How many stranger abductions take place in a typical week? The parents and children Stossel talked to believe there's an explosion of such horrors. Apparently, they believe there are dozens -- and perhaps hundreds -- every week.
In fact, on average, the number in a week is about TWO. That is, in an average 7-day period, two children get kidnapped by strangers. Not dozens, not hundreds -- but rather two per week, about 100 per year.
For that, we end up with tens of millions of adults and children spending much of their lives consumed by fear of being kidnapped. Many more children die in tricycle accidents.
Overall, Stossel accomplished more in a two-hour program than most journalists will in a decade. He questioned conventional wisdom. He presented information that many people -- especially trial lawyers -- would rather not hear. He refused to genuflect at the altar of public opinion.
When Stossel hears a proposition, such as that the number of kidnapped children is increasing, he doesn't take it on faith. He asks, "Is that true? Is there any evidence to support the view? Is there another explanation than the one proferred?"
This distinguished ABC journalist causes us to do something profoundly important: to question our own views. For example, in recent years, I've been fixated on the issue of terrorism in America. Stossel suggests that terrorism is much less of a real concern that I've thought.
His point is that we should worry about things that truly matter, such as auto accidents, high blood pressure, and heart diseases. Yes, Oklahoma City and 9/11 were awful, sickening, but there are other realities that kill many more people and deserve a greater degree of our concern.
Journalism should never be a tool to foster illusions, whether comforting or disturbing. Instead, it should be a way for us to check reality and re-examine our beliefs. For that reason, Stossel's "Scared Stiff" gets my vote for reality-show-of-the-year.
From time to time in the future, I'll write about ways journalism can fulfill its obligation to present accurate, valuable information.