Friday, September 23, 2016

Fairness and accuracy: how much are they alike? 

Years ago, in the early 80's, I was living in NYC. Gay men in the city, as well as in San Franciso were dying mysteriously of diseases associated with immunodeficiency. People were calling it GRID for Gay Related Immuno Deficiency. No one knew what caused it. One of the major hypotheses was that it was caused by the use of recreational drugs called "poppers". Then in 1984 a couple of scientists discovered the retrovirus, HIV. Soon it became clear that this virus met Koch's postulates and work started on how to protect against the virus that caused what was renamed AIDS as it was soon very clear that it was not only gay men who were affected in the world.

But there was this other scientist, Peter Duesberg, who in 1986 decided that HIV did not cause AIDS. He claimed, against all evidence, that AIDS is caused by recreational drug use, and now by anti-viral therapies. He is a professor at UC Berkeley and science generally tolerates contrarians, even when they are considered crackpots with dreadful data. Nonetheless in scientific circles, people look at what he says and writes and his arguments, sees that they are lousy, and dismisses it.

Unfortunately that is not how our news system works. Upon discovering this contrarian, for years every time there was a news story about AIDS Duesberg would be trotted out for equal time as the opposing voice. The fact that most everyone else was working on an infectious disease and treatments for it and Duesberg was just one solitary contrarian with effectively no data didn't matter. The News was trying to be "fair" and to give equal time to opposing viewpoints. Unfortunately that legitimized him among non-scientists and in 2000 he ended up advising the South African President, Thabo Mbeki. South Africa had a ballooning AIDS problem, and Duesberg convinced Mbeki that HIV was not the cause and that those expensive retrovirals were bad. South Africa embarked on a wacko course of advising people to drink water with lemon in it, not get HIV tests, and not take antiretroviral drugs. It is estimated that a third of a million people died as a result of these years of bad advice.

Why am I talking about this? Because sometimes equal time is not a good idea. The news should not be giving equal time to largely discredited science. A story? Sure. Talk about the contrarians. On very very rare occasions they are the ones that turn out to be right. That is why they are tolerated in science. But geez, don't give them equal time. Similarly, come Monday, if Clinton tells a lie and Trump tells ten, don't devote an equal amount of time to Clinton's one as Trump's ten. Don't over-weigh or under-weigh dramatically in an attempt to be "fair". Proportionality should reflect reality. Don't make false equality. It can cause great harm.

No comments: