All about folksonomics: the intellectual recession we didn’t have to have

A week ago, a piece appeared in the Life & Style section of Fairfax’s online mastheads which depressingly illustrated the toxic spread of disinformation through once credible news outlets. Written by a freelancer, Marj Lefroy, it purported to illustrate “Vaccination’s vexed link to autism“, opening with the provocative line “for many parents, vaccinations are this century’s abortion debate” (no, I’m not aware of the abortion debate being magically resolved last century either, but let’s leave that for now).

Claiming to speak on behalf of “the voices of concerned parents and carers”, she referred to a case in the US where the federal government had conceded that vaccines had “aggravated a young girl’s mitochondrial disorder to the point that she developed autism”, with the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program subsequently paying out $1.5 million upfront to the girl’s family, in addition to ongoing reimbursement of $500,000 pa.

“There are things we can and must do,” opines Ms Lefroy in conclusion, a nicely vague way of advising readers not to vaccinate their kids. “We must have the courage and maturity to listen to everyone, including the mothers and fathers dealing with the unacceptable, potentially avoidable consequences. They’re the canaries in the coal mine, and the real reason why this case is not closed. It’s just that science, likes the law, takes a while to catch up.”

The comments section predictably exploded. “Of course, the decision whether or not to accept the current system of vaccination is not easy,” went one of the less strident replies. “I dread the day when I will need to make this decision about my child’s health.”

You. Are. Freaking. Kidding. Me.

Yesterday, the column was mercifully answered by a Sydney GP, Dr James Best, who also happens to have an autistic child. From where he sits, the “debate” about vaccination isn’t as hotly contested as Ms Lefroy claims: perhaps one in 100 of his patients in his paediatric practice refuse to follow the standard immunisation schedule. Yet that one in 100 still causes a real headache: over the past 18 months, he writes, he has diagnosed around 30 cases of whooping cough; in more affluent areas of eastern Sydney and the north coast of NSW, where vaccination scares have taken hold, rates of the diagnosis are even higher and climbing.

Dr Best also debunks Ms Lefroy’s selective use of evidence to prosecute her case. In regards to the US government payout to one apparent victim above, for example, he writes:

“Ms Lefroy then brings up the case of a young girl with a rare genetic mitochondrial disorder who received a substantial payout under the US National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program when she developed an encephalopathy with ‘features of autism’—not ‘autism’ as Ms Lefroy claims—after receiving several vaccines. (Encephalopathy is an extremely rare but recognised side effect of some vaccines. That’s why the US government didn’t contest the case.)

“What she doesn’t mention was that this case was originally part of the much larger Omnibus Autism trial, a class action representing almost 5000—yes 5000—cases brought by families who claimed their child had developed autism from vaccines. And what happened to the other 5000 or so cases? After hearing months of testimony and reviewing mountains of evidence on the test claims, the independent Special Masters of the Vaccine Court dismissed them; in fact they were scathing in their judgements of the lawyers who pursued the action based on such flimsy evidence. ‘Not even close’, was one judgement.”

The comments section exploded again. “Your article is great and I totally understand where you are going with it,” says “hmmm” from Sydney. Perplexingly, she then goes on: “I am going to be an ‘older’ mother and one thing is for sure – I DON’T TRUST vaccinations. It is about time this debate gets finalised and some serious research is done without hiding behind the curtain of the government or any other governing body. As far as being a busy GP – I don’t trust them either.”

I’m sure Dr Best is thankful that she “totally understands” where he is going. Then there’s pure gibberish like this:

“As a non-parent,and dislike doctors with an intensity,the fact this man and and being a father does the complete opposite to me when he thinks he is well qualified.And then the torrent of being in a middle class practice.Then a court specifically for vaccines,as it reads as article!Doesn’t make you think, does it!?Seeing most of the anti-vaccination activists are women and not doctors,there is some degree of insisted superiority in this combination of the opponents of said women and non medical degrees.The real answer to the presentation by this doctor would be a anti-vaccination father who won’t have a bar of going to a doctor if he can avoid it,and with sound reasoning,whereas I can find,if I want to a number of experts who have been associated with being in normal courts as experts and in some instances winning the case completely..So ,lets get a number of things clear about this article.The intention of it is to show the sparsity of the opponents of vaccination in terms of degrees,parenthood wisdom ,by a means that disallows a useful type of response in a number of words and characters.Thus the elitist nose of the profession does the attack job over and over again,and why,when simple the problem of autism is not their right either to play god,with children whose manifestation of a disease,as a disease,may have complications that the doctor as parent maybe only able to see.Unless their is some fiesty parent or two ready to take on the bloody profession for the sake of their kid’s health and others.Is the parent the real skilled!”

If you could get through that, congratulations. I presume some lackey at Fairfax does have to filter this guff, lest they not be left open to potential defamation suits, but obviously beyond that there’s not a whole lot of moderating going on. Newsrooms, driven by the need for content and a 24-hour cycle, are busy places. Who on earth has the time?

Nonetheless, the drivel above does actually contain the nub of what I want to address here: the persistent denigration and dismissal of expertise in online news environments especially, and the subsequent rise in publication of mischievous disinformation (in the name, presumably, of free speech and fostering debate).

This is not a fashionable view. Bernard Keane, I’m sure, would be all over me about who gets to decide what constitutes mischievous disinformation and what is accurate, balanced and truthful. Fair enough. But when the culture of blogging and citizen journalism – where old hierarchies of knowledge have been flattened – infiltrates previously esteemed mastheads at the expense of reasonable public health objectives, I think we might have a problem.

In his book Blogs, Wikipedia, Second Life And Beyond, academic Axel Bruns characterises these new public spaces for debate as “folksonomies”. The rise of what he calls “folk intelligence” raises questions of where this leaves the traditional gatekeepers of knowledge: the experts in specific fields of information. In this new environment, the traditional pathways of original research and peer-reviewed publication may be dismissed; the wisdom of the online community is king.

Actually, Bruns’ argument is a bit more subtle than that. “If there is a conflict between ‘experts’ and ‘folks’ on the pages of the Wikipedia, then, it is not one which can be described simply as pitting hierarchy against anarchy, control of knowledge systems against freedom of speech (however far off the mark that speech may be in terms of representing existing knowledge),” he writes. “[R]ather, it is a struggle between two different systems of representing knowledge: one, the expert paradigm, which ultimately and ideally aims to develop well-behaved, universally accepted and internally consistent understandings of the world, and two, the folksonomic paradigm, which allows for multiplicity, conflicts of interpretation, and the existence of a number of alternative representations of extant knowledge which are accepted only by a subset of the entire community (but which nonetheless are based on an interpretation of actual evidence).”

You only have to look at the climate change debate to see what Bruns’ folksonomic paradigm has wrought on the Australian mediocracy, not to mention two former opposition leaders and (soon to be) two ex-prime ministers. The steady creep of talkback radio culture into print media – where comments equals hits equals advertising revenue – has helped make superstars of Andrew Bolt and Miranda Devine, skilled rousers of rabbles whose reach and influence (measured recently by The Power Index) stands in inverse proportion to their knowledge of what they’re talking about, at least when it comes to global warming.

But hey, it’s all about balance, as The Australian screeched a couple of weekends ago, in response to Robert Manne’s Quarterly Essay. Ninety-nine percent of the world’s actual climate scientists might think we’re going to hell in a handbasket, but that doesn’t mean acres of print shouldn’t be given over to anyone who says it’s all a great big lefty conspiracy involving NASA, the CSIRO, the EU and John Howard. News Ltd (soon to be News Australia, as leaked to Crikey yesterday) purports to represent Middle Australia. We love your opinion, we value it. Oh, and will you please fill out our online survey?

We place our faith in the engineers that design our bridges, and the cars we drive over them; we worship the geeks who invent our Macbooks and iPads, oblivious to the scientific principles which have to be tested, repeated and then applied to the technology that makes them possible. And until recently, we trusted the doctor who jabbed us as kids with a biological synthetic of polio, so that our immune systems would learn to recognise and destroy it, allowing us to live free of the fear of paralysis or worse.

So thanks, Ms Lefroy, for your considered contribution to the immunisation debate. Should rates of measles, whooping cough and poliomyelitis rise in the near future, at least you’ll be able to say you just wanted to save the children from autism. And thanks, too, to Fairfax for giving her a good run. At the risk of spoiling this rant in the last paragraph by falling foul of Godwin’s law, I expect that a major news masthead in Australia will soon be giving space to holocaust deniers and various 9/11 whackjobs. All in the name of balanced debate.

All they need to do is give a crank a platform. Oh, wait…

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