Speaking clearly

12 Apr

The Canadian Journal of Medicine have an interesting article by MacDonald and Picard pleading for clearer language to be used by academics. In
particular they note the potential for different audiences to make
different conclusions from the 2001 Institute of Medicine report
looking at the relationship between MMR vaccine and autism.

The conclusion in the executive summary of the 2001 Institute of Medicine report about the relation between the measles–mumps–rubella vaccine and autism provides an excellent example of potentially confusing academic language. This conclusion was carefully crafted in precise academic language — so precise that, depending on the reader, different conclusions can be drawn. The academic involved in vaccine research, familiar with the scientific principle that the null hypothesis cannot be proven, would conclude that this report does not find evidence that the measles–mumps–rubella vaccine causes autism. A health care worker reading this same statement may not be sure what to make of it: maybe the vaccine causes autism in some children, just not often. The politician may wonder whether supporting public programs for measles–mumps–rubella vaccination at this time is justified. The journalist may reasonably interpret the conclusion as saying that the vaccine is a cause of autism, albeit an infrequent one. The antivaccine lobby, for its part, would be delighted that this respected academic body has given support to its claims that the vaccine can cause autism.

Go and have a read, and compare the actual IOM conclusion with
MacDonald and Picard’s proposed conclusion. Their arguments have
merit, particularly when it comes to the media interpretation of study or report findings. However, I’m not so sure about the anti-vaccine movement, who will deliberately misrepresent studies to prove the complete opposite of what they say, but we can at least stop giving them easy ammunition with which to dupe others.

2 Responses to “Speaking clearly”

  1. joeyandymom April 12, 2009 at 15:30 #

    There is something wrong here for sure- the purpose of “precise academic language” is just that: precision. If it can be reasonably misinterpreted, then it isn’t being precise. As a professor of art history, I often note the importance of language and precise language in particular. You need to say exactly what you mean- or you aren’t being precise!

    Unfortunately, there is a difference between academic language and legal language. Legal language isn’t about precision, but about covering one’s butt, often with specifics. The language I see in the article cited and the passage in question is not academic, but legal. This makes it NOT precise, but instead a sort of “you haven’t proved this is so, but we don’t want to look like idiots should you do so in future.” Thus, they have covered their butts in specific terms, but in doing so, sacrificed precision.

  2. Joseph April 12, 2009 at 17:59 #

    On the flip-side, if you say “it has been shown vaccines do not cause autism,” the anti-vaxers will surely take the opportunity to point out that’s not accurate. That’s also another reason the precise language is needed.

    The null hypothesis cannot be rejected – that’s all you can really ever say accurately about any non-existent association.

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