Feb 17 2015

Anderson Cooper Takes Down Dan Burton

I criticize bad, biased, and or just lazy science journalism frequently, and so it’s a pleasure to occasionally have the opportunity to praise good journalism. This recent interview of Dan Burton by Anderson Cooper could be a template for how to conduct an interview over a scientific issue.

Dan Burton is a former Republican Congressman who has a long history of being anti-vaccine. He likes to repeat anti-vaccine tropes, and does so with the clueless persistence of a seasoned politician with an agenda.

Anderson Cooper is one of the few American journalists who has demonstrated his ability to do a tough and probing interview – you know, actual journalism. He demonstrated his chops again here. Specifically:

He was clearly prepped for the interview. He did his research, understood the issues, and was able to challenge Burton on specific points. You can’t go into an interview like this cold, or with only a superficial understanding of the issue. You have to know what the other person is going to say and how to respond.

Proper research will set you up for the next critical aspect of a proper interview, challenging your subject when they make statements that are wrong or misleading. Cooper did this well, and pressed Burton when he tried to wiggle out of his blatant errors.

Cooper pressed Burton enough that he exposed Burton’s position for the house of cards that it is, and that’s the point. Until you get to the point where the interviewee’s position is exposed as the sham that it is, you haven’t done your job.

To give what is perhaps the most dramatic example from the interview, Burton claims that mercury in vaccines is linked to autism, citing his three years of research on a House committee as authority for this statement. Cooper pointed out that in 2001 mercury was removed from all vaccines, except for some flu vaccines.

Burton simply kept responding with his talking points: autism rates have risen from 1/10,000 to 1/80. (As an aside, Cooper could have challenged him on this point also, those numbers clearly being an artifact of diagnosis and definition.) Burton also kept saying that mercury is a proven toxin and should not be in any vaccines.

This is a great example of how politicians and those with an agenda deceive. You make ¬†statements that in isolation may be superficially correct, and weave them together to suggest a desired narrative. Cooper’s job was to deconstruct that narrative by exploring those fact further.

When you do we find that autism rates were increasing throughout the 1990s. In 2001 mercury containing thimerosal was removed from the routine childhood vaccine schedule, dramatically decreasing childhood exposure to mercury through vaccines. In the 14 years since this was done autism rates have continued to rise without any change. This is a powerful argument against an association between mercury in vaccines and autism. Burton, however, does not appear to be interested in the scientific truth, only his narrative.

Cooper pushed him on this point. Burton restated his talking points. Cooper pushed again. Burton appealed to anecdote, “say that to the parents of children who became autistic after being vaccinated.” Cooper pushed again. Burton claimed that mercury was still in three vaccines. Cooper corrected this misinformation, challenged Burton to name the vaccines (he couldn’t, beyond the subset of flu vaccines that Cooper already acknowledged). Burton appealed to scientific studies showing an association. Cooper corrected him, pointing out that the consensus of scientific evidence and opinion shows no association. He challenged Burton to cite his sources; he couldn’t.

That is how you interview a crank, pseudoscientist, or anti-science activist. You arm yourself with the facts, and keep challenging until you expose the crank’s deceptions and poor reasoning.

This is difficult, make no mistake. It is likely that the person you are interviewing has one issue about which they are passionate. They may have spent years promoting their agenda, and are likely full of misinformation, facts out of context, and subtly wrong talking points. They can easily Gish Gallop you into a corner, or play “gotcha” with claims you never heard before.

This is why debates are so problematic. But this was not a debate, it was an interview. Cooper controlled the discussion. He kept it focused on a few points and dug down to the bottom of each point. That is critical. It means you have to be disciplined. You may need to let some comments go by so as not to get distracted.

It is common in such a discussion for the person being challenged to raise an entirely new point when you finally have their back against the wall on one point. You may feel tempted to take the bait and challenge them on their new point, but this just lets them wiggle out of the previous one. I always find it best to pick one claim and push it as far as you can. Force them to defend their position or acknowledge their error.

In truth this rarely works that way, because they will almost always just make up new crap, make vague references to evidence, or try to get to an “agree to disagree” position. This is what Burton did – he did not acknowledge anything, but hid behind vague references to his own research.

But the interview still worked because Cooper pushed enough to force Burton to make ridiculous statements, such as his appeal to anecdote. Burton became flustered, and could not answer to some obvious contradictions in his position, for example the continued rise in autism following the removal of thimerosal from most vaccines.

Other journalists take note – this is how you interview an ideologue. It takes work and good journalism, but anything less is a disservice to the public.


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