Letters to the editor are like open comments sections on a website, with the important distinction that someone at the newspaper always makes the decision on which letters to publish.
So when Chip DeNure wrote a letter to the editor of the La Crosse Tribune (in Wisconsin) arguing that there was a link between vaccines and autism — which there isn’t — should the newspaper have published it? The writer is obviously ignorant, but that alone has never been a reason not to publish a letter.
Richard Kyte, a member of the newspaper’s editorial board, agrees the writer was wrong in his assertion but he’s grappling with the question of whether the paper was wrong to publish his letter. Ultimately, he defends it appearing in print.
Imagine, for example, an editor receiving a letter from someone who has just read an online article claiming new evidence that the Earth is flat. The letter writer wants to share this fascinating new discovery with the world. No respectable newspaper would publish such a letter in its opinion pages.
“But,” someone might say, “isn’t the claim of a connection between autism and vaccinations just like the claim that the Earth is flat?” Well, yes, in one important respect it is. There is absolutely no credible scientific evidence for either claim. But in another respect the two claims are quite different. No reasonable people believe that the Earth is flat, but quite a few reasonable people think autism may be caused by vaccinations.
That is an important difference, which attests to the fact that reasonable people may (and often do) believe unreasonable things. It also provides the chief reason why newspapers ought to publish letters containing widely believed falsehoods, because the only way reasonable people learn to give up their unreasonable beliefs is by coming to see the mistake in their reasoning.
For that reason, I agree with the newspaper. This was the opinion of someone in the community who followed all the rules of writing letters to the editor. He’s not malicious; he’s just wrong. By the same logic, people write similarly misinformed letters defending certain tax proposals or political candidates. We just roll our eyes and write them off as kooks. If the newspaper limited itself to letters written by sensible people making logical arguments, they wouldn’t have anything to print in that section.
But now that the anti-vaccine letter is in print, there’s even more reason to make sure a rebuttal (if written) also gets published. And if no one writes one, I would hope someone on the editorial staff steps in and debunks the lie anyway.
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