A Shot in the Dark – The Perils of Sharing Vaccine Science

One of Wikipedia’s most interesting articles is simply titled “List of common misconceptions.” The contents range from the invention of baseball (Alexander Cartwright, not Abner Doubleday, first codified the rules) to elephant graveyards (which do not actually exist), covering the kind of “folk knowledge” that might be erroneously relayed in a grade-school classroom. Most of these myths are harmless misunderstandings, but the fact that the article exists at all points to the frustrating difficulty of correcting false information on a societal scale.

Some misconceptions, however, have effects beyond making people sound foolish at cocktail parties. The belief that vaccinations cause autism, thoroughly debunked by the best available science, has led to a decrease in rates of vaccination against preventable diseases in many areas across the United States. This reduction in immunity among the population in turn leads to outbreaks of diseases long thought controlled, such as whooping cough, which killed 10 Californian children in a 2010 outbreak linked to clusters of unvaccinated individuals. Public health officials strive to combat the misconceptions spread by “anti-vaxxers” such as Jenny McCarthy, but too often their efforts are unsuccessful. A new study published in the journal “Pediatrics” now suggests that these messages may be worse than useless: exposing parents to scientifically based vaccine information can reduce their intent to vaccinate their children.

Surprisingly, this political cartoon may actually be understating the danger of antivaccination beliefs. Courtesy of ixdaily.

Brendan Nyhan, a political scientist at Dartmouth College, and his colleagues wanted to examine the effectiveness of different strategies for promoting vaccines. The researchers interviewed over 1,700 American parents via the Internet to determine their initial attitudes towards vaccines, then exposed them to one of four pro-vaccine messages. The “autism correction” message presented the scientific consensus on the safety of vaccination, relying heavily on statistics and links to journal articles. The “disease risks” message instead focused on the possible dangers of vaccine-preventable illnesses, such as brain damage, deafness, and death. The last two messages, “disease narrative” and “disease images,” employed more personal information, respectively presenting a mother’s harrowing story about her unvaccinated infant and photographs of children riddled with the worst symptoms of measles, mumps, and rubella. Finally, the parents were interviewed again to determine any changes in their beliefs.

Depressingly, none of the messages achieved their intended purpose of increasing vaccination intent. Presenting the “disease risks” message had no effect, while the “disease narrative” and “disease images” methods increased the belief in serious side effects. The “autism correction” approach was partially successful, as parents exposed to this message were less likely to believe in the vaccine-autism link than before reading the information. However, this same group of parents also became less likely to actually vaccinate. Although this effect was due almost entirely to changes in attitudes among parents who had previously reported a distrust of vaccines, the researchers were surprised that factual information could cause a “backlash” response.

In a recent interview with The Communications Network, Nyhan offered a possible explanation for these undesirable results. “It’s uncomfortable for [parents] to be told that this attitude or belief they have is wrong or perhaps based on incorrect evidence, and so they’re going to try to butcher that belief by saying, ‘Oh, why do I not like vaccines? Well, maybe it’s not the autism thing, but I have some other concern.’ In the process of bringing those ideas to mind, they may end up coming to believe more strongly in these concerns or objections they have to vaccines than they otherwise would have.”

Nyhan’s other work has revealed possibilities for countering the backlash effect. As reported by Shankar Vedantam, social science correspondent for National Public Radio, presenting factual information that counters a person’s deeply held beliefs may damage that person’s self-esteem. Boosting the self-esteem of parents before offering vaccine information “might help them take in the new information because they don’t feel as threatened as they might have been otherwise.” While this strategy hasn’t been tested for scientific information, it represents a promising new alternative to previous (and counterproductive) messages. The research suggests that public health officials must take a different approach if they hope to protect children from well-intentioned misconceptions.


Book Review – Polystate: A Thought Experiment in Distributed Government

American elections in 2007 and 2008 were plagued by issues with the voting machines manufactured by Premier Election Solutions, formerly a subsidiary of the U.S. ATM manufacturer Diebold. Because of concerns ranging from hacker access to dropped votes, citizens were uncertain if their preferences for representatives had been properly recorded. Imagine, then, the panic that would have ensued if the voting had been not just for congressmen and city officials, but for entire methods of political rule.

Polystate: A Thought Experiment in Distributed Government. Courtesy of Amazon.

This type of world, in which each citizen would be free to choose his or her own governmental system, is the subject of a new book by Zach Weinersmith titled “Polystate: A Thought Experiment in Distributed Government.” Weinersmith, best known as the creative behind the popular webcomic Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal, is fascinated by the continual explosion of choice and customizability in human life as facilitated by technology. As 3-D printing enables custom-printed houses and online dating services let people easily sort through thousands of potential mates,  he wonders how government will respond to the tendency toward personalized life experience.

“Polystate” represents Weinersmith’s attempt to work out one possible solution to this question. His hypothetical society consists of a collection of “anthrostates,” governments that proscribe laws and support institutions but have no geographical boundaries. Each citizen of a polystate would choose allegiance to an anthrostate, agreeing to be bound by its regulations and gaining the advantages of its services. Citizens of multiple anthrostates would coexist in the same region, with next-door neighbors possibly choosing to live under completely different systems. One family, for example, might pledge its loyalty to a collectivist society where taxes are distributed equally, while another on the same block might join a theocracy where tithes go to the building of churches and the attendance of religious services is mandatory.

Importantly, citizens would be able to change anthrostate on a regular basis, allowing them to experiment with different types of governance. He contrasts this situation to that of the current geopolitical climate, where people are born into “geostates” (traditional nations such as Mexico and Canada) and can only change their government with great difficulty, if at all. This sort of “permanent revolution,” the author contends, would swiftly remove support from unjust rulers and help eliminate corrupt systems. As he writes regarding the growth of North Korea, “It is hard to imagine that he [Kim Jong-un] would have this larger population if any of his citizens could have freely switched to any other government.”

Weinersmith argues that advances in technology would remove many of the obstacles associated with this sort of society. Digital currency and computerized money markets, for example, could alleviate the headaches caused by the unique financial systems of coexisting anthrostates, while improved artificial intelligence could help arbitrators navigate conflicting legal codes in now-common “international incidents.” Numerous benefits, such as the difficulty of waging war between nations with distributed populations, would also arise organically from the system. Yet the author does not shy from offering a realistic view of the problems facing a polystate, from international trade to the possibilities of tax evasion and cheating.

Although the author’s discussions of inter-anthrostate relations and personal choice in a polystate society are thoroughly fleshed out, the book leaves a number of vital issues unresolved. Weinersmith separates most of these “potentially insoluble objections to a polystate” into the short third section of the book, but they are (perhaps inevitably) some of the most interesting points raised. How might a polystate deal with contested ownership of sacred locations? How could anthrostates maintain continuing projects such as social security with continually fluctuating populations and demographics? And, most importantly, how would this society become established in the first place? A short story from the perspective of a polystate citizen (an idea briefly considered in a footnote) could have done much to bring the theorizing of the book to life, as well as grounded the work in the larger tradition of books such as B. F. Skinner’s “Walden Two” and Thomas More’s “Utopia.”

Still, “Polystate” provides a thought-provoking hypothesis of how the future of government may develop. As Weinersmith writes in the introduction, his work of “poli sci fi” is meant to encourage reflection on future possibilities, giving readers the chance to consider the implications of current trends. His “educated speculation” is well worth the time and is sure to spark discussion amongst thoughtful readers.

Saying No to Saying No – The Trouble with D.A.R.E

Although I’ve been out of elementary school for over a decade, I occasionally still find myself humming a certain tune drilled into my head around fourth grade. A uniformed policeman would come into my homeroom, pull out a CD and a boombox, and a cheesy synthesizer beat would introduce the determined lyrics: “D! I won’t do drugs! A! Won’t have an attitude!” and so on through the acronym D.A.R.E., standing for Drug Abuse Resistance Education.

One of the seals associated with D.A.R.E. (and my grade school education). Courtesy of the New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

The program presented basic information about illicit substances and their life-destroying impacts, emphasizing that the proper response to these deadly drugs was to “just say no.” But if studies of D.A.R.E.’s effectiveness are to be believed, its theme song may have been a much more memorable takeaway than its message. A typical meta-analysis (a study on the results of other studies) published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health concluded that the program had nearly insignificant effects on both reducing drug use and promoting prosocial behaviors such as family bonding and respect towards authority figures.

Further research has suggested that D.A.R.E. may even work against its own goal of reducing drug use. One of the earliest studies analyzing the program, published in 1992, found that D.A.R.E. graduates actually had higher rates of hallucinogenic drug use than students who hadn’t gone through the training. Slight increases in tobacco and alcohol use have also been observed in groups of teens as an effect of D.A.R.E., possibly because the program’s emphasis on resisting “hard” drugs such as cocaine and heroin makes these more socially acceptable substances seem like comparatively lesser threats. In response, the Association for Psychological Science published an article including D.A.R.E. on a list of psychological treatments that “probably produce harm in some individuals.”

D.A.R.E.’s central message is simple enough to deliver, so why has the program proven so ineffective? Psychologists believe that its focus on top-down education, rather than interaction or peer-to-peer collaboration, is largely to blame. As drug experimentation is often shared within age groups, the practice students get in “saying no” to the middle-aged police officer running the program has little bearing on the social skills they would need to deny drugs from a similarly aged friend. The program’s duration, usually lasting over several months on a weekly basis, has also been criticized as too short to accomplish any lasting good.

The program responded to some of these issues in 2009 with the adoption of “Keepin’ it REAL,” a new set of educational techniques that emphasizes “life skills such as decision-making, communication and drug-resistant strategies.” This more nuanced approach has already shown improvements in effectiveness, especially for reducing alcohol and marijuana use. By paying greater attention to the psychology of drug education, D.A.R.E. may finally achieve more than publishing a catchy melody.

Round the Square – Social Design of Cities

Humans have been living in cities for roughly ten millennia, but it can often seem that civilization hasn’t gotten much better at building them in a way that generates happiness. Whether citizens are packed uncomfortably together in the favelas of Brazil or alienated from each other in the sprawl of the New Jersey suburbs, bad urban planning can make a community nearly unlivable. Yet the way a well-designed city space generates vibrant culture, peaceful relxation, or unexpected encounters can make it the pride of the community. By taking a careful look at the qualities of successful urban spaces, American “urbanologist” William Whyte aimed to inform the efforts of future city planners.

Favelas of Brazil, courtesy of Eflon

In 1970, Whyte was hired by the New York Planning Commission as a consultant for the city’s new construction projects. Discouraged by the lack of information on the use of existing public spaces, Whyte assembled a team of sociology students from Hunter College, located in the heart of Manhattan, and dubbed his group The Street Life Project. The researchers spent countless hours on the streets of the city, quantifying the aspects of pedestrian behavior and interaction. In one instance, Whyte and his students observed the locations of lengthy conversations amidst the bustle outside Saks Fifth Avenue; to their surprise, the majority of meetings took place where traffic was busiest, at either the street corner or the entrance of the store.

Whyte’s observations, courtesy of Dysonology

Moving into the parks and plazas of New York, Whyte’s team noted the design characteristics that stimulated the most human interaction. Too much seating, for example, stifled the flow of people; “one linear foot of sitting space for every thirty square feet of plaza” was most effective. Distinct areas of sun and shade attracted people more than a consistently illuminated area. In perhaps his most interesting finding, Whyte determined that the traditional measures used to combat the presence of “undesirables” were ineffective. Adding more police and security cameras or spiking ledges to prevent loitering merely discouraged legitimate use of the space. As he reports in his book, “City: Rediscovering the Center,” increasing the space’s attractiveness through features such as public restrooms increases the standards of behavior.

Whyte eventually released a report of his findings, “The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces,” and a short film with the same title, which can be viewed in its entirety online. Today, the Project for Public Spaces champions the ideals of The Street Life Project, working to make cities across the globe more livable through the concept of “placemaking,” the collaborative design of spaces to meet the local goals of citizens. These efforts are encouraged by Whyte’s own words: “It is difficult to design a space that will not attract people. What is remarkable is how often this has been accomplished.”