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.


Five New Year’s Resolutions for Science Communication

The new year of 2014 has officially dawned, bringing with it an attitude of fresh starts and reexamined approaches. Science communication and journalism would be advised to take the opportunity for navel-gazing as well. In this era of personal genomics and NSA overreach, helping the public understand technical topics has never been more important. With this in mind, I propose five resolutions for myself and other science writers in the year to come.

Here’s hoping for a new year that’s out of this world! Courtesy of Edward Willett.

1. Alleviate the confusion surrounding “theory,” “law” and “hypothesis.” While I wouldn’t eliminate these terms from popular usage, as suggested by Wired’s Rhett Allain, each of the three has a slightly different meaning that should be respected in reporting.

2. Eliminate false equivalency. Journalists are often trained to represent “both sides” of an issue with equal weight, a practice that prevents bias in stories about politics or economics. But for scientific issues in which the overwhelming weight of evidence falls on one side, it is harmful to the public discourse to give equal credence to a fringe position. False equivalency has helped extend the “debate” on climate change and vaccine safety, among other vital topics.

3. Address the “natural” bias and chemophobia. The growing awareness of chemical pollution is a positive trend, but the resulting skepticism of chemicals can threaten the use of legitimately helpful compounds in medicine and other applications. The popularity of the ill-informed “paleo” diet also speaks to the desire for a “natural” ideal that simply doesn’t exist in a messy and human-influenced reality.

4. Disambiguate between different uses of “significant.” The word means something very specific in statistics, indicating that a result is unlikely to have arisen randomly. This result may or may not have actual importance to the topic being discussed, and researchers shouldn’t use the first meaning of the word to hint at the second.

5. Encourage outreach by scientists themselves. Although journalists can do a lot, the most powerful science communication often comes from those intimately involved with the research being reported. Twitter’s RealScientists account is a sterling example of how bench workers can engage the public that funds their work.

Book Review – Unscientific America

If you get most of your news from network television, it’s not entirely inconceivable that the most science-related coverage that crossed your screen in recent weeks was an account of Bill Nye the Science Guy’s short-lived run on “Dancing With the Stars.” And according to Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum, the authors of “Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future,” this kind of casual disregard for science in the media is a big problem.

In their book, Mooney and Kirshenbaum argue that prevailing American culture gives the public relatively little contact with the world of science, and when that contact does occur, it is too often “baffling, intimidating, and even downright unfriendly.” The authors claim that politicians, news and entertainment media, and religious leaders, as well as scientists themselves, all share some of the blame for this failure.

“Unscientific America,” courtesy of the authors.

The book’s first few chapters, which detail the changing prominence of science in America over the last 100 years, may be its most fascinating, especially to those readers (like me) born late in the century. The space race of the 50s and 60s placed science at the center of the culture, with corresponding financial and political support (including the first official presidential science advisor). Enthusiasm for science waned in the late 60s and 70s as the postwar political consensus began to fall apart, then reemerged with Carl Sagan and his famed miniseries “Cosmos.” The authors exhibit something of a political bias as they discuss the negative effects of the Reagan and two Bush presidencies, but their evidence generally supports the decline of public science through the book’s publication date in 2009.

Their discussion of science journalism is also particularly illuminating for the way in which it points out the lack of communication between the “two cultures” of scientists and reporters. Journalism, for example, often has little patience for the incremental progress of science and the corrections sometimes needed after new results are discovered, while science often bristles at the idea of journalistic balance on “settled” issues such as global warming. The authors point out a similar disconnect between science and Hollywood, where science consultants on feature films risk being seen as stodgy if they disrupt the narrative flow of a blockbuster by insisting on strict adherence to fact.

Mooney and Kirshenbaum propose that the best way to return science to cultural prominence is the training of well-rounded scientists, professionals able to cross the cultural divides that exist between academia and other fields. Although formal education is important, the authors argue that the majority of science learning takes place out of schools and that exposure to scientific concepts in other contexts does more to promote awareness about their relevance. They claim that as science progresses in its impacts, scientists must realize that communication is a central part of their job description. The thesis is sound, and “Unscientific America” offers a solid look at the issues surrounding science in the societal eye.

Q&A – Marisa Wikramanayake on @RealScientists

Among the far-reaching scientific consequences of the U.S. government shutdown has been the disabling of NASA’s Twitter feeds, including those of the agency’s astronauts and the Mars Curiosity rover. While social networking might be more popularly associated with desperate attention seekers and pictures of cats, many researchers and journalists have turned to Twitter and other services to spread the word about the amazing world of science.

One such group of researchers administers the feed @RealScientists, a rotational account that features a different scientist or science communicator each week. Conceived by Bernard Kealey and currently run by @theotherdrsmith, @ScienceSarah, and @upulie, the feed promotes the concept that Twitter offers one of the best ways of “communicating directly with the end-users of your research — the people who paid for it, one way or another.” The account’s constantly changing curators have exposed followers to fields as diverse as medical entomology, biogeography, and marine biology.

Marisa Wikramanayake (@mwikramanayake), a science journalist and editor from Fremantle, Australia, is the current curator of @RealScientists. She graciously agreed to be interviewed about the Twitter feed and the role social media plays in science communication.

Marisa Wikramanayake, current curator of @RealScientists

Sword of Science: What exactly does @realscientists do?
Marisa Wikramanayake: Real Scientists tries to educate and inform people about what it is actually like to be a scientist and carry out research in different areas of science. There are a lot of stereotypes, from lab coats to Einstein hair and mad scientist genius, and a lot of scientists are pretty cool people, but they are nowhere near those stereotypes. And there is a sense that people don’t really know what is involved in scientific research. The account aims to correct that, and of course allow the rest of the science community a peek behind their coworker’s lab door.

SoS: What are the most effective ways you’ve seen social media used to promote science?
MW: I do think Real Scientists is effective in what it does. I also think that there are quite a few good YouTube series as well; SciShow and CrashCourse are two of them. People run really cool science-related photo competitions online on Facebook, and Instagram and Flickr have open groups for people to add their science-related photos. I know some scientists who are fantastic at using Twitter, and there is one huge community (128,000+ strong) on Google Plus disseminating news about events and science in an easily digestible form within the community.

SoS: Do the various social media platforms differ in terms of science promotion?
MW: Well, yes and no. Each social media platform is built to do one or two things well, and it mostly has to do with 1) creating content and 2) sharing it. If you create content on one then you can share it on others or attempt to cross post it, so it depends. If you create a video on Youtube, the link can be posted anywhere.

You can use different kinds of promotion if you know what your goal in doing so is and you know where to find your target audience, but it would involve using channels differently. You would use YouTube, Instagram, and Vine as means of creating content that can then be shared around later. You would follow media on Twitter if you were interested in promoting research, sharing content, and answering questions. Networking would be best done on Twitter, Facebook groups, LinkedIn groups, and Google Plus. Deciding on your primary goal is key.

SoS: How will traditional science journalism and social media coexist moving forward?
MW: Traditional science journalism was text and a photo in a paper or online, and with social media you can get science journalism where one piece works across different platforms. You can have text online with video and photos, then add timelines from apps like Storify and Timeline JS and graphs and tables. You can have podcasts, and then you can share it all on platforms like Twitter. That’s how I see it working — a convergence of usual journalism practice with the ability to try all sorts of things with the social media platforms available. I also think it will lead us to do more feature pieces analyzing the science, discussing the history of a field or process, or talking about the larger issues around science.

SoS: What are the best social media accounts for readers with a general interest in science to follow?
MW: I mentioned quite a few of them before. SciShow is great if you want more than the basics that CrashCourse teaches you, in terms of YouTube series, and there are easily more if you search for them. The Science on G+ community is 128,000+ strong, and therefore very useful. @RealScientists on Twitter (of course) is a fantastic means of seeing what really does take place. There are Reddit communities and Facebook groups and Twitter hashtag chats — #agrichat is one of them and #scicomm another. There are groups that recommend science books on apps and platforms like Goodreads. It seems that everywhere you look, there is another place to learn something.