‘… science journalism is much more about journalism than it is about science’
Gregory, J. and Miller, S. 1998. Science in Public. Basic books. Chapter 5.
An Introduction to the Anti-vaccination Movement and its Implications
Opposition to vaccinations has existed since its conception. However, the contemporary example of the anti-vaccination movement was spearheaded by the apparent connection of the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine and autism spectrum disorders. This link was published by Andrew Wakefield, a former doctor and researcher, in a reputable medical journal: The Lancet. Accompanying the scientific flaws of the paper, Wakefield was receiving funding from litigants against vaccine manufacturers; an undeclared conflict of interest. After the paper was discredited because the results failed to be replicated, the paper was retracted from The Lancet.
The development of vaccines has played a vital role in human survival throughout history, despite this; the anti-vaccine movement prevails. Vaccines have decreased, and even eliminated, childhood diseases, the elimination of smallpox being one such triumph. If it was contracted, smallpox had a death rate of around 30% but in 1980 it was declared globally eradicated by the World Health Organization (WHO); largely due to the widely available vaccine and the WHO’s wide-reaching efforts.
This contrasts heavily to Wakefield’s MMR scandal. When the paper was published, its data was endorsed by celebrities claiming to be ‘autism experts’. Those such as Jenna McCarthy and Oprah Winfrey used the power of social media and their own talk show to promote the anti-vaccination to parents. The effect rippled globally. In Italy, the 2002-2003 measles outbreak cost the country 17.6 – 22 million euros, a direct relationship with the declining popularity of the MMR vaccine. The decrease in herd immunity (the decreasing probability of contracting the disease without being vaccinated by being surrounded by immunised people), cost and rising death count are only some consequences of the anti-vaccination movement. However, “Objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinions than appeals to emotion and public belief.” (The Oxford English Dictionary). This is the reason why, in response to Wakefield’s imprudent claim, many are left unvaccinated and exposed to MMR.
The Communication Problems Between the Scientific Community and the Public
The MMR scandal is an example which reveals the lack of connection between the scientific community and the general public. A void which has left the public exposed to manipulation by fake news, misrepresentation of statistics and sensationalism. The anti-vaccination movement harnessed this and used the unstoppable power of the internet and social media to present vaccine victims and plant seeds of doubt in the minds of impressionable parents about the long-term effects of the vaccine. Concerning the worrying decision whether to vaccinate your children, the seed of doubt is inevitable to grow. Yet, in an era where the dominant power of the internet cannot be controlled, who is to be held accountable for presenting incorrect information?
If The Lancet hadn’t printed Andrew Wakefield’s claim of a link between the MMR Vaccine and autism, would there have been 913 laboratory confirmed measles cases in England between 1st January 2018 and 31st October 2018 (in comparison to 259 measles cases in 2017)? The purpose of the media is not to present sound science. The media promotes a culture of sensationalism with no regard to the long-term impacts, pursuing the need to formulate interesting stories. The media can monopolize its power, omitting the methodological details of the research when presenting arguments for anti-vaccination, therefore preventing the readers from making an informed, educated judgement. For example, in a review of Andrew Wakefield’s study, Brian Deer unearthed that only 12 patients were studied before presenting a correlation between the MMR vaccine and autism. Upon following up the patients, Deer unearthed that all 12 cases had been misreported and altered to support Wakefield’s conclusion. However, were the shortcomings of the study published alongside the influential claims? No. Journalists favor anomalies and novelties, to present ‘boring’ news undermined the purpose of getting the most readers.
Scientists’ inability to convey their process understandably and accessibly and the media’s resultant exploitation of this has severe consequences. In such a socio-important event such as the US Election, social media bots and Russian trolls circulated tweets in support of the anti-vaccination movement. To create such misalignment in vaccination policy would initiate biological warfare. Please see: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-45294192 for the full article. This highlights the imperative necessity to bridge the gap between the esoteric scientific community and the exoteric public, with clearly expressed policy on vaccinations needed to avoid the global spread of fatal infectious diseases.
How Can Science be Better Communicated?
- Choice of Platform for Communicating Science to the Public
One key issue with effectively conveying scientific information to the general public is the medium used to present the information and its accessibility. Reports are the most common platform used by scientists, however they are too scientifically dense to be accurately translated from the esoteric scientific community to the exoteric public. This gives journalists creative license to omit critical details of the scientific process; necessary details the general public need to make informed decisions and respond unbiasedly. To solve this issue, relevant science should be adapted for social media platforms (Facebook, Twitter…) as they are frequently utilised by the public. By doing this, information is promulgated more accurately because it bypasses the chance to be “manipulated” by the media, as the case was with the HPV and MMR vaccines.
- Lucid and Succinct Communication
When presenting their findings, scientists must also adapt their technical terminology to accurately convey their message to a broader audience. Technical jargon does not only disinterest the typical reader but also hinders their understanding on the subject matter. In addition, the surplus of background data must only be included if relevant to the general public. In acknowledgement of this, The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) recommends the “Three M’s of Messaging” strategy (Forbes, 2016). This strategy is explained in figure 1.
Figure 1: Styles of communication. The American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Frequently, the general public does’t heed to scientific advice because the article lacks an unbiased discussion of the benefits and potential shortcomings of the topic at hand. It is critical for the public to be armed with the necessary information to form their own opinion and chose their own course of action. In the media, it is currently possible to manipulate the translation of the scientific report in response to the journalists opinion or the unseen influencers of the article. A sense of accountability for what is published must be introduced, reducing the opportunity to present incorrect information to an impressionable audience. Exploitation of vaccination victims and pathos must be avoided or presented in relation with the success of vaccination development.
View the following links for further information:
How do we defend science against pseudo-science?
To defend science against pseudo-science, society needs to encourage the media, research organisations, companies and other bodies that spread what they claim to be ‘scientific’ knowledge, to have as much transparency, openness and communication with the public as possible.
We can do this in two ways. Firstly, by introducing legislation that regulates the spreading of incorrect,misleading science. Secondly, we can all exert pressure on the media by collectively developing a critical outlook, by thinking about the evidence (or lack thereof), behind the claims and theories that are being presented to us and by engaging in broad public discussion. What is required is a certain default level of cynicism with respect to new facts and a willingness to ask the question: why should I believe this to be true? When we are fed new information, let’s look at the sources; who is saying this? What kind of evidence is being presented? When did they say this, and have there been developments since? Why might they be saying this? What are other people saying about this? If I increase the depth of research, using trusted sources, does this correspond to the original claim? If we have learnt one thing from the anti-vaccination scandal, it is the crucial importance of questioning. Hasn’t the uncritical acceptance of misleading information done more than enough damage already? It is unfortunately but undeniably the case, that the media has forced us to live in mistrust and suspicion of it. Sad though it is, we must be vigilant and thoroughly careful, or else the consequences can be literally fatal. Be sceptical; don’t take anything at face-value.
Here are our top tips on how to protect yourself against unreliable information online:
- Always be critical, sceptical and weary; always think twice
– many experts will claim to be experts when they’re not – it’s easy to get misled by fancy titles (see ‘Dr’ Gilian McKeith)
- Be selective about the websites you get information from; .org, .gov and .edu pages can often be more reputable
- Search for generally trusted organisations
– e.g. the NHS for medical information or various government agencies
- subscribe to science journals and websites to keep up to date with current scientific affairs
– e.g. Science (http://www.sciencemag.org), Nature(https://www.nature.com),New Scientists(https://www.newscientist.com), Scientific American (https://www.scientificamerican.com),BBC Focus (https://www.sciencefocus.com),wired (https://www.wired.com),nationalgeographic (https://www.nationalgeographic.com)etc.
- As a general rule, the more life-changing the information, the more time and effort you should spend scrutinising it and its source.
– If you’re going to not immunise your child and the child contracts rubella and dies as a consequence of your decision, do make sure you have looked into the reliability of the information on which you are basing this life-changing (and in this case life-threatening) decision.
Some further reading:
Finding good information on the internet – https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/guest-blog/finding-good-information-on-the-internet/
How to Find Trustworthy Science and Health Information – https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/how-to-find-trustworthy-science-and-health-information-44866760/#Cqay8m5Hbw2Zg1jb.99
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