How can Science be Better Communicated?


‘… 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.

Introduction to the anti-vaccination movement and its implications

From Lora Little rejecting vaccinations for ‘healthy diets and active lifestyles’ (Youngdahl, 2017) to the apparent connection of the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine and autism; the anti-vaccination movement has evolved throughout time. The link between the MMR vaccine and autism was published by Andrew Wakefield, a former doctor and researcher, in The Lancet. This ignited the contemporary anti-vaccination movement and is still believed by many despite the multitude of scientific flaws littering the paper. In 2010, The Lancet retracted the paper after it was revealed that Wakefield carefully chose the children he studied and was receiving funding from lawyers who were trying to sue vaccine manufacturers; a clear conflict of interests (Eggertson, 2010).

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 eliminated multiple 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); majorly due to the widely available vaccine.

Figure One: A Comparison Between the Deaths due to Various Diseases in the Pre-Vaccination Era and The Present Day in the U.S.  (Sandlin, 2015)
Figure Two: Proof that the Anti-Vaccination Movement is Not a New Phenomenon – A 1940s Propaganda Cartoon Criticizing the Anti-Vaccination Movement (Brooks, 2017)

This contrasts heavily to Wakefield’s MMR scandal. When the paper was published, its data was endorsed by celebrities claiming to be ‘autism experts’. Jenna McCarthy and Oprah Winfrey used their influential social media and their talk shows to promote anti-vaccination to parents. The effect rippled globally. In Italy, the 2002-2003 measles outbreak cost the country 17.6 – 22 million euros, the cost rising as the popularity of the MMR vaccine declined (Alazraki, 2011). The decrease in firstly herd immunity, protection from disease resulting from being in a population with a sufficiently high proportion of vaccinated individuals, secondly cost and finally rising death count are only some consequences of the anti-vaccination movement (WHO, 2011). 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

Figure Three: Anti-Vaccination Activists Hold Protests not just via Social Media but Outside Schools Too (Fox, 2017)

The MMR scandal is an example of 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?     

Today, we are seeing the knock-on effect of Wakefield’s paper with 913 laboratory confirmed measles cases in England between 1st January 2018 and 31st October 2018 (in comparison to 259 measles cases in 2017)  (Public Health England, 2018). 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, excluding the scientific method of the research when presenting arguments for anti-vaccination, therefore preventing the readers from making an informed, educated judgement. Brian Deer, a renowned investigative reporter into the drug industry, unearthed the systematic alteration of statistics and lies told by Wakefield in order to manipulate the conclusions of the study. Read the full extent of Wakefield’s exploitation here. 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. Find the story here.To create such misalignment in vaccination policy would initiate biological warfare. This highlights the critical need to bridge the gap between the scientific community and the general public, with clearly expressed policy on vaccinations needed to avoid the global spread of fatal infectious diseases.

How Can Science be Better Communicated?

There are many strategies that can be adapted and employed to better communicate science. Here are three of them: 

  1.     Choice of Platform for Communicating Science to the Public 
Figure Four: Use of all Platforms Is Necessary to Fully Covey Science to the Public. Found at: https://www.dreamstime.com/stock-photo-social-network-social-media-people-meeting-communication-concept-image48580517

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 scientific community to the general 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 used 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 MMR vaccine. For more information on engaging the public with science, please watch this video.

Picture1
Figure Five: The Chain of Communication between the Scientific Community and the General Public. The American Association for the Advancement of Science.

2.    Succinct Communication

As shown in the diagram above, using heavy background information and a large amount of supporting data typically precedes scientific conclusions/results. However, when it comes to the public’s interpretation of scientific communication, this approach is flipped on its head. The public is primarily interested in the “bottom-line” of the message, which is quickly followed by the “so what?” and subsequently the appropriate details to support the bottom-line. It is therefore crucial for scientists to adapt their findings to fit this model, without omitting relevant information and data. To assist with this, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) suggests the use of a three-point structure when communicating scientific information to the public. Within this structure it is advised that scientists keep their message Memorable, Meaningful and Miniature. These are the so-called “Three M’s of Messaging.”

Additionally, 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.

3.   Relatability

Science, when communicated, can be viewed as very abstract. Very frequently, people do not heed to scientific advice as they are: (a) unable to fathom the consequences of not doing so, or (b) dubious of the consequences that would result, as noted by scientists due to the unbiased discussion of the benefits and potential shortcomings of the topic at hand. This is more lucidly seen in the case of climate change denial. For better communication of science, it is therefore very important that scientist know their audience, and tailor their message to them. One strategy that can be employed in doing so is the use of pathos (emotional appeal), in relation with the success of research. Some may rightly argue that this reduces scientific integrity of the information being transmitted. But I would beg to differ, firstly noting that the information will still be accessible in its typical scientific form in academic journals, this means simply aids the public in conceptualizing what the scientists are trying to say as they are now able to relate. Another way this can be achieved is through the use of stories/anecdotes/analogies.  In the quintessential case of vaccination, accentuating upon the adverse side-effects of not vaccinating (such as death of child), might encourage more to have it done!

Has this section sparked an interest? View this video if you want to learn more-

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 consider:

  1. What are the sources; who is saying this?
  2. What kind of evidence is being presented?
  3. When was the claim made and have there been developments since?
  4. Why might they be saying this?
  5. What are other people saying about this?
  6. If I did some research (using trusted sources), would this support the claim being made?

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:

1.    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

2.    Be selective about the websites you get information from; .org, .gov and .edu pages can often be more reputable

3.    Search for generally trusted organisations

·     e.g. the NHS for medical information or various government agencies

4.   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.

5.    As a general rule, the more life-changing the information, the more time and effort you should spend scrutinising it and its source.

·     e.g. 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

Bibliography

  1. Alazraki, M. (2011, January 15). The Autism Vaccine Fraud. Retrieved from AOL Money and Finance: Daily Finance: https://web.archive.org/web/20110115040538/http://www.dailyfinance.com/story/autism-vaccine-fraud-wakefield-cost-money-deaths/19793484/
  2. Brooks, K. (2017, December 6). Here’s What A Depression-Era Cartoonist Had to Say About the Anti-Vaccination Movement . Retrieved from Huffington Post : http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/entry/anti-vaccination-cartoon-1900_n_6608366
  3. Centre for Disease Control and Prevention. (2016, August 30). History of Smallpox . Retrieved from Centre for Disease Control and Prevention: https://www.cdc.gov/smallpox/history/history.html
  4. Eggertson, L. (2010). Lancet Retracts 12-year-old Article Linking Autism to MMR Vaccines. CMAJ, 182.
  5. Fox, M. (2017, October 11). Anti-Vax Message Gets Meaner on Social Media . Retrieved from NBC News : https://www.nbcnews.com/health/health-news/anti-vax-message-gets-meaner-social-media-n809166
  6. Goldacre, B. (2008). Bad science (pp. 277-278). London: Collins.
  7. Public Health England . (2018, May 11). Measles Outbreak Across England . Retrieved from GOV.UK: https://www.gov.uk/government/news/measles-outbreaks-across-england
  8. Sandlin, M. (2015).Leaving the Anti-Vaccination Movment . Retrieved from Voices for Vaccinations: https://www.voicesforvaccines.org/leaving-the-anti-vaccine-movement/
  9. Shepherd, M. (2016, November 22). 9 Tips For Communicating Science To People Who Are Not Scientists. Forbes. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/marshallshepherd/2016/11/22/9-tips-for-communicating-science-to-people-who-are-not-scientists/#3fd14c3466ae
  10. World Health Organization. (2011). Bugs, Drugs & Smoke.Geneva: World Health Organization.
  11. Youngdahl, K. (2017, February 10). Lora Little: The Vaccine Liberator . Retrieved from The History of Vaccines : https://www.historyofvaccines.org/content/blog/lora-little-vaccine-liberator

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