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A Missed Opportunity

When Experts Really Confront the Public
December 18, 2018 | Comments

        Experts on science communication have conducted some high-quality research studies on the most effective ways of communicating scientific findings to the general public. The data they have accumulated on this topic can be presented at scientific conferences, where scientists do as they always do and pick apart each other’s methods and interpretations.

        But what happens when someone who is not a scientist shows up at one of these conferences and expresses a point of view? How prepared are experts on science communication to actually communicate with the public?

        We recently witnessed an example of how this kind of interaction can go awry. On November 2, the New York Academy of Sciences (NYAS) hosted a seminar on Science Denial: Lessons and Solutions at its headquarters in lower Manhattan. The seminar featured experts from the worlds of academic science communication, science journalism, and medical ethics from prestigious universities around the world. The attendees included science journalists, drug company representatives, academics from a variety of fields, and healthcare providers. Overall, the day was filled with interesting insights into the causes of science denial.

        The very first panel was titled “The History of Science Denial and its Consequences for Global Health.” Some of the six panelists have particular expertise in vaccine denial and the panelists often used that as an example of science denial in general. In the question and answer session, a few academics asked fairly technical questions.

But then, a woman went to the microphone and said[1] “I think we have to be careful how we talk about vaccinations. There has not been a single study showing that giving 29 vaccines in a short period of time to children is safe. Not a single study. And the government had to create a special vaccination court, which has paid out $3 billion because of all the injuries from vaccines. You need to be more sensitive to parents struggling to protect their children.” Surprisingly, panel members agreed with the woman’s claim that there are no studies of vaccinations in the aggregate for young children and conceded that indeed there are injuries from vaccines. Maybe, one speculated, we should be thinking about whether all the vaccines are indeed really needed, maybe HPV isn’t in the same category as measles.   

Afterwards, during  the break, one of those panelists, who had described herself as someone “who has gone into vaccines in great depth” was asked “how did you feel when the anti-vaxxer person asked the question?”

“That’s the problem right there,” she replied, “you are automatically labeling her an anti-vaxxer. Most parents who are worried about vaccinating their children aren’t in that category, they are parents with questions.” A meeting attendee acknowledged that she was right about that, but then wondered aloud if someone would come to a meeting on science denial at the NY Academy of Sciences and make an obviously well-rehearsed statement without being an opponent of vaccines rather than a parent who had questions about vaccines. The panelist replied that the woman had a lot of courage to get up in front of an audience at a science denial conference and that in fact we haven’t tested giving so many vaccines over a period of several months as is now the recommended by CDC, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and multiple other scientific organizations. When asked if she is concerned that children are dying because of vaccine refusal, she replied “no one is dying in the United States.”

We find it unlikely—or at least hope it is unlikely—that academic experts on vaccinations really believe any of the points the woman at the microphone made.  The claim that we are giving infants too many vaccines too fast and that this overwhelms an immature immune system is patently wrong. Infants are exposed to millions of foreign proteins—technically called antigens—during birth and with every breath thereafter. The human immune system is more than capable of handling the challenge of all the vaccines currently recommended by the CDC during the first 12-months of life.

The comments about the government vaccine court, which others accuse of being kept a secret, are also misleading. Signed into law in 1988 by President Reagan as the National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act of 1986, the special masters court was created after a wave of lawsuits against vaccine manufacturers and healthcare providers in the 1980s spooked pharmaceutical companies and threatened to make vaccines more expensive and in short supply. The court’s creation was well-publicized, and the government is completely transparent about its activities. Most of the funds the court has paid out, which come from a fund generated by vaccine excise taxes, involve shoulder injuries from the injection. Serious allergic reactions to vaccines occur in 0.0006% of people. Overall, the risk of any adverse reaction to a vaccine is about one in one million. That $3 billion number sounds huge—and has predictably attracted may injury lawyers to solicit cases on-line and elsewhere—but taken in perspective it turns out that vaccine injuries are in fact very uncommon and almost always not life-threatening.

So why didn’t the panel experts explain those facts and counter the woman’s claims? It seemed that the panelists were taken by surprise. They probably did not expect someone opposed to vaccinations to be attending the conference, let alone prepared to make a statement (she did not, in fact, ask a question). And it made us wonder whether the panelists themselves have had much experience actually talking to the public. Perhaps they are more used to talking to other academics. Later, when one panelist was challenged about the response to this comment, she merely reinforced the misleading information about a lack of sufficient research.

Furthermore, while it is true that experts disagree on whether the death rate from measles is rising in the U.S., it is clear that that rate will inevitably increase if there is a substantial decrease in vaccination rates.

When confronted by someone with viewpoints that differ from scientific consensus, it is imperative that scientists not simply recite facts or insist that the viewpoint is wrong. We know that facts alone are rarely persuasive, especially when a parent makes a dramatic statement about “struggling to protect my children.” At the same time, however, it is also crucial that scientists not enable anti-science viewpoints by seeming to agree with them. Anti-science people will always use the mantra that “more studies are needed,” something with which no scientist ever disagrees. But agreeing that there are insufficient studies to prove that the currently recommended vaccine schedule is safe is neither true nor helpful. Similarly, merely agreeing that “there will be vaccine injuries” without noting they are incredibly rare and far less than, for example, the mortality rate to tetanus in unvaccinated people is misleading. Attempting to respect another viewpoint must never entail agreeing with scientific myths.

The balance between respect of people’s ideas and emotions regarding health and science and conveying scientific facts is a difficult one. The panelists at the NYAS conference unfortunately missed an opportunity to demonstrate their expertise by showing the audience how it can be done. Those of us who believe that immunizations are one of the most dramatically successful and life-saving developments in the history of medical science need to be better prepared to present our case and convince the doubters.


[1] Note that we are paraphrasing her comments, as well as comments of others, but they are an accurate representation of what was said.


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