The last posting on the potential effects of poor vaccine coverage has led me to think about public perceptions on science. Although generally the public feels that science in general has an overall positive effect on American society, a National Science Foundation survey from several years ago indicates that people do not have a very good idea of exactly what it is that science does, or who scientists really are. Indeed, many public science advocacy groups such as the NSF linked above, as well as private professional societies (such as the American Society for Microbiology which I belong to) have turned to having pretty significant public outreach and education efforts as part of their overall mission. Even with these efforts, there remains significant public distrust towards the motives of scientists and and the practice of science for specific issues. This distrust span a range of topics, including very broad ones such as the analysis of historical and geological climate change or the role of biological evolution in producing the diversity of life, to rather narrow ones such as the effectiveness of vaccination on public health or the benefits/dangers of genetically modified foods. I think that distrust of ANY of these topics reflects two failures; one on the part of scientists to not properly frame topics adequately in a more generally approachable manner, and one on the part of the public to be educated on the basic principles of the scientific method, and a failure to distinguish between the concepts of causation and correlation.
I am actually OK with this to some degree; misunderstanding of what I do as a scientist can be addressed through conversation and explanation. In the case of the anti-vaccination movement, I think that much of the perceived public resistance comes about from the failure to understand causation and correlation. This is prompted by real fears drawn from personal experience–we have all seen commenters in various public forums describing how a family member suddenly “changed” after receiving a shot. Although anecdotal evidence has its place, these observations generally only relate one single incident with one single outcome, and neglect the many other variables that may also have led to the outcome. The challenge then is to convince people that causation can only truly be determined in conjunction in blinded, controlled studies that allow the manipulation of only a single variable.
I also looked at the other extreme of science distrust–these would be the extreme outliers in the Pew Study linked above–and did some simple Google searching for conspiracies relating to vaccination. I won’t link back to any of the sites I scanned, however it quickly became apparent that rational discourse is likely not to be very effective. The main arguments seem to be two-fold: governmental agencies are constantly working to exceed their bounds essentially in a move to keep the population under control through vaccination, and the pharmaceutical industry seeks to maximize profit margins by selling vaccines. One site I found spent several pages detailing the lack of evidence supporting the premise that variola virus is the causative agent of smallpox, minimized the health risks of smallpox outbreaks, and ridiculed the eradication effort using attenuated vaccinia virus. This type of denialism towards vaccination fortunately doesn’t carry much weight in the general public, however I am frequently dismayed reading the Letters to the Editor in the newspaper by local correspondents who put forward the same types of motives in their arguments in opposition to climate change proposals.
My hope to all who come into BIO230 is that we think carefully about things we hear, and ask lots of questions when we come across something that we don’t understand. I find intuition is frequently helpful–I may not know the particulars about a given subject, but I can sometimes sense that something doesn’t seem right. Consider the evidence that is used to back up claims that you may see being made, and think of an experiment that might disprove those same claims. And I think the best experiment is one that immediately leads you to think of the next experiment–you are truly thinking then.