Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Babies, Injections, Science, & Public Relations

How can you not find this face heart-breaking?
On Monday of this week my 6-month-old daughter had a regular check-up with the pediatrician.  Our doctor listened to her heart and lungs, asked us about her sleeping habits, told us she was old enough to wear sunscreen, and ordered 4 vaccines for our little girl - three shots and one taken orally.  Giving shots to a baby is no fun - our nurse said she feels terrible every time - but my wife and I would much rather that our daughter experience shots than measles or polio.

Those 4 vaccinations bring the total number our baby has received to 13 in six months.  She will get another 3 or 4 in the next 3 months.  That's a lot of shots, all of which are unpleasant experiences for babies, parents, and nurses.  After having experienced holding my precious daughter down while the nurse gives her shots, I understand a little better why some parents and health-care professionals would look to connect those shots with something like autism.  The causes of autism are a scientific mystery and there is no scientific treatment for the disorder.  But what is very real to parents is that children often start to display symptoms of autism about the same time that the memories of all of those injections are fresh in the minds of parents.

Of course there is no medical evidence for any connection between vaccines and autism.  The National Academy of Sciences just became the latest scientific body to certify that vaccines are safe.  But try telling that to the Cunningham family of Coal City, West Virginia.

So why do I bring up vaccines and autism on a physics blog?  Because here as in many other fields of science, the problem is with what feels true to the public, not the science. The data may clearly show that vaccines save lives and have absolutely no link to autism, but as a parent I have this gut reaction that says that anything that hurts my baby must be evil. The James Webb Space Telescope may be a scientific masterpiece that gets canceled because it feels like "government waste".  The only scientific debate about anthropogenic climate change is how much of a change will we make and how fast, but Rick Perry, who may be the next president of the United States, is arguing that it doesn't exist.  These are all examples, in my opinion, of areas where the real problems aren't with the science, but the public relations.

So how do we as scientists fix this?  I'm afraid I don't have many answers.  I think the scientific community needs to work harder to engage the public, but also needs to be better at engaging the public.  I am open to suggestions on how to do that.


  1. Nick,

     You actually bring up a great point.  Most scientists I know try to seem to want to change the public by "reminding" them how dumb they must be to hold such views and how "dangerous" they they are to society.  This is an insane approach, shows a total lack of judgement and self control, and is only made worse by the fact that when you approach them about it they say something to the effect "I'm just telling you like it is and not sugar coating it like everyone else".

    That's just a convenient cop out excuse for being a jerk and not having the capacity be helpful.  

    But what you said was true.  Real people do have real fears just like real scientifically minded people have real fears.  Scientists need to be empathetic to that and have public relations with such empathy factored in.   People don't change because your main argument is they are stupid and dangerous to society.  Great public relations propped up with empathy would go a long way.

  2. *Edit*: Let me replace most scientists I know to "most scientists I know that are publicly vocal about these issues". 

  3. I agree that many scientists only make things worse when they try to discuss these sorts of issues with the public because they come off as condescending.  For example, I have found the best way to talk about climate change with people is not to lecture them on how stupid they are but instead to ask them to reason out their position and then help them understand the physical processes that lead to climate change.  It doesn't always work, but at least it doesn't create a hostile interaction.

  4. This makes me thing of one thing a professor (Philosophy) told a class I was in at BYU. He said that everyone (or almost everyone) thinks that they are behaving in a rational manner. He mentioned how when he has a minor disagreement with his wife she might say something like, "You always think you are right!" to which he would respond, "Well, of course I think I am right! If I didn't think I was right then I wouldn't think it."

    His point was that what ever beliefs or world view that someone has, to them it is rational and logical. So when some one comes along and says, "You are a stupid, irrational person who can't understand reality even when it hits you in the face." Then they will not be inclined to listen to anything that person has to say, no matter how "correct" it is. They are in effect behaving very rationally by not listening and then they are accused of being irrational for not listening. Hence the beginning of the dispute.

    It is perhaps ironic that many of the people who accuse others of behaving irrationally are themselves irrational. They are in effect saying, "I think you are irrational because you don't know what I know." (But how would they know it since they could only know it by either being you, having very similar experiences or by having your knowledge magically transmitted from you to them without any actual communication.) While the other person thinks, "That person is a jerk so I am going to disregard everything he says."

    The take away message is that (almost) everyone behaves in a manner that they consider rational and logical. If we treat them as such then they are more likely to listen and agree with what we have to say.

  5. Nick,

    I had to look up the schedule.  Here it is:

    Honestly, I had no idea what a modern child goes thrrough...


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