Saturday, May 17, 2008

Blogs and Science-- The Autism-Vaccine Debate

The debate over the link between vaccines and autism is a good example of how science is getting handled in the Web 2.0/user-generated content world.

In 2007 Jennifer Singh and her colleagues reported the results of their study examining the disconnect between the media/public discussion of the link between vaccines and autism and the scientific discussion. The major finding was that the public/media discussion was more focused on the link between vaccines and autism than the scientific community. In short, most of the scientific work was looking at other causes of autism outside of the vaccines.

The authors come to the following conclusion:
"The take-home message from these analyses is that despite a relatively long and intricate history of autism, millions of dollars of funding and thousands of papers in the peer-reviewed literature to explore causes, symptoms and possibilities for intervention, the selective reporting of the press was in sharp contrast to the focus of research and funding. Perhaps, as Nelkin suggests: 'In an age where communication among scientists is specialized and obscure, simplification is an essential if not a controversial part of making science palatable to the public.' In the case of autism, the press provided information to the public that was straightforward to understand and to which the public could then respond actively or, indeed, reactively."
Today I followed up this research is a very crude analysis of the blogosphere regarding the "autism-vaccine" link. Using Google Search of blogs, I identified all the blogs that include both the words "autism" and "vaccine" during the two-week period (May 3-16, 2008). I identified 105 blog posts (mean = 7.5 per day). I randomly sampled 15% of the posts and coded them for whether or not they mentioned scientific research or not and whether or not the author was a scientist.

My results indicate that no scientists were among the 14 blog posts I sampled. Although 57% of the blog posts mention scientific findings, these findings tend to be very selective and focus on relatively few studies overall. Two of the blog posts (see Texas two Step, Science Based Medicine) have very thorough and thoughtful analyses of the scientific findings and the scientific weaknesses of some of the more popular reports that tend to favor the link between vaccines or environmental causes and autism.

Although my efforts are much more limited, they illustrate that the issue identified by Singh persists and may be even more prevalent today especially since the advent of Web 2.0 technologies in which many more people can voice their views beyond traditional media outlets.

Singh and her colleagues discuss how the discussion of science in the media shapes the public's perception of scientific findings and policy decisions. They suggest that scientists need to be more involved in presenting science in the media. Based on my limited analysis of blog posts it continues to appear that scientists are not very active in the use of Web 2.0 technologies to present scientific information.

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