Monday, March 02, 2009

Autism-Vaccines: Developing Scientific Thinking

I periodically review the debate over the discussion about whether vaccines cause autism. This past week there was a major report in Newsweek on the scientific evidence that was titled, Anatomy of a Scare. Likewise, there were new full-page ad in many major newspapers that were sponsored by Generation Rescue that continues to assert that vaccines are connected to neurological disorders.

My interest is in what we can learn as scientists about communicating science to the public. Especially now that news and ideas can be spread via the web it is critical to understand how to information is spread and how to effectively communicate complicated scientific stories. Clearly, there will always be some people who will prefer to believe in conspiracies and fail to examine any reasons, but there are still others who will engage in thoughtful examination of the evidence. So how can scientists present that evidence most effectively and how do we encourage deeper scientific thinking about such issues.

First, it is important to hear what ordinary people are thinking about these issues. Some of the comments and thinking is confused, but some of it is also thoughtful. Here are posts in response to an NBC report that was generally unfavorable in regards to link between vaccines and autism.

The CDC has taken a lot of criticism by those who believe that the government is trying to cover up scientific facts. I continue to watch how they are using the web to present the evidence regarding these studies. There is a very interesting section about an ongoing Study to Explore Early Development (SEED) that provides information for the public about an investigation of early development and efforts to explore a variety of links to developmental problems such as autism. These FAQs about the study seem like a good way to engage people in understanding how the scientific study is being conducted and the likely outcomes of this study.

One positive consequence of the media attention to the autism-vaccine connection is that there may be more efforts to provide more detailed information about the research rather than just the findings. This seems like one good way of engaging people in a more effective way of thinking about science. Likewise, the CDC website includes a lot of links to new studies that are exploring issues surrounding the autism-vaccine issue so that the public can easily find the latest research. This too seems useful and important.

A missing part would seem to me to be a moderated discussion of these issues that would seek to answer questions. There are some challenges in doing this because it is likely to be overtaken by those with strong opinions, but this type of engagement with the public may be important to undertake.


Sarah B. said...

As a science educator, I appreciated your post. Your comments about how science is and should be communicated to the public were spot on, but I wonder also if you should not add one piece to your argument, communicating the nature of science and scientific practice. If as research is presented, there is some comments related to how it fits the practice of science and what it means in that sense, would this help clear up some confusion. As an educator, I see this “scandal” as a great teaching tool for teaching students about the nature of science. Not only can the practices of the first set of research be analyzed, but issues surrounding ethics and societal influences on research can be discussed. As you suggest it is a great learning opportunity for scientists but should also be a learning opportunity for everyone.

Robert Hughes Jr, PhD said...

Sarah: Thank you for extending my thinking. I agree with you. Yes, scientists should do more than present their findings. We still do not spend enough time teaching "scientific thinking." Too often we present our findings to the public as "truth" even though with colleagues we understand that there are cautions, limits, and bad studies. This aspect of the world of science must be within reach of the public.

Additionally, you are also correct in noting that we have not always included a discussion of ethics and social effects of research. This too is important.

k├Árvaklapid said...

ohhh... never ending story :@