Target the fence-sitters

Says the newest Nature article on vaccinations (see here). It is directed at parents who refuse vaccinations and policies that do not adequately deal with vaccine scares and refusals. It cites various journal articles on the safety of vaccines and studies on communicative bias to support the call for better health policies that deal with communicating the necessity of vaccines to the general public. While the article was well articulated and did try to provide solutions to a complex problem, I’m going to take a theme that was mentioned but not expanded on and run with it.

Several times, Leask mentions the reaction of parents and health providers to scientific evidence, and how “scientific arguments alone will not sway them, and may even increase their resolve to not immunize”. Although she proceeds to provide possible solutions to resolving this issue, the lingering question is one of how the public perceives and interacts with scientific evidence and  what could be done to establish de-louse the misconceptions of the public. Say someone publishes a scientific study on the negative effects of measles a la Andrew Wakefield. If it is a false claim (or one that is less than credible), the scientific community would soon debunk it. But as an issue that escapes the bubble that is the scientific community, it will continue to have an impact on the general public. In this, Leask’s method has a small loophole – people who do not have children to vaccinate. News spreads… can we actually fix it?

In an ideal universe, perhaps we can. But here, the question is whether the scientific community is equipped with the ability to deal with scare stories. Can scientists and technocrats descend their high horse and explain to the masses that, ‘no, that method was flawed’? I see this descent as one of the few ways to engage with the public on scientific matters. As long as general science (we’re not talking about quantum theory here) remains cloaked in jargon, we’re never going to be able to ensure that people get the help they need. Unqualified statements have a nasty habit of running amok amongst the public.

This is all based upon the assumption that science has (most) of the answers and holds the method by which problems can be resolved. It has become part of our inherent beliefs. When you think about nutritional values on the back of a cookie box, you’re referring to ‘scientific knowledge’; when one refers to the prediction of rain for the next few days, one is still speaking of ‘science’ in the loose sense. But this general proliferation of science has not been followed by better understanding of the scientific method and basic scientific knowledge. Everywhere I go, people I encounter refer to climate change or pollution (let’s take the most common examples). Yet how much of that knowledge is 7-10 years old, and how much of it came from reliable scientific analysis?

Perhaps it’s the scientific education and technocrat in me speaking. I still believe that scientific education is important to understanding how the world works (even in simplest terms). This by no means should be forced upon students. Rather, it is important to cultivate an interest in understanding our world. That can only be achieved by reaching out to children at younger ages, and offering introductory science courses all throughout life. That should not come at the expense of other subjects (such as alienating literature or history as a result). Rather, these subjects must be taught in conjunction, to produce a well-educated and balanced human being. But that’s a conversation about education that we shall leave for another day.

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