Tag Archives: communication

Poor Science Communication endangers public health

I have a pretty impressive stack of ‘Science’ and ‘Journal of Immunology’ journals stacked on my study desk. Well, they would be impressive if they were not in the ‘To Be Read’ pile.

I had an opportunity to make some headway into this pile today and started reading the 4 October 2013 issue of Science featuring a number of articles about science communication. So far, everything I’ve read has been good, but I just put down a fantastic article by Dan Kahan entitled “A Risky Communication Environment for Vaccines.”

Several aspects of this article make it one of the best I’ve read in some time.

1. Simple, clear writingImage

2. A clear mission of improving public health by insisting on the scientific community to do a better job of talking about its work with the public

3. A novel, data-supported argument exposing how misinformation among scientists leads to misinformation in the public

4. A level-headed explanation of how key decisions should be made in order to obtain the most desirable results (again, increased public health)

It’s widely recognized that Merck made a severe mistake in the marketing and legislative lobbying done to promote mandatory adoption of its HPV vaccine , Gardasil. However, Kahan goes further to illustrate how a very similar vaccine (against Hepatitis B) was previously introduced without a lobbying effort and resulted in widespread adoption of the vaccine without significant resistance from the public. Kahan writes:

Had the HPV vaccine taken this path, it would have followed the uneventful course that marked introduction of the hepatitis B virus (HBV) vaccine into the U.S. public health system. Hepatitis B, like HPV, is sexually transmitted and causes cancer (6). The CDC endorsed universal childhood HBV vaccination—for boys and girls, a much less jarring proposal—in the 1990s. There was no political controversy. Rather, states steadily added the HBV vaccine to mandatory vaccination schedules through the customary mechanism—not high-profile legislative enactments, but guidelines routinely promulgated by public health administrators operating outside the political realm (7).”

Also check out the Podcast Interview with the author, Dan Kahan at

He then goes on to warn against aggressive promotion of vaccines as this can often backfire psychologically and provide fuel for the fire of an anti-vaccine movement. This is exactly what James Colgrove predicted in his Perspective article in the 2006 New England Journal of Medicine when he warned that, “Moves to make the vaccine compulsory are sure to ignite a new round of polarizing debates.” Yet, he goes on to reiterate the importance of (near) universal vaccination in protecting out most vulnerable:

Laws making vaccination compulsory raise unique ethical and policy issues. High levels of herd immunity protect all members of the community, including those who cannot receive vaccines because of medical contraindications. This protection provides a justification for compulsion. The availability of religious or philosophical exemptions mitigates concern about governmental intrusion on individual decision making. Opinions vary, however, about the permissible scope of exemptions. Data show that schools with exemption rates as low as 2 to 4% are at increased risk for disease outbreaks and that children who have been exempted from vaccine requirements have a much greater risk of acquiring infectious diseases than their vaccinated peers.1 Minors have a right to be protected against vaccine-preventable illness, and society has an interest in safeguarding the welfare of children who may be harmed by the choices of their parents or guardians.”

Luckily, these great articles about scientific communication are freely available on the website links above.

It’s embarrassing that a (admittedly fantastic) comic like Calvin and Hobbes can communicate more in one page that many scientists can over the course of their entire careers. Bill Waterson asks, “Is it sometimes valuable to give up just a little freedom if all society can work better because of it? …”


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Posted by on November 9, 2013 in Uncategorized


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Science and Communication

'Chemical Lectures', c 1810.It seems like there is a lot of talk about how to talk lately.

Scientists are an interesting bunch. We’re all taught to communicate in a very specific way: Be sparing in what you say, even more sparing in what you claim, assume your audience can recognize the difference between good data and bad and always give them your best, because they’ll call you on anything less, etc, etc.

Then there’s the public. Frankly, not many of us are any good at addressing that audience; it’s large, it’s diverse, not everyone knows how to read your graphs and wants you to shut up for a sec while they work it out themselves, etc, etc.

Yet, science has a lot to communicate with the public. And I think the public would like to address the scientific community once in a while too, but it’s not necessarily any easier to communicate in that direction either (most people don’t look through ncbi to find someone working on the topic they’re interested in learning more about and then finding the corresponding author for a quick email chat. )

There are some books out there, like Randy Olson’s, ‘Don’t be Such a Scientist’ that does a good job of helping scientists see how others like to be communicated with. Recently, at the AAAS meeting (that’s the American Association for the Advancement of Science) had a talk about how to communicate that touched on many of the same points Olson’s book covers. Perhaps most importantly is a group like Sense About Science that attempts to bring peer review to the mass media.I think this could be one of the simplest, and most powerful changes in how science is communicated. This was recently discussed in a Scientific American article outlining the objectives for the group.

Nevertheless, many scientists balk at discussing certain topics in public because it may lend a sense of legitimacy to views that are politically or religiously motivated, rather than scientifically.

What do you think should be done to open lines of communication between scientists and non-scientists – or on how media should be held accountable for providing source data on scientific claims?

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Posted by on February 27, 2013 in Uncategorized


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