Playboy model is defeating scientists in PR battle over vaccines

Although the scientific paper that spawned fear of vaccines was officially retracted in February 2010 1, many parents are still reluctant to immunize their children. Yes, the anti-vaccination movement is still alive and kicking 2, and the paper is far from being retracted in the arena of public opinion 3. Why is this happening?


Although the scientific paper that spawned fear of vaccines was officially retracted in February 20101, many parents are still reluctant to immunize their children. Yes, the anti-vaccination movement is still alive and kicking 2, and the paper is far from being retracted in the arena of public opinion 3. Why is this happening?

Scientists and science enthusiasts tried to “sell” empirical evidence to a public that cares more about empathy and trust4,5. That’s right! A message may be well supported by science, but if it is not conveyed by a credible and likable source, the communication is ineffective5. This is where scientists lose the Public Relations battle against people like Jenny McCarthy, former Playboy model, unofficial spokeswoman for the anti-vaccination movement, and mother to a child who recovered from autism.

This is unfortunate because there shouldn’t be any battle in the first place. However, when I see a documentary titled “Enemies of reason” 5, I understand why science advocates (me included) fail to reach out to the public. In fact, many pro-vaccine communications seem to be preaching to choir. Just read some titles from Wired: “How to win an argument about vaccines” 4 or “How panicked parents skipping shots endangers us all” 6.

The schism between science and the public is evident and it needs to be closed. For what is worth, here are some ideas to bridge the gap; they are taken from risk communication and negotiation theory:

  • Listen to the public 7. If people don’t care about peer-reviewed evidence, don’t waste your time explaining it. Find out what gets their attention and adapt your message accordingly.
  • Address people’s concerns with respect 8; don’t dismiss them as unfounded, ignorant or misinformed. No matter how irrational they seem to you, people’s fears feel real and therefore ARE real.
  • Don’t devaluate the public’s interest in the issue. Be grateful to have an audience that cares, and use this interest to engage it7.
  • Work with credible sources 7. The public cares about who the messenger is, and whether he or she is trustworthy. This is the reason why anti-vaccination advocates often launch personal attacks to vaccine defenders 9. Scientists and science enthusiasts find this hard to understand because evidence is more credible to them than reputation . However, these values do not apply in the realm of risk communication. To put it in terms a scientist would understand: in the arena of public opinion, ad hominem10 claims outweigh experimentation and reason.

See also
The psychology of the anti-vaccination movement

References and notes

  1. Park, M. (2010). Medical journal retracts study linking autism to vaccine. Originally aired on CNN Health, February 2, 1:29 p.m. EST.
  2. Toddre, R. (2010). If President Obama Had Been Talking About the Autism “Spill”. In Age of autism: Daily newspaper of the autism epidemic, June 18.
  3. McCarthy, J. & Carey, J. (2010). A Statement from Jenny McCarthy & Jim Carrey: Andrew Wakefield, Scientific Censorship, and Fourteen Monkeys. In Age of autism, February 5.
  4. Bilba, E. (2009). How to Win an Argument about Vaccines. In Wired Magazine, October 19.
  5. Dawkins, R. (2007). Enemies of reason, Episode 2: The irrational health system. In Channel 4.
  6. Wallace, A. (2009). An Epidemic of Fear: How Panicked Parents Skipping Shots Endangers Us All. In Wired Magazine, October 19.
  7. Covello, V.T & Allen, F. (1988). Seven Cardinal Rules of Risk Communication. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Office of Policy Analysis.
  8. Ury, W. (1991). Getting past No. London: Business Books.
  9. Pearlstein, J. (2009). Who is this Amy Wallace, anyway? In Wired Magazine, October 21.
  10. A logical fallacy that consists in accepting or rejecting someone’s claims, based on the person’s reputation, profession, or other personal attribute. For instance, “Amy Wallace is a lobbyist for the pharmaceutical industry.”

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