Anti-vax and science literacy

Two weeks ago the Pew Research Center released a report on the beliefs and attitudes of the public on science and science-related public policy issues. In a nutshell, the report shows that overall the American public thinks American science is the best in the world. Overall the general public feels like science has positively impacted their lives. But they don’t always believe the science.

The study surveyed the general public and scientists on their opinions of “hot button” science-related issues. Highlights include:

  • Scientists and the public were most disparate on their stance toward the safety of GMO foods: only 37% of the public believes GMO-containing foods are safe to eat, while 88% of scientists believe food containing GMOs are safe. This is a 51 point gap, the largest reported.
  • Close behind were opinions on climate change: only 50% of the public, but 87% of scientists believe climate change is due to human activity.
  • What do scientists and the public have in common? Everyone agrees that the space station is cool — only 4 percentage points difference.
  • Frustratingly, there were mixed perceptions among the public regarding scientists’ consensus on major issues. In general, the public doesn’t think that scientists are agreed as a whole on issues such as climate change or that the universe began with the “Big Bang.”
  • Besides these differences, both US adults and scientists feel that the K-12 STEM education system in the US is below average compared to other industrialized countries. The study also shows that scientists agree the poor K-12 STEM curriculum is a major problem for science.

As a scientist, it’s frustrating to see that fellow citizens think I’m great, I do good quality work. But they don’t want to believe it or use the result to improve their lives. Taxpayers are funding my research. They should be demanding their money’s-worth!

Nowhere is this frustration for scientists more epitomized than in the anti-vaccine movement. Vaccines are one of the top public health improvements of the 20th century. In the four years before the introduction of the measles vaccines in the US, there were an average of 500,000 measles cases per year, with ~400 annual deaths. After vaccine introduction, cases and deaths plummeted; in 1998 there were only 89 cases and no deaths [CDC], and since there have been less than 100 cases per year.

With the recent measles outbreak, over 100 cases have been diagnosed in January alone [CDC]. Ignoring the effectiveness and ability of vaccines to save lives not only throws away the millions of dollars spent on developing and improving immunizations. It endangers public welfare, and therefore becomes an ethical as well as a public health issue.

According to the Pew study, 30% of adults in the US say parents should have a choice in immunizing their children.

For me the question becomes: How can incorrect perceptions among the general public regarding critical public policy issues be effectively addressed? Many advocate education initiatives. K-12 education initiatives are popular among scientists as community outreach projects. These usually involve (usually junior) scientists going to classrooms to perform demos on some topic, with the dual goals of exposing the students to “real life” scientists and piquing their interest in science itself via the demo. These are great programs. But this method does not address the issue of adult education.

What about educating parents? In the case of interventional public health campaigns, research shows that it is very difficult to change perceptions — and importantly behavior. In one study, after interventions of CDC-based material giving concrete reasons for parents to vaccinate their children, parents were just as likely or less likely to actually vaccinate. The study concludes that it is very difficult to correct beliefs after incorrect premises are adopted as truths.

An alternative to educational interventions is science literacy. Science literacy means understanding that science and its conclusions is based on testable, repeatable observations, that the premises are falsifiable. Identifying falsifiable arguments is central to separating science from pseudoscience.

The premise that “vaccines cause autism” is falsifiable. And it has been falsified.

The premise that “God created the earth” is not falsifiable. And we can never design an experiment to test this premise.

The premise that a single microorganism in your gut is responsible for causing obesity is falsifiable. The technology to test this premise doesn’t exist yet, so we can’t test it today — but when the technology appears, we will be able to test this premise. It is within the realm of our capacity to harness physics to test this hypothesis.

Further, science literacy includes the ability to independently to evaluate an argument and determine the ethical, legal, and social implications of the conclusion. Such an ability is crucial for a democracy to function at its fullest.

There is a strong ethical argument for paying attention to science when making public policy decisions. Science and medicine can empirically tell us what policies or public health measures will most improve social welfare; and these insights can help us as a community make more informed, ethically-sound decisions.

Call your Congressperson. Advocate for increased science research funding. Ask them to support public policies that are based on solid science, and respectfully incorporate ethical, medical, social, and legal concerns.

And please vaccinate your children.


This post is a slightly extended version of the “Opening Words” I gave for the Ethical Society of St. Louis on February 8, 2015. The transcript is here.