A new book by VEC director, Dr. Paul Offit, was published this month. The book, Bad Advice: Or Why Celebrities, Politicians, and Activists Aren’t Your Best Source of Health Information, offers tips for addressing science-based information. Autobiographical in nature, the book reflects what Dr. Offit has learned over nearly two decades of addressing vaccine safety as director of the VEC with a particular focus on how the science was received by the media and in the public realm. In the Prologue, Dr. Offit writes, “Because we learn about our health through the opaque prisms of newspapers, magazines, radio, television, movies, activist groups, industry representatives, celebrities, politicians, and the internet, we often fail to understand where the real risks lie.”
The Vaccine Education Center was Dr. Offit’s idea in the late 1990s. In honor of the release of Bad Advice, we asked him to share some thoughts about the history of the VEC and his experiences with Vaccine Update readers:
When you started the Vaccine Education Center, did you think there would still be a need for such an effort 20 years later?
No. I thought that the importance of vaccines was obvious. But I grew up at a time when many of these diseases were common. They’re not as common anymore. So I think we need to re-explain ourselves.
What surprised you the most when you started communicating with the public about vaccines and vaccine safety?
What surprised me the most was that the goal of the television interviewer was to be interesting even at the expense of the truth. The purpose was to excite viewers and to sell advertising. Education wasn’t the primary goal.
What has changed about vaccine (or science) communication over the last 18 years?
There are far fewer opportunities in the media to talk about science these days than in the past. For example, CNN eliminated its science and technology unit, and the Boston Globe eliminated its science and technology section replacing it with consumer health.
Vaccines are one of several science-based topics that suffer from a “disconnect” between our scientific understanding and public perception. How do you think we can learn from those misconceptions and how science communicators address those issues?
All of these issues are linked. No longer do we suffer from scientific illiteracy only. We also suffer from scientific denialism. So I think it’s in many ways harder to communicate science today.
Clinicians are often at the front lines of vaccine safety conversations, in particular. What advice do you have for them in point of care conversations with hesitant parents?
Be sympathetic. Find out what parents are worried about and show how information is available to alleviate their concerns. But do it in a compassionate, passionate and compelling way. Data alone are not enough.
Recently, the Vaccine Education Center has started to focus on educating students in classrooms; and nationally, there has been increased attention at getting students interested in STEM careers. Why do you think those goals are important?
We need to start at the beginning; specifically when we are most likely to be influenced. That’s why educating children about how to think rationally, hierarchically and scientifically is so important. Otherwise, we will be abandoning them to magical thinking.
Get Bad Advice: Or Why Celebrities, Politicians, and Activists Aren’t Your Best Source of Health Information or find out more: