Almost 17 years ago, we launched the Vaccine Education Center at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (VEC) to help explain the science of vaccines, particularly as it related to vaccine safety concerns. We started the VEC as a side project while working in the lab. The plan was to return to the lab full time a few years later. Instead, after five years, we closed the lab and have been working to communicate vaccine science full time ever since.
While some things have improved, such as media coverage of vaccines, particularly by national media sources, and development of a strong national network of vaccine stakeholders, the situation is still perilous. People who don’t trust that vaccines are safe or necessary are able to more easily find one another as well as “information” that supports their biases on the internet. In addition, an overarching anti-science agenda has converged among sectors of society and more recently, has been empowered by anti-science sentiment at the highest levels of office.
This means we need to keep working — and we need your help.
For an excellent discussion about the rise of anti-science sentiment in modern society, read The War on Science by Shawn Otto. A significant portion of the book is dedicated to describing three affronts on science; we have added common examples from the vaccine realm:
- “You have your data, and I have mine.”
Identity politics war — Central to this aspect is postmodernism; that is, the point of view that facts are subjective not objective. This notion promotes the idea that everyone’s reality is based on their own experiences and position in society — and all are equally valid. Otto points specifically to academics, activists and journalists as the groups that fueled this societal movement.
- “Vaccines contain DNA that can alter the genetic makeup God intended for an individual.”
Ideological war — Religious fundamentalists and their beliefs are at the heart of these issues, which more often surface in areas of science related to evolution and reproductive health. Arguments are based on the fact that science leads society to places that conflict with religious beliefs. Otto points out that while science may put us in a position to debate resulting moral or ethical issues, the facts uncovered by science are not beliefs, and, therefore, are not debatable.
- “Vaccines cause autism.”
Industrial war — When scientific progress leads to changes in political position or individual behaviors that will significantly alter an industry’s ability to continue making money, concerted efforts are often undertaken with the goal of creating “uncertainties” about the state of the related science among the population. The first and most famous example of this is the tobacco industry creating uncertainty about cigarette smoking as a cause of lung cancer. More recently, fossil fuel industries have used this strategy to cast doubt on the fact that human activity is affecting the world’s climate. These disinformation campaigns often have seven components:
- Promotion or creation of phony science — papers that contradict established science or “cherry-picking” of actual facts out of context
- Presentation of slanted press materials that promote “controversy” to media outlets, bloggers or others who will share it
- Building and financing industry-aligned front groups — grassroots organizations (called “astroturfing”) that hold rallies and media events, purchase paid media ads, and hold letter-writing campaigns
- Recruitment of outlier scientists willing to serve as “experts” for testimony to politicians, media interviews and speaking opportunities
- Fanning of the story by talk radio and cable news purveyors to increase public outcry for political action
- Legislative or policy action by elected officials aligned with the misinformation campaign
- Industry pleading their case in front of policymakers or the public with the seeming support of science, media, government, public, businesses and professional opinion leaders, and sometimes famous people, such as actors
Science provides us with knowledge about the world in which we live. We cannot afford to reject it based on political, ideological or religious positions or beliefs. Further, as Otto states repeatedly throughout his discussion, science will always be political, but it should never be partisan.
So, what can we do?
Value science — The basis of medicine, indeed much of the progress of all aspects of life, is rooted in science. Anti-science rhetoric threatens future progress. Remind our patients, families, neighbors and friends how important scientific progress is to the lifestyle they currently enjoy.
Promote science — When families don’t want vaccines, but expect antibiotics or other medical interventions for their children or themselves, we can use the opportunity to point out that they are relying on the scientific process and its conclusions in one arena, but doubting the very same thing in another. While it is fair to examine evidence and draw different conclusions about scientific developments, experts have examined the evidence related to vaccines and concluded that vaccines are as safe as, if not safer than, over-the-counter medications or antibiotics, and yet, some families accept one and not the other.
Support science — On Earth Day, April 22, 2017, more than 1 million people marched in support of science in more than 600 cities around the globe. Marches occurred in all 50 U.S. states as well as in 66 countries on all seven continents and even included five penguin marchers from the Monterey Bay Aquarium, making this the largest global science event in history. The March for Science movement is continuing its work to bring the importance and necessity of science to the forefront. Its goals include:
- Strengthening the role of science in policymaking
- Improving science outreach and communication
- Advancing science education and scientific literacy
- Fostering a diverse and inclusive scientific community
Dr. Offit was a speaker at the march in Philadelphia where he reminded the more than 10,000 marchers that scientific research is a privilege in the United States, and because taxpayers grant scientists the right to do this work, scientists are obligated to explain what they research and why.
Following the March for Science on Earth Day, the group held a week of action. If you have not joined the movement, sign up for updates to stay abreast of what is happening.
Science offers a way to make decisions based on facts. Indeed, our founding fathers, particularly Jefferson and Franklin, wrote the Declaration of Independence to intentionally separate church from state in order that the country was not led by beliefs, but rather by reason and knowledge. Otto writes, “In the process they created something entirely new: a nation that respected and tolerated religion in every sense, but did not base its authority on religion. A nation whose authority was instead based on the underlying principles of liberty, reason, and science.” (p. 76).
Protecting our democracy means protecting science. For that reason, fighting for science is the job of every one of us who values our freedom.