Not Just Little Pricks

Some of my best friends are mathematicians. One related a hilarious story, in which a graduate student was giving a seminar to others, describing his present research. He provided all the background information on the first slide of his PowerPoint presentation, and was greeted by laughter. It seemed that none of the thirty students had any idea what he was talking about. This is common to all the sciences. While linguistics students like myself find it easy to describe our area to the uninitiated, the sciences have become so specialised that experts may struggle with even the closest neighbouring areas.

An unfortunate by-product of this age of increased specialisation is the paucity of scientific literacy among journalists, and the public at large. Because science is quite specific, and focussed on incremental increases in knowledge, it is hard for the laypeople to understand findings, let alone place them in context. Hence the insanity that is the Australian Vaccination Network (AVN).

Feeding on general institutional distrust, especially of “ivory towers”, this organisation’s mission is to provide perceived balance to the reported benefits of vaccination. Despite not having knowledge of immunology, I know about the wonders of vaccination. Diseases like polio and smallpox, which were responsible for the deaths of millions have been eradicated. It won’t be too long before malaria also succumbs to science, thanks in part to researches here at the ANU. However, a lack of clear communication about the way vaccines and immunisation work has led to confusion and out-right misinformation in the community.

The AVN claims that national immunisation programmes represent an attack on personal liberty, arguing that parents have the right to decide on their children’s medical plan. They say the benefits of vaccination are far outweighed by their risks, including autism, auto-immune diseases and death. Looking through news sites, blogs, and their own website, it appears that the modus operandi of the organisation is a pleading to look objectively at the facts. Well, there’s nothing wrong with that, is there? However, the facts don’t seem to support their position. There appears to be a small body of data discussing the link between vaccinations and autism, but none of it is conclusive, let alone rigorous. One cited study referenced five cases – a far cry from a smoking gun.

What health professionals and governments need to do better is explain how they make their recommendations. Ian Frazer recently penned a piece for The Conversation which sought to do just that. He explains how the Human Papillomavirus leads to cancer, explains how the cancer develops, and then describes in easy-to-understand language how the vaccine Gardasil works. About the only response AVN representatives are able to form is the claim that his research is flawed due to his links with pharmaceutical companies. It’s certainly naïve to believe that drug companies funding research won’t lead to skewed results, but it’s equally silly to attack research funded by drug-companies on that fact alone.

I suppose it comes down to who’s easier to believe. A scientist who pleads the balance of evidence, the carefully formed, disprovable hypothesis, and the steady accumulation of facts is clearly less sexy than a well-spoken, emotional mother describing the claimed effect of vaccinations on her children. In the end, scientists need to sex-up their results. Journalists cannot be trusted to represent results accurately, as shown by Media Watch‘s recent condemnation of WIN televisions equal reporting of medial experts and the AVN in a story about a measles outbreak in Sydney. As Jonathan Holmes succinctly put it “there’s evidence, and there’s bulldust”. Perhaps that’s a little unkind. Vulnerable parents worrying about their children may find it hard to think rationally about their issue’s health, and it is clearly tempting to blame a monolithic hazy combination of the World Health Organisations, governments and drug companies.

People, especially those with scientific knowledge, find it easy to dismiss these kooky viewpoints. But it should be obvious that most people do not think about health rationally, and perhaps a slightly more emotional debate could settle the issue. Academics and governments should sell the massive increase in well-being since the introduction of widespread vaccinations better, without resorting to arguments along the lines of “because we know what’s best”.