Somewhere between scientist and consumer, the message is lost

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Nov. 21, 2003 — During one news cycle in the late ’90s, when I worked for The Detroit News, there was discussion over whether to play a particular story on the front page: A small but vocal collection of parents were refusing to have their children vaccinated.

Misinformation had been self-replicating via parents’ Internet newsgroups that the measles, mumps and rubella vaccines (collectively known as the MMR) could be a cause of autism — a still largely mysterious condition over which there is some debate on a congenital vs. environmental cause. The managing editor at the time, who had a hard-earned reputation for sensing which stories would really connect with the public, decided to play it on Page One.

I did not mention it at the time, but the story connected with me, too, in a very personal way. My daughter has Asperger syndrome, a high-functioning form of autism, and I had been reading a great deal about this alleged MMR/autism link. I knew that much of what I was reading from other parents was pure emotion devoid of scientific fact — mainstream medical thought dismisses any MMR/autism link — yet these stories had planted some nagging questions in my mind.

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A few years went by and my journalism career took an unexpected turn into nanotechnology, where I again began to see how media coverage of science could have a direct impact on its development. The MMR issue came back to me, especially after I read a recent study (PDF, .99 MB) by the journalism school at Cardiff University and Britain’s Economic and Social Research Council. The study drew a direct line between misleading media coverage, which regularly referenced one study that drew an MMR/autism link but had never been replicated by others, and public misperception of the possible dangers of vaccinations. Not only that, but the researchers hinted that this line could continue into dangerous new outbreaks of measles, mumps or rubella.

They found that the media created a sense that there were competing, but equally valid, bodies of research. This approach can be seen now in general media reports on nanotechnology, which often give the impression that there is equal division between those who promote and oppose a moratorium on its development.

Christine Peterson, president of the nanotech think tank Foresight Institute, says she is finding it difficult to collaborate with European groups on nanotech policy issues partly due to these doubts implanted by the media and because of a heightened skepticism — especially in Britain — left over from the “mad cow disease” scare of a couple of years ago.

The journalism study agrees: The mad cow disease story and the MMR issue both involved “potential risks to the public initially denied by both government and mainstream science. Andrew Wakefield (the scientist who made the MMR/autism link) may be something of a voice in the wilderness, but, pitted against a phalanx of government officials and experts, journalists were also unwilling to discount the possibility that he may be right.”

So, how do you hold the public’s increasingly short attention span while communicating science in all its complexity? I ran this problem by a writer for a major financial publication, who said that communication of real science often degenerates into a “gee whiz” story (a derogatory term in the media world), “thus the emphasis on polarizing questions.”

Having worked in both the general and niche media, I understand the need for polarization in order to draw readers into the topic, and even the need sometimes to juxtapose pseudoscience or pop culture references with real science just to make sure the readers have a pulse. The more thoughtful journalists then go on to outline the arguments against the nightmare scenario. But I’ve suspected, and this MMR study confirmed, that what readers walk away with are not details, but impressions.

The study is not encouraging in its evaluation of the niche publications that work as translators between the arcane science world and journalists and others who help set the society’s scientific agenda, concluding that the science media are “not significant players in communicating science to a non-specialist audience.” That means somewhere between scientist and consumer, the message is lost.

By “consumer,” I don’t only mean consumers of nanotech products, but also the growing masses of people who are consumers of nanotechnology news and culture. By placing ourselves above these mass media, we’re leaving it to them to explain nanotech — in effect making a strategic decision to allow the public to be half-informed or misinformed.

Just this past Oct. 7, a headline in The Detroit News caught my attention: “Thousands of parents skip children’s shots.” Among the reasons cited: The old MMR/autism link, which has been looked at many times since the late ’90s, and still no real link has been found. In fact, a 2002 British study dismissed any link.

So, the only evidence that one existed in the first place is still one scientist and a ton of newsprint spread out over nearly a decade.


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