Scientific illiteracy in the United States has given way to an epidemic of "scientific denialism," said Dr. Paul Offit, a well-known pediatrician, in a recent talk at the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
As people declare their own truths — climate change is a hoax, or evolutionism and creationism are equally valid hypotheses — scientists have an increasingly crucial responsibility to hone their public engagement skills, Offit said.
Offit directs the Vaccine Education Center at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and is a professor of vaccinology and pediatrics at the University of Pennsylvania’s medical school. He invented a rotavirus vaccine that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now recommends for universal use in infants to protect against diarrheal disease and has published more than 160 scientific papers over his career. However, his October 30 talk, the latest installment in AAAS’ monthly series of public lectures, focused on what he is perhaps best known for: science communication.
As the author of eight general-audience medical books and a repeated guest on The Colbert Report and other TV shows, Offit is a seasoned science communicator. “He makes the point that science doesn’t speak for itself, but sometimes scientists don’t speak very well for science either,” said AAAS CEO Rush Holt in introductory remarks. “There are some things that we can learn. And many of those things we can learn from Dr. Offit.”
In detailing lessons learned over the years, Offit began with an example close to his heart as a vaccinology researcher. In 1998, Andrew Wakefield, a former physician, published a paper purporting that the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine causes autism. The study, which was based on a sample size of 12 children, has since been retracted, and 17 subsequent studies have shown no association between the MMR vaccine and autism.
Scientists most often feel, though, that ethics require them to “never say never.” In other words, saying that the MMR vaccine is not a cause of autism may be seen as technically inaccurate, because epidemiological studies provide no definitive proof, but do provide associations at various levels of statistical power. “When I was a little boy, I used to watch the television show Superman,” said Offit. “I would tie a towel around myself, go in the backyard, and jump from a small height, and, spoiler alert, I was unsuccessful. But that didn’t prove I couldn’t fly. I could’ve done it a million times — that only would have made it all the more statistically unlikely.”
In testimony before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform in 2002, CDC researcher Colleen Boyle said that none of the evidence supports Wakefield’s hypothesis, rather than explicitly stating that the theory is false. This prompted then Indiana Rep. Dan Burton to assert that Boyle left the door open to Wakefield’s position. “So, you can’t tell me that MMR doesn’t cause autism,” Burton said, “because you just don’t know, do you?”
Offit pointed to the exchange as an example of the pitfalls of being “handcuffed” by the scientific method. “I think we have to hear how we sound,” Offit said. “I think you can say MMR doesn’t cause autism and the gods of the scientific method will not strike you down.”
Offit continued to draw from his well of science communication lessons. Rather than being deterred when people cite past scientific consensuses that were later updated, emphasize the benefits of the mutable, self-correcting nature of science. Rather than attempting to answer the unanswerable question, calmly make your point, he advised.Rather than responding with anger and condescension to the person in front of you, Offit said, focus on the other people your response will reach.
By way of illustration, he described his 1997 appearance on a Philadelphia news station, during which the anchor asked him how many vaccines one immune system can handle, and he delivered a response that led him to become “the 10,000 vaccine guy.”
As a practicing physician, the topic is particularly difficult. Offit recently had to watch as a family decided not to vaccinate their child at two, four, and six months of age. At 11 months, the baby became infected with a strain of pneumococcus that caused meningitis. The child’s brain pressed down on his brain stem, a life-threatening side effect known as a brain herniation. Offit and his colleagues saved the boy’s life, but the child will never see, walk, speak or hear again.
“This was a child that could have lived 80-plus years and had a happy, productive life, who now no longer can, because of a decision his parents made,” Offit said. “They’re making the decision in part based on bad information that is readily available and that’s what is so frustrating for me. But you have to be able to emotionally separate yourself from this when you’re arguing.”
Offit sees science communication not as an extracurricular activity but an essential part of his job. After all, there are plenty of governments around the world, now and in the past, that would not devote taxpayer money to the National Institutes of Health, where he worked for more than 25 years.
“Science is not a right, it’s a privilege,” Offit said. “I think we owe it to the public to explain what we’re doing and why.”
[Associated image: BillionPhotos.com/Adobe Stock]