I’ve had a lot of opportunities to do influenza and vaccination outreach of late, which have brought some basic points to mind:
- Physicians, as a whole, tend not to engage in public discourse about important medical topics, for a variety of reasons.
- Those that do sometimes don’t communicate in ways that resonate with the target audience.
- Those that are successful in this (some do quite well, Steve Novella being an easy example, and it’s something I’m working towards) have a clear voice, and a knack for making their message both interesting and accessible.
The reason this latter point is key is because being honest with science means that one can’t be as simply definitive with their statements as they’d like to be. An excellent case in point is that I don’t say that “childhood vaccines don’t cause autism,” but rather that “there’s no credible scientific evidence that childhood vaccines cause autism, no plausible mechanism by which vaccine components could contribute to autism,” etc… Someone with less of an understanding of the scientific process may hear this and decide that it reflects uncertainty on my part, whereas it represents a firm evidence-based viewpoint, tempered by insight that the scientific process is ever growing and making new discoveries that build on the body of knowledge that has already been accrued. As Dara O’Briain says in the first video clip below, “science knows it doesn’t know everything… otherwise, it’d stop.”
What humans want are definitive statements about the world we live in, regardless of our level of education or understanding of the world around us. Reality is an amazingly complex and nuanced thing, and it is often difficult to describe components of it both accurately and unequivocally, even as it relates to a (relatively) straightforward infection like influenza, for example. The influenza vaccine is very effective… but not 100% so in all people. If you wash your hands frequently, especially after pubic exposures, you will greatly reduce your chances of getting influenza… but not completely. And so on.
As such, a reasoned response to a misinformed opinion about a medical topics, no matter how sincere, is sometimes unable to overcome the wrong statement that contains no uncertainty. As such, as I noted recently, scientific outreach can often be more effective when portrayed in an entertaining and creative way. As Joe recently pointed out, humor often goes further in education than a reasoned response.
Dara O’Briain is a comedian in the UK who uses humor to great effect in discussing pseudoscience and medical quackery. While his routine in the clip below is dealing primarily with homeopathy and the false “balance” of medical reporting, it’s remarkable how resonant it is in terms of the current sensationalist fearmongering in H1N1 media coverage in the US:
While not so outright funny, this short clip is a brief, interesting deconstruction of Dara’s routine by himself and fellow comedian David Mitchell: