Why do bad science articles rise from the dead?

Bad science articles are like zombies.

Bad science articles are like zombies.

Last week I posted this article, discussing bad information circulating about the Gardasil vaccine. I wondered why this misinformation has persisted, especially considering it has been five years since the original damning articles, and the CDC has proven vaccine safety many times. Below I discuss some of the possibilities that may have caused this topic to repeatedly rise from the dead.

Marketing. Some have considered whether the controversy about the HPV vaccine is because it was marketed to young girls and the virus is spread by sexual contact. However, others point out that the hepatitis B virus (HBV) vaccine was introduced in the 1990s for children and did not cause the same negative public response (it is also another sexually transmitted virus). Incorporation of the HBV vaccine into normal vaccine regimens happened through public health officials and physicians. Parents learned about the HBV vaccine through their pediatricians, who they generally trust. Conversely, with the HPV vaccine, a nationwide campaign was launched via commercials and news coverage. Surveys have said that many parents got their vaccine information from advertisements and would prefer information from their physicians about Gardasil safety. If parents trust their pediatricians, why didn’t they ask them about the vaccine after seeing the advertisements? Why did the advertisements have such a negative effect on attitudes toward the vaccine?

Poor journalism and science communication. In December 2013, Katie Couric presented a program about the HPV vaccine. Though there was an attempt at balance, with endorsements from Couric’s resident medical expert, viewers were left with the impression that the vaccine is dangerous. Mothers told their heart wrenching stories about their perceived adverse effects of the vaccine, including the death of one daughter, and chronic illness of another. This was poor journalism on Couric’s part and I’m not the only one to think so (read more here and here). The dramatic spot teaser itself uses shock and fear to gain viewership and spark controversy. There was public outcry and discussion after the program, so Couric issued statements and videos in an attempt to clarify points discussed on the show. Some bloggers had a field day with the situation. What could have been done differently? A more balanced story would have included stories of women and men who didn’t have the vaccine and how they suffered from cancers caused by HPV. I understand that for the sake of attracting viewers, a story about how “Gardasil is still safe!” would seem dull, but instead of reporting on false information, Couric missed an opportunity to cover the controversy itself. She could have used the same dramatic titles but instead report on Gardasil vaccine rumors vs scientific evidence.

Additionally, Dr. Diane Harper herself has done a poor job of discussing scientific facts about Gardasil in interviews; as a result, journalists and the public are misinformed. For instance, in Katie Couric’s program, Dr. Harper says, “Gardasil doesn’t last long enough to prevent cervical cancer” since it wears off after five years. In my previous article, I cited several studies that have recently shown the vaccine is effective for longer than that. Also, we have no evidence that the vaccine wears off, as she says. Remember: the longer we study the vaccine, the longer we are sure it is effective. Either she is oblivious to what she’s actually telling the public or she’s irrationally critical of the vaccine. Either way, this shows why scientists and doctors need training in discussing science with the public.

Cultural values and science beliefs. Dan Kahan, a professor and researcher at Yale Law School, has looked into why some science topics become controversial. Kahan points out that each of us subscribes to a particular group depending on our values. As a result of these groups, people evaluate new scientific information in a biased way, according to their group’s beliefs. So, you’re more likely to seek out media outlets that have the same values that you do and believe the “credible” experts who support those values. He thinks that if the science debates had to do with poor science communication or complex science, then we might expect to see beliefs about science linked to education status and not by moral values. For example, his research has suggested that the groups who fight about cultural issues (ie: same-sex marriage) also tend to fight about science topics (ie: climate change). If our “cultural values influence what and who we believe,” and this is contributing to polarization of science, how do we fix the problem? Kahan suggests that we need to come up with ways to be mindful of different cultural groups and how to communicate with them. We could seek out experts from various cultural backgrounds and present information in a way that works with their cultural beliefs instead of being at odds with them.

My bottom line: Bad science continues to come alive because of poor communication, both on the part of journalists and scientists (How many scientists try to and effectively communicate with the public, really?). We need journalists knowledgeable about effective communication strategies who also have science backgrounds. Go forth scientists, be speakers and writers!

About britdodson

Over several years as a research scientist, I’ve realized that we fail to communicate research in fun and exciting ways. We’re often misquoted, not due to journalist errors, but because our scientific language is complicated and riddled with jargon. I want to improve my communication abilities with this blog by using techniques from creative writing and applying them to nonfiction scientific writing. But, in order to be skilled at writing one must practice (so says writers like Stephen King). This blog will serve as my first venture into science writing. I'm very passionate about entomology, infectious diseases and human health, so my posts will initially focus on those topics.
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