Week 12 – Emily Thibodeau

November 19, 2011 at 11:51 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

Kerr and Offit discuss how easily autism can be turned into a movement against scientific evidence by the public. Kerr frames the movements around autism under the theme of uncertainty. Autism easily falls into five types of science-related uncertainty. Parents and the public appear uncertain as to what past exposure to thimerosal means, what the dose-response relationship is, the synergistic effects, etiological uncertainty, and diagnostic uncertainty. Despite the prevailing scientific research to suggest that autism and vaccines do not have a relationship, the uncertainty that individuals feel, and that is perpetuated by the media, often trumps scientific evidence. Additionally, the movement groups that surround autism have a clear advantage over government officials and scientist, who cannot make bold, dramatic claims, in an effort to present scientific fact, not conjecture.

Offit, in Chapter 10, delves into how science can be a limiting factor in the publics’ understanding of autism and vaccines. Science, a way of thinking about a problem, is frequently misunderstood by the public. People don’t understand the scientific method, coincidence vs. causality, have archaic beliefs, and are more swayed by religion. unfortunately, in the absence of the glamorous figures the movements surrounding autism have, scientists have a hard time presenting facts to an often unbelieving public. It is easy to scare people, and autism science does not fit the culture of today.

Both Kerr and Offit realize the disconnect between the public and the scientific evidence. Unfortunately, despite extensive research, the public appears to be interested in what celebrities and non-experts have to say about autism. Kerr focuses on uncertainty as a reason why parents and citizens at large are able to disregard science, whereas Offit focuses on the disconnect between science and the public. The media, clearly, filters much of the scientific content to the public and appears to play a role in both disconnect hypothesis. For example, the media lend credit to uncertainty themes when they give both sides equal weight to discuss an issue, when one side lacks scientific credibility. The media also does not do enough to ensure that the public is able to understand scientific findings on the topic. Overall, it appears that both hypothesis as to the disconnect are credible to some extent, and that the media seems to have a detrimental effect on the public’s knowledge about autism. To what extent is the public lack of information/belief based on uncertainty themes or lack of scientific understanding, or both? What role does the media play?

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  1. I think that both are large contributing factors to the public’s lack of knowledge. If journalists were to try and better research their pieces, it is likely that uncertainty themes would not be as prevalent in the media causing less public confusion. However, lack of scientific knowledge is another large part of why scientific findings are so confused in the public. While uncertainty frames are the media’s fault, I feel as if the lack of knowledge is mostly the fault of the American education system. If audiences had a more stable scientific education base, there would be less public confusion.

  2. I agree with Jade that both public uncertainty and lack of scientific understanding both play their roles in the disconnect between science and public opinion. Uncertainty, in any situation or group, is going to generate some differences in opinions and ways in which to proceed. The same concept applies to autism and vaccines. It is easy to look at advocacy groups and those who promote the link between vaccines and autism and to judge them as intentionally confusing people, but a true insight reveals that these people are simply desperate for answers. They truly believe in what they have started, and while it may not be correct, I doubt their intentions are to create chaos. The lack of scientific understanding, on the other hand, may possibly be attributed to our education system. However, we do not have a poor education system, in my opinion. We are constantly hearing about how we rank lower than other countries in our education, but I believe this has created an air of self-pessimism. To educate people to the level of understanding current science would require an immense amount of collegiate study, as we are a testament to this. Nevertheless, the media does influence the situation as it aims for sensationalism, not information.

  3. I think that both uncertainty and lack of scientific knowledge influence public opinion. I also think that the way that scientists relay their information can be misleading and thus contribute to this uncertainty/lack of knowledge. Scientists have made it evident (or have tried to make it evident) that vaccinations do not cause autism. However their use of qualifiers to explain this point rather than making bold/direct statements invites the media to project the issue as if the scientists are uncertain, resulting in the public’s uncertainty. Lack of scientific knowledge is also a problem because if people knew the scientific facts then they would be able to understand the lack of relationship between autism and vaccines. The problem with that is the difficulty to understand scientific language, so unless you have background in the field then it would be nearly impossible to comprehend.


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