Why Science is Losing the PR War and What Needs to be Done

February 9, 2015
child getting vaccine

The anti-vaxers movement represents a deadly new attack in the war on science. This time, it’s being waged disproportionally by the left, among an affluent, well-educated army of science deniers, spurred on by Jim Carrey, Jenny McCarthy, Bill Maher, and a slew of other Hollywood celebrities. They are particularly dangerous in that they can’t be dismissed as simply misinformed, uneducated, fundamentalist fueled or some bizarre pronouncement from Chris Christie. Rather, they use their own intelligence as the very rationale for their stance. After all, if they, the self-appointed intelligentsia, believe the story, it has to be true.

This weird constellation of self-generating credibility brings with it tremendous risk to the public’s perception and reputation of science and scientific discovery. And it also poses some tremendous challenges to those of us who work to promote and publicize scientific progress. Unlike global warming, where denier-rhetoric can be easily traced to profit motives, no such conspiracy exists in the case of vaccines. There’s no money to be made. So why does this all persist and what can science do to win the PR war?

  1. Emotion is the single most powerful component of effective story telling. And, the emotional value a child with autism can trump even 50 years of scientific success. When Jenny McCarthy shares her story, it’s powerful and made believable by the depth of her own belief. As she once told Oprah, “Right before [my son’s] MMR shot, I said to the doctor, ‘I have a very bad feeling about this shot. This is the autism shot, isn’t it?’ And he said, ‘No, that is ridiculous. It is a mother’s desperate attempt to blame something,’ and he swore at me, and then the nurse gave [Evan] the shot. And I remember going, ‘Oh, God, I hope he’s right.’ And soon thereafter — boom — the soul’s gone from his eyes.” Scary to be sure. But to win, science must understand the real power of the stories it faces and dip deep into the same emotional pool, expressing and sharing the real scourge of disease, regardless of its unpleasantness.”
  2. Celebrity sells. We are a confused society that equates fame with knowledge. And remarkably the only credential needed to appear in the media, is simply having appeared before. Science needs similarly powerful and personal spokespeople that resonate with liberal, affluent audiences. Who? The regulars are not working: the fake professor and former sketch comedian Bill Nye is simply not cutting it. Neil deGrasse Tyson? He hasn’t the celebrity heft to take on Hollywood. Instead, how about the beloved and highly believable? Barbara Walters is a candidate. So too is Angelina Jolie. Or Meryl Streep, Diane Keaton or Mia Farrow? Credible, unexpected celebrity voices could help to beat back Hollywood deniers like UCLA Ph.D. Mayim Bialik whose TV role on TV’s Big Bang Theory creates a special brand of confusion.
  3. Science must stop protecting their own. Dr. Oz promoting bad healthcare advice. Dr. Phil hawking weight loss books that his son publishes. Whole Foods peddling an assortment of dubious health products. The scientific community is quick to take on those who fall on the other side of the political spectrum. But they are silent when their own dabble in dark science of quackery. We need science to out their own, and hit them where it hurts, in the reputations on which their wallet sits. Science, with media in tow, needs to go on the attack by identifying the most dangerous anti-vaxing doctors in America, shame them into silence. That might just move the needle, hopefully into the arm of a child!
  4. We all must remember that the obvious needs to be returned to time and again. Science is uniquely susceptible to the “cured that so let’s move on” syndrome. New discoveries are what make headlines in a Twitterfied world. But the best science is often the least interesting (and least likely to win headlines and grants). Today, science is obsessed with the future, and the threats it holds. But that need must be balanced against the more mundane and obvious. Science would do us all a service by constantly reminding us of the fundamental success of all it has accomplished. Such awareness could serve to undermine the creeping suspicions that are overtaking even well-intentioned, educated, and liberal minds.
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