Childhood Vaccines: Rising Icons in Study of Flawed Information and Judgment

Childhood vaccines now rank as one of the prime examples of botched media coverage and botched thinking. The exaggerated fears, the exaggerated claims, the outright falsities - they're all getting their fifteen minutes of fame.

Vaccines have become the darlings of people who think and write about poor risk perception and related, misinformation in the media, how it gets spread and better yet, sticks around not just the Internet but people's minds. The vaccine-autism fiasco is reaching iconic status in the study of how inaccurate to say nothing of falsified or fraudulent information gets planted in the public mind and despite solid contradictory evidence, sticks around to scare the crap out of parents.

Risk perception guru, David Ropeik takes on exaggerated fears about childhood vaccines in a recent New York Times op-ed:
Researchers in neuroscience, psychology, economics and other disciplines have made a range of discoveries about why human beings sometimes fear more than the evidence warrants, and sometimes less than the evidence warns. That science is worth reviewing at length. But one current issue offers a crash course in the most significant of these findings: the fear of vaccines, particularly vaccines for children. Inside the Mind of Worry, New York Times
Crash course in the most significant of these findings.  Love that.  Crash course in more ways then one.

Good piece. Read it if you have time but in a nutshell here's Ropeik's take on why parents still voice hesitancy about getting those vaccines and yes it's back by some recent though limited research.

The rare side effects of vaccines loom large in parental minds because parents don't see diseases ravaging kids. The benefits of vaccination aren't obvious. The suffering, the trauma isn't in their face every day like in other parts of the world where children are still dying of measles, malaria, polio, whopping cough, pneumonia and yes, diarrhea.

Also, mandatory risks seem worse than voluntarily ones as do "man-made" risks (vaccines) compared to "natural" ones (disease). Finally there's the issue of trust. People gotta trust the experts pushing the vaccines. You don't have to live in Hollywood or Park Slope to know the anti-vax crowd has voiced some distrust in government officials and drug companies.
Then there's the issue of flawed info as opposed to flawed perception influencing people's decision and that's where vaccines have also enjoyed some notoriety of late.

This month the debacle gets lot of of attention in a special issue devoted to misinformation in the journal Psychological Science in the Public Interest. Great issue full of lots of insights into the present media mess.

In the forward Edward Maibach, Director of the Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University targets false claims about vaccines to remind us why we should care about correcting them:
Some of it is largely harmless—best called “false but harmless” information—but other false information can have serious or even fatal consequences if acted upon. Parents who withhold vaccines from their young children due to (misinformed) concerns about autism provide one current example.
Serious or even fatal consequence.  That's why we should take great care to correct them. 

Or as Stephan Lewandowsky, a Professor of Psychology at the University of Western Australia puts it in another article he co-authored in the same journal:
For example, the myths surrounding vaccinations, which prompted some parents to withhold immunization from their children, have led to a marked increase in vaccine-preventable disease, as well as unnecessary public expenditure on research and public-information campaigns aimed at rectifying the situation.
How true. Lewandowsky and friends studied who and how the bad info gets spread and how to stop it. 

Basically we can blame both the media and well, the people who consume it.  No one gets off the hook here.  So how does the news media spread it?  Well, in addition to the plain errors or oversights given the crunch to get news out fast there are also other common journalistic practices that foul up information like striving to provide "balanced" coverage of an issue even when it's clear one side is wrong or and this is a biggie - sensationalizing news at the expense of critical analyses.

Then there's the Internet and its democratization (i.e. amateur experts). Of course there's more information that ever available and it's also easier than ever to find and read only news or sites that confirm your beliefs, worldview, paranoias and the like. 

That's just the media's role in the mess.

Then we can blame people too, their biases, perceptual foibles, cognitive processing problems, emotional states..the list goes on and on. 

I'll post another time on how you and I can help encourage better info but my brain for one is overloaded.

I'll leave you with one of my favorite strategies for combating bad info that the study validated - skepticism. One of the best things you as a lone consumer of media can do to keep your mental facility free of false information? Question, question, question and question again. Even if it drives your editor, pediatrician or sister-in-law crazy.

It's also important to realize when you can reasonably and probably should stop dissecting every little word or syllable. It makes for more congenial family outings.

The misinformation issue is free online all this month. Download it now:

Misinformation and Its Correction: Continued Influence and Successful Debiasing
Stephan Lewandowsky, Ullrich K. H. Ecker, Colleen M. Seifert,Norbert Schwarz and John Cook. Psychological Science in the Public Interest December 2012 vol. 13 no. 3 106-131

doi: 10.1177/1529100612451018

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