Research & Insights

Have You Heard? We Have A Science Communication Problem.

In the wake of recent midterm elections, many worry that science will be downplayed, if not ignored, in upcoming policy debates.

For instance, Republican James Inhofe of Oklahoma, who is slated to be the next head of the Senate’s Environment and Public Works Committee, doesn’t believe in climate change and even wrote a book calling global warming a hoax.  The prospect of a global warming denier chairing the Senate’s most powerful environmental committee sends chills down the spines of many environmental advocates.

Inhofe, however, is hardly the only member of the new GOP majority in Congress who has little use for science in policy debates. In fact, many Republicans proudly campaigned during the last election claiming they’re “not scientists.”

How is it possible that our elected leaders are so quick to ignore science and push for policy without evidence? Some say it’s because we have a science communication problem.

Whether the issue is climate change, vaccinations or gun control, many public policy debates over the years have ensued without scientific evidence or support. In an article in the October 2013 issue of Science, Dan Kahan, the Elizabeth K. Dollard Professor of Law & Professor of Psychology at Yale Law School, writes that the science communication problem “has been the focus of scientific study since the 1970s, when psychologists began to investigate the divergence between expert and public opinion on nuclear power.”

Kahan believes that by studying past controversies we can learn how to “predict, manage, and in theory avoid conditions likely to trigger” future controversies.

Kahan’s Science article, which reviews an effort several years ago to mandate a nationwide immunization program, is both a cautionary tale “about the failure of compelling scientific evidence to resolve public dispute over risks and similar facts” as well as guidance for the future. According to Kahan, the controversy erupted after the U.S. Centers for Disease Control recommended in 2006 that all 50 states require that adolescent girls be vaccinated against human papilloma virus (HPV), a sexually transmitted disease that causes cervical cancer.

The recommendation for the nationwide HPV immunization program followed FDA approval earlier that year for Gardasil, a drug produced by Merck. Because the FDA had “fast-tracked” the drug, it was the first to reach the market. Writes Kahan, “After approval, the company sponsored a nationwide lobbying campaign directed at state legislatures to add the vaccine to the schedule of immunizations required for school enrollment. These were profit-driven choices, aimed at enabling Merck to establish a dominant market position for Gardasil before GlaxoSmithKline could secure approval for its rival product, Cervarix.”

The decision to introduce Gardasil “as a mandatory, girls-only shot for a sexually transmitted disease in a nationwide legislative campaign” was met by serious opposition from conservatives who feared its use would become a license for unsafe sexual behavior and sexual promiscuity.

Opponents campaigned against Gardasil, calling mandatory immunization a slippery slope or hall pass that would permit promiscuity, while proponents tried to use scientific evidence to make their case that the vaccine could prevent cervical cancer.

Media coverage played up the cultural divide, further fueling the controversy with stories like this one in the New York Times: A Vital Discussion, Clouded.” The article described how “worries about promiscuity have clouded the discussion about the cervical cancer vaccine that was approved last year for girls and young women.”

Time magazine article cited a comment that the Family Research Council’s Bridget Maher made to The New Scientist in which she warned that “giving the HPV vaccine to young women could be potentially harmful, because they may see it as a license to engage in premarital sex.” That same article quoted Reginald Finger, a former medical advisor to Focus on the Family and member of the CDC advisory committee, who had told The Hill earlier that “if people begin to market the vaccine or tout the vaccine that this makes adolescent sex safer, then that would undermine the abstinence-only message.”

These arguments were counter to recommendations from public health professionals who argued “the vaccines generally work best when everyone gets them: the laws of ‘herd immunity’ dictate that the more people are protected against a particular virus, the more likely it is to eventually disappear altogether… By vaccinating children before they are sexually active, there is a hope of dramatically reducing the prevalence of at least some strains for the next generation.” Those favoring the immunization program also repeatedly pointed out that there was no evidence that the vaccine would increase promiscuous behavior. Due to opposition, the effort to mandate vaccinations eventually was blocked by legislatures in all but one state.

Could this story turned out differently? As he notes in his Science article, Kahan thinks there’s a strong possibility of that.

“If Gardasil had not been fast-tracked, the FDA would have approved both Gardasil and Cervarix for boys and girls only three years later. At that point, both vaccines would have become available immediately even without mandates through private insurance and a host of programs designed to assure universal access to childhood vaccines,” he writes.

Kahan says the failure to win support for HPV vaccination is part of “a dynamic known as ‘cultural cognition,'” which he has been studying for several years at Yale. On a website dedicated to his work, Kahan describes cultural cognition as “the tendency of individuals to conform their beliefs about disputed matters of fact (e.g. whether global warming is a serious threat, whether the death penalty deters murder or whether gun control makes society more safe or less) to values that define their cultural identities,” regardless of what science might say. More to the point, when confronted with information that might challenge their cultural identity, individuals will avoid scientific evidence to protect their sense of identity.

How do we overcome some people’s resistance to science? How do we get people to accept what the science tells us?

Citing again from Kahan’s Science article, he believes the answer rests with developing “evidence-informed risk communication strategies,” or strategies that frame the science as a rational choice. By framing science-based issues in such a way, perhaps we can get people to see that their cultural identities are not threatened, but that the suggested solution or recommendation is the wisest course of action.

In an earlier article that appeared in Nature in 2010, Kahan wrote, “It would not be a gross simplification to say that science needs better marketing. Unlike commercial advertising, however, the goal of these techniques is not to induce public acceptance of any particular conclusion, but rather to create an environment for the public’s open-minded, unbiased consideration of the best available scientific information.”

Posted: November 21, 2014