Child DevelopmentCultureMedia

Stopping Phony Science With A Big Dose Of The Truth

“Measles on Amtrak.” “Measles in New York Public Schools.” These are today’s headlines that are brought to you by the success of Jenny McCarthy steering millions down the wrong path. McCarthy is listed in Wikipedia as an American model, television host, comedic actress, author and anti-vaccine activist.

What may be less known or understood is that this public health crisis is also brought to you by the failure of many scientists, and their communications specialists, to publicly voice scientific truths.

For the past several years NBC’s on-air medical expert Nancy Snyderman, M.D., has been one of the only spokespeople representing so many scientists who couldn’t or wouldn’t speak out about the enormous body of evidence indicating that there is no causal link between young children’s vaccine regimen and autism. This Vox article, The research linking autism to vaccines is even more bogus than you think” tells the backstory on the science, and the false science that gave rise to the invalid McCarthy campaign.

Why didn’t scientists speak up? Why didn’t their communicators guide and sometimes push them to do the right thing? Perhaps because of a hugely successful campaign led by McCarthy developing at the same time.

Jenny McCarthy’s son showed signs of autism around the same time that he received his vaccinations from the pediatrician. McCarthy did the right thing first. She perceptively saw early signs in her son, and immediately followed up with physicians who treated her son with the latest of autism therapies.   However, despite the evidence, she firmly believed that the vaccines caused her son’s autism.

I don’t know what happened next, whether she talked with doctors or consulted psychics, but what she didn’t do is read the medical literature to find there is no connection between vaccinations and autism.   And if she did, she chose not to believe it.

Firm in her own belief, she began her campaign against vaccinations, rallying mommy bloggers, speaking out at events, on television, radio and in print.   Before you knew it, she had millions on her side. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the safe side for many suffering from measles today.

In a Today Show interview as far back as 2008, Dr. Snyderman foreshadows the future, “If parents don’t get their children vaccinated, there are going to be outbreaks of polio and measles in this country.” Predictive words.

What were communicators doing to prepare scientists to tell the important truths about McCarthy’s inaccurate information?   What would have happened in this scenario if the researchers who did all these studies had spoken up with jargon-free clear language and early in the process? What if they weren’t fearful to be badgered by the public or to feel nervous about what their peers might think?   What if they used the social media to educate the public about the truth, or speak on national television and in print?

The “Jenny McCarthy factor” can only be stopped by scientists willing to speak up and advocate. With such definitive science in this case, there is no excuse that measles are back because millions of families are shying away from baby vaccines.

As communicators, in the speed of releasing a report or new data to meet an embargoed release date, we often forget the importance of supporting the spokesperson with strategic communications guidance, messaging, and preparation. We would be wise to step out of our own comfort zone and push back when the researcher feels timid to speak to the media or the public and ask the researcher, “If not you, then who?”   In many ways, we are the conduit to improved science communications and it is our job to make research and science clear and to make sure it is heard.

More recently Jenny McCarthy finally accepted the truth. Dr. Snyderman has been known to say to the public, “Get your damn vaccines.”   To scientists I say, find your voice – accurate and clear – and use it.   And to us communicators, let’s keep pushing for the truth to be told.

Posted: February 6, 2015