Climate Communication Undermined by Inflammatory Language

By Keith Kloor | February 4, 2015 11:51 am

A recent article in Slate carried this headline:

If You Don’t accept Climate Change is Real, You’re Not a Sceptic. You’re a Denier.

I’ll return to its claim in a minute. The piece, by Arizona State University professor Lawrence Krauss, ruefully notes that the term “climate skeptic” is frequently used in the media as a shorthand label to identify someone who denies the reality of anthropogenic (human-caused) global warming. He writes:

Skepticism is all about critical examination, evidence-based scientific inquiry, and the use of reason in examining controversial claims. Those who flatly deny the results of climate science do not partake in any of the above. They base their conclusions on a priori convictions. Theirs is an ideological conviction—the opposite of skepticism.

This certainly is true to a considerable extent. Anyone who reads the most highly trafficked “climate skeptic” blogs, such as the one run by Anthony Watts, will detect a consistent ideological bias and a skepticism that runs in only one direction–broadly doubtful of mainstream climate science. The criticisms published there are often slanted, marred by conspicuous omissions or a selective use of facts. The overall tone at the site is hostile and conspiratorial. What you mostly see at Watts Up With That is not true skepticism but rather confirmation bias masquerading as skepticism.

Of course, confirmation bias and motivated thinking are part of the human condition–cognitive behaviors that govern us all, to varying degrees. It is thus healthy to periodically question one’s own assumptions that take root in the mind.

Does this happen at “climate skeptic” blogs? Do the hosts there openly reassess governing notions from time to time? Do they apply critical thinking skills to all the research spotlighted on their sites, regardless of a given study’s results? For some sense of this, let’s look at how various “climate skeptic” blogs have dealt with something called “wind turbine syndrome,” an assortment of adverse medical symptoms supposedly triggered by exposure to low frequency noise from rotating wind turbine blades. I thoroughly examined the phenomenon some time ago. As one public health scientist who has studied it noted last year: Read More

Governor Christie’s Dangerous Double-Talk on Vaccines

By Keith Kloor | February 2, 2015 10:39 am

The Republican political strategy during the past six years has been simple and consistent: If Obama was for it, we had to be against it.

No cooperation meant no bipartisan photo ops.

The one guy who bucked that was New Jersey Governor Chris Christie during Hurricane Sandy in 2012, when the Governor praised President Obama for his “outstanding” and “wonderful” response in the storm’s aftermath. As the Washington Post reported at the time:

He [Christie] even told Fox News the president had done a “great job for New Jersey” while staying above the fray about politics: “I’ve got a job to do here in New Jersey that’s much bigger than presidential politics, and I could care less about any of that stuff. I have a job to do. I’ve got 2.4 million people out of power. I’ve got devastation on the Shore. I’ve got floods in the northern part of my state. If you think right now I give a damn about presidential politics, then you don’t know me.”

Fast forward to the present, as Christie mulls a potential run in next year’s presidential election. Over the weekend, President Obama weighed in on the recent measles outbreak making news, which the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) warns may grow wider. On Sunday, Obama said in an interview: Read More

New Report Highlights Divide between Scientists and Public

By Keith Kloor | January 30, 2015 12:14 pm

Last year, the late night talk show host and comedian Jimmy Kimmel added some levity to the contentious GMO debate. He went to a Los Angeles farmers market and asked passerby to define GMO. The responses were hilarious and perhaps revealing.

Of course, this was a comedy skit, so make what you will of the ignorance on display. Did the producers cherry pick the most most ridiculous sounding answers? Surely. Were there as many folks who answered correctly that got conveniently edited out? Who knows?

Still, the random responses elicited by Kimmel seem to be in line with recent research. A 2013 paper on American attitudes towards GMOs reported these survey results:

American consumers’ knowledge and awareness of GMO foods are low. More than half (54%) say they know very little or nothing at all about genetically modified foods, and one in four (25%) say they have never heard of them.

Now let’s jump to a new Pew poll that is getting widespread media coverage. Here’s one finding.

Well, that’s interesting. According to Pew, 2/3 of Americans doubt that scientists have enough information to judge the safety of GMOs. And yet previous (aforementioned) research suggests that more than half of Americans know zilch about genetically modified foods and a quarter never even heard of them. How is that so many people are clueless about genetically modified foods and yet–according to the Pew Survey–67% percent of Americans question whether scientists know enough about their health effects?

Indeed, as this article in Nature reports, the Pew poll

seems to reveal large gaps between scientists and the public when it comes to their opinions on a range of hotly debated scientific issues, such as climate change, evolution and the safety of genetically modified (GM) foods.

The gap is widest on the GMO issue. [UPDATE: Read Dan Kahan’s take on this and the whole Pew report]























The Nature piece by Erika Check Hayden includes excellent context on the Pew poll, as does this Atlantic article by Julie Beck and this one at FiveThirtyEight by Christie Aschwanden. Read these before you take the Pew results at face value. Dan Vergano at National Geographic also provides some larger perspective: Read More

Holding Accountable Those Who Sow Doubt About Vaccines

By Keith Kloor | January 28, 2015 1:10 pm

In the late 2000s, I spent a year in Boulder, Colorado with my family. At the time, my two sons were four and two years old. The older one was in a pre-school and the younger one attended a day care for the last six months of our stay. My wife and I were pleased with both facilities.

We had kept both boys up to date with their immunizations, but I confess that we didn’t give much thought to whether other parents were doing the same. I’m not sure why, but it should have been on our radar. (I think I was more worried about mountain lions.) Anyway, Boulder may be a beautiful place to live, but it is a bubble of health-obssessed and woo-inclined people, a sizable number who are vaccine-averse. As one writer notes, “an estimated seven percent of parents in the Boulder Valley School District opted out of having their children vaccinated in 2011.” Colorado happens to be one of those states with a high number of vaccine-refusers.

Several years ago, a local Boulder newspaper reported:

A state study of immunization rates found that parents opted out of the measles, mumps and rubella and varicella (chickenpox) vaccines most often.

The recent Disneyland-centered measles outbreak got me thinking again of my time in Boulder and how my kids were potentially exposed to preventable diseases. I’m fairly certain my older son had gotten both of his MMR shots already, since at the time he was 4 years old, but the younger boy may have just received the first one (with the second coming later). Thinking back to that time makes me shudder now. As Virginia Hughes reminds us at Buzzfeed, this is what measles looks like.

Many (especially public health care providers) are justifiably concerned about a highly contagious disease like measles gaining a foothold in communities where parents opposed to childhood vaccines have clustered. So other than tightening personal exemption laws, what are some of the means that can be used to persuade the small percentage of anti-vaccine parents to immunize their kids? Unfortunately, giving them–and I’m talking about those who most strongly object to vaccines–more information (with scary images of sickened children) seems to backfire, as a recent study led by Brendan Nyhan showed.

So if science communication isn’t working, what about legal consequences?

This argument for holding vaccine resisters legally accountable for harm was made in a 2013 paper, whose lead author is a prominent bioethicist. A post this week at Forbes by Dan Diamonds is in favor. His headline: Read More

The Disneyland Measles Outbreak Spotlights Vaccine-Averse Behavior And Generates Media Herd Narrative

By Keith Kloor | January 23, 2015 12:01 pm

I suppose you have heard about the recent Disneyland measles outbreak. The story is receiving wide coverage in the media, triggering a fresh wave of angst over the increasing reoccurrence of preventable diseases in the United States–and outrage over the small percentage of parents who do not vaccinate their children.

Last year, per the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), there was a spike in measles cases in the United States, stemming, it seems, from unvaccinated travelers who brought the disease back with them from the Philippines, where a large outbreak has been occurring since 2013. A general media narrative taking shape now with the Disney outbreak story is informed by this CDC graphic from last year.


So what’s the latest news on the Disney-centered outbreak? Via the Associated Press (AP):

In a rash of cases that public health officials are rushing to contain, at least 70 people in six states and Mexico have fallen ill since mid-December, most of them from California. The vast majority of those who got sick had not gotten the measles-mumps-rubella, or MMR, vaccine.

Some of the media coverage has focused on “pockets” of unvaccinated children in certain California communities where vaccine-averse parents have clustered.

As the CDC notes of the three largest measles outbreaks of 2014, “transmission occurred after introduction of measles into communities with pockets of persons who were unvaccinated because of philosophical or religious beliefs.”

A new study (PDF) on these geographic clusters has just been published in the journal Pediatrics. A high concentration of unvaccinated children make these communities much more susceptible to outbreaks.

The Los Angeles Times, advancing a theme echoed in many media stories, writes that the Disneyland outbreak “has generated increased concern about the rise in the number of parents who do not immunize their children.” Similarly, the Washington Post wonk blog, referring to a 2014 survey, says that “only 51 percent of Americans were confident that vaccines are safe and effective, which is similar to the proportion who believe that houses can be haunted by ghosts.”

The two impressions you get from such articles is that more parents are not vaccinating their children and that many Americans are not confident in the safety of vaccines–and both these impressions would be dead wrong. Dan Kahan, a Yale researcher who studies science communication and risk perception, was dubious about the findings in that survey cited by the Wonk blog. In an email exchange with me, he said:

I don’t know what the survey item was, but I do know that if one constructs valid measures, one can easily show that there is overwhelming confidence in vaccine safety. Items that ask whether people are “concerned” about vaccine “side effects” are not a valid predictor of vaccine hesitancy among parents; even parents who make sure their children get every vaccine will say “yes” to that question — it’s simply not a valid indicator of vaccine hesitancy.

Indeed, no public opinion survey of the general public can give anyone useful information on vaccine risk concerns. The only valid evidence of that generally is the National Immunization Survey, which uses actual vaccine behavior to determine vaccination rates. It shows that there has been no drop off in vaccination rates in more than 10 yrs — & no measurable increase in people exempting from vaccination (that figure is below 1%).

Nonetheless, the recent spike in measles cases in the United States is the background context for the Disney/measles outbreak story. So, as the New York Times reports:

The latest outbreak has renewed a heated debate about an anti-vaccination movement championed largely by parents who believe discredited research linking vaccines to autism, or who believe that the risks of some vaccines, including the measles inoculations, outweigh any potential benefit.

This kind of narrative framing taps into the frustration of medical professionals on the frontlines of pediatric health, who lash out at vaccine-hesitant parents. Examples below.

From the AP:

“Some people are just incredibly selfish” by skipping shots, said Dr. James Cherry, a pediatric disease expert at the University of California, Los Angeles.

From the NYT:

Dr. James Cherry, a specialist in pediatric infectious diseases at the University of California, Los Angeles, said the outbreak was “100 percent connected” to the anti-immunization campaign. “It wouldn’t have happened otherwise — it wouldn’t have gone anywhere,” he said. “There are some pretty dumb people out there.”

This soundbite was picked up by other journalists on Twitter:

To which Brendan Nyhan, a communications scholar and political scientist at Dartmouth, responded:

On the quotes in the AP and NYT highlighted above, I asked Nyhan via email to elaborate:

I’m concerned that some vaccine advocates and doctors have been labeling people who aren’t vaccinated as “selfish” or “dumb” during coverage of the Disneyland outbreak. We need to maintain and strengthen the consensus around vaccination, but the most effective way to do so isn’t by polarizing and dividing people. The vast majority of parents who don’t vaccinate are intelligent and well-meaning people who are trying to do what’s best for their children. We need to help them make better choices, not ridicule them.

There are communication studies from experts that point to more constructive approaches, some of which I wrote about last year. Meanwhile, it’s worth asking if the media, in its Disneyland/measles outbreak coverage, is 1) overstating the importance of the anti-vaccine movement, and 2) eliciting the kinds of reactions from public health professionals that are more likely to unnecessarily demonize and alienate vaccine-hesitant parents?

This is not to downplay the real consequences of misguided decisions made by vaccine resisters. Clearly, they are endangering their fellow citizens. But we should be careful about drawing the wrong conclusions from these episodes.

As Kahan also remarked to me:

I’m sure it’s true that outbreaks are more likely to occur in areas with undervaccination enclaves. But that’s been true forever; it’s not new. The claim that outbreaks are tied to declines in vaccination rates or growing parental resistance, etc., is not true.

The media narrative here is comparable to the one on whooping cough [in 2013], where media kept insisting that the outbreaks were caused by lower vaccination rates. Vaccination rates hadn’t dropped. It turned out the new booster shot–made with dead rather than live pertussis — was not as effective. Reporters ignored this for quite some time, but eventually the word got out.

Kahan thus cautions against jumping to the wrong conclusions again with the latest measles outbreak:

The low-vaccination enclaves *are* a public health problem. But attributing them to general anxiety over vaccine risks in public is not useful — and in fact is itself dangerous.

Misdirected concern also ends up confusing private funders, who are more likely to be suckered by advertising consultants into a “social marketing campaign” when what they ought to be doing is supporting the research of a guy like Doug Opel at the University of Washington, who has developed a very decent screening instrument to help pediatricians identify parents who are likely, out of fear or confusion (they aren’t marching around like Jenny McCarthy et al; they’d be easy to spot then!), to have their kids skip shots. With an instrument like that, doctors can focus attention strategically on parents who might well respond to counseling. Of course, one can use empirical methods to develop good counseling protocols too — if you can identify who the likely nonvaccinators are in an effective way.

That’s where the real public health attention should be: on supporting valid studies to designed targeted identification and counseling.

As this latest measles outbreak runs its course, perhaps some of my colleagues in the media will take a look at the emerging research that aims to foster more constructive engagement on vaccine issues.

UPDATE: Julie Leask, a social scientist at the University of Sydney, Australia is an essential source for anyone seeking insight into risk communication and vaccine-related issues. I queried Leask as I was writing this post. Below is her response, which, due to our different time zones, came in after my post went up. Please take a minute to read her perspective:

The extent of the Disneyland outbreak is a big concern because measles can be a very serious disease, causing pneumonia, convulsions, croup, inflammation of the brain (encephalitis), which could result in hospitalisation and even death. But the way the problem is being explained in the media right now generally is unhelpful.

To be committed to the science of immunisation ideally comes with a commitment to the science of immunisation behaviour. Media often present this problem as refusal to vaccinate. But the evidence is clear and it’s more complex: under-vaccination is broadly about a lack of acceptance and a lack of opportunity to vaccinate fully or on-time. It’s not just the haves, but the have-nots who don’t fully vaccinate.

A typical measles outbreak will reveal this. There will be children whose parents refused vaccination; children whose parents were unwittingly not up to date for lack of access; affordability or awareness; adults and travellers who didn’t get a needed booster; and babies who are too young to be vaccinated.

Some of the solutions to under-vaccination are at our fingertips. For vaccines to reach people you need to have ‘well oiled’ systems, which include free and accessible vaccines, national registers, reminders, incentives and reasonable sanctions. Ensuring services are culturally respectful is important so people are not put off attending. If we keep focusing only on the active refusers alone, governments get off too lightly.

Having said that, active refusal of vaccines remains a real and persistent problem. The evidence base is very limited but there are some promising strategies. At a state level, exemptions that require the signature of a physician minimise the active non-vaccinators. In the physicians office, making a positive recommendation, spending time with hesitant parents (and less with entrenched decliners), building trust and rapport and even if they delay or don’t vaccinate, keeping the door open. We also need try out community based approaches first by better understanding the social norms and group commitments that lead parents to not vaccinate.

It’s a difficult one because it’s much harder to change motivation than to change the practical barriers. But there are researchers around the world committed to doing this.

To end, it’s probably appropriate to quote from our recent article here

Vaccine programs are underpinned by a rigorous science determining their efficacy and safety in populations. There needs to be a similar level of commitment to identifying and testing the interventions designed to increase uptake of vaccines among vaccine-hesitant parents.

Additional reading:

Dan Kahan: “Want to know what empirically *informed” vaccine communication looks like?”

Dan Kahan: “A risky science communication environment for vaccines.”

Brendan Nyhan: “Vaccine opponents can be immune to education.”

Julie Leask et al: “Communicating with parents about vaccination: A framework for health professionals.”

Julie Leask: “Parents’ decisions about vaccination and the gentle art of persuasion.”

The Science Battle on Social Media

By Keith Kloor | January 22, 2015 12:05 pm

In recent years, localized initiatives to end or reject fluoridation of public water supplies have made news in the United States and Canada. The practice has long been considered an effective and safe way to help curb tooth decay. It is endorsed by numerous professional science-based bodies, such as the American Dental Association and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC). But there is also a long (half century) history of varied opposition, which this Washington Post piece nicely summarizes. What is driving the latest iteration of the anti-fluoridation movement?

In 2010, after politicians in Waterloo, Canada voted to stop fluoridating the city’s water, a local dentist said:

My greatest fear here is with the advent of the Internet, and with the advent of social media, that a small vocal minority of individuals who are perhaps misinformed are able to reach a great number of people.

In 2012, Steven Novella at Science Based Medicine noted:

Recently there has been a Harvard study making the rounds of social media, Developmental Fluoride Neurotoxicity: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. The actual findings of the study do not show that there is any risk to public water fluoridation (if anything, they show that it is safe), but the study was seized upon by antifluoridation activists and distorted for their propaganda purposes. Unfortunately, the internet is now fertile ground for the spreading of propaganda.

At the time of Novella’s post, another study was underway, seeking to quantify the Internet’s role as a potent propaganda tool for anti-fluoridation forces. That study was published last September, but I only learned of it this week, via a tweet from the medical journalist Ivan Oransky, who runs the superb Retraction Watch site.

You can read the paper here and some comments by the lead author here, who is presenting his findings next week at a dental conference in Boston. Looking at stats from Facebook, Twitter, and Youtube, the study found that anti-fluoridation material had a major Internet presence. It dwarfed the amount of pro-fluoridation information from public health agencies and organizations. The paper concluded: Read More


The Tricky Terrain for GMO Communication

By Keith Kloor | January 16, 2015 10:31 am

Several years ago, the Boston Review published a forum called, “The Truth About GMOs.” Nine viewpoints were represented. All the authors, a number of them scientists and scholars, had different perspectives. Some were enthusiastic biotech supporters, others staunch opponents. Several had staked out a middle ground, acknowledging the technology’s benefits and risks. The truth about GMOs, it turned out, meant different things to different people.

To complicate matters, the science of agricultural biotechnology is a proxy battleground for many people with political or cultural objections to GMOs, much in the way climate science is a proxy for those who associate it with implied political and economic changes they view as a threat to their way of life. For example, activists and advocacy groups vehemently opposed to GMOs continue to emphasize food safety concerns that have no evidentiary basis. Nevertheless, enough doubt and fear has been sown among a subset of consumers that numerous countries require GMO foods to be labeled and a campaign to do so in the U.S. has gained momentum in recent years. Meanwhile, the issue of food security in a warming world has fueled anew the controversial potential of GMO technology.

Which brings me to a workshop held this week at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington D.C. Its focus is on how to communicate about GMOs to the public. Thursday’s speakers were excellent, with many of them drawing on the findings of social science to show the tricky communication terrain that has to be navigated for charged issues like vaccines, climate change, and yes, GMOs. To get a sense of the take-home points, scroll through the Twitter hashtag #NASInterface. If you want to watch Friday’s panels, go here for the streaming video.

A few nuggets jumped out at me as I was listening intermittently to Thursday’s talks. Dan Kahan, near the end of his fascinating presentation, said that “people misinform themselves.” What did he mean by this? Well, people have go-to sources for issues they don’t have time (or the inclination) to research. Your go-to source on a contentious issue–such as climate change or GMOs–is likely to share your values. That affinity is what makes the source trustworthy to you. But that doesn’t mean your trusted source is necessarily going to provide you with correct information.

By the way, this is why I often focus on well known information brokers who influence the GMO debate. Groups like Greenpeace and thought leaders such as Michael Pollan, Vandana Shiva, and Bill Nye have enormous clout in their respective spheres. Greenpeace is a major player on the environmental stage. Pollan has the ear of foodies, Shiva is the patron saint of socially-conscious greens, and Nye is the geeky science hero that takes on creationists. Does it muddy the science communication environment for GMOs if a big environmental group and beloved thought leaders  traffic in inaccurate information? Given their reach, I think so.

Dominique Brossard, in her Thursday talk, said that “messages and frames from the media can have an important role” in science debates. This is certainly true, though some people tend to overestimate the media’s importance, especially when an issue like climate change is “wicked” and laden with political and cultural meaning.

But to Brossard’s point, consider one popular frame that I looked into closely: The GMO/Indian farmer suicide tale. In my piece from last year, I laid out Vandana Shiva’s role as the primary architect of this false narrative. There were others who played supporting roles, but she is the one who stayed on message with it for years. She is a prime example of an influencer creating and shaping a popular media frame that has undoubtedly polluted the GMO discourse.

Finally, some thoughts about one thing Tamar Haspel said in her NAS talk. Haspel, as I have previously noted, writes a terrific, thoughtful food column for the Washington Post. Yesterday, Haspel suggested in her presentation that perhaps the “biggest thing” anyone could do in the GMO debate is reach out to someone who sits on the opposite side of the issue: Read More


Uh Oh: Salon Is Scaremongering Again

By Keith Kloor | January 14, 2015 12:35 pm


In 2000, Salon asked, “Is your cell phone killing you?”

Last year, editors there must have decided the verdict was in when they published this embarrassing piece entitled, “Your cellphone is killing you: What people don’t want you to know about electromagnetic fields.” Rather than waste my time explaining the egregious flaws in that article, I’ll just point you to this website page of the National Cancer Institute at the National Institutes of Health:

Although there have been some concerns that radiofrequency energy from cell phones held closely to the head may affect the brain and other tissues, to date there is no evidence from studies of cells, animals, or humans that radiofrequency energy can cause cancer.

Today, Salon continues its fine tradition of scaremongering with a short piece that carries this headline: “Uh oh: Wi-Fi exposure may be worse for kids than we thought.” In the sub-head, we get a newsy teaser: “New research indicates that our current exposure limits may be out of date.”

Let’s go to that new research, which by the way, is published in a new open access journal called the Journal of Microscopy and Ultrastructure (otherwise known as the Journal of the Saudi Society of Microscopes). The good news: There’s no publication fee! The bad news is that the paper is rife with dodgy, unqualified correlations and claims. You only need to read the abstract to get a sense of its bias. My favorite line: Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: science, science literacy

Why is the Crisis in Conservation Largely Ignored by Media?

By Keith Kloor | January 9, 2015 12:39 pm

With climate change commanding the news spotlight, dominating environmental discourse, you don’t hear much anymore about biodiversity or endangered species, two interconnected issues which, until the last decade or so, had been a focus of many environmental campaigners and widespread media coverage.

A case in point: In recent years, the conservation community has been at war with itself, engaged in a heated debate over how to preserve nature and biodiversity in the 21st century. The acrimonious dialogue reached a boiling point in 2014, prompting a remarkable commentary in the journal Nature, signed by more than 200 environmental scientists. Here are the passages that I figured would jump out at reporters: Read More

Standing with Charlie Hebdo and Against Extremism

By Keith Kloor | January 8, 2015 10:59 am

The murderous terrorist attack on a French satirical newspaper, which left 12 people dead, has shocked and outraged the world. Islamic extremists targeted Charlie Hebdo, the Paris-based paper, for its cartoons lampooning Islam. But it’s worth noting–as many have–that the paper poked fun at politicians, celebrities, and all the major religions.o-VEILED-570This caption explains the cover above. Vice has a good story about the paper’s anti-religion and anti-establishment history. After I heard the news of yesterday’s massacre, which killed ten of the paper’s staffers, including its top editor (and two police officers), the New York Daily News opinion editor captured how I felt. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: extremism, Islam, Journalism, religion, satire

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