April 15th, 2015

Does Scientific Language Come Across as Wishy-Washy?

milk toastI had the opportunity to interview author Seth Mnookin recently for a podcast on Open Forum Infectious Diseases, and it was a real treat. He’s Associate Director of the graduate program in Scientific Writing at MIT, and the author of the The Panic Virus: The True Story Behind the Vaccine-Autism Controversy.

Not surprisingly given his title, Seth thinks a lot about how language conveys information about health and science. While researching the topic of vaccine safety for his book, he discovered the striking difference in how the various sides communicated their message to the public:

When you had an NIH official or a CDC official making a statement and then you had a parent, it almost seemed to me like they were talking in two different languages … So when a doctor or Harvey Fineberg would be on TV and say, “Well based on all of the evidence that we have, we’re reasonably confident that there’s no concern that vaccines cause autism that we know of at this point, etc.” In science that means, “Yeah, we’re really sure about this.” But in English that means, “Yeah we have no idea what we’re talking about and we’re about to find out that actually we’ve been doing something horribly wrong…”

And the parents challenging vaccine safety? They couldn’t be more sure of themselves:

A great example of this is when Jenny McCarthy was on Larry King’s show and she was talking about her child, and she said, “The story that I have about my child is science.” [She also said something almost exactly like this on Oprah.] A point that I try to stress is that actually the plural of anecdote is not data, and that the fact that there is a story to be told about something does not make it true.

In research, we’re taught to be curious, questioning, and skeptical — but this doesn’t play well on the big stage. If the message is as clear as the overwhelming case for vaccine safety and efficacy, we have to just say it.

There’s more interesting stuff in the full interview, including how he chose to tackle this tricky subject, how big of a problem the hard-core anti-vaccine activists actually are right now, and when the police start to take seriously various threats on your life (not kidding about that, unfortunately).

Full podcast is here, transcript here.

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HIV Information: Author Paul Sax, M.D.

Paul E. Sax, MD

Contributing Editor

NEJM Journal Watch
Infectious Diseases

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