Stories of adverse events from vaccines matter – explained @ConversationUS

Stories of vaccine-related harms are influential, even when people don’t believe them

Laura Scherer, University of Missouri-Columbia; Brian Zikmund-Fisher, University of Michigan; Niraj Patel, University of Missouri-Columbia, and Victoria Shaffer, University of Missouri-Columbia

In 2013 a boy who was given the HPV vaccine died almost two months later.

Two quick questions: First, does this worry you? And second, do you believe that the vaccine caused the boy’s death?

This is a real case reported in the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS). VAERS is monitored by health experts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Food and Drug Administration to detect very rare or emergent harms that may be caused by vaccines. The vast majority of adverse events reported in VAERS are mild (such as fever), but a few are serious, like death and permanent disabilities. Staff follow up on certain cases to better understand what happened.

A growing number of parents are refusing to vaccinate their children, and one reason they often state is that they do not trust that doctors and government agencies sufficiently research the potential harms of vaccines. Given that, we wanted to find out whether telling people about VAERS and the information it gathers could influence their beliefs about vaccine safety.

Vaccine refusal and the importance of trust

It’s important to stress that just because a case like the one mentioned above is reported to VAERS doesn’t mean that the vaccine caused the problem. That’s because VAERS is an open-access reporting system.

Health care providers are required to report certain adverse events, but they are not the only ones who can contribute to the database. Anyone can make a report in VAERS for any reason. Similarly, anyone can access VAERS reports and data. In fact, advocates both for and against vaccines refer to VAERS data as evidence of either the existence of harms or the rarity of harms.

This open-access feature makes VAERS a potentially rich source of information about possible vaccine-related harms. It also means, however, that the events reported in VAERS often turn out to have nothing to do with a vaccine.

Take for example, the boy who died less than two months after receiving the HPV vaccine. Here’s what the full VAERS report says: “Sudden death. He was perfectly healthy. The vaccination is the only thing I can think of that would have caused this. Everything else in his life was normal, the same.”

The fact that there were no reported problems for almost two months between the vaccine and the child’s death might make you, like us, skeptical that the vaccine was the cause. Yet, it is important that the death was reported so that it can be followed up.

Being transparent about risks is critical to building trust. In fact, that’s part of the reason that VAERS data is available to everyone.

Does VAERS make people trust vaccine safety?

It seems plausible that describing VAERS in depth could build trust. Doing so would demonstrate that every effort is being made to collect information about potential vaccine harms, and that even with such a comprehensive effort very few serious events are reported. Further, transparency would also show that these few serious events are not necessarily caused by the vaccine, and this information is available for anyone to view and evaluate.

We decided to test this idea in a recent internet survey. We surveyed over 1,200 people, who were divided into three groups.

One group received the standard CDC Vaccine Information Statement for the HPV vaccine. We chose the HPV vaccine because this vaccine is particularly underutilized. The second group was given detailed information about VAERS – what it is, what it is for and what it contains – as well as the number of serious adverse event reports received about HPV. To be specific, this group was told that there were seven deaths and 24 permanent disabilities reported for the HPV vaccine in 2013 out of a total of approximately 10 million vaccine doses given that year. A third group received all of that information and then also read the actual adverse event reports in detail. We hoped that reading these reports would show this group that not all of these deaths and permanent disabilities were caused by the vaccine.

We found that telling participants about VAERS, without having them read the actual reports, improved vaccine acceptance only very slightly. Even worse, when participants read the detailed reports, both vaccine acceptance and trust in the CDC’s conclusion that vaccines are safe declined significantly.

What we found next surprised us: The vast majority of our survey respondents, the same ones who were less accepting of vaccines and less trusting of the CDC, said that they believed the vaccine caused few or none of the reported deaths and disabilities. This means that the individual stories of perceived vaccine harms were highly influential, even when people didn’t believe they were true.

We are influenced by information even when we don’t believe it

Think back to your reaction to reading about the tragic death we described earlier. Our data suggest that just learning about this death may have caused you to feel more negatively toward the HPV vaccine, even if you believed that the vaccine did not cause the death.

While we can’t say that everyone reacted to the stories the same way or to the same degree, it seems clear that at least some people didn’t believe that the vaccine caused the reported harms, but they were nonetheless negatively influenced by those reports.

Systems like VAERS are essential for public health, providing an opportunity to learn about and investigate every possible case of potential harm caused by vaccines. But the power and emotion evoked by the stories of VAERS reports may influence us and undermine trust in vaccines, no matter what our rational mind might think.

The Conversation

Laura Scherer, Assistant Professor, Psychology, University of Missouri-Columbia; Brian Zikmund-Fisher, Associate Professor of Health Behavior and Health Education, University of Michigan; Niraj Patel, Graduate Student, University of Missouri-Columbia, and Victoria Shaffer, Associate Professor of Psychology, University of Missouri-Columbia

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Anti-Science Quotable: Donald Trump on wind energy @factcheckdotorg

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In promoting his energy plan, Donald Trump made two false claims:

  • Trump said wind farms in the U.S. “kill more than 1 million birds a year.” Reliable data are scarce, but current mean estimates range from 20,000 to 573,000 bird deaths per year.
  • While discussing the number of eagles that are killed by wind turbines, Trump said that “if you shoot an eagle … they want to put you in jail for five years.” Actually, the maximum penalty is a one-year imprisonment.

On May 26, Trump held a press conference and then gave a speech in Bismarck, North Dakota, where he unveiled what he called an “America First” energy plan. In his press conference, Trump said he is “into all types of energy,” but he singled out wind energy as “a problem” because it kills eagles. In his speech, he also spoke generally about birds that are killed by wind farms.

Via SciCheck – who have featured science mis-statements from the Donald more than once recently. Check the SciCheck site for the full low-down on Trumps lies about wind energy.

Anti-Science Quotable: Trump Economic Advisor Steve Moore #climatechange

I have to tip my hat to the left, this has been one of the greatest propaganda campaigns in world history that the left has pulled off. I mean, they’ve taken this dingbat idea of global climate change and they’ve put it in the schools, they’ve put it in the movies, they’ve put it in the media and the churches — you know, I’m Catholic, even the pope talks about climate change.

So it’s very alarming how this propaganda campaign, that they made this stuff out of, almost completely out of thin air and they’ve convinced millions and millions of thought leaders that this stuff is real.

Trump economic advisor and Heritage Foundation fellow Steve Moore

           Seen via Right Wing Watch

Concerned scientists tell Lamar Smith – HELL NO – to his overreaching McCarthyistic info request #science #intimidation @UCSUSA @BadAstronomer

Phil Plait has written a scathing take down in Slate of anti-science Representative Lamar Smith and his recent request for oversight over the Union of Concerned Scientists (ironically Smith is the chair of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology). See the many, many, many previous CauseScience posts about Rep. Lamar Smith intimidating scientists and anti-science credentials.

Plait does a great job summarizing Smith’s history against climate change, as well as the recent controversy involving the  Union of Concerned Scientists – a quick and informative read:

To the surprise of no one, Lamar Smith (R-Texas) is continuing his unfounded attack on science, ratcheting it up even higher than before. This time, he’s trying to tie up the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). The good news? They’re having none of it.

 

Smith’s been ramping up a new(ish) tactic, trying to flush out what he thinks is a cabal of scientists fighting the fossil fuel industry. On May 18, 2016, he sent a letter to the UCS, an obvious attempt to create a chilling effect on their work to help scientists maintain the freedom they need to do their research.

See the ridiculous letter from Smith to UCS here. The letter and intent behind it are far overreaching Smith’s jurisdiction – as pointed out by Plait. The head of UCS responded by saying HELL NO, more or less. Below is the response… in fewer words, UCS will not be intimidated by Smith. AND UCS will not allow Smith to set a precedent of overreaching his jurisdiction when it comes to harassing scientists! Way to go UCS! Can’t wait to see the guaranteed McCarthyistic response from Smith and his Committee!

Several members of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee have sent letters to 17 state attorneys general, the Union of Concerned Scientists and other groups, requesting that they turn over documents and communications among the groups related to investigations into ExxonMobil. Attorneys general from California, Massachusetts, New York, and the U.S. Virgin Islands are investigating whether ExxonMobil lied to its shareholders and the public about the threat of climate change.

Below is a statement by Ken Kimmell, president of the Union of Concerned Scientists.

“The premise of Chairman Smith’s letter is a farce. The attorneys general are not investigating ExxonMobil’s scientific research, but rather whether the company misled shareholders and the public about the dangers of climate change in order to continue profiting from a lucrative product. Documents uncovered by UCS and others reveal that scientists with Exxon and other companies knew about the causes and consequences of climate change by the 1970s, but company leaders chose to deny, disparage and downplay this evidence to avoid sensible regulation.

“We are unapologetic about our efforts to expose this deception, and we will not be intimidated by this tactic. Record temperatures, rising seas and unprecedented flooding affects people around the globe and they rightly expect carbon producers to be held accountable for their deliberate strategy to deceive the public, shareholders and policy makers.

“It’s ironic that Representative Smith sees our work as an attempt to stifle scientific discourse, when he has spent the last 10 months harassing National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientists whose research he doesn’t like. This abuse of power has been repeatedly and strongly rebuked by the scientific community.

“In keeping with Mr. Smith’s calls for transparency, the public should demand that oil companies fully disclose what their scientists knew about climate change and when. And more importantly, the public deserves to know which industry executives made decisions to mislead shareholders, policy makers and investors about the harm of their products.”

@NIH observes #PRIDE month – How research impacts LGBTQ communities

NIH is observing PRIDE month this June with events on the NIH campus and the ‘telling our stories’ campaign. The Office of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI), along with the Sexual & Gender Minority Research Office, and the National Institute of Minority Health and Health Disparities are bringing awareness this PRIDE month to how research impacts sexual and gender minority communities. See the NIH Director Francis Collins’ statement to NIH staff for pride month below.

Check out the NIH EDI website here for ‘Telling Our Stories’ and more. Or on twitter @NIH_EDI.

Dear Staff,

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) is committed to the principles of equal employment opportunity, diversity, and inclusion in our research and workplace.  As part of that commitment, the NIH will be celebrating this year’s Pride Month with a variety of activities that highlight the meaning of including the sexual and gender minority (SGM) community in our work.  The Office of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI), the Sexual & Gender Minority Research Office, and the National Institute of Minority Health and Health Disparities are sponsoring several events that will address key areas of interest in working with SGM populations.  The goal of these activities is to understand, in very specific ways, how research impacts sexual and gender minority communities, and how best to conduct research with and for SGM populations.

The theme for this year’s NIH Pride Month is “Telling Our Stories, Claiming Our Power, Standing in Our Truth.”  This theme reflects our understanding of the importance of storytelling in the biomedical research setting.  In each of the four Pride Month events, we have the opportunity, perhaps for the first time, to look at research from a new and different perspective.

Throughout the month-long celebration, EDI will make available on their website video testimonials and written accounts of members of the NIH SGM community and their allies. Through this campaign, we will have the honor of hearing their stories and learning from their experiences.

Each of us has the ability and the responsibility to learn about, understand, and work for the interests of those groups that invite us and trust us to explore research opportunities within their communities.  I hope that during the month of Pride you will pause to reflect upon the diversity of the SGM population and the importance of including this community in our research and other related activities.  SGM research sits at the intersection of our ongoing commitment to equal employment opportunity, diversity and inclusion, and our mission of turning discovery into health.

For more information on the Pride events happening on the NIH campus, please visit http://edi.nih.gov/pride and follow EDI on twitter and Instagram at @NIH_EDI.

Sincerely yours,

Francis S. Collins, M.D., Ph.D.

Director

Science communication training gets strategic @ConversationUS #scicomm

Science communication training should be about more than just how to transmit knowledge

John Besley, Michigan State University and Anthony Dudo, University of Texas at Austin

For some scientists, communicating effectively with the public seems to come naturally. Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson currently has more than five million Twitter followers. Astronomer Carl Sagan enraptured audiences for decades as a ubiquitous cosmic sage on American televisions. And Stephen Jay Gould’s public visibility was such that he voiced an animated version of himself on “The Simpsons.” But, for most scientists, outward-facing communication is not something they’ve typically thought about much… let alone sought to cultivate.

But times change. Leaders in the scientific community are increasingly calling on their scientist colleagues to meaningfully engage with their fellow citizens. The hope is that such interactions can improve the science-society relationship at a time when we are confronting a growing list of high-stakes, high-controversy issues including climate change, synthetic biology and epigenetics.

The gauntlet has been issued, but can scientists meet it?

The answer to that question largely depends on one key group: professional science communication trainers who offer formalized guidance designed to improve scientists’ public communication efforts. There’s a wellspring of science communication programs, among them the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science, the Center for Public Engagement with Science & Technology at the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the Communication Partnership for Science and the Sea. Programs like these typically provide communication courses of a half-day up to a week or more. Some organizations also employ in-house personnel to train their scientists to communicate.

Given the important role these training programs now play in the public communication of science, we sought to examine their work. Broadly, we were looking for commonalities in their efforts and experiences, and we wanted to spot possible opportunities for their growth. We were especially interested in something we view as being critical to effective public engagement: helping scientists identify and try to achieve specific communication goals.

What trainers focus on

In late 2014, we conducted a set of 24 interviews with science communication trainers from across the United States. Ours is the first published study examining this important community. We found that much of the training they provided focused on helping scientists share their research in clear ways that would increase knowledge.

This is consistent with what scientists have told us in surveys: their main objective in communicating their work is to inform the public about science and correct misinformation.

Sharing knowledge will always be a central component of science communication – knowledge generation is, after all, the main enterprise of science. And relaying knowledge makes up the bulk of the science journalism the public encounters through the media – stories about new discoveries and the latest research.

But there are other reasons scientists might want to communicate with the general public. We call these “nonknowledge objectives” – things like fostering excitement about science, building trust in the scientific community, or reframing how people think about certain issues. These objectives are different from a biologist wanting to share with a listener the details on her research on bird migration, for instance. They’re more about people, and forging relationships.

We’ve found that these sorts of nonknowledge goals have a relatively lower priority for scientists compared to the desire to get information across about their direct scientific work. Not surprisingly, only a few of the trainers we interviewed indicated that, at that time, they were explicitly trying to help scientists achieve these other kinds of nonknowledge objectives.

Nevertheless, the trainers told us they believed many of the scientists they train want to communicate to help raise public support for science in general and because they think their research will help people see the value in specific policy options.

Our work suggests that scientists and the trainers they work with often focus primarily on the successful transmission of science information, leaving those other objectives to fall into place. But there’s a problem with that logic. Decades of science communication research – a research area now commonly referred to as the science of science communication – show that fostering positive views about science requires more than just trying to correct deficits in public knowledge.

Matching the training to the ultimate goal

It may be useful to consider alternatives (or additions) to the character of the current training landscape. The emphasis now is on teaching scientists key journalism skills to help them share information more effectively – by, for instance, distilling jargon-free messages. Training typically places limited emphasis on whether sharing that information will have the desired effect.

Instead, given scientists’ goals, training could help scientists avoid doing things that have little potential for impact or, worse, actually diminish people’s views of science.

Extensive research shows that we tend to trust people we judge to be warm and caring because they seem less likely to want to do us harm. With that in mind, more training could explicitly help scientists avoid doing the types of things that might convey a cold demeanor. For example, no matter how accurate a scientist’s argument may be, if communicated rudely it will likely miss its mark. Worse still, it may generate negative feelings that a recipient could then generalize more broadly to the scientific community.

Related research on what people perceive to be fair or not when it comes to making important decisions could also inform communication training. Studies emphasize the potential strategic value of making sure people feel like they’re being listened to and treated with respect. Imagine, for example, how you’d feel if a doctor didn’t give you a genuine chance to share your personal experiences with an ailment.

Similarly, given what we know about the value of framing, perhaps more training should help scientists find ways to talk about issues that are consistent with the scientists’ work but that are also consistent with the priorities or worldviews of the people with whom they are speaking. For example, given the value that people put on their families’ health, it may make sense to frame climate change in terms of health issues.

Challenges to getting more strategic

There are at least two challenges associated with suggesting a more strategic approach to science communication.

First, it is easier to communicate in ways that come naturally and simply hope for the best.

Second, there is a danger that some people will misconstrue being strategic as being dishonest. On the contrary, effective strategic communication rests on authenticity, just like science. Science communicators should never do things like pretend to be warm, fake listening or frame things in ways they don’t think are appropriate.

The point is that by thinking strategically, we can begin to recognize that our communication choices – whether it’s leaving time after a talk for real discussion, calling those with whom we disagree ugly names or framing every disagreement as a war – have consequences.

It also seems clear that science communicators and communication trainers – who, in our experience, provide outstanding training in key skills – are already focusing on certain tactics that affect things like trust without making the explicit connection. For example, just using accessible language and speaking without jargon might communicate that scientists care enough about those with whom they are speaking to accommodate them. The power of telling stories isn’t just a better way to convey information; it’s a social act with social consequences.

Effective public engagement involves high-quality interactions between people. This means that many of the actual effects are likely to be due to the quality of the relationships between participants, including scientists and nonscientists. Content matters, of course, but not unless a healthy dynamic for information exchange is established.

The science communication training community is already doing great work. Ultimately, as trainers and scientists get more strategic in their science communication, it will help justify the time and resources it takes to communicate effectively. And they can forgo activities that seem unlikely to have an impact.

The Conversation

John Besley, Associate Professor of Advertising and Public Relations, Michigan State University and Anthony Dudo, Assistant Professor of Advertising and Public Relations, University of Texas at Austin

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Iowa Rep. Steve King’s claims on water quality get SciChecked – @factcheckdotorg

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SciCheck spills the scientific T on water quality data – and schools Rep. Steve King on his recent claims (including the snarky, but hilarious point that ‘bison’ is more scientifically accurate than ‘buffalo’).

During a recent congressional hearing, Rep. Steve King of Iowa underestimated what scientists know about the relationship between farming practices and water quality.

  • King said scientists don’t know about the quality of water in the U.S. “when the buffalo roamed” because there were “no water quality tests then.” Pre-1900 water quality data is relatively scarce, but experts can use techniques from paleolimnology to evaluate past water quality.
  • He implied that this lack of “baseline” data prevents scientists from knowing whether applications of crop fertilizer are “too much.” But experts say they don’t need 19th century data to know fertilizers have negatively impacted water quality. The 20th century provides plenty of evidence.

To start, the term “bison” is scientifically more accurate than “buffalo” when referring to North American populations.