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How to Communicate Science

How to Communicate Science

Chestnut Hill College welcomed Paul Offit, M.D., for the 24th Annual Spring Biomedical Distinguished Lecture Series on April 5.

Paul Offit, M.D., stands with Lakshmi Atchison, Ph.D., professor of biology and director of the Biomedical Distinguished Lecture Series.Dr. Offit is the Maurice R. Hilleman Professor and Chair of Vaccinology at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania and a professor of pediatrics in the Division of Infectious Diseases at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. His lecture was titled “How to Communicate Science to the Public — Or Die Trying.”

One of the main focuses of his talk was on the debate that has existed since the late 1990s regarding autism and the belief that it can be caused by vaccinations.

According to Offit, the belief of some people that autism can be caused by vaccinations (which has sparked debate since the late 1990s) is not supported by epidemiology, the study and analysis of the patterns, causes, and effects of health and disease conditions in defined populations.

“There is a saying that there are two sides to every story, but science doesn’t work that way,” said Offit. “Certain things are just facts and whether we wish to believe them or not, the evidence doesn’t lie.”

According to Offit, where it gets difficult, is actually communicating these results to the public, who, in large part, do not fully understand or grasp the scientific evidence. Rather, they are more inclined to believe an emotional anecdote, such as the one that Jenny McCarthy told on the Oprah Winfrey Show about her belief around her son’s autism.

Dr. Offit's lecture was titled, "How to Communicate Science to the Public or Die Trying."

“The media’s job is to entertain and not educate, and as a result, anecdote trumps epidemiology every time,” said Offit. “The media also likes to defend the weak — which in this case is a mother of a child — against the powerful, who are represented by the companies seen to be profiting and making millions off of these vaccinations.”

According to CDC data from 2014, only 71.6 percent of children aged 19-35 months, received all seven vaccinations that are recommended during that time. This means that the other, nearly 30 percent of the young population, are at risk of spreading diseases such as chicken pox, polio, tetanus, hepatitis B and MMR, to those children too young to be vaccinated. This, of course, can have deadly consequences.

“Society has scared people into not vaccinating because of the way the media has spread this notion that vaccines cause autism, which has been concluded to be in no way the truth,” said Offit. “But once you’ve scared people, it’s hard to un-scare them.”

Offit concluded his lecture by reminding audience members, especially the students interested in pursuing a field of scientific study, that it is okay to point out false information and to “stand up for science.”

“You should never let bad information go unchallenged,” he said. “Science is not a right, it’s a privilege and if we don’t stand up for it, we risk losing it.”

— Marilee Gallagher ’14 

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