Protecting the Vaccine Science Communication Environment

This project has two goals: first, to enlarge societal understanding of how to promote informed public engagement with valid empirical evidence on the efficacy and safety of vaccines; and second, to advance societal recognition of the need to use valid empirical evidence to guide communication on vaccines and other applications of science essential to societal well-being.

The political controversy that enveloped the HPV vaccine after the CDC recommended its addition to the schedule of universal immunizations in 2006 supplies an object lesson in the societal cost of failing to integrate science-informed policymaking with the science of science communication.

Not only were the dynamics of group conflict that disrupted informed public engagement with information on the vaccine well understood before the controversy. The prospect that those dynamics would be triggered by the irregular strategy being pursued for introducing the vaccine was clearly foreseen and warned of at the time.

These concerns weren’t brushed aside, however.  They were simply never considered—because there was no mechanism in the regulatory-approval process of the FDA or the practices of the nation’s public health establishment generally for assessing the science-communication impact of alternative means for introducing the vaccine.

It is a mistake to blame the controversy—and the persistent state of ambivalence surrounding the vaccine—on either the recklessness of its manufacturer or the opportunism of political activists who transformed the vaccination into a symbol of clashing cultural orthodoxies.

The fault is systemic: the absence of institutional structures and related professional norms that assure the employment of valid, evidence-based methods for protecting the conditions on which informed public recognition of valid, decision-relevant science depends.

This same deficiency now threatens to compromise the immense contribution that childhood vaccines make to societal well-being. Medical practitioners and other careful observers have reported that parents are confused and anxious about conflicting information on vaccine safety.

But many of those who have undertaken to inform the public are themselves deeply confused. The primary source of information on vaccine risks consists in ad hoc risk communication by journalists, advocacy groups, and even some individual public health professionals who consistently mischaracterize the nature, extent, and sources of public concerns over vaccines.  Rather than assure the public, this empirically uinformed style of risk communication itself poses a risk of exciting group animosities and other dynamics that could magnify unfounded fears of vaccines.

CCP conducted a large national study—one involving a diverse national sample of over 2000 U.S. adults—to generate evidence on public vaccine-risk perceptions and the impact of ad hoc risk communication on those perceptions.  Links to particular findings are indexed below, and the full report can be downloaded here.

The report also highlights early research efforts that are well suited to fashioning a superior, evidence-based alternative to the ad hoc risk communication that is now the dominant source of public information on the efficacy and safety of vaccines. CCP will in future studies seek to supplement such efforts.

CCP’s vaccine risk-perception and -communication project will also continue to engage in research aimed at enlarging both collective knowledge of how to protect the vaccine science communication environment and societal appreciation of the critical importance of such knowledge.

CCP vaccine studies, reports, and articles

Cultural Cognition Project Lab. Vaccine Risk Perceptions and Ad Hoc Risk Communication: An Emprical Analysis. CCP Risk Studies Report No. 17

Kahan, D.M. A risky science communication environment for vaccines. Science 342, 53-54 (2013).

Kahan, D., Braman, D., Cohen, G., Gastil, J. & Slovic, P. Who fears the HPV vaccine, who doesn’t, and why? An experimental study of the mechanisms of cultural cognition. Law Human Behav 34, 501-516 (2010).

Research highlights

HPV vaccine

Childhood immunizations

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