Final post- for now

So how can we resolve the vaccine controversy. Habermas states that resolution in ethical controversy is typically achieved through mutual tolerance. But is this really achievable?

 Anti- vaccination groups have used controversies such as the MMR/autism link as vehicles to expand their rhetoric, through pseudo-scientific claims, conspiracy theories and propaganda, even though research has now shown there is no link so the controversy continues. On the pro-vaccination side of the debate, rather than mutual tolerance, I believe these individuals have, until recently, opted for ignorance of the situation in the hope hat it will disappear.    

Can we afford to just ignore these groups?  There is a danger associated with taking this approach.  If more and more individuals decide to opt out of vaccination, due to increased exposure of anti-vaccination rhetoric, which fits their own ethical beliefs, herd immunity will be compromised. This has the potential to increased risk of disease for individuals as well as the entire community

There is already evidence of this occurring with the recent whopping cough outbreak in the California where 10 babies have recently died. Health officials are urging the population to get vaccinated and  receive booster shots.

Booth Alicia October 26th 2010

So how can the benefits of pro-vacination groups be heard over the anti-vaccination diatribe.  I think we still need to use our scientific experts and I have spoken a lot about experts and public trust. Therefor we must be careful to choose our communicators to provide greater openness, objective and address concerns of the advocacy groups. There is also a need to gain a greater appreciation of the how the anti-vaccination messages are being broadcast in order to act in support of individuals beliefs.

Kata, A. (2010). “A postmodern Pandora’s box: Anti-vaccination misinformation on the Internet.” Vaccine 28(7): 1709-1716.

Or do we get much more tough with our messaging  and act in a similar manner to the anti-vaccination groups with their sensationalist stories and emotive images. Perhaps then the media will start to give the science some attention.

As a side note: I will be writing an essay analysing the vaccination debate as part of my assessment for the Controversial Science subject I am currently studying at UQ. I will post it once it is marked.


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Habermas’s theory of how public scientific controversies evolve is based around communicative action. Where individuals within each group, whether they are scientists or public have equal involvement through the communication of shared beliefs, attitudes, values and aspirations. Communicative Action can be part of the formation of the scientific controversy and also its resolution. It is truly democracy in action.

Habermas describes communicative action as “a circular process in which an initiator masters situations through actions for which he is accountable and also as well is a product of the transitions surrounding him, of groups whose cohesion is based on solidarity to which he belongs, and of processes of socialization in which he is reared. In democracy, “communicative action” ideally moves toward an “ideal public sphere” in which “participants harmonize their individual plans of action” and where mutual agreement, based on communication, forms the basis for joint action.”

Jurgen Habermas, Theory of communicative Action, 1981

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Habermas categorises public scientific controversies into moral, ethical, scientific, intellectual and political. Elements of the Vaccine Controversy can fit into all of these categories however in the controversies I am describing it is more ethically based and occurs when individuals life choices are challenged by science based policy.

As an example few would argue that a parent has a moral duty to protect their child from harm. It is the different ethical choices that we make that creates the controversy. One parent will choose to vaccinate their child to protect their child from illness and for the benefit for the community. Another will chose not to vaccination for fear there may be an adverse reaction or because they chose to use alternate health care.

In a Habermas framework, a scientific claim or dispute is made publicly aware through publication, this may lead to new or shift in government policy/legal challenges. A public scientific controversy will then evolve if individuals ethical beliefs or life choices are challenged. Freedom of choice, health, safety, parental rights,or  religious rights. It is then that these individuals with common ethical beliefs form advocacy groups to effect change.


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Frameing the controversy

Journalists, advocacy groups and scientists use a variety of media resources to maintain the publics interest ensuring that scientific controversies such as the vaccination debate persist. But how are these controversies formed. To finalise my blog over the next few entries I would like to look at Jurgen Habermas’ framework for analysing the formation of public scientific controversies and more specifically the vaccine controversy. Habermas is a German philosopher who is probably best known for his theory on “communicative reality” and “the public sphere” who believes that scientific controversies such as these primarily occur in pluralist societies. That is, in democratic societies where individuals can legally and ethically hold multiple and competing views and can choose their ethical beliefs, these are the environments were public(external) scientific controversies evolve.

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When is balanced one sided?

The problem with having balanced reporting in the media in terms of quality is that information is published from both sides of the controversy before all facts are known. This was the case with the MMR-vaccine link where journalists felt the need to report on the issue before all the scientific facts were available. This type of reporting can often have the effect of emphasizing an air of uncertainty in the controversy when there may not actually be one if enough time is taken to find the whole story-something that deadlines often do not allow. This air of uncertainty is not perceived well by the public who view this as a reason to question the science.

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Due the time constraints imposed on the journalist as well as the potential lack of scientific knowledge to access all viewpoints, journalists tend to narrow the debate to the two most dominant and represent them in an opposing format. J.Dearing in a paper looking at the role of balanced media reporting in controversies commented that “journalists are trained to seek out the most extreme positions on an issue, regardless of whether they are in the mainstream of scientific discourse.”  Referred to as the “balance of quality” it is not that the information reporters are presenting is necessarily accurate or objective but that the opposing viewpoints are newsworthy and known to be of public interest.

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A balanced viewpoint

The safety of vaccines is often debated in the media, and they continue to be an important vehicle to convey emerging healthcare messages to the public. But how does a journalist determine what information is objective and accurate when there are two dominant and opposing views in this debate. According to a paper by Christopher Clarke of Cornell University, it is a question of having balanced reporting, which often means equally representing relevant information from both sides of the debate without consideration of the scientific accuracy. In fact, often when a vaccination crisis breaks there may be only limited scientific information to report on. Clarke defines this as “balance by quantity.” Although this may be perceived as the ideal form of reporting, supplying the public with all relevant information so they can then make an informed decision, media often does not follow this rule.

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