When facts are not enough

UMaine Professor Robert Wheeler asked me to present on science communication and risk perception to his Infectious Disease class. Because of Dr. Wheeler’s expertise and other topics covered in the class, I used the case of vaccines and autism to illustrate my points. The following is a summary of the lecture.

Science has evolved to generate consensus about what is true and what is not. A wealth of scientific truths have been generated and transferred to the public in the last half-century. Yet neither public support for research nor scientific literacy has increased significantly over the same time period. Despite the best efforts of science writers like myself and the new generation of scientist-communicators, more and better information does not = knowledge.


A lack of understanding about how science works is partly to blame for people believing things that science says are not true, but that’s not the whole story.

Even when people have the right information, they don’t always make the decision that scientists would favor. In the last decade or so, we have learned from psychologists and communication scientists that people view information through the “frames” of their values and beliefs. They trust messengers and seek out sources of information with whom they already feel aligned: friends, relatives, neighbors, pastor, political party, etc.

While this has probably always been true, a concurrent trend is magnifying the issue: the unprecedented access that we all have to information, and misinformation.

As I mentioned in the beginning of this post, I am using the example of autism to illustrate how people maintain false beliefs in the face of facts.

Autism is a sensitive and serious topic. The dramatic increase in children with autism spectrum disorders is very real and very scary. The latest risk factor, tracked by the CDC, is 1 in 110. While increased understanding and diagnoses partly explains the rise in cases (about 25%), it can’t explain all of the increase.

graph showing 600% increase in autism

So, in the 1990s many people were trying to figure out what was causing this increase.

In 1998, a study was published proposing that autism was linked to the MMR vaccine. Even though most of the authors later retracted the study’s conclusions (because the experiment used a small sample and had no control group), a link had been made in the minds of many concerned parents (see Gerber and Offit for the details of this story). Around the same time, an EPA study of mercury exposure discussed thimerosal, a preservative in vaccines that contained mercury. Mercury is a neurotoxin, and so it was easy for parents to seize on the idea that not only was the MMR vaccine a risk, but all vaccines because they have mercury in them. In 1999, despite little evidence that thimerosal-containing vaccines were in any way associated with autism or other harm, authorities ordered their phase-out in favor of thimerosal-free alternatives.

By the end of 2001, the only childhood vaccines still containing thimerosal were flu vaccines, and few children received them. This precautionary step, coupled with a public already concerned by a proposed but unsubstantiated link between vaccination and autism, understandably provoked concern among parents (Gerber and Offit).

But what happened to autism diagnoses?

They continued to rise.

Dozens and dozens of studies conducted since 2001 have looked at vaccines and autism and the science does not support any connection.

“The data support a conclusion of no association between thimerosal-containing vaccines and autism in children,” Dr. Sarah Parker, Journal of Pediatrics (2004).

“There is insufficient evidence to suggest that the MMR vaccine causes autism, either due to the vaccine itself, the presence of thimerosal, or the simultaneous administration of multiple vaccines,” Heather Coates, Medical Reference Services Quarterly (2009).

“20 epidemiologic studies have shown that neither thimerosal nor MMR vaccine causes autism,” Dr. Paul Gerber, Vaccines (2009).

Many of the scientists who authored these studies have made the point that concern about vaccines has diverted attention—and research funding—away from efforts to determine the real cause or causes of autism (e.g., genetic influence, other environmental factors).

So why is there still such fear of vaccines? Why hasn’t attention shifted to more probable causes?

Why do people still believe there is a link? How do we support our false beliefs?

1. Vaccines are given at the very same time that autism is diagnosed, so correlation easily becomes causation. Our brains seem to be wired to notice patterns, to believe that two things that happen at the same time are related. After a mercury link was ruled out, alternative theories emerged, such as the idea that the simultaneous administration of multiple vaccines overwhelms or weakens the immune system and creates an interaction with the nervous system that triggers autism in susceptible children. (Although the number of vaccines administered to children has increased, the total immunologic load has decreased.)

2. We have lost social memory of childhood diseases.

graph showing declines in childhood diseases

Vaccination is considered one of the major success stories in public health. Vaccines have eliminated diseases such as polio and small pox, and prevented outbreaks of mumps, measles, hepatitis, whooping cough. Because these diseases are no longer common, we have forgotten them. The new generation of parents has no memory of these diseases from their own childhood, and so may question the need for vaccines. Side effects or reactions to vaccines appear more common than the diseases the vaccines are preventing, increasing the perception that vaccines represent a risk. The fear of vaccines has replaced fear of childhood diseases.

A theoretical, even disproved risk such as getting autism from a vaccine, is elevated above a real risk of being hospitalized or killed by influenza, or promoting an outbreak of diseases like whooping cough or mumps. Harm resulting from immunization is less acceptable than potential harm from not immunizing. This is a classic example of “omission bias” in which the idea that causing harm through action (commission) is less acceptable than harm that results from inaction (omission). It is better to do nothing (Amanna and Slifka).

Psychology offers additional explanation of how people obtain and process information. Much of this research is focused on political beliefs, but is relevant to any factual information. Unsubstantiated beliefs are maintained via “motivated reasoning,” which suggests that rather than search rationally for the truth, people actually seek out information that confirms what they already believe.

Even when confronted with facts, people don’t necessarily change their belief.

People interpret facts differently; often this difference is illustrated by political affiliation and ideology (Democrat vs. Republican). If a new fact agrees with your belief, you might interpret the fact in an accepting way that strengthens your belief. If the new fact contradicts your belief, you might interpret it in a defensive way and resist changing your belief. Interpretations give individuals leeway to align facts with undeniable realities and yet continue to justify their beliefs and opinions. In the case of the Iraq War, Republicans and Democrats differed in their interpretations of the fact that the United States did not find weapons of mass destruction. Democrats concluded that the weapons did not exist, supporting their opposition to the war. Republicans interpreted the fact to mean that the weapons had been destroyed or moved or not yet found, thus maintaining the rationale for the invasion (Gaines et al. 2007).

When confronted with the fact that mercury is no longer in vaccines, a worried parent might interpret that vaccines themselves, not mercury, are the problem.

Another study looked at whether people change their beliefs when presented with corrected information. Such corrections can actually strengthen misperceptions. The truth can backfire (Nyhan and Reifler).

However, there does seem to be a “tipping point” when enough facts and broader public sentiment, which trigger anxiety, can lead people to change their beliefs (Redlawsk et al.).

More basic emotions also play a role: fear, anxiety, desire.

A study in the journal Sociological Inquiry (Prasad) looked at the strength and resilience of the belief among many Americans that Saddam Hussein was linked to the terrorist attacks of 9/11. The authors concluded that the belief was the result of an urgent need by many Americans to seek justification for a war already in progress. This study argues that the primary cause of misperception in the 9/11-Saddam Hussein case was not the presence or absence of accurate data, but a respondent’s desire to believe in particular kinds of information.

We get attached to our beliefs. They become part of our identity. And so for the people interviewed in this study, the overwhelming evidence that there was no link between Saddam and the 9/11 attacks had no influence on their belief that such a link existed. It had to be true for people to make sense of the war.

So for parents crushed by an autism diagnosis, “there must be a reason.”

The intense desire for an autism cure often leads parent groups and nonprofit organizations to endorse causes and treatments without sufficient evidence of effectiveness. And, for better or worse, it is easier than ever to find (mis)information that supports your belief.


Black, Steven, and Rino Rappuoli. 2010. A Crisis of Public Confidence in Vaccines. Science Translational Medicine 2:1-6.

Gaines, Brian J., et al. 2007. Same Facts, Different Interpretations: Partisan Motivation and Opinion on Iraq. The Journal of Politics 69:957-974.

Nyhan, Brendan, and Jason Reifler. 2010. When Corrections Fail: The Persistence of Political Misperceptions. Political Behavior 32:303-330.

Prasad, Monica, et al. 2009. “There Must Be a Reason”: Osama, Saddam, and Inferred Justification. Sociological Inquiry 79:142-162.

Redlawsk, David P., Andrew J.W. Civettini, and Karen M. Emmerson. 2010. The Affective Tipping Point: Do Motivated Reasoners Ever ‘Get It’? Political Psychology 31:563-593.



What does it mean to synthesize? I trolled the web and found some sources, and combined them with my own observations into the following post.

Slide02Synthesis combines information from two or more sources. The sources could include published peer-reviewed literature, articles, essays, and books, but also lectures, seminars, interviews, data, observations, and personal experience.
You synthesize all the time—when you identify relationships between something you’ve read online and something you’ve seen for yourself. When you make a decision about something, like buying a car or renting an apartment, you are synthesizing information. Maybe you ask your friends or family for advice. You research cars online or set up appointments to view apartments. You check carfax.com and talk to other tenants. Then, in your mind, you pull these various bits into some kind of picture that helps you make a decision.

As you begin to write a synthesis, you accurately report information from the sources using paraphrase and/or direct quotation. (Learn more about how to avoid plagiarism by paraphrasing correctly.)

Slide04But a synthesis is more than combining a spectrum of source material into a single document. Why? Because you also have to use your own mind and words to draw connections between the sources, and using these connections to relate the different texts in a way that illuminates and transforms the material. Synthesizing sources is a matter of pulling them together into some kind of harmony.  You may have to consider whether what seem like unrelated elements or opposite observations might be reconciled. You may have to create an umbrella idea, some larger argument under which several observations and perspectives might stand.

The information should be organized and presented in such a way that readers can identify the various sources, and how they overlap. Finally, the synthesis makes sense of the sources and helps the reader understand them in greater depth.

What are some different types of syntheses?

A concept or explanatory synthesis divides a subject into its component parts and presents them to the reader in a clear and orderly fashion. The purpose in writing an explanatory essay is not to argue a particular point, but rather to present the facts in a reasonably objective manner, to explain how something works. The explanatory synthesis does not go much beyond what is obvious from a careful reading of the sources.

A synthesis of an event pulls in multiple perspectives to craft a full picture of what happened. Think of an earthquake, a hurricane, or the bird flu outbreak. It could be news or a retrospective.

History or chronology syntheses provide a timeline or describe the evolution of a topic. They may contain reflection and multiple views. Examples include pollution, resource declines, science policy.

The purpose of an argument synthesis is to present your own point of view – supported, of course, by relevant facts, drawn from sources, and presented in a logical manner. The thesis of an argumentative essay is debatable. Any two writers working with the same source materials could conceive of and support other, opposite arguments.

Almost any feature article in a magazine or newspaper could be considered a synthesis.

The way you relate information sources, the patterns you identify, the questions you ask and the way you answer them, all of these are personal  and unique.

So, its easy to talk about synthesis in the abstract. But how do you actually do it?

First, what is your purpose? Why are you writing this synthesis, and for whom? Remember your audience. Your purpose determines which sources you use, which parts of them you use, at which points in your essay you use them, how you relate them to one another, and how much weight or space to give them in your story.

Second, you have to start reading differently—more thoughtfully, as MIT professor Ed Boyden explains in a Technology Review blog post titled “How to Think.

Highlight key facts and ideas while reading. Cut and paste important text (keeping the source attached!) into a notes document.

By reading actively, you will start to recognize the crucial connections between ideas that form the basis for synthesizing. Since the very essence of synthesis is the combining of information and ideas, you must have reason for attempting to combine them. What are the relationships among your sources that make them worth synthesizing? Answering this question can help provide a framework for the synthesis.

Finally, you can now start to write. You have all the pieces—you just have to fit them together, trimming and moving text, adding transitions and context. Flag any gaps or questions that require more reading or research. Add that information in, trim some more, move things around.

Read it aloud. Put it away for awhile. Read it again. This is the “work” part of writing.

A few examples:

Carl Zimmer’s article in The New York Times was one of three that earned him an award from the American Association for the Advancement of Science. I counted at least six interviews and eight peer-reviewed journal articles as sources, as well as one in-progress study in the 2,000 word story.

A recent 3,500-word feature story by veteran reporter Ted Williams in Audubon used nearly 75 sources, including multiple interviews with 20 people, dozens of documents and peer-reviewed journal articles, and web sources.

In a magazine article (links to PDF) published last spring, I combined peer-reviewed literature and historical accounts with a field trip with researchers into 2,000 words about a fish.

Research institutions, government agencies, and nonprofits often produce synthesis reports. One recent report from Dartmouth College used some 86 scientific sources, nearly all of them peer-reviewed, as well as interviews and datasets for a 26-page synthesis of scientific knowledge on mercury in the marine environment.






Science as news

Science news can be found in print, on the radio, and on television. Spending time reading science stories is good preparation for writing one’s own science news articles. Here is a list of science news outlets. Since I’ve been giving students this assignment, the links have changed. Many news outlets, including USA Today and The Boston Globe, no longer have a designated “science” page. In many cases, typing “science” into the search box will bring up science stories.


USA Today http://www.usatoday.com/tech/

The New York Times http://www.nytimes.com/pages/science/index.html

The Washington Post http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science

The Los Angeles Times http://www.latimes.com/news/science/

Christian Science Monitor http://www.csmonitor.com/Science

The (UK) Guardian http://www.guardian.co.uk/science

National Public Radio http://www.npr.org/sections/science/

Science Daily http://www.sciencedaily.com/

Environmental Health News http://www.environmentalhealthnews.org/

The Wall Street Journal http://online.wsj.com/home-page

Discovery Channel News http://news.discovery.com/

PBS http://www.pbs.org/topics/science-nature/

Grist http://www.grist.org/

High Country News http://www.hcn.org/



Climate Wire http://www.eenews.net/cw/

Climate Desk http://theclimatedesk.org/

Yale Environment 360 http://e360.yale.edu/

Real Climate http://www.realclimate.org/

Climate Science Watch http://www.climatesciencewatch.org/

Science Journals

New Scientist http://www.newscientist.com/section/environment

Science http://www.sciencemag.org/

Nature http://www.nature.com/

Environmental Health Perspectives http://ehp03.niehs.nih.gov/home.action

Environmental Science & Technology http://pubs.acs.org/journal/esthag



Discoveries and Breakthroughs Inside Science http://www.aip.org/dbis/

American Association for the Advancement of Science http://www.eurekalert.org/

University research news http://www.futurity.org/

University of Maine News http://www.umaine.edu/news/ and Research http://www.umaine.edu/research/ *

* Many other academic and research institutions have their own news distribution

Public Understanding of Science

Not only do science writers need to know something about their subject matter and how to describe it in truthful and interesting ways, but they need to know who needs to hear or read or watch the story. Writing is always a two-way process. When we are beginning as writers we tend to think one-sidedly, only about what is inside our own minds and our own words. But part of our growth as writers is to think more about the people on the other side—our readers, our audience.

Why is audience important? The usual answer is that science knowledge is important to the audience—they need to know and understand the information being communicated.

Matthew Nisbet, a professor of communication at American University, classifies dimensions of science knowledge.

1. Practical or utilitarian: It is often stated that science in everyday life is invisible, taken for granted. But science knowledge is used daily when you make decisions, like fixing your car, interpreting packaging on food, what to wear for the weather. Making such decisions might require a limited knowledge of basic scientific terms, concepts, and facts.

2. Then there is civic or democratic knowledge, sufficient to make sense of a news report, or interpret competing arguments about a policy decision. The public is often asked to make decisions about new technologies that could have far-reaching effects, both on its own wellbeing and on the rest of the world. To make these decisions, people need knowledge so that they can reason well about issues involving science.

3. Nisbet’s third type of understanding is institutional, about the politics and workings of science: who funds it, how is it regulated, etc. This level of understanding also means a capacity to distinguish science from pseudoscience—to know how science works. Maine’s Governor LePage has said he won’t remove rules that are based on science. But how will we know if a rule is “science-based” or not?

All of these theories about scientific literacy and public understanding are based on the idea of a gap between science and the people who need the knowledge that science provides. Here’s a representation of what that gap might look like (thanks to Rob Helpy-Chalk):


Scientists communicate to each other and share knowledge through presentations and publications. The public, the ultimate target audience or the users of the information, could be policy makers, town officials, citizens. The gap between these two realms is well-accepted and often mentioned in conversations about science communication. But rather than accepting the gap, take a closer look. Is it real? Where did it come from?

Bernadette Bensaude-Vincent (2002) pointed out that the gap between scientists and the public is ancient and originated in the different requirements of theoretical and practical knowledge. In ancient times, however, both kinds of knowledge were valued, and it was not expected that ordinary citizens should become like philosophers or naturalists (the predecessors of today’s scientists). For centuries, it was thought and language only that separated them. Members of the public with an interest in science were encouraged to interact with scientists. Over time, as scientists became more professional and more specialized (think quantum physics),the enlightened public of amateurs, a term that still retained a strong positive connotation in the nineteenth century, was transformed into a “mass of gullible, irrational and ignorant people” in the twentieth century… In a relatively short period of time, public knowledge became irrelevant and scientists held a monopoly on legitimate knowledge.

In industrializing nations such as the U.S., science was idealized as the preferred route to economic expansion and social emancipation. The more citizens knew about science, the more they would support this view. As Boyce Rensberger has pointed out, the work of most science reporters in those days consisted largely of translating scientific jargon and explaining the statements of scientists and medical leaders. In the 1930s and ‘40s, science journalists believed that it was their job to persuade the public to accept science as the [economic] salvation of society.

So what have we learned? Does the American public understand and “accept” science?

The National Science Foundation surveys public attitudes and understanding of science every two years, and for several decades Americans have been asked the same series of true-false questions. The number of correct answers to these questions has remained flat—the average American adult does not “know” any more “science” today than he or she did twenty years ago.


Only 51% of Americans knew that electrons are smaller than atoms. One-quarter of Americans don’t know that the Earth revolves around the sun. And 47% believe that human beings developed from earlier species of animals. Four out of five Americans do not understand the concept of a scientific study (Miller 2004).

But Americans are not necessarily smarter about other topics, and even scientists get many of these questions wrong (Stocklmayer and Bryant 2011). As many have pointed out, including Cornelia Dean and Jon Miller, most people leave science behind when they graduate high school, and the science we consider as citizens is not the facts collected in textbooks, but science that will not occur for another twenty years. The science we consider as citizens is more recent, unfolding every day.

So where do people get their information? How is the knowledge gap being so unsuccessfully filled?

According to the Pew Research Center for People and the Press, the Internet is slowly closing in on television as Americans’ main source of news. Television remains the most widely used source for national and international news  but, the percentage saying they regularly watch local TV news has dipped below 50% for the first time (48%).


Another Pew study found that the days of loyalty to a particular news organization on a particular piece of technology in a particular form are gone. The overwhelming majority of Americans (92%) use multiple platforms to get news on a typical day, including national TV, local TV, the internet, local newspapers, radio, and national newspapers. Some 46% of Americans say they get news from four to six media platforms on a typical day. Just 7% get their news from a single media platform on a typical day, mostly older, well educated, upper middle class whites (Purcell et al. 2010).

Yet more evidence has emerged that newspapers (whether accessed in print or digitally) are the primary source people turn to for news about government and civic affairs. Nearly three quarters (72%) of adults are quite attached to following local news and information, and local newspapers are by far the source they rely on for much of the local information they need (Miller et al. 2012).

Online and digital news consumption, meanwhile, continues to increase, with many more people now getting news on cell phones, tablets or other mobile platforms. And perhaps the most dramatic change in the news environment has been the rise of social networking sites. The percentage of Americans saying they saw news or news headlines on a social networking site yesterday has doubled – from 9% to 19% – since 2010. Among adults younger than age 30, as many saw news on a social networking site the previous day (33%) as saw any television news (34%), with just 13% having read a newspaper either in print or digital form (Pew Research Center 2012).

The social media trends may mean that the 44% of adults who don’t follow the news regularly may be getting information via social media and other online sources.

What about science news specifically? Sources for science news parallel the general news findings from the Pew studies, with the Internet surpassing television as the dominant source for science and technology news. When it comes to specific scientific issues, more people turn to the Internet.


The most popular online news subjects are the weather (followed by 81% of internet news users), national events (73%), health and medicine (66%), business and the economy (64%), international events (62%), and… science and technology (60%).

Slide27And people say they want more coverage of science. Asked what subjects they would like to receive more coverage, 44% said scientific news and discoveries (Horrigan 2006).

A study of the New York Times most-emailed articles in 2009 found that readers preferred e-mailing articles with a positive theme, including long articles on intellectually challenging subjects. They shared stories that inspired awe, including science stories (Tierney 2010).

So, we know that people want science-based information, that they actively seek it, and they aren’t necessarily deterred by length or complexity.

How skillfully or how often Americans engage in the search for scientific information, whether on the Internet or elsewhere, remains unknown. In a January 4, 2013 commentary in Science, Dominique Brossard and Dietram Scheufele note that among the U.S. public, time spent on the World Wide Web has been linked to more positive attitudes toward science. Online science sources may be helping to narrow knowledge gaps caused partly by science coverage in traditional media that tends to be tailored to highly educated audiences. Yet one of the challenges of the current situation is the sheer volume of information available on the Internet.  The social environment of the web influences the context for science stories. Just the tone of the comments following balanced science stories can significantly alter how audiences think about the subject matter.


Bensaude-Vincent, B. 2002. A genealogy of the increasing gap between science and the public. Public Understanding of Science 10:99–113.

Allum, N., P. Sturgis, D. Tabourazi and I. Brunton-Smith. 2008. Science knowledge and attitudes across cultures: a meta-analysis. Public Understanding of Science 17: 35.

Horrigan, J.B. 2006. The Internet as a resource for news and information about science. Pew Internet and American Life Project.

Inglehart, R. 1990. Culture Shift in Advanced Societies. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Miller, C., K. Purcell, and T. Rosenstiel. 2012. 72% of Americans follow local news closely. Pew Research Center.

Miller, J. 2004. Public understanding of, and attitudes toward, scientific research: what we know and what we need to know. Public Understanding of Science 13:273-294. Jon D. Miller has been studying public interactions with science for more than 20 years. A recent summary of his work can be found in Science and the Media, a report from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Nisbet, M. 2005. The multiple meanings of public understanding. Committee for Skeptical Inquiry.

Pew Research Center for People and the Press. 2012. Trends in News Consumption: 1991-2012.

Purcell, K., L. Rainie, A. Mitchell, T. Rosenstiel, and K. Olmstead. 2010. Understanding the participatory news consumer. Pew Research Center.

Stocklmayer, S.M., and C. Bryant. 2011. Science and the public—what should people know? International Journal of Science Education, Part B: Communication and Public Engagement 2:81-101.