Science needs a shot in the arm…

by Jen

Get it? Shot in the arm? I kill me!

As I ramp up work on my thesis project, I’ve begun collecting examples of exposition, persuasion, narratives, and other communication artifacts that illustrate the strategies I’m investigating. Eventually I’ll create and test my own informational pieces in order to assess which strategies have the greatest potential for reaching less-than-accepting audiences. In order to do so, I’ll need to pick a particular topic to design around, as a sort of test case, (possibly two or three), and I’ve been thinking about that choice as I collect examples and diagram my findings.

Choosing a single topic for the first prototype has been difficult… though not for lack of options. In fact, it’s hard for the very opposite reason: the list of potential topics for a study on denial, rhetoric, and communication design strategy is disappointingly long.

  • climate change (and all its myriad sub topics… I’m particularly interested in the myths and misperceptions about the associated meteorological effects)
  • evolution (and again there are several sub topics here; creationism vs. intelligent design vs. Darwin vs. everyone else…)
  • vaccination (autism link? HPV vaccine? herd immunity?)
  • big bang theory (maybe this belongs in the creationism bucket, but I once had a student ask me if I believe in the Big Bang)
  • GMO
  • nuclear power
  • fracking
  • et cetera…

But the choice is complicated by findings that suggest different groups of people, (liberals vs. conservatives, hierarchical individualists vs. egalitarian communitarians, etc), are more likely to trust scientists on some topics, and deny scientific consensus on others. (Surely you noticed your own reaction to some and not others on that list…) In other words, it’s not as simple as “religious conservatives are most likely to deny the facts on all these topics.” Science is science, and people of different stripes tend to trust science more or less based on their own cultural worldviews and personality biases. So I’d like to ensure due diligence on this design project by selecting topics that cover the spectrum of all types of denial and denier…

That said, I’ve also been encouraged by my thesis advisor, (who also teaches a class that I’m taking called Information + Interaction + Perception), to pick something I can apply to both thesis work and class project simultaneously, and while I’m fascinated by the nuances of all these subjects, I also need to design within a topic that people find meaningful enough to invest in their own understanding about it. Many people must take up the question of vaccination at some point, whether to be vaccinated for certain diseases as adults or to vaccinate their children; fewer people have a personal reason to know the details about evolution, for example. Climate change is obviously a prime choice but it will require drilling down to a very concrete and narrow slice of the issue and I’d like to wait for subsequent rounds of research and refinement to buoy me before I jump into the deep end, (and I will, don’t you worry).

So, that said, I’ve settled on vaccinations and the anti-vaccine movement as the topic of my first prototype.

I’ve yet to decide how I’ll narrow down the topic for my initial prototyping: whether I’ll delve into the thoroughly-debunked-yet-perpetuated autism link, or the controversy surrounding the HPV vaccine, or perhaps the question of whether vaccines are really necessary or important any more. (Spoiler: they are). But I’ve been looking at articles, brochures, websites and videos about vaccinations for a week now, as well as arguments made by and against the anti-vaccination movement, and there’s a lot to think about. Here’s a taste of what I’m looking at; consider these three fact-based, pro-vaccine messages:

10 Vaccine Myths: Busted by Parenting.com

Hug Me! I’m Vaccinated Campaign

Sure, they are scientifically accurate and well written/produced. Do you feel any more or less trusting of the scientific facts about vaccines? Did you even read or watch any of them completely to the end? (If you did, how’d you feel about the condescending tone of the video toward the end?)

Now, consider this preview of a planned anti-vaccine ‘documentary’ about the HPV vaccine, Gardasil:

I don’t know about you, but I find this pretty compelling. Of course, most of the facts are being twisted (or neglected outright) and we all know that correlation is not causation; hell, I have a science degree… and yet somehow I’d feel a little reluctant to get the Gardasil shot right after watching this, wouldn’t you? It’s compelling. Maybe you’d call it manipulative, if you’re in the pro-vaccine camp. But the ‘good guys’ can be compelling too, even without the manipulation of facts, and my goal is to show people how.

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