Seth Mnookin is an assistant professor of science writing at MIT and author of the 2011 book The Panic Virus. Image: Seth Mnookin/MIT News
Seth Mnookin is an assistant professor of science writing at MIT and author of the 2011 book The Panic Virus. Image: Seth Mnookin/MIT News

Seth Mnookin‘s 2011 book The Panic Virus—which examines how the thoroughly debunked link between vaccination and autism persists in warping public opinion—is back in the spotlight. Not incidentally, so are the measles. Once thought to be all but wiped out in the US thanks to vaccination, the measles are making a comeback, most recently in a high-profile December outbreak at Disneyland.

Mnookin, an MIT assistant professor of science writing, was interviewed for a 12-minute video and accompanying article for the New York Times (“A Discredited Vaccine Study’s Continuing Impact on Public Health“). While emphasizing the role of the media—which often weights emotional, personal stories as strongly as scientific evidence—Mnookin explained to the Times why the precise language of science may also be stoking fears surrounding vaccination.

Mnookin penned a February 4 article for the New Yorker (“Talking to Vaccine Resisters“), in which he elaborated on this notion: “Efforts to combat these mistaken beliefs have made one thing clear: it’s much easier to scare people than it is to dispel fears, regardless of how dangerous and untrue they are. That’s not to say that it’s impossible to successfully communicate with parents who are anxious about vaccines. Unfortunately, the public-health community has very little clue as to how to do so—and they’ve been going about it the wrong way for years.”

Scientific evidence regarding the effectiveness and safety of vaccines isn’t enough, Mnookin writes in the New Yorker: we need data on how parents form their opinions on vaccination. “High-quality social-science research, especially when it involves longitudinal studies designed to measure how people’s attitudes change over time, is expensive—but given that it costs upwards of ten thousand dollars to contain every single measles infection that occurs, that’s money well spent.”

In an interview with PBS (“Measles outbreak linked to Disneyland has infected more than 70 people“), Mnookin did identify one positive trend in this ongoing debate-which-should-not-be-a-debate: “For a long time, this was an issue where you would have really, really vocal anti-vaccine advocates, and then, the people who sort of supported the status quo didn’t feel as compelled to make their voices heard.” Now, that’s changing, he told host Arun Rath.

In fact, some are speaking out in unexpected ways, blending art with science. Case in point: MIT bioengineering postdoc Tal Danino recently collaborated with a former MIT visiting artist, Brazilian photographer Vik Muniz, to create wallpaper from a virus used in the smallpox vaccine. Read more about this project, part of a larger online campaign promoting vaccination, sponsored by the Gates Foundation, in Wired and the New York Times.

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