Neil deGrasse Tyson, host of Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey
Last Sunday's debut of Cosmos, the rebooted series from Fox and National Geographic, made television history. According to National Geographic, it was the largest global rollout of a TV series ever, appearing on 220 channels in 181 countries and 45 languages. And, yes, this is a science show we're talking about. You will have to actively resist the force of gravity in order to lift up your dropped jaw and restore a sense of calm to your stunned face.
"I wake up every morning saying, 'How did I get 1.7 million Twitter followers?'" Tyson joked while discussing science's newfound popularity. "Should I remind them that I'm an astrophysicist? Maybe I should tell them, 'Folks, I'm an astrophysicist. All right? Escape now.'"
Thanks in part to Cosmos, Tyson is arguably the single most visible public face of science in America today. And as such, he may have to walk a difficult line. Many science defenders want Cosmos to do nothing less than restore our national sanity by smiting all science denial, especially when it comes to the issues of evolution and global warming. It's an impossible task, but the theme was nonetheless quite apparent at a November Library of Congress gala dedicating Carl Sagan's papers, where Cosmos producer Seth MacFarlane denounced science's "politicization on steroids," and Cosmos writer Steven Soter remarked that Sagan would have been "appalled" by today's attacks on climate scientists.
Carl Sagan himself often took strong stands on science-based political issues of the day. He clashed with the Reagan administration over arms control and the "Star Wars" program, and the debate over his ideas about "nuclear winter" served as a kind of preview of the current battle over global warming. Sagan also openly debated pseudoscientists like Immanuel Velikovsky, who posited that the planet Venus had started out as a comet ejected by Jupiter, and had caused various events described in the Bible on its way to its current position. Indeed, Sagan even took on Velikovsky in the fourth episode of the original Cosmos, explaining in depth why his ideas were wrong.
By contrast, Tyson made clear on Inquiring Minds that he does not plan to follow in Sagan's footsteps in this respect (or for that matter, those of Bill Nye the Science Guy, who went straight into the creationists' den to debate evolution last month, and was faulted by some for doing so). "Carl Sagan would debate people on all manner of issues," said Tyson. "And I don't have the time or the energy or the interest in doing so. As an educator, I'd rather just get people thinking straight in the first place, so I don't have to then debate them later on." (To be sure, Tyson has on occasion been drawn into such debates in the past.)
Neil Tyson and a universe Fox
The deniers, of course, are already out in force over the new Cosmos, whose first episode brought up both evolution and global warming, and whose future episodes will tackle human evolution in greater depth. At the creationist website Answers in Genesis, one writer even goes so far as to dispute the show's treatment of the Big Bang, writing, "The big bang model is unable to explain many scientific observations, but this is of course not mentioned."
Tyson certainly has plenty of criticism for those who would deny science. "I claim that all those who think they can cherry-pick science simply don't understand how science works," he explained on the podcast. "That's what I claim. And if they did, they'd be less prone to just assert that somehow scientists are clueless."
But at the same time, and unlike many science champions (such as the biologist Richard Dawkins), Tyson is quite careful not to pit science against religion. For instance, the first episode of the new Cosmos tells the story of Giordano Bruno, an Italian monk who was persecuted and ultimately burned at the stake by the Inquisition over his ideas about the universe, including the notion that there are an infinite number of suns and worlds beyond our own. Some have argued that to tell this story is in effect to pick a fight over science and religion, but Tyson counters that "Giordano Bruno himself was a deeply religious person. In fact, you could argue that he was more religious than the people prosecuting him."
The stance of Cosmos, Tyson emphasizes, is not anti-religion but anti-dogma: "Any time you have a doctrine where that is the truth that you assert, and that what you call the truth is unassailable, you've got doctrine, you've got dogma on your hands. And so Cosmos is…an offering of science, and a reminder that dogma does not advance science; it actually regresses it."
In other words, Tyson's view appears to be that in an age rife with science denial, Cosmos rises above that fray by instilling in us wonder about the nature of the cosmos and our quest to understand it. And given the breathtaking quality and stunningly wide distribution of the show, there's much to say for that approach. Every time you pick a fight, whether over climate change or over evolution or over religion, you lose some of the audience (even as you fire up another part of it).
In the end, however, scientific knowledge, and wanting to do something about the problems that science reveals, are inseparable. And as soon as you want to change something in the world because of science, you inevitably run up against interests, emotions, and denial.
Global warming is the case in point: Just as Carl Sagan worried about nuclear holocaust because of science, so we today worry about the planet's steady warming. Indeed, that kind of thinking is central to the Cosmos legacy. Asked on the podcast about the warming of the planet, Tyson explained the ultimate message of Cosmos: "You are equipped and empowered with this cosmic perspective, achieved by the methods and tools of science, applied to the universe. And are you going to be a good shepherd, or a bad shepherd? Are you going to use your wisdom to protect civilization, or will you go at it in a shortsighted enough way to either destroy it, or be complicit in its destruction? If you can't bring your scientific knowledge to bear on those kinds of decisions, then why even waste your time?"
So in the end, we should all thank Tyson—as well as Fox, National Geographic, and the show's many writers and producers—for making the new Cosmos happen. It will contribute immeasurably to the appreciation of science in America and beyond. It will make kids think harder about pursuing science careers by showing them that the cosmos is intensely awesome, and the act of understanding it is downright heroic. But, can it ultimately stay above the political fray?
Maybe in some universes.
To listen to the full podcast interview with Neil deGrasse Tyson, you can stream below:
To catch future shows right when they are released, subscribe to Inquiring Minds viaiTunes or RSS. We are also available on Stitcher and on Swell. You can follow the show on Twitter at @inquiringshow and like us on Facebook. Inquiring Minds was also recently singled out as one of the “Best of 2013" on iTunes—you can learn more here.
In the US context, the idea of putting a tax on carbon is going nowhere fast. While the policy has been championed by liberal legislators and by a few conservative apostates, like former South Carolina Rep. Bob Inglis, mainstream Republican sentiment remains opposed to climate action. For the moment, many lawmakers remain too busy denying the reality of human-caused climate change.
Cross our northwestern border, though, and a carbon tax isn't just an idea, it's a reality. Five years ago, the Canadian province of British Columbia joined a small group of local and national governments (still fewer than 20 overall) that have created a carbon tax—setting a price on carbon in an effort to reduce emissions. Today, the tax brings in $1 billion a year in revenue that is returned to British Columbia taxpayers. Meanwhile, British Columbia's per capita greenhouse gas emissions declined 10 percent from 2008-2011 alone after the adoption of the tax, compared with an only 1 percent decline for the rest of Canada.
At a time when carbon tax policies appear increasingly enticing (especially in light of the failure of cap-and-trade in the US), what can British Columbia's experience teach us about the prospects for solutions to climate change? How is the tax working? How do British Columbians feel about it? And has it prompted a desired growth in the clean energy industry?
To delve into these questions, Climate Desk, Climate Access, and Bloomberg BNA are partnering to present "The Carbon Tax Return: Lessons Learned From British Columbia's First Five Years of Taxing Emissions." This distinguished panel, preceded by a cocktail reception, will take place on Thursday, March 27, at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre, Salon C in downtown Vancouver, with doors opening at 5:30pm PDT. For tickets, click here. To join the event on Facebook, click here. The event will also be livestreamed at this page starting at 6:00pm PDT.
Featured speakers include: Spencer Chandra Herbert, a member of BC's legislative assembly and the New Democratic Party's designated voice on the environment; Merran Smith from Clean Energy Canada; and Ross Beaty the chairman of Alterra Power Corp. Best-selling science writer and Climate Desk Live host Chris Mooney will lead these policymakers and thought leaders in discussing the innovations, pitfalls, and promise of the first five years of the carbon tax in British Columbia.
Spencer Chandra Herbert, Environment Critic and Member of the BC Legislative Assembly
Spencer Chandra Herbert was re-elected to represent Vancouver West-End in 2013. He is the official opposition environment critic and previously served as the opposition voice on Tourism, Arts, and Culture and the BC Lottery Corporation and Gaming Policy. Spencer served as an elected Vancouver park board commissioner from 2005-2008, where he worked to improve environmental sustainability in Vancouver's Parks and accessibility to programs for youth and low-income people.
Merran Smith, Director, Clean Energy Canada
Merran Smith is the director of Clean Energy Canada at Tides Canada. She leads a team working to diversify Canada’s energy systems, cut carbon pollution, and reduce the nation's fossil-fuel dependence, and she writes and speaks extensively on the opportunities for Canada in the global low-carbon economy.
Ross Beaty, Chairman Alterra Power Corp.
Ross J. Beaty is a geologist and resource company entrepreneur with more than 40 years of experience in the international minerals and renewable energy industries. In early 2008, Mr. Beaty founded Magma Energy Corp. to focus on international geothermal energy development. In 2011, Magma and Plutonic Power merged to create Alterra Power Corp. Mr. Beaty also founded and currently serves as chairman of Pan American Silver Corp., one of the world's leading silver producers.
Jeremy Hainsworth is a contributor internationally to Bloomberg BNA (BBNA) and the Associated Press. Jeremy has worked with BBNA for over three years on legal, regulatory, and policy issues in western Canada for BBNA's wide-ranging stable of international publications.
The question may seem simple to answer: You are the citizen of a country, the resident of a city, the child of particular parents, the sibling (or not) of brothers and sisters, the parent (or not) of children, and so on. And you might further answer the question by invoking a personality, an identity: You're outgoing. You're politically liberal. You're Catholic. Going further still, you might bring up your history, your memories: You came from a place, where events happened to you. And those helped make you who you are.
Such are some of the off-the-cuff ways in which we explain ourselves. The scientific answer to the question above, however, is starting to look radically different. Last year, New Scientist magazine even ran a cover article titled, "The Great Illusion of the Self," drawing on the findings of modern neuroscience to challenge the very idea that we have seamless, continuous, consistent identities. "Under scrutiny, many common-sense beliefs about selfhood begin to unravel," declared the magazine. "Some thinkers even go so far as claiming that there is no such thing as the self."
What's going on here? When it comes to understanding this new and very personal field of science, it's hard to think of a more apt guide than Jennifer Ouellette, author of the new book Me, Myself, and Why: Searching for the Science of Self. Not only is Ouellette a celebrated science writer; she also happens to have been adopted, a fact that makes her life a kind of natural experiment in the relative roles of genes and the environment in determining our identities. The self, explains Ouellette on the latest episode of the Inquiring Minds podcast (stream above), is "a miracle of integration. And we haven't figured it out, but the science that is trying to figure it out is absolutely fascinating."
The question of whether the self could be said to exist at all is just one of the major scientific questions that Ouellette takes on in her new book. Nearly as thorny is the question of what actually gives you your (apparent) identity in the first place. You might think of the two issues in this way: For modern science, the question is not just who we are, but also, if we are.
To determine who she is, Ouellette naturally started with her genes. Fortunately for the book (and perhaps for her), she was able to get her genome analyzed by the genetic testing company 23andMe before the Food and Drug Administration stepped in late last year to challenge its provision of health-related genetic analyses. In response, 23andMe stated in December that it would now only offer raw genetic data and ancestry information, while it awaits FDA approval for health-related products. In the meantime, Ouelette defends what she received from the company: "They're very careful, I found, in their results, telling you that this basically just gives you a sense of what risk factors might be," Ouellette says. "I never had a sense that it was an oracle in any way. They actually linked to relevant papers, they ranked how valid the studies were, if they were preliminary, if they were very robust with a high sample size.”
From this inquiry, Ouellette learned that she might have a somewhat elevated risk of Type 1 diabetes, but also a lower than average risk of Alzheimer's. But it is crucial to bear in mind that all of these risks are relatively slight and merely statistical in nature. For instance, Ouellette's chance of getting Alzheimer's, based on this analysis, is only 4.9 percent, compared with a 7.1 percent chance for members of the general population. Which underscores one of the key through lines of the book: Your genes are very important, but they are far from everything.
In fact, although you wouldn't know it from a conventional wisdom that endlessly pits "nature" and "nurture" against each other, the two aren't actually opposed at all. Every expert Ouellette spoke with for the book agreed with this: Genes and environmental factors work together to make us who we are, meaning that setting them in opposition to one another is simply misinformed. "That's kind of empowering," Ouellette says, "because I think that sometimes we get caught up in things like genetic determinism. Genes are very, very important, and they certainly do impose constraints, but there's also a very strong sense in which we have a lot of role in shaping how we are perceived and who we think we are."
To see this, consider the ultimate repository of everything that we are: the so-called "connectome," which is defined as the sum total of all the connections between the hundreds of billions of nerve cells, or neurons, in our brains. Genes shape many aspects of how our brains form and develop—how the connectome gets wired—and, accordingly, research repeatedly shows that major behavioral traits like personality are partly inherited. But at the same time, your life experiences also change the connectome daily. "Everything that we do changes who we think we are," says Ouellette. One scientist interviewed in Ouellette's book calls the connectome "where nature meets nurture."
Needless to say, the science of mapping the human connectome is currently in its infancy. There are an estimated 100 billion neurons in the human brain, and as for the connections between them? Sheesh. There may be as many as 100 trillion synapses, or spaces where these neurons exchange information. So far, only one connectome has been mapped, and that was for a much simpler organism—the microscopic roundworm, or nematode. "It took them 10 years just to get the nematode," says Ouellette, "and the nematode only has 302 neurons."
Out of this unimaginable complexity emerges the self as we think we know it—and scientists have identified many of the component parts. For instance, there are specific brain regions associated with recognizing yourself in the mirror, feeling that you're in your own body, feeling that your body begins and ends somewhere, and recognizing where you are in space. So how then can anyone argue that there is not actually such a thing as a self?
Much depends on what you mean by the "self" in the first place. If you think of yourself as an essence—something you'd describe with adjectives like "unified," "continuous," and "unchanging"—well, science has some bad news for you. New Scientist, for instance, cites an array of neuroscience experiments showing how easy it is to make us believe we are outside of our bodies, or that we're in the body of a mannequin, or that a rubber hand on a table is our hand…and much else. The hand experiment is particularly disturbing. Watch it:
In other words, while you tend to think of your body as a self-contained entity, and to believe there are clear lines of demarcation between your body and other bodies, there are quirks in the brain that allow this sense to break down. And dropping acid—another self-experiment that Ouellette undertook for the book—further undermines this assumption. "I dropped acid, and you get disembodied," Ouellette says. "The acid actually messes with those parts of the brain, the ability to distinguish between self and other."
And then on top of that, there are all the problems associated with memory. We would all surely agree that our memories comprise a central part of who we are, yet an array of psychological interventions can cause us to think we made choices we didn't make, remember things that didn't actually happen to us, and so on. "Every time we remember something, we are rebuilding it," Ouellette says. "We're not actually remembering what happened, we're remembering what happened the last time we remembered it. And as a result, we embellish; little bits and details get changed." Memory is also culturally determined: Research has shown, for instance, that Americans tend to retain a particular type of memory, focusing on events that are more personal and individual. In China, by contrast, events of grand cultural or historical significance are more likely to be remembered.
Ouellette's conclusion from all of this, therefore, is that while it would be going too far to say there is no such thing as the self at all, our understanding of what the self actually is must be dramatically revised. "It's not right to say it's an illusion," she says, "but it is a construct. But it's not what you think it is." More specifically, Ouellette ultimately concludes that the self is an emergent property of the billions of neurons of our brain all interacting with one another. What's emergence? "A system in which the whole is greater than the sum of its parts," writes Ouellette.
"A traffic jam is emergent," she explains. "You have all these cars interacting. If it gets dense enough, enough interactions, you're going to get a traffic jam. But that traffic jam is real." It is more than the sum of all its cars. Something similar goes for the self.
This also means the self is very fragile. Damage the brain or cease its function, and the self may dissipate. Die, of course, and the story is the same. "I expected people to object more to my take on what happens to your conscious self after you die," Ouellette confesses. "Because I basically say there is no soul. Or rather, your soul is this conscious thing that is emergent, and once all that activity that leads to the emergent phenomenon disappears, so does that, it's gone."
The good news, though, is that during the time we have, all the science that Ouellette relied upon to learn about her own self—genome and brain scans, personality tests, and even virtual identities—can only get better, and better, and better. The next few decades are going to be a great time to get to know yourself. You just have to be clear about what that actually means.
To listen to the full podcast interview with Jennifer Ouellette, you can stream below:
This episode of Inquiring Minds, a podcast hosted by neuroscientist and musician Indre Viskontas and best-selling author Chris Mooney, also features a discussion of the recent discovery of a 30,000-year-old "giant virus" frozen in Arctic ice, and about a case currently before the Supreme Court that turns on how we determine, scientifically, who is intellectually disabled.
To catch future shows right when they are released, subscribe to Inquiring Minds viaiTunes or RSS. We are also available on Stitcher and on Swell. You can follow the show on Twitter at @inquiringshow and like us on Facebook. Inquiring Minds was also recently singled out as one of the “Best of 2013" on iTunes—you can learn more here.
On Monday, I reported on the latest study to take a bite out of the idea of human rationality. In a paper just published in Pediatrics, Brendan Nyhan of Dartmouth University and his colleagues showed that presenting people with information confirming the safety of vaccines triggered a "backfire effect," in which people who already distrusted vaccines actually became less likely to say they would vaccinate their kids.
Unfortunately, this is hardly the only example of such a frustrating response being documented by researchers. Nyhan and his coauthor, Jason Reifler of the University of Exeter, have captured several others, as have other researchers. Here are some examples:
1. Tax cuts increase revenue? In a 2010 study, Nyhan and Reifler asked people to read a fake newspaper article containing a real quotation of George W. Bush, in which the former president asserted that his tax cuts "helped increase revenues to the Treasury." In some versions of the article, this false claim was then debunked by economic evidence: A correction appended to the end of the article stated that in fact, the Bush tax cuts "were followed by an unprecedented three-year decline in nominal tax revenues, from $2 trillion in 2000 to $1.8 trillion in 2003." The study found that conservatives who read the correction were twice as likely to believe Bush's claim was true as were conservatives who did not read the correction.
2. Death panels! Another notorious political falsehood is Sarah Palin's claim that Obamacare would create "death panels." To test whether they could undo the damage caused by this highly influential morsel of misinformation, Nyhan and his colleagues had study subjects read an article about the "death panels" claim, which in some cases ended with a factual correction explaining that "nonpartisan health care experts have concluded that Palin is wrong." Among survey respondents who were very pro-Palin and who had a high level of political knowledge, the correction actually made them more likely to wrongly embrace the false "death panels" theory.
3. Obama is a Muslim! And if that's still not enough, yet another Nyhan and Reifler study examined the persistence of the "President Obama is a Muslim" myth. In this case, respondents watched a video of President Obama denying that he is a Muslim or even stating affirmatively, "I am a Christian." Once again, the correction—uttered in this case by the president himself—often backfired in the study, making belief in the falsehood that Obama is a Muslim worse among certain study participants. What's more, the backfire effect was particularly notable when the researchers administering the study were white. When they were nonwhite, subjects were more willing to change their minds, an effect the researchers explained by noting that "social desirability concerns may affect how respondents behave when asked about sensitive topics." In other words, in the company of someone from a different race than their own, people tend to shift their responses based upon what they think that person's worldview might be.
4. The alleged Iraq-Al Qaeda link. In a 2009 study, Monica Prasad of Northwestern University and her colleagues directly challenged Republican partisans about their false belief that Iraq and Al Qaeda collaborated in the 9/11 attacks, a common charge during the Bush years. The so-called challenge interviews included citing the findings of the 9/11 Commission and even a statement by George W. Bush, asserting that his administration had "never said that the 9/11 attacks were orchestrated between Saddam and Al Qaeda." Despite these facts, only 1 out of 49 partisans changed his or her mind after the factual correction. Forty-one of the partisans "deflected" the information in a variety of ways, and seven actually denied holding the belief in the first place (although they clearly had).
5. Global warming. On the climate issue, there does not appear to be any study that clearly documents a backfire effect. However, in a 2011 study, researchers at American and Ohio State universities found a closely related "boomerang effect." In the experiment, research subjects from upstate New York read news articles about how climate change might increase the spread of West Nile Virus, which were accompanied by the pictures of the faces of farmers who might be affected. But in one case, the people were said to be farmers in upstate New York (in other words, victims who were quite socially similar to the research subjects); in the other, they were described as farmers from either Georgia or from France (much more distant victims). The intent of the article was to raise concern about the health consequences of climate change, but when Republicans read the article about the more distant farmers, their support for action on climate change decreased, a pattern that was stronger as their Republican partisanship increased. (When Republicans read about the proximate New York farmers, there was no boomerang effect, but they did not become more supportive of climate action either.)
Together, all of these studies support the theory of "motivated reasoning": The idea that our prior beliefs, commitments, and emotions drive our responses to new information, such that when we are faced with facts that deeply challenge these commitments, we fight back against them to defend our identities. So next time you feel the urge to argue back against some idiot on the internet…pause, take a deep breath, and realize not only that arguing might not do any good, but that in fact, it might very well backfire.
Vaccine denial is dangerous. We know this for many reasons, but just consider one of them: In California in 2010, 10 children died in a whooping cough outbreak that was later linked, in part, to the presence of 39 separate clusters of unvaccinated children in the state. It's that simple: When too many children go unvaccinated, vaccine-preventable diseases spread more easily, and sometimes children die. Nonetheless, as scientifically unfounded fears about childhood vaccines causing autism have proliferated over the past decade or more, a minority of parents are turning to "personal belief exemptions," so-called "alternative vaccine schedules," and other ways to dodge or delay vaccinating their kids.
So as a rational person, you might think it would be of the utmost importance to try to talk some sense into these people. But there's a problem: According to a major new study in the journal Pediatrics, trying to do so may actually make the problem worse. The paper tested the effectiveness of four separate pro-vaccine messages, three of which were based very closely on how the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) itself talks about vaccines. The results can only be called grim: Not a single one of the messages was successful when it came to increasing parents' professed intent to vaccinate their children. And in several cases the messages actually backfired, either increasing the ill-founded belief that vaccines cause autism or even, in one case, apparently reducing parents' intent to vaccinate.
The study, by political scientist Brendan Nyhan of Dartmouth College* and three colleagues, adds to a large body of frustrating research on how hard it is to correct false information and get people to accept indisputable facts. Nyhan and one of his coauthors, Jason Reifler of the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom, are actually the coauthors of a much discussed previous study showing that when politically conservative test subjects read a fake newspaper article containing a quotation of George W. Bush asserting that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, followed by a factual correction stating that this was not actually true, they believed Bush's falsehood more strongly afterwards—an outcome that Nyhan and Reifler dubbed a "backfire effect."
Unfortunately, the vaccine issue is prime terrain for such biased and motivated reasoning; recent research even suggests that a conspiratorial, paranoid mindset prevails among some vaccine rejectionists. To try to figure out how to persuade them, in the new study researchers surveyed a representative sample of 1,759 Americans with at least one child living in their home. A first phase of the study determined their beliefs about vaccines; then, in a follow-up, respondents were asked to consider one of four messages (or a control message) about vaccine effectiveness and the importance of kids getting the MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccine.
The first message, dubbed "Autism correction," was a factual, science-heavy correction of false claims that the MMR vaccine causes autism, assuring parents that the vaccine is "safe and effective" and citing multiple studies that disprove claims of an autism link. The second message, dubbed "Disease risks," simply listed the many risks of contracting the measles, the mumps, or rubella, describing the nasty complications that can come with these diseases. The third message, dubbed "Disease narrative," told a "true story" about a 10-month-old whose temperature shot up to a terrifying 106 degrees after he contracted measles from another child in a pediatrician's waiting room.
Child with measles CDC/llinois Department of Public Health
All three of these messages are closely based on messages (here, here, and here) that appear on the CDC website. And then there was a final message that was not directly based on CDC communications, dubbed "Disease images." In this case, as a way of emphasizing the importance of vaccines, test subjects were asked to examine three fairly disturbing images of children afflicted with measles, mumps, and rubella. One of those images used is at right.
The results showed that by far, the least successful messages were "Disease narrative" and "Disease images." Hearing the frightening narrative actually increased respondents' likelihood of thinking that getting the MMR vaccine will cause serious side effects, from 7.7 percent to 13.8 percent. Similarly, looking at the disturbing images increased test subjects' belief that vaccines cause autism. In other words, both of these messages backfired.
Why did that happen? Dartmouth's Nyhan isn't sure, but he comments that "if people read about or see sick children, it may be easier to imagine other kinds of health risks to children, including possibly side effects of vaccines that are actually quite rare." (When it comes to side effects, Nyhan is referring not to autism but to the small minority of cases in which vaccines cause adverse reactions.)
The two more straightforward text-only messages, "Austism correction" and "Disease risks," had more mixed effects. "Disease risks" didn't cause any harm, but it didn't really produce any benefits either.
As for "Autism correction," it actually worked, among survey respondents as a whole, to somewhat reduce belief in the falsehood that vaccines cause autism. But at the same time, the message had an unexpected negative effect, decreasing the percentage of parents saying that they would be likely to vaccinate their children.
Looking more closely, the researchers found that this occurred because of a strong backfire effect among the minority of test subjects who were the most distrustful of vaccines. In this group, the likelihood of saying they would give their kids the MMR vaccine decreased to 45 percent (versus 70 percent in the control group) after they received factual, scientific information debunking the vaccines-autism link. Indeed, the study therefore concluded that "no intervention increased intent to vaccinate among parents who are the least favorable toward vaccines."
Nyhan carefully emphasizes that the study cannot say anything about the effectiveness of other possible messages beyond the ones that were tested. So there may be winners out there that simply weren't in the experiment—although as Nyhan added, "I don't have a good candidate." In any event, given results like these, any new messages ought to be tested as well.
"I don't think our results imply that they shouldn't communicate why vaccines are a good idea," adds Nyhan. "But they do suggest that we should be more careful to test the messages that we use, and to question the intuition that countering misinformation is likely to be the most effective strategy."
Finally, Nyhan adds that in order to protect public health by encouraging widespread vaccinations, public communication efforts aren't the only tools at our disposal. "Other policy measures might be more effective," he notes. For instance, recently we reported on how easy it is for parents to dodge getting their kids vaccinated in some states; in some cases, it requires little more than a onetime signature on a form. Tightening these policies might be considerably more helpful than trying to win hearts and minds. That wasn't really working out anyway, and thanks to the new study, we now know that vaccine deniers' imperviousness to facts may be a key part of the reason why.
* This article previously referred to Dartmouth College as Dartmouth University. We regret the error.