Did you ever notice how hard it can be to get a simple answer about health or a medical condition?
Which diet is best for losing weight?
What exactly causes cancer?
The answer to both is: It’s complicated. And every new study and scientific insight, especially those that get media attention, can muddy the waters for people who are trying to make decisions about their own health.
“The fluidity of science – how it keeps changing – is disconcerting,” said Dr. Paul Offit, a vaccine researcher and author of several books, including his most recent, “Bad Advice.” Advice from physicians and scientists is naturally going to include caveats and qualifiers. But those don’t make good sound bites, Offit said at a recent appearance at the Philadelphia Free Library.
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However justified, the lack of plain, digestible messages has created an opening for celebrities, politicians and activists, he said. They’re all too willing to provide simple answers to difficult, multidimensional questions about staying well and fighting disease.
“Charismatic scientists with poor data may be more convincing than awkward scientists with quality data. Appearances win out,” wrote Offit, director of the Vaccine Education Center at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.
In “Bad Advice,” Offit uses his own media appearances through the years, looking for ways he might have been more effective in presenting scientific information. Offit is coinventor of a vaccine for rotavirus, which can cause life-threatening illness in babies. And more than once, he’s taken on vaccine opponents. It did not always go well.
He described once being in a chaotic local TV newsroom, half balanced on a wobbly chair with an ear piece that wouldn’t stay in his ear. Then the reporter asked a mile-wide question: Which vaccines do children need and when do they need them? The correct answer, covering about 18 vaccines over multiple years was incredibly long and detailed. By then, Offit was an experienced doctor and researcher, but still he flubbed the question. In hindsight, he says he should have crafted a simple, to- the-point response, even if it didn’t fully cover the schedule of nearly 20 vaccinations. His advice to other doctors and researchers: Take charge of interviews, rather than reacting.
Offit said scientists also should know how some media appearances are structured – with a hero, victim and villain, explaining why he once turned down a chance to appear on Oprah. It doesn’t help that many doctors and scientists are little bit socially introverted. To explain, he told a joke:
Question: How can you tell the difference between introverted scientists and extroverted scientists?
Answer: When introverted scientists talk to you, they stare down at their shoes. When extroverted scientists talk to you, they stare down at your shoes.
Celebrities and activists don’t have that problem. Familiar, friendly and often articulate, they can easily make their point with the public. But they may not have all the facts. Instead, Offit urges the general public to seek out reliable health websites and podcasts. He recommends several in the book, including Popular Science, Wired and Discover Magazine. To scientists, he issues a challenge to stand up for science and accept invitations to discuss their area of expertise.
“There’s no venue too small,” Offit said.