"Exploring Science Literacy and the Literacy Communities of the Anti-Vaccination Movement" by Wyn Andrews-Richards
Wyn Andrews-Richards is a rhetoric scholar with specific research interests in literacy studies (particularly science literacy/aliteracy), writing center studies, political rhetoric, and feminist rhetoric. She will begin her masters program in August 2016 at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
The development of safe and effective vaccines is one of the greatest achievements in public health. Instead of widespread death and disability caused by diseases such as polio and smallpox, vaccines have all but eliminated these diseases in the developed world. However, in 2016, there are still large groups of people, predominantly in the United States, who believe that vaccines cause autism, as well as various other “injuries.” In this paper, I assert that the problems with science literacy in the United States have led to gross misunderstanding of the importance of vaccines in public health, thus having a negative effect on continued public health in the United States. Later, I relate this literacy problem to an examination of online anti-vaccination literacy communities.
The 1990s saw an advancement of anti-vaccination sentiment, although there were and are years of scientific consensus regarding the safety and effectiveness of vaccines. In 1998, UK surgeon and medical researcher Andrew Wakefield published a paper in the respected medical journal The Lancet reporting that he had found a link between the measles, mumps, rubella (MMR) vaccine and autism. This study was later found to be fraudulent and was retracted by The Lancet. Despite the scientific community’s discrediting Wakefield’s work, the damage had been done.
In 2007, US celebrity Jenny McCarthy claimed that the MMR vaccine had led to her son’s autism. McCarthy’s anti-vaccine activism rallied a legion of moms decrying vaccines, claiming vaccines caused myriad irreparable damage and diseases to children. Although discredited and disavowed by the science community, as well as being stripped of his credentials, Andrew Wakefield continues to be an anti-vaccination advocate. He published a book in 2011 called Callous Disregard: Autism and Vaccines--The Truth Behind a Tragedy, which incidentally, includes an introduction written by Jenny McCarthy.
There has been a resurgence of pertussis and measles throughout the United States, largely due to the anti-vaccination movement. Why, when there are decades, and in some cases, hundreds of years of scientific evidence that vaccines work, is there such a prevailing push against science literacy, particularly revealed in the form of the anti-vaccination movement? In an article from The Huffington Post, world renown astrophysicist (and science celebrity) Neil deGrasse Tyson helps provide a partial answer to this question:
Not enough of our society is trained how to understand and interpret quantitative information. This activity is a centerpiece of science literacy to which we should all strive -- the future health, wealth, and security of our democracy depend on it. Until that is achieved, we are at risk of making under-informed decisions that affect ourselves, our communities, our country, and even the world. (qtd. in Freeman, 2015).
Adults are clearly lacking in science literacy, rendering themselves ineligible to accurately make decisions regarding such important scientific/medical decision about whether or not vaccines cause damage.