Science Talk Sees Red

Michele Bachmann’s recent pronouncement about vaccines is right up my alley because it reveals how we talk about science.

In case you missed it, during a recent debate Bachmann scoured Rick Perry, governor of Texas, for requiring that girls in Texas get the cervical cancer-fighting vaccine.

The issue is like a hydra, with many tentacles begging our attention: when should the state intervene and require vaccines? Where is the divide between individual rights and the common good?

Seems to me we can take a cleaver and cut the political divide between this moral outlook: when do you give up a freedom for the good of the community?

That kind of thinking today gets labeled as commie-talk but I find it at the heart of the debate, inviting us to examine the underpinning of Native American science.

Native perspectives are grounded in relationships, says Gregory Cajete, and we can apply that thinking to current dilemmas. All things are related, Cajete notes. So, if you cling to the belief that you are exercising personal freedom by avoiding a vaccine you are likely putting other folks at risk in your community.

Look at whooping cough as just one example. During my grandmother’s lifetime, whooping cough (pertussis) was an indiscriminant killer. Just stroll through an old graveyard and you’ll see markers for children who died in their first months on earth. Chances are some disease laid them to rest.

Children are particularly vulnerable to pertussis and the vaccine prevents its spread effectively. But today kids are dying from whooping cough: just google the disease and you’ll read about kids who perished because they weren’t vaccinated.

Turning to the cervical cancer-fighting vaccine, Bachmann told reporters that “a mother last night come up to me here in Tampa, Florida, after the debate. She told me that her little daughter took that vaccine, that injection, and she suffered from mental retardation thereafter. It can have very dangerous side effects.” [from the UK Guardian website].

The medical community broiled over the statement because it simply isn’t true. No evidence has linked “mental retardation” with the HPV vaccine. And the community quickly rounded up experts to debate the efficacy of vaccines.

My take is that the discussion has the effect of continuing the uncertainty about the safety of vaccines. It’s not that the debate moves people to action: mass media researchers point out daily that media are very poor at inciting a behavior.

But what it does accomplish is it raises a cloud of doubt about vaccines. But that kernel of doubt—the probability that there may be some risk—is enough to paralyze some folks to take no action. I argue that taking no action is what’s most harmful.


About Cynthia Coleman Emery

Professor and researcher at Portland State University who studies science communication, particularly issues that impact American Indians. Dr. Coleman is an enrolled citizen of the Osage Nation.
This entry was posted in authenticity, framing, health and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Science Talk Sees Red

  1. dragged the into the political spotlight reigniting the controversy over the risks and necessity of vaccinating children.. The American Academy of Pediatrics would like to correct false statements made in the Republican presidential campaign that HPV vaccine is dangerous and can cause mental retardation the American Academy of Pediatrics said in a statement released Tuesday afternoon. Since the vaccine has been introduced more than 35 million doses have been administered and it has an excellent safety record. ..In Monday nights Republican presidential debate in Tampa Fla. Bachmann R-Minn. slammed Gov.


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