February 25, 2015, BY Kathryn Kopchik

With the recent U.S. measles outbreak, the anti-vaccination movement has come under intense scrutiny by scientists and the public alike, yet many parents continue to refuse to vaccinate their children. Professor Ken Field, biology, discusses how the belief that vaccines are harmful has become so entrenched. In his class, Controversies in Biology, his students examine many other topics and work toward becoming a scientifically literate citizen of the 21st century.

Q. Despite all the scientific evidence, why does the debate about the measles vaccine still persist?

A. I think that the main reason for the persistence of this myth is that the distrust of science has become common in the United States. Both Hollywood and cable news shows often portray scientists as having political or profit-making agendas that are not in the public's best interest. This has left room to doubt even the most well-established scientific facts, such as that vaccines do not cause autism. 

Part of it has to do with some of the incredible profits that have been made in science. Some of it is legitimate; for example, pharmaceutical companies are developing drugs that are going to make them a lot of money, and therefore there's a distrust that maybe they're not developing drugs that there's not a big market for. There's a wide perception that the reason we don't have an Ebola vaccine is that there isn't a big profit motive because you'd have to give the vaccine away to countries in Africa that wouldn't be able to afford it.

Q. How do you approach the topic in your class, Controversies in Biology? What are the biggest questions and concerns among students about the vaccine debate?

A. First, I introduce the "controversy" by providing a news video about the anti-vaccination movement. Students discuss whether they think the report was accurate and if there were any exaggerations. I raise this point because news media has substituted accurate or investigative reporting for reporting on both sides of every issue, giving both sides equal time.

Students also watch a short lecture from the Harvard School of Public Health that completely debunks the myth of an autism connection. Then they discuss both sides of the issue and come to a consensus about whether vaccines should be optional or mandatory. I ask students to imagine they're making the decision for their own children, then I ask them who made the most convincing argument and how those arguments differed. The person arguing against vaccines inevitably appeals to an emotional idea, saying "This is my child, this is my decision and a matter of personal freedom."

This year, the members of every group felt that they would want their children vaccinated, but there was some controversy about whether vaccination should be mandatory or optional. Students had to decide whether the state should require people to do something in their own best interest. It will be interesting to see if the recent measles outbreak shifts the debate next year. 

I use clickers in my class so students can respond anonymously to questions like this, then see the bar graph of what their opinions are, which helps move the conversation along — and creates a safe space — so students can share their opinions without having to commit to defending it in public or making anyone feel excluded for their beliefs.

Q. The anti-vaccine movement is just one of many controversies related to biology. What other topics do you cover in your Controversies class?

A. We start with vaccines to get the class to think about the media and how we in the U.S. perceive science and scientists and what the source of that skepticism is. Then we talk about animal research where there's definitely much more room for debate and a broader spectrum of opinions among students. Other controversies that we discuss include human cloning, stem cell research, genetic privacy, and conflicts between science and religion, including evolution.

Q. What's your goal in teaching the class?

A. The goal of this class is to help students think critically about the natural world. I want my students to leave the class with the tools to evaluate future scientific advances and to think scientifically about problems that they encounter as they're entering the world after Bucknell.

Around November we always talk about politics and science. We highlight the political ramifications of some of these topics and we talk about the public skepticism of science, using global warming as an example. One of the topics at the end of the semester is science and religion and potential conflicts between them.

I feel our students need to become scientifically literate in order to be citizens of the 21st century. Whatever side of the debate you're on, you should know the science — you can then make your mind up whether you support or object to a certain procedure or technology but you should be able to understand the science.

Another thing I emphasize is the ability to find reliable information. One exercise is to give them examples of pseudoscience, for example, diet claims or human cloning. Students bring their computers to class and find a website on a particular topic then they claim it as their own. They're in a race to claim the best one and don't always find a reliable one but they're stuck trying to defend their choice. I give them a list of questions to analyze that website.

We discuss bisphenyl-A (BPA) in plastic, and I have them research whether that's safe. The top two websites are Wikipedia and a chemistry industry website discussing the pros and cons of BPA. We talk about how do you tell the difference between a website you can trust and one you can't.

A lot of students are getting their information from social media sources so we need to teach them how to deal with that, how to verify or fact check something that they're seeing online that sounds too good to be true.