Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Curbing the Panic Virus

This week's podcast features an interview with journalist Seth Mnookin, whose new book is called The Panic Virus: The True Story Behind the Vaccine Autism Controversy. The book chronicles the history of controversies surrounding vaccines, and dives deep into the question of how a very fervent, very vocal group of people came to believe that modern vaccines can, in some cases, cause autism in young children. In the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, how did this belief arise and why has it been perpetuated?

An even better question might be: why would we interview someone about a medical issue on a physics podcast?

It turns out, the story Mnookin tells in his book has implications for the entire scientific community. Vaccines have always been the subject of controversies: sometimes because of legitimate hazards, but more often because of unscientific, personal beliefs. Physics is all too familiar with cases like this. Remember when someone thought the Large Hadron Collider was going to blow up the world? What about the fact that an alarming percentage of Americans do not believe that human activities contribute to global warming? How do ideas that are so clearly contradicted by science come to be taken seriously by the larger population?

The Panic Virus uncovers some of the root problems that drive a strongly-held anti-science belief from the fringe to the forefront. The general public, the scientific establishment, and the media all bear responsibility, and have something to learn from this tale. Check out the podcast to find out more.

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