The art of talking about science

Paul Offit of Penn Medicine and CHOP offers five tips for better communicating tough scientific topics to the public—and standing up for science in the process.

Child in a gray shirt sitting waiting to get a shot by gloved hands.

Today’s social media landscape gives anyone who wants it a soapbox, which also means it’s easy for inaccurate scientific information—which, at another time in history, would’ve withered on the vine—to travel far and wide. Given his specialty, Paul Offit is all too familiar with the havoc that such misinformation can wreak. 

Offit directs the Vaccine Education Center at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and is a professor of vaccinology at Penn’s Perelman School of Medicine. He was part of the team to develop a vaccine for rotavirus, called RotaTeq, and for decades he’s been a passionate advocate for vaccine science. 

Paul Offit.
Paul Offit is the Maurice R. Hilleman Chair of Vaccinology in the Department of Pediatrics at the Perelman School of Medicine, and director of the Vaccine Education Center at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. (Image: Courtesy of Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia)

“We live in difficult times,” Offit told a packed house in Houston Hall last month. “We’ve drifted from scientific illiteracy into scientific denialism. People simply declare their own truths, like that vaccines cause autism, or climate change is a hoax, or evolution and creationism are equally valid hypotheses. As a consequence of what’s happening, science is losing its rightful place as a source of truth.” 

To combat this movement, Offit believes scientists themselves need to do a better job communicating. In a talk presented by Penn’s Center for Public Health Initiatives, he offered some straightforward solutions.  

1. Understand what the public hears. In 1998, a man named Andrew Wakefield published a paper in The Lancet claiming the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine caused autism. In the 20 years since, the paper was withdrawn due to errors and misrepresented data, Wakefield lost his medical license, and 17 studies in seven countries on three continents have shown that those who receive the MMR vaccine are at no greater risk of getting autism than those who don’t. 

Yet some people still believe the MMR vaccine causes autism. 

It’s because of something in the scientific process called the null hypothesis, which means it’s nearly impossible to demonstrate the lack of a connection between A and B. In this case, “scientists know they can’t say [definitively] that MMR doesn’t cause autism, so they say things that sound much wishy-washier,” Offit said. “We have to know how we’re being heard when we’re being respectful to the scientific method,” and, he added, not be “handcuffed” by it. 

2. Foster trust in the scientific process. Science isn’t black and white, nor does it tend to follow a linear path. It isn’t scientists or scientific organizations or even accumulated knowledge. Rather, “it’s really just a way of thinking about a problem, approaching a problem. Science is the study of control, trying to isolate one variable to look at its effect,” Offit explained. 

It’s a great process for those working within it, because it allows for course correction and fine-tuning. From the outside, however, such fluidity can be disconcerting, leading to a lack of trust in the whole endeavor. “But that’s why I think you can trust science,” he said. “We’re open-minded. We’re mutable. We’re willing to change as more information comes. We’re willing to take textbooks and throw them over our shoulder without a backwards glance.” 

Though it may take a while, he added, truth wins out in the end. 

3. Beware the unanswerable question. Offit learned this lesson the hard way. In 1997, as a guest on a back-to-school spot for a news program, he was asked which vaccines children should get, how many, and when. At that time, the full answer entailed rattling off vaccines against 14 diseases via as many as 26 inoculations given at various intervals from birth to age 4—which Offit tried to explain, until he got lost in his own response, forgot which he’d already referenced, and stopped talking altogether.

Then, when he was asked “How many vaccines is too many for the body to handle?” he said, “each person can theoretically respond to 10,000 vaccines at one time.”

Now, Offit was basing his answer on work from two prominent immunologists, but it didn’t matter; he became the 10,000-vaccines guy. “That did not create a great image,” he said. “The better answer was, ‘A single common cold is a greater challenge to the immune system than vaccines. Scraping your knee is a greater challenge to the immune system.’ Those create a clearer, more compelling image than the one that I created.” 

4. Avoid the irrelevant argument. Here he brings up the idea of the straw man, ignoring a person’s actual position to substitute a distorted or misrepresented version. When Offit appeared on “CBS This Morning” in 2013 to discuss his book “Do You Believe in Magic?” about vitamins and supplements, he mentioned Steve Jobs. 

Jobs died of pancreatic cancer but from a neuroendocrine tumor that happened to be on his pancreas. Surgery gives someone with that type of tumor a 95 percent chance of survival, but Jobs opted to forgo the procedure, instead using megavitamins and other alternatives. “That was my point, that the choices he made to pursue alternative medicine had hurt him,” Offit said. “As is turns out, Charlie Rose [who was also on the show] was a very good friend of Steve Jobs…and he was angry I had criticized his choices.” 

Rose began questioning Offit about his authority to say what would have happened given that he’d never been Jobs’ doctor. “It doesn’t matter whether I took care of Steve Jobs. The question is, ‘Were those facts correct?’ I didn’t make them up,” he said. “Eventually I came back to repeating those facts, but it’s easy to get lost in that. You have to be careful not to go down the rabbit hole—because the facts are on your side.” 

5. Tell great stories. “We’re humans. Humans are compelled by stories,” he said. “We have to make whatever scientific issue we’re trying to compel people with into a story.” Like Galileo did by naming his monograph “The Starry Messenger” rather than something more straightforward, or like Louis Pasteur, who made a show out of his science by demonstrating the effectiveness of the anthrax vaccine on sheep, goats, and cows at a county fair. 

The complexity of the science almost doesn’t matter, if it can be described in a gripping way (accurately, of course). Doing so, stepping beyond the confines of the lab and out of your comfort zone, is important, too.  

“Don’t let bad information go unchallenged, and don’t assume other people are going to do it,” Offit said. “We need to stand up for science. It’s not easy. It’s not the venue we’re used to. You need to do it. You learn from doing it.”

Paul Offit is the Maurice R. Hilleman Chair of Vaccinology in the Department of Pediatrics at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. He is also director of the Vaccine Education Center and an attending physician in the Division of Infectious Diseases at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.