Ethan Lindenberger, the Ohio teenager who sought out vaccinations after he was denied them as a child, recently testified before Congress about why his parents became anti-vaxxers. The trouble, he believes, stems from the pervasiveness of misinformation online.
There is evidence that 'educating' people with facts about the benefits of vaccination may not be effective.
"For my mother, her love and affection and care as a parent was used to push an agenda to create a false distress," he told the Senate Committee. His mother read posts on social media saying vaccines are dangerous, and that was enough to persuade her against them.
His story is an example of how widespread and harmful the current discourse on vaccinations is—and more importantly—how traditional strategies to convince people about the merits of vaccination have largely failed.
As responsible members of society, all of us have implicitly signed on to what ethicists call the "Social Contract" -- we agree to abide by certain moral and political rules of behavior. This is what our societal values, norms, and often governments are based upon. However, with the unprecedented rise of social media, alternative facts, and fake news, it is evident that our understanding—and application—of the social contract must also evolve.
Nowhere is this breakdown of societal norms more visible than in the failure to contain the spread of vaccine-preventable diseases like measles. What started off as unexplained episodes in New York City last October, mostly in communities that are under-vaccinated, has exploded into a national epidemic: 880 cases of measles across 24 states in 2019, according to the CDC (as of May 17, 2019). In fact, the Unites States is only eight months away from losing its "measles free" status, joining Venezuela as the second country out of North and South America with that status.
The U.S. is not the only country facing this growing problem. Such constant and perilous reemergence of measles and other vaccine-preventable diseases in various parts of the world raises doubts about the efficacy of current vaccination policies. In addition to the loss of valuable life, these outbreaks lead to loss of millions of dollars in unnecessary expenditure of scarce healthcare resources. While we may be living through an age of information, we are also navigating an era whose hallmark is a massive onslaught on truth.
There is ample evidence on how these outbreaks start: low-vaccination rates. At the same time, there is evidence that 'educating' people with facts about the benefits of vaccination may not be effective. Indeed, human reasoning has a limit, and facts alone rarely change a person's opinion. In a fascinating report by researchers from the University of Pennsylvania, a small experiment revealed how "behavioral nudges" could inform policy decisions around vaccination.
In the reported experiment, the vaccination rate for employees of a company increased by 1.5 percent when they were prompted to name the date when they planned to get their flu shot. In the same experiment, when employees were prompted to name both a date and a time for their planned flu shot, vaccination rate increased by 4 percent.
A randomized trial revealed the subtle power of "announcements" – direct, brief, assertive statements by physicians that assumed parents were ready to vaccinate their children.
This experiment is a part of an emerging field of behavioral economics—a scientific undertaking that uses insights from psychology to understand human decision-making. The field was born from a humbling realization that humans probably do not possess an unlimited capacity for processing information. Work in this field could inform how we can formulate vaccination policy that is effective, conserves healthcare resources, and is applicable to current societal norms.
Take, for instance, the case of Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) that can cause several types of cancers in both men and women. Research into the quality of physician communication has repeatedly revealed how lukewarm recommendations for HPV vaccination by primary care physicians likely contributes to under-immunization of eligible adolescents and can cause confusion for parents.
A randomized trial revealed the subtle power of "announcements" – direct, brief, assertive statements by physicians that assumed parents were ready to vaccinate their children. These announcements increased vaccination rates by 5.4 percent. Lengthy, open-ended dialogues demonstrated no benefit in vaccination rates. It seems that uncertainty from the physician translates to unwillingness from a parent.
Choice architecture is another compelling concept. The premise is simple: We hardly make any of our decisions in vacuum; the environment in which these decisions are made has an influence. If health systems were designed with these insights in mind, people would be more likely to make better choices—without being forced.
This theory, proposed by Richard Thaler, who won the 2017 Nobel Prize in Economics, was put to the test by physicians at the University of Pennsylvania. In their study, flu vaccination rates at primary care practices increased by 9.5 percent all because the staff implemented "active choice intervention" in their electronic health records—a prompt that nudged doctors and nurses to ask patients if they'd gotten the vaccine yet. This study illustrated how an intervention as simple as a reminder can save lives.
To be sure, some bioethicists do worry about implementing these policies. Are behavioral nudges akin to increased scrutiny or a burden for the disadvantaged? For example, would incentives to quit smoking unfairly target the poor, who are more likely to receive criticism for bad choices?
The measles outbreak is a sober reminder of how devastating it can be when the social contract breaks down.
While this is a valid concern, behavioral economics offers one of the only ethical solutions to increasing vaccination rates by addressing the most critical—and often legal—challenge to universal vaccinations: mandates. Choice architecture and other interventions encourage and inform a choice, allowing an individual to retain his or her right to refuse unwanted treatment. This distinction is especially important, as evidence suggests that people who refuse vaccinations often do so as a result of cognitive biases – systematic errors in thinking resulting from emotional attachment or a lack of information.
For instance, people are prone to "confirmation bias," or a tendency to selectively believe in information that confirms their preexisting theories, rather than the available evidence. At the same time, people do not like mandates. In such situations, choice architecture provides a useful option: people are nudged to make the right choice via the design of health delivery systems, without needing policies that rely on force.
The measles outbreak is a sober reminder of how devastating it can be when the social contract breaks down and people fall prey to misinformation. But all is not lost. As we fight a larger societal battle against alternative facts, we now have another option in the trenches to subtly encourage people to make better choices.
Using insights from research in decision-making, we can all contribute meaningfully in controversial conversations with family, friends, neighbors, colleagues, and our representatives — and push for policies that protect those we care about. A little more than a hundred years ago, thousands of lives were routinely lost to preventive illnesses. We've come too far to let ignorance destroy us now.
The Friday Five covers five stories in research that you may have missed this week. There are plenty of controversies and troubling ethical issues in science – and we get into many of them in our online magazine – but this news roundup focuses on scientific creativity and progress to give you a therapeutic dose of inspiration headed into the weekend.
Here are the promising studies covered in this week's Friday Five:
- A new mask can detect Covid and send an alert to your phone
- More promising research for a breakthrough drug to treat schizophrenia
- AI tool can create new proteins
- Connections between an unhealthy gut and breast cancer
- Progress on the longevity drug, rapamycin
And an honorable mention this week: Certain exercises may benefit some types of memory more than others
The DNA double helix is often the image spiraling at the center of 21st century advances in biomedicine and the growing bioeconomy. And yet, DNA is molecularly inert. DNA, the code for genes, is not alive and is not strictly necessary for life. Ought life be at the center of our communication of living systems? Is not the Cell a superior symbol of life and our manipulation of living systems?
A code for life isn’t a code without the life that instantiates it. A code for life must be translated. The cell is the basic unit of that translation. The cell is the minimal viable package of life as we know it. Therefore, cell biology is at the center of biomedicine’s greatest transformations, suggests Pulitzer-winning physician-scientist Siddhartha Mukherjee in his latest book, The Song of the Cell: The Exploration of Medicine and the New Human.
The Song of the Cell begins with the discovery of cells and of germ theory, featuring characters such as Louis Pasteur and Robert Koch, who brought the cell “into intimate contact with pathology and medicine.” This intercourse would transform biomedicine, leading to the insight that we can treat disease by thinking at the cellular level. The slightest rearrangement of sick cells might be the path toward alleviating suffering for the organism: eroding the cell walls of a bacterium while sparing our human cells; inventing a medium that coaxes sperm and egg to dance into cellular union for in vitro fertilization (IVF); designing molecular missiles that home to the receptors decorating the exterior of cancer cells; teaching adult skin cells to remember their embryonic state for regenerative medicines.
Mukherjee uses the bulk of the book to elucidate key cell types in the human body, along with their “connective relationships” that enable key organs and organ systems to function. This includes the immune system, the heart, the brain, and so on. Mukherjee’s distinctive style features compelling anecdotes and human stories that animate the scientific (and unscientific) processes that have led to our current state of understanding. In his chapter on neurons and the brain, for example, he integrates Santiago Ramon y Cajal’s meticulous black ink sketches of neurons into Mukherjee’s own personal encounter with clinical depression. In one lucid section, he interviews Dr. Helen Mayberg, a pioneering neurologist who takes seriously the descriptive power of her patients’ metaphors, as they suffer from “caves,” “holes,” “voids,” and “force fields” that render their lives gray. Dr. Mayberg aims to stimulate patients’ neuronal cells in a manner that brings back the color.
Beyond exposing the insight and inventiveness that has arisen out of cell-based thinking, it seems that Mukherjee’s bigger project is an epistemological one. The early chapters of The Song of the Cell continually hint at the potential for redefining the basic unit of biology as the cell rather than the gene. The choice to center biomedicine around cells is, above all, a conspicuous choice not to center it around genes (the subject of Mukherjee’s previous book, The Gene), because genes dominate popular science communication.
This choice of cells over genes is most welcome. Cells are alive. Genes are not. Letters—such as the As, Cs, Gs, and Ts that represent the nucleotides of DNA, which make up our genes—must be synthesized into a word or poem or song that offers a glimpse into deeper truths. A key idea embedded in this thinking is that of emergence. Whether in ancient myth or modern art, creation tends to be an emergent process, not a linearly coded script. The cell is our current best guess for the basic unit of life’s emergence, turning a finite set of chemical building blocks—nucleic acids, proteins, sugars, fats—into a replicative, evolving system for fighting stasis and entropy. The cell’s song is one for our times, for it is the song of biology’s emergence out of chemistry and physics, into the “frenetically active process” of homeostasis.
Re-centering our view of biology has practical consequences, too, for how we think about diagnosing and treating disease, and for inventing new medicines. Centering cells presents a challenge: which type of cell to place at the center? Rather than default to the apparent simplicity of DNA as a symbol because it represents the one master code for life, the tension in defining the diversity of cells—a mapping process still far from complete in cutting-edge biology laboratories—can help to create a more thoughtful library of cellular metaphors to shape both the practice and communication of biology.
Further, effective problem solving is often about operating at the right level, or the right scale. The cell feels like appropriate level at which to interrogate many of the diseases that ail us, because the senses that guide our own perceptions of sickness and health—the smoldering pain of inflammation, the tunnel vision of a migraine, the dizziness of a fluttering heart—are emergent.
This, unfortunately, is sort of where Mukherjee leaves the reader, under-exploring the consequences of a biology of emergence. Many practical and profound questions have to do with the ways that each scale of life feeds back on the others. In a tome on Cells and “the future human” I wished that Mukherjee had created more space for seeking the ways that cells will shape and be shaped by the future, of humanity and otherwise.
We are entering a phase of real-world bioengineering that features the modularization of cellular parts within cells, of cells within organs, of organs within bodies, and of bodies within ecosystems. In this reality, we would be unwise to assume that any whole is the mere sum of its parts.
For example, when discussing the regenerative power of pluripotent stem cells, Mukherjee raises the philosophical thought experiment of the Delphic boat, also known as the Ship of Theseus. The boat is made of many pieces of wood, each of which is replaced for repairs over the years, with the boat’s structure unchanged. Eventually none of the boat’s original wood remains: Is it the same boat?
Mukherjee raises the Delphic boat in one paragraph at the end of the chapter on stem cells, as a metaphor related to the possibility of stem cell-enabled regeneration in perpetuity. He does not follow any of the threads of potential answers. Given the current state of cellular engineering, about which Mukherjee is a world expert from his work as a physician-scientist, this book could have used an entire section dedicated to probing this question and, importantly, the ways this thought experiment falls apart.
We are entering a phase of real-world bioengineering that features the modularization of cellular parts within cells, of cells within organs, of organs within bodies, and of bodies within ecosystems. In this reality, we would be unwise to assume that any whole is the mere sum of its parts. Wholeness at any one of these scales of life—organelle, cell, organ, body, ecosystem—is what is at stake if we allow biological reductionism to assume away the relation between those scales.
In other words, Mukherjee succeeds in providing a masterful and compelling narrative of the lives of many of the cells that emerge to enliven us. Like his previous books, it is a worthwhile read for anyone curious about the role of cells in disease and in health. And yet, he fails to offer the broader context of The Song of the Cell.
As leading agronomist and essayist Wes Jackson has written, “The sequence of amino acids that is at home in the human cell, when produced inside the bacterial cell, does not fold quite right. Something about the E. coli internal environment affects the tertiary structure of the protein and makes it inactive. The whole in this case, the E. coli cell, affects the part—the newly made protein. Where is the priority of part now?” 
Beyond the ways that different kingdoms of life translate the same genetic code, the practical situation for humanity today relates to the ways that the different disciplines of modern life use values and culture to influence our genes, cells, bodies, and environment. It may be that humans will soon become a bit like the Delphic boat, infused with the buzz of fresh cells to repopulate different niches within our bodies, for healthier, longer lives. But in biology, as in writing, a mixed metaphor can cause something of a cacophony. For we are not boats with parts to be replaced piecemeal. And nor are whales, nor alpine forests, nor topsoil. Life isn’t a sum of parts, and neither is a song that rings true.
 Wes Jackson, "Visions and Assumptions," in Nature as Measure (p. 52-53).