Academic journal article Reference & User Services Quarterly

Evidence, Not Authority: Reconsidering Presentation of Science for Difficult Decisions

Academic journal article Reference & User Services Quarterly

Evidence, Not Authority: Reconsidering Presentation of Science for Difficult Decisions

Article excerpt

Many online publications offer space for the public to comment on articles. These sections are a window to see readers' reactions to the article and the subject matter. This paper provides an analysis of comment sections from readers on articles about vaccination. The purpose of the paper is to demonstrate reactions to authority, which leads to recommendations on how libraries might remain credible and trustworthy places to seek information about contested subjects. Vaccination is a contested practice that has received widespread public attention. This study demonstrates an atmosphere of distrust toward government, media, scientific funding, and drug companies. Librarians working with the public should be aware of this charged atmosphere. Locally created portals that include multiple points of view on contentious subjects will help people make important decisions and will demonstrate independence that will increase trust.

This research seeks to answer the following questions framed within the context of online conversation about vaccinations:

* What do people say that they trust and do not trust?

* How do they speak of authority?

* What sources do they say they use to make decisions about health care?

* What can librarians learn about observing talk about authority?

Section 1 provides an introduction to the problemfrom historical and philosophical angles. Section 2 describes the method, 3, the findings, and 4, recommendations.

Libraries are one place where people go for health information. There is a wide body of literature about vaccination compliance in the health sciences fields, but it primarily addresses methods to promote compliance. There does not appear to be any library and information science (LIS) research that investigates the information needs of parents who are deciding whether to vaccinate their children or how reference librarians might respond to users who may approach them about this topic.

Authority is one criteria of goodness that librarians use to judge sources, but this is a charged word. There are essentially two aspects of authority that librarians talk about: (1) the credibility of the author of a particular document, and (2) the authority file, meaning the official way of referring to a person, place, or thing. There are additional dimensions of authority that we can discern when the public talks about authority--it is linked more often to police, states, and coercion than to credibility. In the case of medical literature, the two kinds of authority are linked because the same entities that fund research often pursue compliance, especially regarding public health. Such relationships (real or imagined) build a tangled web of mistrust for wary information seekers. Librarians should be aware of this conflict and be aware of how they present information to patrons.

A brief recap of the history of vaccination shows the historic roots of the current vaccination debates and vaccination's relationship to authority. Humans have sought to induce immunity against communicable diseases for centuries; the first evidence of such a practice is from about 1000 CE in China. (1) The first vaccination mandates in England and the United States in the mid-1850s prompted vehement protests. (2) Early arguments against vaccination focused on freedom of religion, tyranny of the state, criticism of allopathic medicine and the American Medical Association, and a belief that scientific studies of vaccination were faulty or corrupt. (3)

Vaccination was generally accepted in the 1950s and 1960s, and in 1967 Kaufman said that the antivaccination movement was effectively dead. (4) Media's attention to vaccination problems revived the movement in the late 1970s and early 1980s when studies and the popular media publicized links between DPT shots and neurological problems. (5) Andrew Wakefield's paper linking vaccination to autism (retracted) incited widespread fear of, and activism against, vaccinations in the 1990s that persists today. …

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