It's a Small World after All: The Nature of Risk and Science

Wednesday, 13 July 2016: 15:00
Location: Hörsaal 46 (Main Building)
Oral Presentation
Kristin BARKER, University of New Mexico, USA
Ryeora CHOE, University of New Mexico, USA
Keith WILKINS, University of New Mexico, USA
R. Neil GREENE, University of New Mexico, USA
Alexis MACLENNAN, University of New Mexico, USA
We examine lay claims concerning the 2015 measles outbreak traced to Disneyland, CA through a content analysis of more than 2500 online reader comments sent to the three U.S. newspapers with the largest number of digital subscribers (i.e., The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and USA Today).  Nearly all social science research related to the vaccine debate has focused on the anti-vaccination movement and its conceptualization of vaccine risk.  Our analysis points to a large group of social stakeholders who express a variety of concerns about anti-vaccination as an abrogation of the social contract and the risks associated therein.  Not only does this group discredit the means by which risk is calculated by anti-vaxxers, but they also challenge the level of analysis (i.e., individual versus social) at which anti-vaxxers calculate risk.  Our analysis further highlights the particular ways in which these stakeholders align their position with that of science, so imagined, to legitimate their concerns and discredit claims concerning vaccine risks. These stakeholders are highly defensive in the face of perceived personal and communal catastrophic risks.  Even as they evoke science, their claims were less a reflection of established medical knowledge and more emotive, exaggerations of negative consequences in unique scenarios. Far from disparaging or distrusting science, the overwhelming majority of online reader comments, to liberal and conservative newspapers alike, align themselves with a pro-science and pro-vaccine position.  At the same time, their alliance with science is as much emotive as rational.  Our analysis contributes to a growing trend in the Science and Technology Studies literature that shifts away from the imagined, widespread eschewal of science to an empirical focus on the actual claims made by laypeople about their understanding of science.