Controversy over childhood vaccinations is an instance of what might be styled the “science communication problem”—the failure of compelling scientific evidence to resolve public dispute over risks and similar facts (1). This problem itself has been the focus of scientific study since the 1970s, when psychologists began to investigate the divergence between expert and public opinion on nuclear power. Indeed, the science of science communication that this body of work comprises can now be used not just to explain controversy over risk but also to predict, manage, and in theory avoid conditions likely to trigger it. The example of childhood vaccinations illustrates these points—and teaches an important practical lesson.
It is indeed alarming that the public in developed countries should be increasingly anti-vaccination, when the situation in developing countries is so different. I suppose it is because of their success that there is now such diminished risk in the wealthier parts of the world, that people (wrongly) start to assume there are greater risks from vaccination than from the diseases they protect against.
And wrongly, because while diseases like measles might be ALMOST eradicated in much of the world, any slip in coverage can result in its very rapid reintroduciton into places like the USA and the UK, where numbers of cases have been rising recently.
I suppose all we can do is try to convince those around us that the knee-jerk "vaccines are evil" responses of the dumber civilians are simply stupid – and that for everything our children receive vaccinations for, the risks of wild-type disease are still greater than vaccine complications.
See on www.sciencemag.org