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Vaccines, Social Media, and the Public Health


Kim R. Finer
Department of Biological Sciences
Kent State University at Stark


While the "vaccine controversy" has made headlines since the late 1990s, the emergence and popularity of social media has created a public opinion space bursting with pseudoscience, debatable claims and anecdotes regarding the value and importance of childhood vaccines. Because college students get a good deal of news and information from these resources, it is imperative that they distinguish science from pseudoscience and do not perpetuate rumor and falsehoods.  In this case study, written for lower division non-science majors, students will view videos on the scientific method and a mock talk show, analyze data, and scrutinize social media posts.  One of the takeaway points is that if a post/blog/interview identifies a victim, villain, and hero then the student should suspect a story grounded in belief involving pseudoscience.  Following completion of the case, students will hopefully come to conclusions about vaccines based more in the realm of science rather than pseudoscience and continue to apply the scientific method when evaluating social media posts on other scientific topics.

  • Reinforce the steps of the scientific method.
  • Distinguish science from pseudoscience by identifying empirical approaches and evaluation of data as opposed to the use of anecdote or unwarranted opinion.
  • Recognize the use of incorrect terminology, inaccurate information, and bias (including hero, villain, and victim identification) in individual social media postings.
  • Learn basic vaccine principles including composition and immune response by recipient.
  • Understand the significance of herd immunity as it impacts the public health.
Keywords: vaccine; pseudoscience; MMR vaccine; herd immunity; Zuckerberg; pseudoscience; anecdote; autism; McCarthy; MMR; autism; measles; social media
Topical Area: Scientific method, Pseudoscience, Science and the media
Educational Level: High school, Undergraduate lower division
Formats: PDF
Type/Method: Directed, Discussion, Flipped
Language: English
Subject Headings: Biology (General)   Public Health   Science (General)   Microbiology  
Date Posted: 10/2/2017
Date Modified: N/A
Copyright: Copyright held by the National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science, University at Buffalo, State University of New York. Please see our usage guidelines, which outline our policy concerning permissible reproduction of this work.

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The following video(s) are recommended for use in association with this case study.

  Scientific Method
The scientific method steps are set to a song in this video. The song identifies the steps as: make an observation, ask a question, form a hypothesis/make a prediction, do a test or experiment, analyze data, and draw a conclusion. The song repeats these steps several times to drive home the process. Running time: 3:08 min. Created by Maynerscience’s Channel, 2011.

  Chit Chat with Carol Conley
This parody of a talk show pits two interviewees’ positions on the vaccine controversy against each other. As each tries to convince the other regarding their positions, the talk show host encourages discussion. Ultimately the viewer will decide who presents the scientific point of view. Running time: 6:58 min. Created by Kim R. Finer for the National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science, 2017.

  How a Vaccine Works
This video provides a very basic introduction to vaccines and pathogens. Information regarding the action of white blood cells (including B and T cells) and antibodies also is presented. Running time: 7:18 min. Created by MITK12 Videos, 2012.

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