Climate change deniers and vaccine sceptics present policy makers with complex challenges. In the wake of the recent adverse finding against one of the “poster boys of the global anti vaccination movement”, Dr Andrew Wakefield, there may be some lessons for those advocating for effective climate change policies.

So argues Dr Julie Leask, a social scientist in the medical faculty at the University of Sydney, who has done much research and thinking on the issues around public acceptance, or otherwise, of vaccination. She writes:

“The climate change issue could learn a lot from immunisation debates. In both there is a pressing need for action to prevent human suffering; a minority element attempting to stymie progress; and a scientific community looking on in dismay offering well intended fact-for-fact rebuttals that are more likely to entrench existing positions because they are along ideological/world views.

Climate deniers themselves are a bit like vaccine sceptics. Outspoken and totally unshakable in their views. Dr Andrew Wakefield – the doctor who published the 1998 Lancet study reporting a link between the MMR vaccine, inflammatory bowel disease and autism – is no exception.

In the week that his theory seems to have finally been put to bed in the minds of the media, there are some lessons for those battling climate skepticism. When the study was first published, the scientific and medical community rapidly came out to defend the safety of MMR. These included the World Health Organization, American Academy of Pediatrics, and the British Medical Association – the cream of the crop.

Despite this, the charismatic Wakefield put forward a convincing case. Efforts by  doctors and governments to urge parents to not worry about the vaccine fell on deaf ears while the UK watched, dismayed as vaccinations rates declined. Public health workers scrambled to address the problem and websites like the UK’s “MMR The Facts” proliferated.

Only 12 years later do the worldwide media seem to be completely putting to rest the question of a link. What has triggered this? It wasn’t that Wakefield’s study contained only 12 children. Nor was it that eight of the children had their bowel symptoms appear after developmental problems were reported  – not before – as Wakefield was proposing in his theory. Nor was it that there was no comparison group and nor that the researcher doing the bowel scans was unblinded to whether the children had received MMR – bare essentials in reducing scientific bias.

The life and death of the MMR-autism theory has been less about the science than about the man himself and deeper divides. Wakefield’s fall from grace has been particularly dramatic. He was masterful at casting himself as the brave whistleblower, willing to put his career as a doctor on the line in the name of ‘truth’. He was urged on by parents who found a champion for their deeply held views and an anti-vaccine lobby always seeking opportunities to advance their cause.

Now the GMC have ruled he “showed a callous disregard for the distress and pain” of the children in his study and that his conduct in certain aspects of the conduct of his study was “irresponsible” and “unethical”.

His intentions were probably well meaning at the start. His earlier research showed him to be a gastroenterologist intent on finding a cause for inflammatory bowel disease. The problem was he strayed too far beyond his specialty, fell in love with his MMR hypothesis, and got drunk on the adoration of anti-MMR groups.

The tragedy is that many parents needlessly worried about a vaccine that could prevent three potentially serious diseases. This worry turned into vaccine delay or outright rejection by up to 35% of parents in some parts of London. The inevitable outbreaks arrived, and children got sick, with at least one death.

As predicted, the folly of MMR vaccine rejection is reaping its unhappy results. Similarly, with the climate change debate, the majority look on in dismay as the urgent need to reduce carbon emissions is delayed by the views of a minority.

To address this problem we need to understand why it comes about. A key ingredient in these sorts of controversies is the outspoken and articulate naysayer who, like Wakefield, play the science card masterfully, giving credence to ideas that have little acceptance by the vast majority.

Then there is the media’s tendency to amplify the controversy via the journalistic practice of giving equal attention to both sides of a debate. In vaccine controversies we might get the impression that views are balanced 50:50 when they are in fact about 97:3.

These debates often form along ideological lines: the primacy of personal responsibility, with a rejection and profound distrust of government intervention.

With vaccination, this distrust extends towards orthodox medicine and its technologies. Stories are recalled of wonder drugs gone wrong – thalidomide being one example.

Similarly climate change can be located within other issues which failed to live up to predictions: apocalypses like the cold war, Y2K, avian and now swine flu. Can we really trust the experts?

Climate change will eventually be addressed. But unfortunately, action is being delayed with serious consequences. To address climate scepticism, it would be useful to look to other scientific controversies which have also caused harm. From across the disciplines we can learn from each other.”