One of the biggest casualties of the modern crisis in journalism has been specialist reporting. As newspapers have shed staff in response to declining print revenues, specialist writers have often been the first to be made redundant and replaced with generalists. Science journalism, in particular, has suffered heavily – not just for the loss of jobs, but for the important work these writers do in distilling scientific ideas for the general public: to report the science, not just publish op-eds on the politics around it; to read past the sensationalist headlines of press releases to find the actual facts – or even just to be able to say ‘in mice.’
But while science journalism has struggled in mainstream news outlets, the world of podcasting is filled with exciting, engaging science stories. One of the most incredible things to watch in the boom of podcasting is the ability for niche podcasts to find their perfect audience. You can find podcasts on just about everything: some will last for years, some will last for one tiny season, seemingly listened to by only yourself. But there is some semblance (at least for now) of a democracy in podcast distribution – anything is possible.
And so the science podcast, a space which encompasses everything from the phenomenally successful Radiolab (2004–) down to beautiful underappreciated gems, like Allison Behringer’s Bodies (2018). This podcasting landscape is filled with newcomers to the science communications field, like 11-year-old Tai Poole in Tai Asks Why (2018–), and old pros, like the delightful Fauna (2018) from the Age’s former science editor Bridie Smith.
These podcasts are created from places of inquiry and love, but they also exist in a space acutely aware of the lack of rigorous but accessible science journalism – and many of them strive to fill this space.
In a form so suited to niches and democratic distribution, it doesn’t take much work to find podcasts with a decidedly anti-science bent.
It’s perhaps no surprise, then, that there are also podcasters approaching the key scientific questions of today from the other side. In a form so suited to niches and democratic distribution, it doesn’t take much work to find podcasts with a decidedly anti-science bent.
When the World Health Organization released its ‘Ten Threats to Global Health in 2019’ report, vaccine hesitancy made the list for the first time ever. In the face of raising rates of measles and other eliminated diseases , social media platforms have been forced to respond: YouTube and Facebook adjusting their algorithms to demote anti-vaccine content, Pinterest blocking searches on ‘vaccines’ altogether. It is, of course, not hard to still find this anti-vaccination content – and yet, I was shocked at how readily this was available on podcast apps.
A search for ‘vaccine’ on Pocket Casts will give you an anti-vaccine option as the first result and the shockingly misnamed ‘National Vaccine Information Center’ as the fourth. In a brief survey on Twitter, I found similar results held true across multiple platforms and directories. This is to say nothing of the numerous similar podcasts which don’t mention vaccines in their titles or blurbs at all: hardline anti-vax messaging is frequently hidden among blander ‘health and wellness’ platitudes.
Listening to these podcasts is an often infuriating experience – science is misstated and misunderstood; fringe ideas are presented as the ‘truth’; quirks of scientific language (such as carefully-worded statements that a link between vaccines and autism ‘cannot be supported’) are used to score points. Scratching their surface, an easy rage begins to boil at these people who spread such misinformation, whose words hurt people and communities.
But as I sat down with them for longer, and truly engaged with them, my anger gave way to a deep sadness.
The women (and it is mostly women) on these podcasts are largely white Americans. They are well-off enough to be stay-at-home mothers, perhaps running a small online shop (it was on Etsy, until they, too, disallowed anti-vaccine content) or selling oils for a multi-level-marketing company. They drink celery juice, they are Christians. They say they’re ‘not anti-vaccination, they’re pro-safe vaccines’ – but the goalposts for what that means are constantly moved.
And they are scared.
It is no wonder that, in a society which constantly tells mothers they are not doing enough, these young women internalise this message that only they can protect their children. They are never allowed to feel secure in a world that is big and scary and dangerous: if you’re not doing everything to ‘protect’ your child, you’re not doing nearly enough.
The women on these podcasts are never allowed to feel secure in a world that is big and scary: if you’re not doing everything to ‘protect’ your child, you’re not doing nearly enough.
The anti-vaccine movement as presented through these podcasts is one that feeds off the anxieties of motherhood – by other mothers, but also by men who have created positions of power for themselves in this community, and who stand to make a lot of money from spreading fear.
Our world operates to tell mothers that they are never doing enough to protect and to support their children. For these mothers, then, it becomes less about a child getting measles or not – or even about a vaccine giving a child autism or not (although this is a staggeringly persistent fear). It’s about the difference in the perceived risk in doing something instead of not doing something: to have a ‘vaccine injured’ child would be your fault; to have a child who gets an infectious disease is simply a fault of the universe.
For parents whose children do have autism, allergies, disabilities or who heartbreakingly die from SIDS, this movement has forced mothers into a space of guilt and blame – blame ‘big pharma’ who ‘tricked’ you into vaccinating your children, but primarily blame yourself for falling for it. Guilt is a common facet of both motherhood and of grief, and the women on these podcasts have been forced to carry this self-blame in a way no mother deserves. They internalise their guilt and then externalise it as fear, which they then pass on through an anti-vaccine message.
Listening to these conversations, and their frequent scoffing at the WHO, I reflected on the WHO’s careful choice of the phrase ‘vaccine hesitancy.’ The people who produce these podcasts aren’t hesitant – their minds are firmly made up. But they are trying to speak to the hesitant, to those who have heard half-truths, and to pull them truly to the anti-vaccination side.
But as I turned away from these podcasts, towards those by science communicators sharing the true story of vaccination – from its history to its contemporary science – I also found people trying to reach those same vaccine-hesitant listeners. Choosing to approach the conversation from a place of informed science, yes, but also by rejecting the fear which can so easily swirl around both sides: talking from a place of open generosity.
Science Vs (2015–) is always at its best when it goes after harder, more controversial – and emotionally heightened – topics. While ‘Science vs Sharks’ is amusing, it’s when host Wendy Zukerman and her team really dig deep into those spaces of cultural clashes where the podcast holds its power and sway, in episodes about abortion or gender or Lyme disease.
Science Vs started on the ABC before being bought by commercial podcast company Gimlet, and Zukerman, with her corny jokes and wide-eyed-wonder, is an affable host and scientific communicator. In ‘Science vs Vaccines’, Zukerman talks with the show’s reporter Heather Rogers, who has spaced out her toddler’s vaccines: she is one of the vaccine hesitant. Zukerman laughs a bit at Rogers, but it is in that loving way we all laugh at our friends. And then she dives deep into the science – ‘Science Vs Vaccines’ has 99 references, all readily available through the provided transcript – all the while remembering the humanity of Rogers, and all other parents who aren’t quite sure what to think.
Beneath its chatty veneer, Science Vs is deliberate in the way it plays between the ‘opposing’ sides, and by positioning Rogers at the centre of the story and reportage, it centres all parents – all mothers – who want to do what is best for their children but aren’t quite sure who to listen to, in a world which judges so easily.
Endless Thread (2018–) is a strange beast: a collaboration between public broadcaster WBUR and Reddit. But their recent five-part series on vaccines, Infectious, highlights the power which Reddit can hold: it is a natural home for exploring this topic. Reddit is held up as the impetus for the series – ‘TIL, in China, before it there was a vaccine, smallpox scabs were ground up and blown up the noses of healthy people in order to immunize them’ [sic] – but it also becomes a point of research, where posts are analysed to consider the balance between pro- and anti-vaccination contributors, and the autism community is asked how they feel about being centred in a debate they asked for no part of.
Hosts Ben Brock Johnson and Amory Sivertson dissect vaccines and infectious diseases and the various movements – historical, scientific, cultural, pop-cultural – which have surrounded them. Johnson and Sivertson aren’t traditional science communicators, but they are excited by the science and their ability to share their discoveries. And they share not only the science of vaccinations, but also research around anti-vaccination movements and, in particular, how they exist online.
There are so many incredible science podcasts, able to position themselves to a niche audience; but there is also something lost when we become self-curator of our news media.
Like Zukerman, they talk with the vaccine hesitant: in episode three, a couple who aren’t sure what path to take with their child who were found, of course, through Reddit; in episode four they talk with Ginger, ‘a known voice in the vaccine hesitant world’, who believes her son got autism through his vaccines. But it is one of their last guests who is the most interesting, bringing a voice into all of these podcasts I didn’t find anywhere else: Ian McCall, who contracted vaccine-associated paralytic polio – estimated to occur once in every 2.7 million doses of the live polio vaccine.  He was, to use the anti-vaxxer parlance, ‘vaccine injured’. And yet he came on Infectious, and spoke about the importance of vaccinating his children.
Listening to voice messages received by and played on the show, it is fascinating to realise how Infectious has drawn listeners from both the firmly pro-vaccine and the more hesitant sides of the debate: by embedding a science-focused mini-series within a more eclectic program, perhaps, their message can reach a broader audience.
The biggest loss, perhaps, of dedicated science reporters from newspapers is the way these stories would be found by accident and reach those outside of a typical science audience. This is, of course, part of the loss more generally as we increasingly receive our news online and not in print: we lose the idea of a newspaper as a curated object, stories from different desks all placed alongside each other, science and arts and politics all understood as parts of a whole, and not as separate siloed entities. The same holds true for podcasts compared with radio broadcasts. There are so many incredible science podcasts because of the way these broadcasters are able to position themselves to a niche audience; but there is also something lost when we become self-curator of our news media. I can listen to so many science podcasts which will expand my mind and the way I understand the world: but what about those who will find their anti-science podcasts and never feel any need to venture beyond?
It’s easy to listen to podcasts – to engage with any contemporary media, really – and feel demoralised about the state of the world. It is easy to read misstated science in the daily paper and feel demoralised about the state of journalism. It is too easy, perhaps, to be able to listen to podcasts which are based in fear and not science when it comes to such emotive issues such as vaccines.
But, even if we have to curate it ourselves, it is also easy to listen to podcasts – from small conversations through to intricate multi-hour productions – and be reminded how much good science communication is out there, still, and how these producers simply want to do the work of sharing their excitement about the world, and in some small way making this a better planet to share.