Anti-Vax: a crisis of confidence
If there’s one thing we all know, it’s that anti-vaxxers are personae non gratae. The anti-vaccination movement is filled with poorly educated, scientifically illiterate and intellectually dishonest individuals who pose a major risk to public health. Right?
This last point certainly holds: the scientific consensus is overwhelmingly in favor of vaccines as public health good. However, the trope that anti-vaxxers lack scientific knowledge or even basic education is false, unnecessary, and deeply counterproductive.
There is certainly some merit in the stereotype. An analysis of education data from 2017 Human development reports from the United Nations Development Program show a very low correlation where “vaccine hesitancy” decreases by 2%, on average, for each additional year of education.
However, the correlation is weak and there are significant outliers. They reported that 51% of those sampled in France – a wealthy and highly educated country – disagreed with the statement “Vaccines are safe”, compared to only 13% in Azerbaijan.
Other researchers have focused on the socio-economic distribution of vaccine reluctance in the United States, a hot spot for online anti-vaxxers. This study, for example, analyzes “vaccine conscientious objection” (CVE) rates across Texas. It has been found that anti-vaxxers are clustered in urban and suburban centers, that they are well-off (private schools are the epicenters of refusal to be vaccinated), and that the proportion of CVE in a population is well correlated with the level of college studies.
Yes, you read that correctly: in some areas, the After You have a college education, the more anti-vaxxers you get.
“Yes, you read that correctly: in some areas, the After You have a university education, the more anti-vaxxers you get ”
Our common assumptions about anti-vaxxers are therefore often wrong. It’s true that we often see anti-vaxxers online that fit our stereotypical view of them, but it could be an artifact of confirmation bias, or the internet causing only the most shockingly ignorant videos to go viral. We need to radically re-evaluate who we think are anti-vaxxers are, and Why they are anti-vax, if we want that rapidly increasing phenomenon disappear.
So it’s not a question of education. More likely, it’s a crisis of confidence – a crisis on House of Lords saw it coming over 20 years ago. If people don’t trust their government, neither will they trust the medical interventions they prescribe. For example, a Colombian nurse, Maria Pito, recently told NewScientist: “[she] and many others do not trust this not very transparent government […] We have very little information on [the vaccines]. We need to protect our elders, but we prefer to trust our traditional medicines. “
Maybe there is an epistemic dimension to this – maybe they just don’t. understand vaccines. However, this is guaranteed by a failure to engage, which in turn is due to a simple lack of trust. That’s at least part of the reason why our scientific communication strategies increase public engagement, disseminate information and build trust, are failures. Why?
My opinion is that it is the vitriol and fury of scientists and science communicators that is a big part of this communication barrier – of which I myself am admittedly guilty. Consider the wealth of YouTube videos “debunking” pseudo-scientific “myths”. Consider this misinformation about climate change “2020 Demystification Handbook“, Co-authored by” 22 Eminent Specialists in Disinformation and Its Debunking “, or this article titled “That’s why you don’t have difficult scientific experts in business“. Even clickable bait websites like Gizmodo publishes scientific “smackdowns”.
“It is the vitriol and the fury of scientists and science communicators that constitute a large part of this communication barrier”
If your views were so belligerently challenged, so focused on “debunking” not “talking”, “slaps” not “pick-me-ups”, would you be willing to change? notice?
Cailin O’Connor of UC Irvine is a science philosopher who has mathematically models the spread of false beliefs. These false beliefs spread optimally in grouped and trusting subpopulations. It doesn’t matter if the beliefs are true – you just need to be from the same tribe. And it is this tribalism that contemporary scientific communication implements, and not in the process of resolving.
This largely explains the adoption of scientific views unrelated to pre-existing political loopholes, for example. In a time when the evidence was ambivalent anyway, hydroxychloroquine was quickly adopted by the political right and almost entirely rejected by the political left, which preferred Remdesivir. The political community had made its decision long before the scientists.
The right trusts the right and the left trusts the left; no one is surprised. The dissemination of information occurs almost exclusively within, and rarely between, different tribes. Why, then, do we assume that we can reach the anti-vaxxers with simplistic and aggressive information dumps? The overload of evidence can even make them more intransigent in their position. In our current rhetoric, we have opted neither for education nor for diplomacy, but simply for self-confidence.
To be clear here, I would never say that we should not try to disseminate consensus positions, such as the effectiveness of vaccines. I simply argue that to communicate science through assertive and aggressive articles completely miss the point – in particular because they will not be read. Anti-vaxxers are often intelligent, highly educated individuals who are much more familiar with primary literature than vaccines – we who rarely question our own faith.
I do not have a miracle solution – and I very much doubt that there is one – to restore the confidence necessary to re-establish a constructive dialogue. If there is such a panacea, it would undoubtedly involve a rewrite of modern science journalism and an overhaul of science education. An open public debate on meta-science, on the scientific method and the philosophy of science would also be crucial.
I have high hopes for our prospects; there is a lot of common ground to be recovered. After all, anti-vaxxers are anti-vax because they want as much health and as little disease as possible for their children (and the general population). They just don’t trust the government to deliver that to them, or the opaque science and immunization processes. Their science may be wrong – but their goals are the same as ours and we should treat them as such.
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