What is the difference between doubt and distrust? Doubt can be overcome by evidence. Distrust cannot.
According to a recent Washington Post poll, refusal to get the COVID-19 vaccine has now become completely politicized in the USA. Among Democrats, 93% report that they’ve already gotten at least one shot or are likely to, compared with only 49% of Republicans.
Why so much refusal to vaccinate among the GOP? Because they’re being targeted by a deliberate campaign of disinformation. Science denial isn’t a mistake, it’s a purposeful lie.
Despite ample data that the vaccines are safe, false stories circulate on the internet claiming that scientists are lying to us, that the vaccines can make you infertile, that they contain microchips, that they can alter your DNA. Do these worries arise organically? Maybe some do. But such disinformation is often intentionally created to serve someone’s financial, political or ideological interests.
Among those with something to gain is the Russian government, which is diligently working to undermine confidence in the vaccines as part of its goal of destabilizing American society. It has been spreading misinformation for years on a host of other virus-related topics, including flu and Ebola. From there, it’s a short hop to having their message amplified by conspiracy-embracing, right-wing media, whether witting or not, and by the soulless churn of algorithms on social media.
And it doesn’t take many people amplifying a false message to have an outsized effect. According to a recent PBS story, 65% of the anti-vaccine propaganda on Twitter was due to just 12 people, some of whom are profiting from the creation of bogus skepticism through the promotion of alternative treatments and cures.
The targets for all of this disinformation are gullible people, who are already feeling defensive and threatened and now feel justified in questioning scientific consensus. Of course, they don’t get anything out of it. Most of the people we call science deniers are just pawns of others who profit from their credulity or ideological allegiance. And in the case of COVID vaccine refusal, those pawns are dying. According to an Associated Press analysis of CDC data, 99.2% of COVID deaths in the U.S. are now among the unvaccinated.
What is the most effective way to fight back? Certainly, it would be good to inform people who are being duped just exactly who is doing the duping. For those who are already disposed to believe in conspiracy theories, here is a real live conspiracy! (Of course, as Mark Twain reportedly said, it’s easier to fool people than to convince them that they’ve been fooled).
What doesn’t work? Telling a science denier they’re wrong. Just providing facts and evidence won’t work. The antidote to denial is not more (potentially untrustworthy) information, but to increase trust.
The anecdotal literature shows that when someone gives up their denialist beliefs it is almost always a result of personal engagement. Within this context, trust grows and facts can be effective.
But can it work with strangers?
Longtime GOP pollster Frank Luntz conducted a focus group to try to find an effective message to get people to take their COVID shots. Here’s what he found worked: listening, patience and respect. The participants — all of whom started out reluctant to take the vaccine — began to trust him, and within that context he provided information that ultimately led all 19 of them to say that they were more likely to take their shots.
In researching my forthcoming book, “How to talk to a science denier,” I found similar tactics were effective not only on anti-vaxxers, but also climate deniers and others.
Perhaps the answer to our current crisis is not more evidence, but more engagement. Rather than retreat to our favorite news silos, we might try interacting with those who think differently than we do. In an era of polarization, wouldn’t it be great if we learned to talk to — and trust — one another again?
Lee McIntyre (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a research fellow at the Center for Philosophy and History of Science at Boston University and author of the forthcoming book “How to Talk to a Science Denier” (MIT Press, 2021).