Winning the vaccine wars

PLoS Biology has an excellent article on the social factors behind how recent vaccination scares sparked off and continue, despite them having no scientific basis and having been repeatedly proved incorrect.

I’m morbidly fascinated by the autism scares because they are meeting of two very different forms of systems in which to think about knowledge.

Broadly, scientists think about how well a belief is supported by looking at its justifying evidence, whereas the antivaxxers decide on the conclusion often based on what they believe about their children and then bend or reject any evidence to fit the mould.

The piece focuses on the American antivaxxers and looks at how the US media amplified the scare story through focusing on personal stories and presenting them heavy weight scientific evidence.

Rachel Casiday, a medical anthropologist at the Centre for Integrated Health Care Research at Durham University, UK, who studied British parents’ attitudes toward MMR, says scientists should not underestimate the importance of narrative. People relate much more to a dramatic story‚Äî‚Äúhe got his vaccination, he stopped interacting, and he hasn’t been the same since‚Äù‚Äîthan they do to facts, risk analyses, and statistical studies.

‚ÄúIf you discount these stories, people think you have an ulterior motive or you’re not taking them seriously,‚Äù she explains. Casiday suggests providing an alternative, science-based explanation or relating emotionally compelling tales about counter-risk‚Äîsuch as helplessly watching a young child die of a vaccine-preventable disease‚Äîin the same narrative format.

While scientists have been (for years now) presenting the facts to people, it has really made very little difference and this is the first article I know of that suggests that science uses the power of the narrative to gets its vaccine safety message across.

UPDATE: I really recommend a post on the Providentia blog where psychologist Romeo Vitelli describes how the first life-saving smallpox vaccinations were opposed by a fledgling anti-vaccination movement that bear remarkable similarities to their modern day counterparts. The series on the historical antivaccination theme will continue, so look out for further posts on the same blog.

Link to PLoS Biology article (via @bengoldacre).

2 Comments

  1. Posted May 29, 2009 at 12:12 am | Permalink

    The anti-vaccination movement has been around for quite a while. Almost since the beginning of vaccination itself in fact. I’m doing a two-part post on the early anti-vaccinationists. It’s depressing that their arguments are almost exactly the same (autism and mercury is just the latest wrinkle). Here’s part 1.

    http://drvitelli.typepad.com/providentia/2009/05/the-vaccination-wars.html

  2. Posted May 29, 2009 at 12:48 am | Permalink

    That makes so much sense. The power of narrative is well known in education. Maybe scientists need to do some reading in imaginal education.


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