How to Deal with Opposition to Vaccination: Lessons from Addressing Climate Change DenialRead Now
I came across an interview that journalist Bill Moyers did with Christian climate scientist Katherine Hayhoe back in 2014. The topic of their conversation is about the particular situation of Evangelical Christians in the United States as it relates to denial of climate change, but I believe the interview is remarkable because of the broader applicability of Dr. Hayhoe’s ideas as to why denial of many issues has been embraced by various communities and what can be done about it.
You can watch the interview in the video above, but I will provide a recap of the major points of the interview.
Dr. Hayhoe’s argument is that climate change is a hot button issue for many people because they feel it threatens all that they hold dear. However, what people reject about climate change is not so much the science but the solutions. Climate change is something that affects the community, and as such, efforts to deal with climate change require large numbers of people to work together, which means that the government has to be involved. But opposition to government is deeply rooted in the American psyche, and any legislation to limit what people can do or use is viewed with mistrust. Thus, climate change has become a casualty of much larger societal issues. This has been compounded by the fact that people have been lied to by those in whom they deposited their trust.
On the one hand, the leaders who many of these people trust because they share their values, have told them that climate change is a hoax, or that it’s real but it’s not a big deal and nothing has to be done about it. Or in the absence of clear leaders, political and media personalities who don’t like the solutions to climate change have stepped in. And because these individuals say the same things that people believe with regards to many other issues, the people put their trust in them. On the other hand, the spokespeople for the opposite point of view have often been scientists who do not share the values of the communities they are addressing. People will not believe messengers whom they do not trust because they perceive them as not sharing their values.
The remedy to this situation will not come from more information and more science, but rather from dealing with who we are as humans and how we function politically. Dr. Hayhoe says that, although caring about the climate is consistent with who people are as Christians, we have increasingly confounded our politics with out faith. Instead of allowing faith to determine our attitudes to political and social issues, we are allowing our political party to dictate our attitude towards issues that are clearly consistent with who we are.
Finally, Dr. Hayhoe says that everyone has a list of things they care about such as the health of their kids, job security, the cost of living, faith etc., and climate change should not be viewed as one more thing to put on the list that competes with the others because climate change is already affecting the top things on everyone’s list. Climate change is affecting the things most people care about, love, and hold dear.
There are other aspects to the interview, but the ones I’ve mentioned above are those that I think are more generalizable to other situations where misinformation and social dynamics are getting in the way of people accepting and acting on a reality. One possible such situation is COVID-19 vaccine denial.
Despite overwhelming evidence that the COVID-19 vaccines are safe, effective, and necessary, there is a certain proportion of the population of the United States that refuses to accept the vaccine. In parallels with climate change deniers, the sector of the population opposed to vaccination tends to be conservative and distrusting of government. In another parallel to climate change denial, this group of people tends to listen to media that reinforce their fears feeding them misinformation about vaccines. At the same time, this group of people is distrusting of what scientists say about vaccines, and especially of those scientists associated with the government.
Like the evangelicals who have allowed their politics to replace their faith in guiding them with regards to climate change, the vaccine deniers have allowed their politics to replace their common sense and instinct of self-preservation when it comes to vaccines. And like climate change deniers, vaccine deniers have a list of things they hold dear and care about, and COVID-19 has probably affected every single item on the top of their lists, from the health of people they admire, acquaintances, friends, and family, to the impact on the economy.
Dr. Hayhoe advocates finding trusted messengers within the evangelical community (people who are like them, such as she is) to spread the message that we need to act on climate change. This is indeed a strategy that is currently being pursued in the case of vaccine denial. The government is trying to recruit media personalities and local respected leaders to talk in favor of vaccination. But I think we can go about finding these trusted messengers in an additional way which relies on another parallel between COVID-19 and climate change.
Much like climate change, COVID-19 affects everyone, and there is a growing list of vaccines deniers, who have been seriously ill or died due to the virus. The people who listened to these vaccine deniers have now been knocked back to their senses in the most brutal of ways. And I think that their stories should be used to snap vaccine deniers from the stranglehold that their politics have on their common sense and instinct of self-preservation. And unlike climate change, there is no ambiguity as to the cause of the harm. If someone loses their property, a friend, or a loved one to rising sea levels or a fire or a hurricane, they can always be told that there is no direct proof that climate change caused it. But if someone dies due to COVID-19, that reality cannot be denied.
So, find out who are those vaccine deniers that were harmed by COVID-19 and seek out their audiences, their acquaintances, their friends, and their families, and ask them to tell their story to those in their communities and to champion vaccination. Every serious vaccine-preventable COVID-19 illness or death among the community of vaccine deniers is a tragedy. But the silver lining is that these illnesses and deaths will generate a group of people willing to open their minds to vaccination and promote it. I think these people have an important role to play in stopping vaccine denial.
Image from pixabay by Gerd Altmann is free for commercial use and was modified from the original.
The scientific establishment is inherently conservative and sets a high bar for the acceptance of new ideas, which allows for the efficient allocation of resources to fund research that makes sense and is worthwhile pursuing. Of course, like all human affairs this is not a perfect process, and sometimes the scientific establishment has rejected ideas that turned out to be true (although sometimes rightfully so), but what is the alternative? Should we have a system where every scientist with a new idea gets funded to pursue it? We can’t do this because resources are limited. The ideas of scientists are judged by the scientific establishment, which is made up of the immediate peers of scientists plus institutions, funding agencies, and the rest of the scientific community. And many of these ideas get rejected. In fact, I believe one important function of the scientific establishment is not so much accepting the right ideas but rather rejecting the wrong ones. Most scientists think that the acceptance of false ideas as true is more harmful than the rejection of true ideas as false. In this sense the scientific establishment is the keeper of the virtue of science because it protects science and society at large from ideas or claims that are wrong, fraudulent, or just plain stupid. Let’s look at some notable false ideas rejected by the scientific establishment.
Stefan Marinov (1931 - 1997) was a Bulgarian physicist who often advocated contrarian ideas in science. He strongly argued for the reality of perpetual motion machines which would yield free energy, and against mainstream scientific theories such as the theory of relativity. Marinov’s experimental results were never replicated and his views were never accepted by most scientists. Towards the end of his life even he found evidence that a perpetual motion machine he had built did not work and that a physical law that he had criticized was correct after all.
The American molecular biologist Peter Duesberg (1936 - ) performed pioneering work in how viruses can cause cancer, but when the HIV virus was identified in the 1980s as the cause of Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS), Duesberg refused to accept this, and he started publishing articles opposing the idea. Duesberg began gathering supporters which ended up forming a sizeable and vocal group that developed some political, social, and media clout. The group considered that AIDs was not caused by the HIV virus but by other factors that could include drug use, sexual behavior, malnutrition, inadequate sanitation, or hemophilia. Among the AIDS denialists were individuals of note such as Nobel Prize winning scientist Kari Mullis and National Medal of Science winning scientist Lynn Margulis. Thanks to the scientific establishment, these erroneous ideas were not accepted and the identification of the HIV virus and the acceptance that it caused AIDS permitted the development of tests and therapies. The sad exception was South Africa where the government bought into the arguments of the AIDS denialists delaying antiviral treatments to people suffering from AIDS which led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands.
Paul Kammerer (1880 - 1926) an Austrian biologist who strongly advocated a theory opposite to Darwinian evolution called Lamarckism. This theory posits that organisms can pass to their descendants traits that they acquire during their lives. To buttress his arguments he famously presented the results of an experiment where he forced toads that normally mate on land to mate in the water. He reported that over two generations the toads developed black pads on their feet (nuptial pads) which provided more traction for the process of mating in the water. He stated that these pads were an acquired trait that proved his views. However, it was discovered that the pads had been created by the injection of ink into the feet of the toads. Kammerer acknowledged the finding, but claimed he was innocent of the forgery. Other have tried to reproduce Kammerer’s experimental results, but were not successful. The scientific establishment never accepted his ideas.
In 1988 the French scientist Jacques Benveniste (1935-2004) published an experiment that seemed to lend credence to the concept of homeopathy in which extremely diluted solutions are claimed to have effects even though no trace of any solute is present. A team sent by a science journal to Benveniste’s lab could not replicate the experiment under rigorous conditions and other scientists have not been able to replicate the results either. Alleged homeopathic effects have also been claimed to have been detected by the Nobel Prize winning scientists Brian Josephson and Luc Montagnier, but attempts to validate their claims have failed. The scientific establishment does not accept the occurrence of homeopathic effects or homeopathy to be a valid science.
In 2020, the journals Lancet and New England Journal of Medicine published articles that claimed that the drug hydroxychloroquine (HCQ) did not have effects against COVID-19 and in fact was harmful to human patients. Many scientists read the articles and spotted several problems that were communicated to the editors of the journals and the authors of the articles. The articles were then retracted. Despite the criticisms, this affair demonstrated that the scientific process worked. Error was detected, addressed, and corrected. On the flipside, the claim that HCQ works against COVID-19 has been pushed by doctors such as Vladimir Zelenko, scientists such as the Yale epidemiologist Harvey Risch, and groups such as the Front-Line Doctors, but so far HCQ has not been found to work as a single agent or when combined with antibiotics against COVID-19 in the best designed studies, or to have antiviral effects against the COVID-19 virus. When it comes to HCQ the scientific establishment has been able so far to discard false claims both for and against HCQ.
The foregoing are but a very tiny fraction of the ideas that have been evaluated, questioned, and discarded by the scientific establishment. Thanks to the scientific establishment, society is not mired in error, wasting resources on nonsense, and isn’t flooded with quack cures and ineffective therapies. That is part of what the scientific establishment has done for you.
The image from Alpha Stock Images by Nick Youngson is used here under an Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported (CC BY-SA 3.0) license.
In Facebook I belong to a group that pays tribute to one of my all-time favorite comic strips, Calvin and Hobbes, written by Will Watterson. Watterson's strip about a hyperkinetic albeit imaginative kid named Calvin and his alter ego stuffed tiger, Hobbes, ran from 1985 to 1996 in the United States. Calvin, is the quintessential brat who often strains the nerves of his mostly tolerant parents, while Hobbes plays the straight man to Calvin’s antics. The comic strip often parodies modern life at the personal, family, and societal levels.
The most salient feature of the comic strip is Hobbes. When someone besides Calvin is around, Hobbes is shown as a stuffed toy tiger, but when Hobbes is alone with Calvin, he is portrayed as a walking talking tiger. This has been interpreted in several ways by fans of the strip, with some people claiming that the walking talking Hobbes is a figment of Calvin’s imagination while others claim that the tiger actually comes alive when he’s alone with Calvin.
One of the members of the Facebook group posted what Watterson once wrote about the ambiguity of Hobbes’ nature.
The so-called "gimmick" of my strip — the two versions of Hobbes — is sometimes misunderstood. I don't think of Hobbes as a doll that miraculously comes to life when Calvin's around. Neither do I think of Hobbes as the product of Calvin's imagination. Calvin sees Hobbes one way, and everyone else sees Hobbes another way. I show two versions of reality, and each makes complete sense to the participant who sees it. I think that's how life works. None of us sees the world exactly the same way, and I just draw that literally in the strip. Hobbes is more about the subjective nature of reality than about dolls coming to life.
I took exception to this, and I posted on the group’s page the following:
“This is not true. There is only one reality. We may perceive it in different ways, but those perceptions still have to have a high degree of correlation to reality for life to be possible. If I see the edge of a cliff and you don't, I will survive, and you will die. Seeing a walking talking tiger instead of a stuffed tiger is not just ‘another way’ to perceive reality, it is a fantasy. There are perceptions of reality which may make sense to some people, but they are false.”
A few people replied to my comment making several claims. Among these where that “everyone has their sense of reality’, that “there is no consensus regarding the interpretation of reality”, and that research into the quantum realm validates this notion; that “only those dogmatically adhering to their own perspective dare speak with any certainty when it comes to asserting that their interpretation of reality holds all due authority and finality in its validity”, and “what makes you an expert on reality? How do you know that for one a thing is not real that is for another?”.
I wanted to put together my replies to some of these comments in this post, because the implications go beyond a mere comic strip.
I understand that the perception of reality by different people can be different: for example, color blind people vs people with normal color vision. In fact, our perception of reality doesn’t even have to be “veridical”. However, as I stated in my comment, there has to be a big enough correlation between reality and our perception of it for life to be possible. All around us the world is full of patterns, regularities, and things happening one way and not another, that allow us to figure out how to go about living. Reality is not anarchical, and there are millions of consensuses regarding the nature of reality all around us. For example, the sidewalk under our feet WILL NOT turn into quicksand and swallow us, a tree WILL NOT uproot itself and chase us, a cloud WILL NOT turn into lead and fall on us, etc. We don't have to live in fear of these occurrences, because we have internalized how the world works. This ability is part of our evolutionary programing and has survival value.
Scientists go beyond this intuitive understanding of reality that we have all developed by performing tests to gain insight into more complex aspects of reality and they discard those views of reality that are incompatible with the evidence. With the exception of the quantum realm, so far all the evidence we have indicates that, at least at our level, we live in a deterministic world. Things are one way and not another. Some things are possible, and others aren’t.
I agree that some individuals see a reality that is very different from the one the rest of us see, but many of those people are unable to function in the real world and can even put their lives and those of others in danger. That is why they are treated with medication or locked up in psychiatric wards. Their view of reality IS NOT an “alternative view”, it is a FALSE view. I agree children often see reality in a way that is different from adults, but this is why they are treated like children and are under the care and supervision of adults. And it is our job as adults to assist in weaning them of their childhood fantasies, so they can take their place in the adult world.
Of course, when I post things like these, I come across as an arrogant, insufferable, “know better than thou” jerk divorced from the magic of childhood who is disrespectful of other people’s points of view. Let me just state two things.
1) I am a fan of fiction and fantasy. From Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter to comic strips such as Calvin and Hobbes, Bloom County, or The Far Side; and from the numerous incarnations of the Star Trek franchise (I’m a Trekkie) to many works of horror such as Frankenstein, Dracula, Aliens, Night of the Living dead, Nightmare on Elm Street, Psycho, The Texas chainsaw Massacre, or the Rocky Horror Picture show. I enjoy fiction and fantasy and find inspiration in them, so much so that I also write short stories. Fiction and fantasy have important roles in adulthood, but they ARE NOT reality, and as adults we must recognize this.
2) Reality is not a democracy, and alternative views of reality, especially those unsupported by evidence are not always valid or worthy of respect. Are the QAnon folks right in their claims of the existence of a worldwide cabal of satanic, cannibalistic, pedophiles? Was the 2020 presidential election a fraud? Was 911 an inside job? Is COVID-19 no worse than the flu? Will the COVID-19 vaccine modify your DNA and implant a microchip that will allow the government to track you? Was the moon landing a hoax and is the Earth flat? Was the Earth and all life on it created 10,000 years ago? Is the government spraying you with chemicals? These are not “alternative” views of reality, these are FALSE views of reality and should be treated as such.
So, to wrap it up, yes, by all means enjoy and be inspired by Calvin and Hobbes (or other works of fiction and fantasy), but all the while understanding that Hobbes IS NOT a walking talking tiger but just a figment of Calvin’s imagination.
Calvin and Hobbes image by Bill Watterson is a Wallpaper from flickr by Brad Arnold and is used here under an Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-ND 2.0) license.