Despite the underwhelming amount of scientific evidence that supports them, I have often pondered why people jump on board with anti-vaccine opinions and beliefs. People like Robert F Kennedy Jr, Del Bigtree, and Andrew Wakefield are adored by anti-vaccine activists despite no science supporting their opinions and points of view.
On the other hand, real scientists like Peter Hotez, MD, Ph.D., Paul Offit, MD, and David Gorski, MD, Ph.D., are ridiculed and ignored by the anti-vaccine crowd, despite the vast body of scientific evidence that supports their evidence-based claims about vaccines. As I always write, the evidence of the safety and effectiveness of vaccines is settled science.
I thought I would list why many people embrace anti-vaccine opinions while ignoring science-based facts.
Why are anti-vaccine opinions so popular?
I am just going to list out, in no particular order, why some people accept the unscientific claims of anti-vaxxers. But before I start, I need to remind people that anti-vaccine sentiment is a small minority of Americans (and even rarer in other countries).
For example, according to the CDC, around 91% of children born in 2019 have received all of their MMR shots (for measles, mumps, and rubella). And, in the graph below, you can see that it’s been amazingly consistent over the years.
Other childhood vaccines show similar numbers:
- DTaP vaccine (for diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis or whooping cough) — 90.2% of children have received their first vaccine.
- Hib vaccine (for Haemophilus influenzae type b) — 88.1%
- Polio vaccine — 89.4%
- Rotavirus vaccine — 76.9%
As you can see, the vast majority of Americans vaccinate their children against these diseases. What we are observing is a vocal minority who are actually opposed to vaccines. Moreover, those children who aren’t vaccinated are not necessarily children of rabid anti-vaxxers, they may lack access to medical care, a travesty itself.
So, let’s take a look at each of the reasons why anti-vaccine activists, like Robert F Kennedy Jr get so much traction. I don’t think that one reason outweighs another, I’m sure that there is a complex interaction of many reasons that entice people to support the anti-vaccine point of view.
Confirmation bias is a logical fallacy that explains how individuals seek out and accept only information that supports their pre-existing beliefs and claims. Thus, someone who believes that vaccines or government agencies that support vaccines are dangerous or part of a conspiracy will easily accept disinformation that supports that point of view.
But it’s worse than that — they give much more weight, or even all the weight, to published articles that support those beliefs while ignoring the much larger body of evidence that supports the fact that vaccines are safe and effective.
Trust in influential people
People like Robert F Kennedy Jr are prominent with a recognizable name. And that alone will make some people treat him like a credible source, despite the lack of published scientific evidence supporting his claims.
This is a logical fallacy where an authority figure is given more credence despite that lack of evidence. People will defer to their claims because they perceive them as experts.
As I keep saying, science is complex, it’s nuanced, and it’s not easy. I can tell you that vaccines do not cause autism, but there are over 160 scientific articles that substantiate that fact. But those are difficult to read and are very dry. I have a substantial science background, and I even get bored reading them.
So if an anti-vaxxer says, “vaccines cause autism,” because their child, friend’s child, or other relative developed autism spectrum disorder soon after getting a vaccine. These anecdotes and stories are easier to consume than complex scientific articles that dispute any link.
The allure of straightforward answers can outweigh the nuanced and comprehensive data presented by scientists and health experts.
Anti-vaccine misinformation is more appealing to people’s emotions and pre-existing beliefs. Anti-vaccine narratives can tap into fears, distrust of authority, or conspiracy theories, creating an emotional connection that resonates with some individuals.
Social media echo chamber
Social media tends to reinforce people’s pre-existing beliefs because this misinformation gets repeated among a group of like-minded individuals. They think they are larger and more powerful than they actually are because they get so much support from their group.
As I wrote above, the vast majority of people vaccinate their children, but the social media echo chamber makes it appear that most people don’t vaccinate.
Fear of the unknown
Although vaccines might seem like a simple medical intervention, they are actually quite complex. And once someone delves into that complexity, they tend to overestimate the risks of side effects. And they believe there are long-term effects of the vaccine, like cancer. And there is no evidence that vaccines are linked to cancer, in case you were wondering.
And anti-vaccine activists exploit this fear by amplifying the risks, even though those risks are extremely rare.
Lack of scientific literacy
Many people who embrace the anti-vaccine rhetoric may not have the necessary scientific background to critically assess the validity of the science behind the safety and effectiveness of vaccines.
I don’t want people to think that the science of vaccines is impossible to learn, but it’s a lot more than a few minutes or hours on Google. Becoming an expert in a scientific discipline like vaccines takes thousands of hours of unbiased research across a number of disciplines like epidemiology, public health, microbiology, virology, immunology, and other areas.
This has arisen more recently because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Conservatives, at least in the USA, have become more hesitant about vaccines, while liberals are quite supportive of vaccines. This has actually resulted in a differential death rate between red and blue states during the pandemic.
So those people who are on the right-leaning side of the political narrative tend to listen to anti-vaccine activists who also happen to be on the right of the political narrative.
This right-wing narrative also spurs widespread mistrust in institutions that have long been respected across the political spectrum. The CDC, FDA, and other institutions that support vaccine efforts have been ridiculed as part of the anti-vaccine rhetoric.
It’s interesting to note that it was not that long ago that there was barely a difference between Republican- and Democratic-leaning individuals in their support for vaccines. I used to believe that most anti-vaxxers were “crunchy moms,” very liberal and educated women who wouldn’t vote for a Republican under almost any condition. But times have changed.
I think there are two broad conclusions about this analysis of anti-vaccine attitudes:
- The most important item is that vaccine rates are still extremely high for most childhood vaccines. Of course, these rates will bear watching in case anti-vaccine beliefs grow beyond the limited number of people who embrace them recently.
- The reasons for the enthusiastic reception of anti-vaccine claims are varied. It’s difficult to point to a single one of them.
I think it’s important that those of us who support vaccines and accept the vast scientific evidence behind their safety and effectiveness understand what makes an anti-vaxxer tick. It may help us counter some of the false claims.
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