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How to Talk to Science-Deniers and Anti-Vaxxers

Before the COVID-19 pandemic brought heightened attention to anti-science sentiments, the spread of misinformation has long threatened to undermine public health efforts. Optimal public health depends on effective messaging about vaccines and the prevention of highly infectious diseases. 

Understanding the impacts of the anti-vaxxer movement is crucial to implementing public health communication strategies promoting positive health and protecting against widespread misinformation. 

The Harm of Disinformation 

The spread of disinformation can fuel and exacerbate false beliefs, and it can also harm people. Long before anti-vaxxers started spreading their warnings about COVID conspiracies, misperceptions about vaccines and other public health measures have hindered public safety and health. 

Not all vaccine-hesitant individuals intentionally spread false information. Some skeptics include parents or individuals who simply want to protect themselves and their families from harm. Furthermore, many Americans have never seen a case of measles or smallpox, so they might not be aware of the damage these and other illnesses can bring. 

Unfortunately, many diseases thought eradicated have been making a come-back even before COVID-19 emerged. Because of vaccine hesitancy increases, many children are now more vulnerable to diphtheria, measles, mumps, rubella, whooping cough, and tetanus. 

The current pandemic has given rise to science-denial about the existence and seriousness of COVID-19. It has also fueled doubts about vaccine effectiveness and outrage among some groups about vaccine mandates in schools and other public arenas. A December 2021 Household Pulse Survey (HPS) by the U.S. Census Bureau reported that about 45 percent of respondents did not trust the COVID vaccine. 

Many people who believe and spread false information about COVID-19 have probably trusted other conspiracy theories. University of Queensland researchers found that individuals who subscribe to 9/11 truthers theories are more likely than chance to believe that COVID vaccines are harmful. Such skeptics often engage in one or more common forms of reasonings: 

  • They cherry-pick their evidence. 
  • They are vulnerable to the appeal of conspiracy theories. 
  • They misplace their credibility, typically turning to fake experts and discrediting real ones. 
  • They regularly use logical inconsistencies and fallacies. 
  • They maintain that science must be perfect and flawless to be credible. 

How to Talk to Anti-Vaxxers and Science-Deniers 

You do not need a graduate degree in virology or epidemiology to counteract the misinformation that many anti-vaxxers believe and propagate. It is imperative for scientists and science advocates to feel confident about engaging science deniers and even getting them to rethink their poorly conceived viewpoints. 

It can seem futile to talk to someone who holds inaccurate beliefs about vaccines and other public health measures. The worst thing you can do is refuse to talk to them. Not engaging at all means they never receive the information. Furthermore, even if you cannot change someone’s mind, choosing to engage could prevent others from hearing misinformation. Planting some doubt might be enough to keep a person from spreading it. 

Try Using Rebuttal Strategies 

Empirical data and evidence are what scientists, public health experts, and others rely on for the facts. Unfortunately, such sources are not compelling enough for science-deniers to change their minds. 

Instead, try a form of debunking called content rebuttal, presenting facts relevant to a particular belief that someone holds. Suppose someone does not want to get vaccinated because they heard that most vaccinated people end up sick in the hospital with COVID-19. Counter their misconception by pointing out that people who end up in the hospital because of COVID-19 are predominantly not vaccinated. 

Another type of debunking is technique rebuttal, which attacks a person’s method of reasoning, such as those previously discussed. For example, having a personal acquaintance who suffered side effects from a COVID vaccine does not necessarily mean that adverse effects from the shot are widespread. This strategy works just as well as a content rebuttal. 

Engage Them Face-to-Face 

Perhaps the most ineffective way to combat anti-science bias is to leave angry comments on social media posts. This kind of dialogue might help you let off steam, but it will not likely impact the debate. Instead, talking with someone face-to-face whenever possible is a more effective approach. 

Showing respect during an interaction is critical. Conveying a calm, respectful tone with a science-denier can build trust and lead to a more productive conversation. You might also have more success if the person you talk to has some confidence in you and what you have to say. More specifically, target audiences place more trust in sources from groups or communities similar to them. Local health professionals, faith leaders, and other community members who reach out to target audiences are more likely to win trust. 

Research and materials for this article were compiled, written, and distributed on behalf of the National Public Health Information Coalition. The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the various authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the National Public Health Information Coalition or its members.