How do you deal with an anti-vaxxer?
I have written before about how too much sci-comm preaches to the converted, and whilst there is nothing particularly wrong with telling interested folks about interesting stuff, it is hardly going to change the world. But it is hard to engage the non-interested. They simply don’t turn up to science festivals, or science discussions, or science museums, or anywhere we happen to be doing science engagement, so we have to go to where they are and do it on their terms. I recently found a perfect spot - the steam room of my local swimming pool.
The steam room attracts the most diverse cross section of people I have ever encountered in a space no bigger than the average bathroom. There are representatives of almost every continent, age, and class, and they are often putting the world to rights. Sheltered as we are in our own echo chambers, the steam room is the one place that I can encounter the people who have the kinds of opinions that are routinely derided and despaired at on my Twitter feed and it was in this humid melting pot that I overheard a discussion about how drinking camels’ milk can cure cancer and the corruption that prevents the pharmaceuticals industry from sharing this information with us. The discussion moved on to how they make us sick by injecting us with so-called vaccines so that they can then sell us even more drugs for our bogus illnesses. I had to get involved.
For the next half hour (which was probably too long to be in that heat) I debated the truth of this with an exceptionally passionate man. All the while, others interjected their opinions or asked us to keep it down. Unlike most similar, but faceless debates that take place on social media, it did not descend into name calling. In fact, despite continually interrupting each other, and denying the legitimacy of each other’s arguments, we left the steam room shaking hands and thanking each other for the lively and interesting debate. Undoubtedly, the face-to-face interaction helped with this but there were lessons to be learned that might translate to media interactions that mean these divisive and destructive debates go better and the key ingredient is respect.
How does one respect someone who would rather buy into an unfounded conspiracy theory that puts people’s lives at risk than trust the word of experts that have devoted their lives to researching such things? During the conversation I found many things to respect, most importantly his motivation. When people try desperately to convince us of things, it is unlikely to be to selfishly manipulate us and far more likely to be because they care. This man did not want me to be taken in by corrupt drug companies. I respect that. I made it clear that my own experience led me to believe that his attitude was endangering him and others. He respected that. We realised we were coming from the same place.
We had something else in common too. We both felt the other one did not question their sources correctly. When I hear those from the scientific community discuss how to deal with the misinformation that the internet provides, they assert that teaching critical thinking skills is key. The fact that I appeared to be toeing the line of the establishment confirmed to him my lack of critical thinking. This is not necessarily a crazy conspiracy theorist. How many scientific papers confirmed smoking to be safe, or evidence of climate change to be overblown. Scientists often have agendas, and they often get their stats wrong so we need to be critical thinkers to deal with them, just as much as we do to protect ourselves against conspiracy theories.
To this man, the expert is a shadowy figure cut off from the real world. To me the expert is often a work colleague. By reassuring him that I knew plenty of scientists and that the vast majority are not on the payroll of corrupt companies, I was able to win some trust back. We are more likely to trust the people we know, or even the people who know the people we know. His cancer evidence came from a friend of a friend, but he’d never met a scientist. Who is he more likely to trust? At the end of the day, evolution has made us a tribal bunch and we distrust those we don’t know. This highlights the importance of face to face public engagement. This also highlights the importance of having a diverse workforce in the sciences so that everyone knows someone who is a scientist. But most of all it highlights the need to accept that we have more in common with anti-vaxxers and flat Earthers than we do differences. If we welcome them into our science tribe they will probably trust us more.