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The way to change anti-vaccine campaigners’ minds

16 March 2019

9:00 AM

16 March 2019

9:00 AM

What a baffling group of people anti-vaxxers are. They rail against one of the miracles of modern medicine, peddling scare stories about vaccines which had nearly eradicated many deadly childhood illnesses in the developed world.

Baffling, of course, is too soft a word for many: they’re dangerous, because their anti-science views don’t just put their own children at risk, but wider society. The uptake of the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine in Britain is at 87.5 per cent. This sounds a lot, but isn’t close to the 95 per cent threshold that the World Health Organisation (WHO) says will ensure ‘herd immunity’ — which is when a disease cannot spread through a community. In the first six months of 2018, there were more than 41,000 cases of measles in Europe, nearly double the number over the whole of the previous year.

The WHO has named what it calls ‘vaccine hesitancy’ as one of the ten biggest threats to global health in 2019. In developing countries, parents are scared away from vaccines by superstition. In Britain, the anti-vax movement spreads through WhatsApp and Facebook. NHS England boss Simon Stevens said recently that parents at his children’s school were sharing fake stories about vaccines, and warned that this was ‘as irresponsible as it is to say don’t bother to tell your kids to look both ways before they cross the road’.

Magda Taylor is one of those British campaigners against vaccines. She runs a group called The Informed Parent, and in her eyes, the scientific community isn’t being open with parents about these problems, preferring to shout down anyone who raises concerns. Taylor and others often focus on the failure of medics to give parents the full details about the side effects of vaccinations, including very rare but potentially deadly allergic reactions. As part of a Radio 4 series that I’m presenting on whether we are living in an age of denial, I interviewed her to try to work out how someone with no scientific background could end up trying to take on the medical establishment.


She freely admitted she wasn’t an expert, saying: ‘I can only say I’ve studied it since 1991 and I didn’t come from a bias. I was just an ordinary mother who wanted to find out what is healthy for my children.’

Taylor was anxious about the interview. She doesn’t like being labelled a ‘vaccine denier’, considering it ‘a very sinister term’ that she feels is associated with the Holocaust and climate change. For Taylor, the term ‘denier’ says more about the people using it than about her, because they are refusing to engage, instead calling her names.

This is the standard approach to anti-vaxxers, and it’s one I find very tempting too. Aren’t they simply dangerous deniers who deserve to be shouted at for the damage they are doing?

The problem is that insults don’t work. Taylor shuts down whenever anyone calls her a denier. Those who study denialism say this is a common reaction and that the best way to fight it is not with accusations or, indeed, by presenting reams of facts but first by finding common ground. And there is common ground: the reason anti-vaxxers give for their stance is that they want to protect their children, which is the same reason there are national vaccine programmes.

Tali Sharot, professor of neuroscience at University College London agrees that you can’t start the discussion by disagreeing about facts. Don’t talk about the autism and vaccine link, she says. Instead talk about what we agree on.

One group of researchers from the University of California decided to discuss with parents how vaccines protect children from deadly diseases, something that often gets forgotten in the debate. It had striking results: ‘Highlighting the common belief had a great effect and made parents three times more likely to vaccinate.’ They found common ground, they talked about something on which they could agree with the parents, and then it became easier to move on to the things that had scared those parents in the first place, such as the autism myth.

Sounds eminently sensible, doesn’t it? So why are we continuing to shout and call names? Perhaps it’s because shouting makes us feel better about ourselves. We just don’t want to find common ground with Magda Taylor and her fellow campaigners and so we keep on shouting.

It’s a common approach now across a range of issues. Does someone take a different political view to you? Just tell them they’re an idiot. It’s easier than setting out a reasoned argument. The trouble is, you’re unlikely to win your adversary round. Accusations simply keep the deniers in denial.

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