Why we need to stop shaming anti-vaxxers

Anti-vaxxers are seemingly immune to facts (unlike disease! Ha!) and what little patience the rest of the community had for them seems to have evaporated along with our chances of eradicating a number of dangerous illnesses. So what do we do?

Controversial anti-vaccines commercial.
Controversial anti-vaccines commercial.

As always, I think the issue boils down to empathy. I truly enjoyed laughing at them, calling them crazy people, and wishing I could debate on nothing but feeling since facts are out of the question. Unfortunately, I’ve had to stop, because I get it.

Here’s the thing that seems to have gotten lost in all of this – the whole movement against vaccines has very very little to do with vaccines, which is why facts about vaccines being completely safe does not elicit the desired response. The problem is far more complex, and the solution doubly so.

The good news is that the first step is reasonably easy. Understanding. So what are the issues these lunatics have brought up?

  1. Governments can be influenced by the powerful lobby groups of pharmaceutical companies whose motives are founded on profit rather than the promotion of human health.
  2. Further to that, even medicines that have been scrutinized by the FDA can still be quite harmful.
  3. The scientific community is heavily funded by the private sector. This invariably adds bias to the research.
  4. It is not unheard of for the scientific community to turn against a dissenting voice. Scientists are, after all, people, and people make mistakes.
  5. Things that used to be thought of as common sense, basic facts, have been challenged by innovative new research and strategies.
  6. Research not conducted with strict adherence to the scientific method and unbiased observation can still find publishers.

These points have all been true, at one point or another. You don’t need to look further than “Doctor” Oz to remember that just having a medical degree does not make someone a paragon of human virtue.

Of course, you might say, these are not representative of the entire scientific community. You might say that that is a gross misrepresentation of the scientific landscape and fear-mongering by using the dubious history of scientific exploration (not unlike any other field) against the people who perform work in those fields now. That it is an attempt to devalue the work of millions of hardworking scientists because not everyone plays by the rules. And you’d be entirely right – these statements lack context and a human touch, and who better to offer it than people so passionate about science they dedicate their lives to it?

Bottom line – if we want to convince people that vaccines are safe, that climate change is powered by human consumption, or that the world is older than 6,000, we need to stop the mocking, the name calling, the public shaming, and try having a genuine conversation about what is at the heart of these beliefs. I believe we would learn a lot about ourselves from that type of discussion as well.

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