A popular internet meme juxtaposes a picture of a female scientist working in a lab captioned “Vaccine Research” with that of a woman looking at her smart phone while sitting on the toilet captioned “Anti-Vax Research.” The meme reflects an attitude towards science skepticism in general and vaccine hesitancy in particular.
This attitude automatically brands all those who harbour doubts about the scientific consensus on a certain topic as “anti-vaxxers,” “climate skeptics” or “science deniers,” and chalks up their unwillingness to accept the scientific consensus to some combination of ignorance, stupidity, recklessness and selfishness.
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As I have argued in my academic work in philosophy, some of these genuine concerns can only be addressed by profound and extensive social and political reforms. Addressing the concerns of the science skeptics requires more than attempting to persuade them to trust science — it also requires us as a society to take the social and political steps required to increase the trustworthiness of science.
Dismissal and disrespect
While it might be often tempting to attribute moral or cognitive flaws to those we disagree with, we have at least three very good reasons to resist that temptation.
The first is that these dismissive attitudes towards science skeptics are condescending and disrespectful to our fellow citizens, and they are likely to contribute further to the polarization of our society and to the wear and tear of its social fabric.
The second reason is that the assumption that science skeptics are ignorant or stupid is not supported by the evidence which seems to indicate, for example, that highly educated people are no less likely to doubt science than people with lower levels of education.
The last (but not the least) reason is that these attitudes are likely to be ineffective if not counterproductive. Instead of looking down on the science skeptics, we should listen to them and try to understand their actual concerns, so that we can take appropriate and effective steps to address them.
Reasons for hesitancy
Russian author Leo Tolstoy wrote, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Something similar could be said about trust in science. As a thought exercise, consider the examples of Savita, Maya and Lara, three highly educated middle-aged women. While each of them is somewhat hesitant about vaccines, their hesitancy has different roots and takes different shapes.
Savita, who is of South Asian descent and is in a heterosexual marriage, believes that her son’s severe allergies were triggered by a shot he was given a couple of days before his first allergic reaction and, while her doctor has tried to reassure her that it was just a coincidence, she is not convinced and is not willing to take any more risks with her children’s health.
Lara, who is white and single, does not believe that the vaccines against COVID-19 have been properly tested, and feels that they have only been granted emergency approval due to the clout that the pharmaceutical industry has with politicians and regulators.
While these may be common fears about the COVID-19 vaccines, they were properly tested and evaluated, and adverse events, including allergy and anaphylaxis, remain low.
The dominant approach to addressing science skepticism assumes that science skeptics either do not understand how science works or are ignorant of the existence of a scientific consensus on the relevant issues. According to this view, vaccine hesitancy can be addressed by doctors reassuring patients on the medical consensus that vaccines are safe and effective.
However, to patients like Savita, Maya and Lara, these wholesale reassurances are likely to ring hollow, as they fail to address their own personal concerns. Attempts to address hesitancy are also likely to come across as patronizing, as they suggest that their recipients are ignorant or reckless.
Looking down on the science skeptics and talking down to them is much easier than trying to understand and address their concerns, even when some of those concerns are legitimate. The medical system does display a bias against marginalized social groups. The relationship between the pharmaceutical industry with medical doctors and biomedical researchers does raise serious concerns about conflicts of interest.
Even focusing only on vaccine hesitancy, science skepticism is a complex and varied phenomenon. Tarring all science skeptics with the same brush makes us lose sight of the differences between them, leaves us unable to understand the many different roots of their distrust, and leads us to adopt a wrongheaded one-size-fit all approach to addressing them.
Gabriele Contessa receives funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.