Vaccine communication & anti-vaxxers

 

In the past 40 years, Danish research has shown that the story of vaccines is not quite as simple as the World Health Organization, national health authorities and others portray it.

– from Vaccines – an unresolved story, Science News DK

Why do we see a backlash against vaccines these days?

I wonder if it’s partly connected with the way governments and doctors have communicated vaccine information. They tend to strongly push it and focus on the very real benefits of vaccines, while ignoring or glossing over the equally real complexity and occasional downsides.

Why would officials and authorities push vaccines in a one-sided way? It may come from thinking they obviously are needed and should be used so they don’t see the need to include the other side of the argument. They may want to avoid muddling the water or give ammunition to anti-vaxxers. Another factor may be lobbying from the powerful pharmaceutical industry since they obviously benefit from mass-scale vaccination projects.

As anyone who has ever been a child or teenager knows, one-sided persuasive communication creates a backlash. We know reality is not that simple. We know they are leaving something out. If we are a bit informed, we know what they leave out. So there will obviously be a backlash.

With a more balanced and grounded communication, it’s likely that the response also would be more balanced and grounded. Yes, vaccines are amazing and often a very good way to go. And yet, there are complexities and possible downsides that need to be addressed. Both are part of the picture.

We are used to accept risk. Cars help us get around but they also kill people. Pesticides may allow for an easier larger yield, but these too kill people. Medicines helps people stay healthy and alive, and they have side-effects and kill people in the wrong dosage. Hospitals help people stay alive, and hospitals also kill people – through mistakes, antibiotic-resistant infections, and so on.

We know about these risks, and most of us accept them.

And so also with vaccines. Yes, they often have some risks. And yet, their benefits often outweigh these risks. Most people are willing to accept the risk of some vaccines, especially if they are informed about these risks and feel the authorities are honest and open about it. In other cases, vaccines may seem less needed or the risks may be too high.

Through a more informed discussion, we could collectively be more discerning about when, how, and for whom any one vaccine is helpful.

This is an example of how conspiracy theories often have some basis in reality, although usually not in a literal sense. Yes, the issue of vaccines is more complex than authorities tend to acknowledge. And no, there is most likely no vast conspiracy behind it apart from the usual pressure and influence from those who benefit from it financially.

Conspiracy theories make dumb people feel smart

 

Conspiracy theories make dumb people feel smart.

– a comment on a friend’s social media post about conspiracy theories

It’s a bit crass, but considering the real-life harmful effects of rampant conspiracy theories, perhaps some crassness is justified.

I think there is something to this quote, in a couple of different ways.

Conspiracy theories can help us feel special, that we know something others don’t, that we are “sticking it to the man”, and so on. We feel “smart” in a broad sense. And this, in turn, is a way to cope with our own fears and sense of lack.

Also, they often come from a lack of critical thinking. We may feel we are questioning authorities when we take a conspiracy theory as real, but we may not go far enough in questioning authorities. Do I question the source of the conspiracy theory? Do I even know who the source is? Do I question my own thinking? Am I versed in media literacy, human bias, and logical fallacies? Do I apply these to the conspiracy theory and how I think about it? What’s the evidence for the conspiracy theory? Is it solid enough to hold up in a court? Or to be used by a serious historian or journalist?

So if I hold a conspiracy theory as true, it may come from a wish to appear smart and special to myself and perhaps others, and in the process I may be dumb in that I don’t apply critical thinking.

As I have written about before….

Some conspiracy theories may indeed be true. But I need to apply critical thinking and look at the evidence. If it looks flimsy or questionable, it doesn’t deserve much of my time and energy. Also, real conspiracies have historically been uncovered through serious investigations by journalists, historians, or official investigators. (Not nutters on the internet.)

And the real conspiracy here may be that conspiracy theories distract us from the very real problems in the world most or nearly all of us agree on: mega-corporations owning a large number of corporations and media outlets and influencing public discourse and policies, huge gap between the few wealthy and the rest of us, poverty, lack of basic health care, an economic system not taking ecological realities into account, our very real ecological crisis, and so on.

I intentionally use “we” language here since it’s not about us and them. Most of us go into our own conspiracy theories now and then. We believe our own scary thoughts about something and assign plan and intention where there is none. It’s good to notice.

Finally, what I see in others reflects what’s in me. If I believe the idea that conspiracy theorists are dumb, I make it into a conspiracy theory about conspiracy theorists to make me feel smarter.

Conspiracy theorist don’t go far enough: they don’t question ALL authorities

 

….many who are into conspiracy theories do not go far enough in questioning authorities. If you want to question authorities, question ALL authorities, including the sources of conspiracy theories and – especially – your own thinking. Are you certain you know what you think you know? Explore critical thinking, media literacy, and how the human mind operates from biases, shortcuts, and logical fallacies.

– from a previous post

This is an important point about conspiracy theories. People who are into conspiracy theories often pride themselves on questioning authorities, and yet they tend to be selective in which authorities they question. They may not question all authorities, including the sources of conspiracy theories and their own thinking.

Do you know the source of the conspiracy theory? Can you verify who it is? Can you verify the conspiracy theory itself? Would the evidence hold up in a court of law? Would it be solid enough for a serious historian or investigative reporter?

Do you know the common biases of the human mind, and do you take them seriously when it comes to your own views? Are you familiar with common logical fallacies, and do you test your own thinking against them?

Why do some get into conspiracy theories, and why do we see a blossoming of it?

 

Why do some people get into conspiracy theories, almost as a lifestyle?

One answer is lack of critical thinking, media literacy, and willingness to check the sources and facts. This has partly to do with our educational system. 

Some may want to feel important, that they know something others don’t, that they can “stick it to the man”, and so on. 

It may come out of a general distrust in authorities. (Which is healthy, to some extent, but can also go too far if it’s compulsive.)

It may come out of general frustration and sense of powerlessness. It may be tied to lack of opportunities in life and reflect a structural social problem.

As anything else, it’s a projection. We see in others and the world what’s in ourselves. Whatever we see out there and can set word on, we can turn it around to ourselves and find examples of it in ourselves and our own behavior as well. This, in itself, doesn’t mean it’s not also out there in the world. It’s certainly here and can also be out there. “Blind” projections – where we don’t recognize it as a projection and take care of it – can make conspiracy theories into a compulsion.

Getting into conspiracy theories can, paradoxically, be a way to feel more safe. It can feel safer if there is one simple answer to a lot of the problems we see in society today. Instead of the randomness of life and systemic problems in society, it can feel somewhat comforting if one small group of people are behind it.

It may be rooted in fear. A way for people to deal with their own unmet, unloved, and unexamined fear. It’s a way for them to try to exorcise their own demons.

I also suspect it can be rooted in trauma. It’s a way for some people to deal with the pain of their own trauma. Instead of meeting that pain and the fear behind it, it seems easier to get upset about something in the world and blame someone for it. It’s a distraction and a coping mechanism.

Why is it difficult to have a rational and grounded conversation with people who are into conspiracy theories?

It may be because nothing we can say can disprove – in their mind – their views. What we say is just evidence that we are brainwashed or are actively in on the conspiracy.

Conspiracy theories tie into identies and most people want to hold onto their identities. In the case of conspiracy theories, some of these identities may be as a rebel, someone who knows what others don’t, someone who is willing to question authorities, someone who is independent, and so on. (Although none of those may be true – they may not actually know anything real, they may not question the authority of the source of the conspiracy theories and their own thinking, they may just follow along with others who are into conspiracy theories.)

Getting into conspiracy theories may give some a sense of community. Perhaps they already feel like an outsider, so they find a community of others who feel like outsiders – and that community happens to be a mostly online conspirary theory community.

Conspiracy theories may be a way to deal with discomfort. It may be easier to indulge in ideas about a few people out there being responsible for many of the problems in the world instead of facing our own life, life challenges, discomfort, fear, trauma, and sense of lack and not being enough.

Conspiracy theories often give a simple and clear cut answer to very complex real-life issues. It gives us scapegoats while the real culprit may be the randomness of nature (natural disasters), systemic problems (our current economic system), and the cumulative effects of humans functioning within this system. It may feel comforting to have clear-cut scapegoats.

Sometimes, conspiracty theories become a kind of religon. It can’t be disproven. It’s woven into people’s identity. It is a source of (stressful) comfort.

What’s the best way to communicate with people into conspiracy theories?

It’s always good to keep an open mind. Be willing to look at the sources. Examine the evidence. See if you can verify it. If the source and evidence seems questionable, it may be good to just leave the conversation.

If we want to engage in a conversation, a couple of things may be helpful.

It may be an innocent mistake, for instance, someone may have reposted something they saw and resonated with on social media. In this case, it may be enough to find and present more accurate information.

If it’s more ingrained, it may be helpful to ask some questions.

For instance, what’s the source? Do you know who they are? Can the source be verified? Is it possible they have a particular motivation?

Is there verifiable evidence? Would the evidence hold up in a court? Would it be sufficient for a serious historian or investigative reporter?

Isn’t it possible that what we see in society comes from known structural problems, and sometimes predictably unpredictable random events, instead of a small group of people pulling the threads?

Why shouldn’t we automatically believe conspiracy theories?

What we know is going on in the world is often far worse than any conspiracy theory. Giant corporations owning a large number of other organizations and media outlet. Big money influencing elections, politicians, and policies. Huge gaps between the few very wealthy and everyone else. Large numbers of people around the world living in poverty. Destructions of ecosystems. Minorities marginalized around the world. Widespread animal abuse. An economic system that does not take ecological realities into account. Poor preparedness for large-scale disasters. And so on.

Often, harebrained conspiracy theories serve to distract us from serious issues we know are real – in our own lives and the world – and need to address.

Also, many who are into conspiracy theories do not go far enough in questioning authorities. If you want to question authorities, question ALL authorities, including the sources of conspiracy theories and – especially – your own thinking. Are you certain you know what you think you know? Explore critical thinking, media literacy, and how the human mind operates from biases, shortcuts, and logical fallacies.

Why do we see a blossoming of it now?

I imagine conspiracy theories have been with humantiy since beginning of civilization and perhaps before.

And yet, there seems to be an upswing of conspiracy theories now. Why is that?

One answer is internet echo chambers and the ease of finding information and people on the internet that will support and endorse just about any view.

Before internet, most of us got our news and information from mostly or partly the same sources. We had a shared understanding of the world although our ideas about what to do with it differed. Now, we disagree on basic facts.

Some individuals actively create and spread disinformation for whatever personal reason, including entertainment and – in some cases – profit.

More seriously, some groups and organizations – including some governments like Russia through their state-sponsored troll farms – actively create and spread disinformation for political purposes. Often to sow confusion and weaken rival countries and alliances, and it’s a new version of the old divide-and-conquer strategy.

The problem with conspiracy theories seems obvious. It distracts people from actual and more serious problems in the world most of us agree are real. (Unraveling ecosystems, hunger, lack of clean water, lack of education, huge gap between a few super wealthy and the rest, poverty, Big Money influence on policies, and so on.)

And it’s a problem for our democracy and public discourse when we cannot agree on basic facts and some get fixated on things that are not grounded in critical thinking and solid evidence.

Isn’t it possible that some conspiracy theories are true?

Yes, of course. I am all for serious investigation into possible conspiracies, if it’s rooted in critical thinking, examination of the sources, and solid and verifiable information.

Most conspiracy theories seem clearly false and are perpetuated through lack of critical thinking, lack of media literacy, lack of knowledge of history and science, and a willingness to jump on an idea without first checking the sources and facts.

One thing to remember is that historically, the uncovering of actual conspiracies was done through investigation from historians, journalists, or official investigators. Not cooks people on YouTube and the internet.

Is this only about others?

No, this is about me and each of us. We all go into our own version of conspiracy theories, at least sometimes. I could as well written this as us instead of they, and that would have been more accurate and inclusive.

I sometimes take an idea as true just because others do. To some extent, that’s what makes up a culture and shared worldview.

I sometimes latch onto some information without checking it just because it fits into my worldview and what I want to be true.

I sometimes hold an idea as true – even a scary one – just because I want to and it feels good in the moment. Perhaps it’s a momentary distraction from my own fear or discomfort.

Have shared things on social media because it happened to fit into my worldview or how I want things to be and without fact checking it first.

I sometimes want to find a scapegoat even if systems, circumstances, or conditioning plays more of a role.

I sometimes want to blame someone else instead of looking at my own role in a situation.

I sometimes irrationally hold onto an idea even if a more grounded take on it would show me that something else is more true.

I sometimes tell myself I know something even if I actually don’t know or don’t know for certain.

In these and more ways, I am the conspiracy theorist. I am just like the conspiracy theorists I see out there, although the outward form it takes may be a little different.

It’s about us, not them.