Tag Archives: antivaxxing

Want to combat scientific disinformation? Here’s how

If you’re reading this, there’s a very good chance you tried to combat some science misinformation at some point. Whether it’s an antivaxxer friend, that climate change-denying uncle, or just some internet comment, disinformation has become so pervasive that it’s impossible to avoid — and if you’ve tried to talk them out of it, you know just how insanely difficult it can get.

Now, in a new study, researchers describe some evidence-based strategies to combat the misinformation.

Transparency is a must, researchers say.

Misinformation is hardly a new thing. it artificially generated backlash against climate change science — ironically just as the scientific community was reaching a consensus on the issue.

“Nowhere has the impact of scientific misinformation been more profound than on the issue of climate change in the United States,” researchers write in the study.

That might seem like a contradiction, but it is actually the result of a carefully planned strategy. An organized network, funded by organizations with a lot of money invested in the fossil fuel industry, devised a campaign to slow down the transition to a low-carbon economy, especially by eroding public confidence in climate change. The result was a large-scale misinformation campaign which was wildly successful, says Justin Farrell, of the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies (F&ES).

In a new paper, Farrell and colleagues shed new light on this misinformation, and describe four evidence-based strategies to combat it:

  • Public inoculation: A growing body of research shows that our individual perceptions are strongly influenced by our culture — the set of pre-existing ideologies and values we have. However, there is more and more evidence showing that we can use this and “inoculate” against misinformation. This inoculation is essentially exposing people to refuted scientific arguments before they can even hear them — fittingly, like using a “vaccine”. This strategy can be very effective if done quickly, before misinformation spreads, and if more attention is placed on the sources of misinformation.
  • Legal strategies: It’s well-known that fossil fuel companies such as ExxonMobil have systematically downplayed the risks for their products. Industry leaders knowingly misled the public. As a response, several cities and states have sued these companies — while this is a lengthy process, it can help shed new light on how these companies lied to the public and to political leaders.
  • Political mechanisms: Like the public opinion, political opinion has also been swayed — but the exact way in which this happens remains difficult to assess. For instance, they identify a case in which the energy company Entergy Corporation paid actors who posed as grassroots supporters of a controversial power plant in New Orleans — but this got little attention in the media, and it’s unclear how politicians were swayed by this manipulation campaign. Placing cases like this under the spotlight, as well as discussing more political candidates’ views on climate change could be very useful in encouraging the election of responsible leaders into office. Also, shedding light on politicians’ financial connections to fossil fuel companies needs to be addressed more — which leads us to our last point.
  • Financial transparency: “follow the money” is generally a pretty good plan. The number of campaigns that promote science misinformation — coming from donor-directed foundations that shield the contributor’s identity from the public–  has grown dramatically in the past few years, topping $100 million. This is done especially to make it difficult to learn who the authors of the disinformation campaign are and to spread haze around the money trail. How often have we heard that scientists are “lying about climate change to get research money” — when the reality couldn’t be further from the truth. The authors call for new legislation to improve funding transparency.

“Ultimately we have to get to the root of the problem, which is the huge imbalance in spending between climate change opponents and those lobbying for new solutions,” said Farrell. “Those interests will always be there, of course, but I’m hopeful that as we learn more about these dynamics things will start to change. I just hope it’s not too late.”

While the study was focused on climate change, similar strategies can be used to address all sorts of misinformation — from antivaxxing and homeopathy to astrology and conspiracy theories.

The study has been published in Nature.

Populism and antivaxxing go hand in hand, new study finds

Falling for populist lies is associated with falling for antivaxxer lies — who would have thought?

Tracing back to discredited research, vaccine skepticism is associated with populist researchers. Image credits: Kennedy (2019).

In recent years, the world has witnessed a string of populist politicians rising to power. Archpopulist Donald Trump served as a lightning rod for most of the discussions but elsewhere in the world, other politicians have used similar approaches to climb into power. Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil and Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines are two striking examples, but Europe has had its fair share of populists in recent times.

Perhaps uncoincidentally, Europe is also experiencing its biggest measles outbreaks in over a decade, largely fueled by vaccine reluctance. Researchers suspected a correlation between the two. Populism relies on fueling hate towards experts and the perceived elite, and antivaxxing relies on a similar approach. Lead author Dr. Jonathan Kennedy from Queen Mary University of London, study author, explained:

“It seems likely that scientific populism is driven by similar feelings to political populism, for example, a profound distrust of elites and experts by disenfranchised and marginalised parts of the population.”

“Even where programmes objectively improve the health of targeted populations, they can be viewed with suspicion by communities that do not trust elites and experts. In the case of vaccine hesitancy, distrust is focused on public health experts and pharmaceutical companies that advocate vaccines.”

So along with colleagues, Kennedy analyzed national-level data from 14 European countries, looking at the percentage of people who voted for populist leaders and comparing it to the percentage of people who think vaccines are not important and/or effective.

They found a strong correlation between the two: wherever people would support populists, they would also start to question the effectiveness of vaccines. In this sense, vaccination can serve as a “canary in the coal mine” for future populism. When elected, populist leaders also always tend to push an anti-vaccine agenda. In Italy, the newly elected Five Star Movement (5SM) repeatedly spoke against vaccines — with important results. The Italian Parliament recently passed a law to repeal legislation that makes vaccines compulsory for children enrolling in state schools. Meanwhile, in Italy, MMR vaccination coverage fell from 90% in 2013 to 85% in 2016, a seemingly harmless drop, which resulted in an increase in measles cases from 840 in 2016 to 5000 in 2017.

It seems that the more extreme a party is, the more likely they are to support antivaxxing — regardless of whether they are left or right wing. In Greece, the left-wing SYRIZA government proposed that parents should be able to opt out of vaccinating their children. However, their efforts haven’t been particularly fruitful, as Greek confidence in vaccines has recently been increasing. In France, where several childhood vaccinations have been made mandatory by law, the right-wing Front National have also raised concerns about vaccine safety.

Researchers also note just how much damage a single, blatantly flawed paper can cause. Much of the distrust in vaccinations comes from a paper published by Andrew Wakefield. Wakefield reported that the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine can cause autism. This has not only been repeatedly disproved, but it has since been shown that Wakefield knowingly tampered with the data and subjected children to inhumane treatment — and yet, his echo still lives on.

In the US, Donald Trump has also spoken against vaccines. Although his own experts have disproved his claims, a recent survey has found that 1 in 3 Trump supporters believe vaccines and autism are related. Meanwhile, on the plus side, countries like Portugal, Finland, and Belgium seem to have no affinity towards either populist leaders or antivaxxing.

At the end of the day, parents want what’s best for their children — and lack of vaccinations can and has killed children. Science-based policy strongly recommends vaccination as a way to make children safer and healthier, whereas populism and fear-mongering attempt to scare parents away from vaccination. Hopefully, fear will not be the victor here.

The study ‘Populist politics and vaccine hesitancy in Western Europe: an analysis of national-level data’ by Jonathan Kennedy has been published in the European Journal of Public Health. DOI: 10.1093/eurpub/ckz004