Person receiving a vaccine.


Q&A: The Trouble With the Anti-Vaxxer Movement

October 14, 2020

Vaccines are a documented success story. Science has proven them to be safe, effective, and crucial to the short- and long-term health of our societies. Yet, there is a vocal anti-vaccine movement, featuring celebrity activists and the propagation of anti-vaccination claims in books, documentaries, and social media. As the urgency of developing a vaccine for COVID-19 grows, so do some people’s fears.

Jonathan Berman, Ph.D., assistant professor of basic sciences at NYITCOM-Arkansas, sat down with The Box to talk about the reasoning behind anti-vaxxers opposition to immunizations, the history of the anti-vax movement, and a strategy for countering them.

Research has overwhelmingly shown vaccines to be safe and effective. Why is there this push to reject the science, and how dangerous is the movement?
Although people like science, they rarely think in scientific terms. Everyone likes the benefits of science but when it comes down to it, they didn’t do the science themselves, so they get a distorted picture of it.

That is to say, that people don’t see themselves as rejecting science, but rather they see themselves as skeptical of specific conclusions. Usually they’re defending and reinforcing views that they arrived at through means other than critical analysis. People might develop concerns about vaccines because it’s something that’s common in their peer group, they’re worried about government overreach, they’re disgusted at the idea of “chemicals” being put into their bodies or other reasons. People then look for confirmatory evidence to reinforce those beliefs.

Is there one thing that you find particularly perplexing about the anti-vax movement?
The evidence is basically immaterial to dedicated anti-vaxxers. People arrive at conclusions for reasons to do with human psychology, social connections, deep fears, and cognitive biases. They justify those beliefs with reference to selected scientific evidence that are effectively used for post-hoc justification of their beliefs.

The better approach is to remain agnostic to the conclusion of any scientific question and ask, “Has anyone else investigated this? What would I expect if this were true? What would I expect if this were false?”

You recently published your book, Anti-Vaxxers: How to Challenge a Misinformed Movement. How did you become interested in the topic?
When I was working on the March for Science [an international series of rallies and marches held on Earth Day], I met a lot of people who were science advocates but who held contradictory beliefs. They would acknowledge the science on climate change but ignore or antagonize the science on vaccines or GMO [genetically modified organisms] safety. I thought it was a fascinating contradiction that people who saw themselves as champions of science would take views associated with science denial on specific topics.

I started gathering notes for the book in 2017 and submitted the initial proposal in early 2018. The peer review process took several months. The first draft was done in summer of 2019, and then it went through several stages of review and revision. The final manuscript was submitted in October and was published just a few weeks ago (September 8, 2020).

You’ve been working on the book for a while, but the timing of its release seems fortuitous, considering the conversation around vaccines in light of COVID-19.
The timing wasn’t intentional. Anti-vaxxers have been visible in the last few months because there’s been some media hand-wringing about whether they might disrupt immunization programs once a vaccine rolls out. Anti-maskers seem to be a related phenomenon, and they do seem to have contributed to the spread of SARS-CoV-2. However, generally speaking, the rates of people who accept vaccination are much higher than you would expect from the percentage of the population with some degree of vaccine hesitancy. People are faced with a complex risk assessment, and their doubts are only one of the factors they’re considering.

In regard to the SARS-COV-2 vaccine, what level of threat does the anti-vax movement pose as we move toward solving this crisis? How could anti-vaxxers influence the implementation of a COVID-19 vaccination?
I’m not very concerned, although I believe that the media and public health officials should be on the alert to recognize and counter the signs of science denial.

Vaccination, like so many topics in today’s society, has become overly politicized. Why do you think that is?
Vaccination programs are typically implemented by governments, and vaccine research is often funded by governments. In the philosophy of government of many, public health is one of the functions that a government should have. This makes vaccination inherently political because it relates to government policy.

Vaccination does not have to be partisan, and the phenomenon of anti-vaxxers has been largely non-partisan. However, certain politicians have a tendency to tie every function of government to their personal electoral prospects. If a vaccine is rushed through with an Emergency Use Authorization before phase three trials are completed, it may give the appearance of political interference with the Food and Drug Administration.

This interview has been edited and condensed.