‘Trust the science’ is not enough to shift the anti-vax dial

2 MARCH 2021

‘Trust the science’ is not enough to shift the anti-vax dial

Research at Charles Sturt University suggests a conceptual shift in communication strategies holds potential to improve public health through more directly and accurately addressing anti-vaccination concerns.

  • Charles Sturt University research suggests a conceptual shift in approaches to vaccination communication holds potential to improve public health
  • Research indicates anti-vaccination attitudes are complicated and socially embedded, and not simply the result of failure to understand vaccine science
  • The increased public visibility of ‘vaccination objection’, particularly on social media, hinders the eradication of potentially fatal diseases and COVID-19

Research at Charles Sturt University suggests a conceptual shift in communication strategies holds potential to improve public health through more directly and accurately addressing anti-vaccination concerns.

The research is by recent Charles Sturt PhD graduate Dr Daniel Lander, and Dr Angela Ragusa, Senior Lecturer in sociology in the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at Albury-Wodonga Campus. Dr Ragusa is also a member of the University’s Institute for Land, Water and Society (ILWS).

Findings indicate two different ‘modes’ of communication operate in vaccination debate, with the ‘technical’ scientific information that supports vaccination standing in stark contrast to the complicated, and often very personal, ‘social arguments’ against vaccination.

Dr Lander and Dr Ragusa’s research suggests that, while ongoing efforts to eliminate public misinformation about vaccination are essential to maintaining existing strong support for vaccination, key elements of vaccination objection arise from issues outside medical science, and these concerns need to be more directly addressed if we wish to stymie anti-vaccination sentiment.

“Recent research into anti-vaccination attitudes indicates they are complicated and socially embedded, not simply the result of failure to understand vaccine science,” Dr Lander said.

So, important as it is to remain vigilant against misinformation about vaccination, there is also strong evidence to suggest eliminating misinformation alone might not have a significant impact on anti-vaccination sentiment.

“Yes, anti-vaccination messages on platforms like Facebook are littered with false claims about autism, adjuvants, allergies and other issues.

“But our research suggests, even if you take these false claims away – even if you eradicate the misinformation – many core concerns of the vaccination objectors remain unaddressed.”

Dr Lander and Dr Ragusa published their paper, ‘A rational solution to a different problem’; understanding the verisimilitude of antivaccination communication’, in the online journal Communication Research and Practice in 2020.

The study arises from Dr Lander’s recently completed PhD and reconceptualises theories of language use to reflect the well-established sociological understanding that there will always be competing interpretations about what is ‘good’ for society.

Dr Lander explained this research did not aim to determine whether it is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ to refuse vaccination, but to understand why anti-vaccination arguments might be ‘compelling’ for those people they ‘compel’.

“For more than 200 years we have dismissed anti-vaccination arguments as ‘irrational’, for the very good reason that those arguments are ‘irrational’ based on scientific evidence – but that hasn’t eliminated, or even reduced or changed, those arguments,” he said.

“Our research demonstrates that scientific and non-scientific dimensions of the vaccination debate operate according to different ‘modes’ of communication, each with radically different procedures for verification, and the concerns of one mode cannot be answered by the other.

Presently, each side of the debate is talking a different language, and, as a result, we are not moving forward to resolve that debate.”

The researchers note that the past two decades have witnessed a marked increase in the public visibility of vaccination objection, due to high-profile mainstream media coverage and increased social media discussion.

“What we’re experiencing in Australia with COVID-19 is government public health campaigns that continue focusing on public compliance using scientifically informed recommendations,” Dr Ragusa said.

“For individuals sceptical of social institutions, whether that’s government, science, media, pharmacology, etc., such messages will inevitably be construed as threatening.”

Dr Ragusa and Dr Lander suggest current efforts to control, and hopefully eradicate, COVID-19 through immunisation programs makes addressing social concerns about vaccination a more urgent issue than it has ever been.

“Possibly, the best chance we have to get life back to ‘normal’ in the wake of COVID-19 is an effective vaccination program,” Dr Lander says.

“Our research suggests the impediments to that are not just related to scientific debate about the safety and efficacy of vaccines, but also stem from distrust and uncertainty about the social institutions responsible for those vaccine programs.

“Directly acknowledging and addressing existing distrust and uncertainty may be more beneficial to public health efforts than continuing to hope scientific evidence alone will be enough to change minds eventually.”

Dr Ragusa concurs, noting the history of medicine, science, and politics is filled with very valid reasons for exercising ‘critical thinking’.

“Nevertheless, there is great difference in the public exercising reasonable caution with vaccination ‘risk taking’ – for instance by those with anaphylaxis being medically advised to avoid the COVID vaccination for now – than avoiding it because of speculations and anecdotal accounts of, for example, ‘big pharma’ disasters,” Dr Ragusa said.

“While trust-building may never be fully realised, public health and safety are what contemporary societies demand of governments.

“Tackling the sociological, not medical, reasons for accounts of public mistrust is a necessary step often overlooked in the race of science and industry to respond in crises such as those facing us today.”

Media Note:

To arrange interviews with Dr Daniel Lander and Dr Angela Ragusa contact Bruce Andrews at Charles Sturt Media on mobile 0418 669 362 or via news@csu.edu.au

Reference: Daniel Lander and Angela T Ragusa (2020): ‘A rational solution to a different problem’; understanding the verisimilitude of anti-vaccination communication, Communication Research and Practice, DOI: 10.1080/22041451.2020.1816022

Biographical notes:

Dr Daniel Lander is a journalist with more than two decades experience in magazine and newspaper writing and editing. He holds a Bachelor of Communication (Honours) from Charles Sturt University and a recently completed PhD at the University.

Dr Angela T Ragusa is a Senior Lecturer in sociology at Charles Sturt University. She is the author of three books and more than 70 academic publications. Dr Ragusa is Editor-in-Chief of the international journal, Rural Society: Journal of global research into rural social problems and sustainable communities, and has postgraduate degrees in Sociology, Science and Technology Studies and Psychology.

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