Almost 19 years ago, I received a gift subscription to Mothering Magazine (unfortunately, it is no longer published in a magazine format). It was a beautifully presented magazine that offered alternative views on birth, breastfeeding, discipline, and schooling children. One of the articles in Mothering introduced me to the controversy surrounding vaccinating your child. This article pushed me to learn more about the vaccinations that most doctors and parents considered routine. Ultimately, Joe and I decided that we would feel far worse if our son became ill from a preventable illness than if he became ill because of a vaccination, and we opted to have him vaccinated. I believe we made the right choice for our family and the responsible choice as citizens. Going forward, what has continued to interest me is the polarization around the issue of vaccinations and the myths that refuse to be debunked.
The article I referenced above in Mothering Magazine included a story about a physician in the United Kingdom who published a study of twelve children who had been given the MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccine. It implied a scary correlation between the vaccine and autism. But upon both further investigation and further clinical studies, the original finding was thrown out, the medical journal retracted the article, and the doctor was found to have unethical financial interests in the findings. Finally, he was stripped of his license to practice medicine. This story was published and discredited almost two decades ago, yet today, surveys show that as many as a third of U.S. parents still believe the discredited allegations. One in five millennials believe that early childhood vaccines cause autism and 26 percent of parents trust a celebrity as a credible source on vaccine safety.
It seems that what keeps us stuck is that we argue about the facts too much. In 1979, Charles Lord performed a seminal piece of research revealing that when you show someone factual, scientific evidence that they are wrong, they react badly. You knew that already, right? Nobody likes to be told they are wrong. Recently, on Facebook, a friend made the assertion that we don’t know what is in the measles vaccines. I could have solved this mystery for her by providing a credible link with a list of the ingredients for the measles vaccine. However, I am pretty sure that would not have been helpful. I suspect she might have said something along the lines of, “that’s what the pharmaceutical companies say is in it.” I would rather skip the frustration for both of us.
Most of the time, we only accept the evidence that fits our pre-existing views. There have been hundreds of studies that show when you argue using facts and evidence, people tend to reject or discount your evidence. It’s also counterproductive. Instead of changing their minds, most people dig in their heels and cling even more firmly to their original views. Part of the polarization happening in the vaccine debate stems from the vilifying of those parents who have not vaccinated their children. Instead of going on the attack, pro-vaccine advocates might instead want to reassure parents that we know they love their children. Treating them as idiots or fringe lunatics will only worsen the discussion about the science.
In my opinion, a story is the best resource we have for encouraging vaccine naysayers to take advantage of vaccinations that protect against killer diseases. When you perceive that the facts are on your side, it’s easy to underestimate the power of the story. The anti-vaccination movement has not made this mistake; instead, they effectively reference narratives that feature a protagonist and a villain along with attempts to bury or distort the facts.
Model, actor, and celebrity activist Jenny McCarthy has been one of the most outspoken critics of vaccinations in the United States. She has drawn upon a personal narrative of her son, whom she claims was rendered autistic by a vaccination but later cured through organic and holistic approaches. McCarthy leverages a very powerful technique known to social scientists as the “identifiable victim effect.” By repeating her emotional story, McCarthy draws upon this psycho-sociological phenomenon. And when put head-to-head with scientists talking about immunology, the story of her child will sway audiences every time. Even, when challenged on her lack of scientific proof, McCarthy has retorted, “Evan is my science.”
I am most certainly susceptible to storytelling and identifying with the storyteller. Do you know the story about Ronald Dahl and his daughter? She died of measles. It’s a very compelling story. Dahl’s story spoke to my heart in a way that facts never could. It wasn’t a story about being right; it was a story about a father’s daughter dying of a disease that could have been prevented. I’m not sure that Dahl’s story (or any other) would change a closed mind, but I do think it might influence someone in the process of deciding whether or not vaccinations are a good thing or a bad thing.
Did you have the measles as a child? I did! And I have a story to tell. I got sick, my sweet mom provided me with tender, loving care, and I fully recovered after about a week. I was lucky. I did not die. I was not hospitalized. I did not experience a seizure or suffer permanent brain damage. I had a happy-ever-after ending to my measles story. And now, I’m glad that newborns, young children, and the elderly (most at risk of measles) can enjoy my same happy-ever-after ending by relying on the measles vaccination instead of luck.
This blog post is written with gratitude for the scientists that devote their lives working to eradicate diseases that devastate so many, the doctors who care, and for the seekers and doubters who keep a watchful eye on our civil liberties.
Any thoughts, any stories?
Odd Loves Company,