Question Time showed you can’t counter anti-vax myths with cold reason alone | Sonia Soda

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How do you react when someone politely but firmly tells you that you are talking nonsense about something that is important to you? Do you graciously and immediately yield to their greater expertise? Or do you double?

Most of us are in the latter camp. Expressing our beliefs tends to solidify them. We may like to think of ourselves as rational creatures, constantly evaluating the world for new information that might change our minds, but that’s not how our brains work. Explaining to someone that their belief is flat out wrong is not a good way to get them to give it up. And research shows that the process of “debunking” — stating a common misrepresentation and then explaining why it is false — backfires because it reinforces and helps propagate myths in counterintuitive ways.

That’s why last week’s premise Question time was so flawed. BBC show presenter Fiona Bruce announcement in mid-January that the program wanted to explore why some people chose not to be vaccinated against Covid and specifically invited them to apply to be an audience member of the program.

Understanding why some people have yet to be vaccinated despite the overwhelming evidence that vaccines are safe, effective and lifesaving is critically important to improving uptake. But there are many research reports on this to which a news program such as Question time little to add. And if the aim was instead to increase understanding and create empathy in viewers, its tribal format, in which rhetorical flourish is deployed to score quick victories over opponents, could not be less well suited. to the job. In response to widely publicized concerns, the program said it would screen potential audience members to allow ordinary unvaccinated audience members to pass while screening out fanatics.

This is to misunderstand that the expression of reasonable doubts can be a much more effective vector of misinformation than diatribes and delusions. And of course, the program ended up falling into a number of misinformation traps. The audience member who challenged the panel on vaccine effectiveness was given a huge platform to make a number of false claims about Covid vaccines, including that they have ‘pretty horrific’ side effects including we don’t know the impact. The panel’s highly respected immunologist, Robin Shattock, thoroughly debunked them, while expressing his respect for people who question the evidence. When the audience member challenged Shattock, saying he had reviewed the data himself, citing a report suggesting there might be under-reporting, Bruce reminded him of Shattock’s credentials.

The clip of this exchange will have been viewed many more times than the program itself: it has become viral on social networks and widely reported in the press. The tone in which it was shared was overwhelmingly positive, with a hint of mockery – isn’t it great to see how this misinformation has been demolished (and to please someone who truly belongs to a leading expert)? That’s because that’s exactly what people who have no doubts about vaccines see: a clip that resoundingly debunks anti-vax myths.

But research into how we respond to misinformation suggests that people with doubts about vaccines, who are less likely to trust scientific authority, might have seen something different. Dangerous misinformation about vaccines was repeated, reinforcing things they had already heard. Someone who shares some of his doubts was questioned based on credible questions about the legitimacy of the data, which may have left him equally perplexed. The sardonic tone of headlines and social media posts may have been aimed at them as well.

This is not a criticism of Shattock, who I think did the best he could under the circumstances, but it is a prime example of a counterproductive public health message. Overall vaccine information in the UK has been excellent, focusing on the positive story about why to get vaccinated, avoiding repetition of misinformation with demystifying and complex explanations with which many people do not engage. But this episode shows how harmful public health messages are most likely to go viral.

Question time also bought into another piece of conventional wisdom that disintegrates on close examination: the idea that on most issues, people can be divided into tribes based on their fixed beliefs. The whole effort was based on the premise that “the unvaccinated” are a group of people who have been “unrepresented” on our national broadcaster, as if they shared a cohesive set of attitudes. But people haven’t been vaccinated yet for all sorts of reasons. Imagine that it is useful to sort a Question time audience based on other unhealthy behaviors, such as smoking or drinking too much alcohol.

Although conspiratorial thinking can exert a strong pull, in-depth attitudinal research shows that people can hold conflicting beliefs at the same time and can appear to belong to one “tribe” or another depending on how a conversation is framed. For example, a study that interviewed 60 people for two hours each about racism found that many people simultaneously held helpful and unhelpful beliefs for anti-racism campaigns. “The idea that there are fixed groups of people – pro-vaccine, anti-vaccine and a persuasive group in the middle – is a massive oversimplification that can become a self-fulfilling prophecy,” Nicky Hawkins, a communications expert who did some research on the courier vaccine, told me. Indeed, people keep getting vaccinated for the first time, suggesting that some are still changing their minds.

Too many of us buy into the old and slightly vain liberal idea that good and rational speech will always trump bad and logically incoherent speech. And that people who disagree with us are less complex and dumber than us. Freedom of speech is essential to democracy itself, but insights from cognitive psychology put an end to the idea that the truest idea will win out, especially in a world where social media platforms are pulling the punch. best of what hardens our opinions into making us angry. Activists who want to change mindsets have to be much smarter than just explaining what makes others so wrong.

Sonia Sodha is a columnist at Observer

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