France, the US, and the UK have developed a global reputation for anti-vaccination movements. This movement has been a bizarre surprise for some, though it is not exactly new. The COVID vaccine is currently drawing all the attention, but vaccines, in general, have long been blamed for increased autism rates despite proof to the contrary, which is why the number of cases of measles tripled in the US between 2013 and 2014. But the belief has always been there that people with anti-vaccination attitudes can be persuaded by education. According to a 2015 study, researchers showed that focussing on facts about the dangers of diseases is more effective than directly addressing and undercutting vaccine myths.
Today, we are now seeing is something much more general and likely harder to combat. Vaccine hesitancy stems from a broader distrust of American institutions. But some level of deep distrust has always existed. Sometimes this distrust was justified; there are countless examples of American institutions being used as cudgels against minorities (for example, Jim Crowe laws). Many times, distrust seemed to stem from conspiracy theories. Everybody has heard of those people who wear tinfoil hats and live “off the grid”. Mostly, people in this latter category were dismissed and mocked. But based on vaccine rates in the United States, they are a much larger proportion of the population than we had imagined. What is most worrisome is the confidence with which people speak and spread outright falsehoods.
“Do your own research.”
People should always do their best to stay informed. When it comes to voting, for example, democracies are ostensibly better if people research the policies of the candidate that they end up voting for, and they do not just check a box because they are a Democrat or republican. Due to the rise of the internet, every single person now has access to more information than any one person had a generation ago, and that info is available in seconds. But as any big data company knows, data gathering and access are not the problems; the hardest part is sorting through the data and drawing the correct conclusions from it.
The rapper Nicki Minaj recently drew a lot of criticism for refusing to attend the Met Gala because of their vaccine requirement. Rather, it was not the refusal to attend, but the specious justification about personal research.
They want you to get vaccinated for the Met. if I get vaccinated it won’t for the Met. It’ll be once I feel I’ve done enough research. I’m working on that now. In the meantime my loves, be safe. Wear the mask with 2 strings that grips your head & face. Not that loose one 🙏♥️
— Nicki Minaj (@NICKIMINAJ) September 13, 2021
As it turns out, Ms Minaj’s research was not very detailed. Instead of listening to scientists, she was persuaded about the dangers of the vaccine due to a friend of her cousin’s supposedly getting swollen testicles from the vaccine. As medical professionals quickly pointed out, swollen testicles are not a noted side-effect of the vaccine, and were likely caused by an untreated sexually transmitted infection.
Laughs aside, this entire scenario is deeply troubling. People are much more likely to listen to anecdotes from family or friends instead of professionals. So, all this encouragement to “do your own research” is instead meant to say, “Google quickly, ignore the mountain of evidence in one direction, cherry-pick something with no legitimate sources that has no research behind it, and reject global medical consensus”. Research, especially medical research, is an excruciatingly slow, detailed, costly, and arduous process. The standards of medical research are so high because we need to be able to trust the conclusions drawn from them. Therefore, the underlying studies must be designed as optimally as possible.
Research is not perfect. Nor are our institutions. But they are far, far better options for modern societies than underqualified people with platforms. Platforms are just too easy to earn nowadays. Influence is cheap.