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There’s Nothing Special About America’s Anti-Vaccine, Anti-Science Activists

A interest in conspiracy theories is the common denominator for most anti-vaxxers, regardless of cultural differences.

American anti-vaxxers maintain the same science-defying beliefs as other anti-vaccine activists around the world, new research reveals. Data on 24 countries, published in the journal Health Psychology, indicates the notion that vaccines hurt kids is not culturally rooted and is inevitably linked to conspiracy theory belief. Simply, the same people who don’t believe that we landed on the moon are more vulnerable to anti-vax beliefs. The current study seeks to explain why evidence-based arguments in favor vaccines achieve the opposite effect by stoking such paranoia and recommends a more multi-faceted approach.

“A surprising amount of research is based on American samples,” study co-author Matthew Hornsey, a professor of psychology University of Queensland, tells Fatherly. “For me, to build a true psychology of anti-vaccination attitudes, it was important to sample across a range of different countries and cultures.”

The instinct among scientists to repeat research on vaccine safety and effectiveness as clearly and consistently as possible makes sense from an epidemiological perspective, study authors note. However, this approach relies on the assumption that a majority anti-vaxxers simply lack access to the right information. Yet when anti-vaccine proponents are presented with the facts, past studies show it doesn’t work and some findings suggest this has the reverse effect. For many anti-vaccine activists, when confronted with science, it only increases their perceptions of vaccine risks. But there’s reason to believe a more visceral technique may work. One of the more effective ways (or less ineffective) of reverse anti-vax views observed was in a 2014 study in Pediatrics, was showing graphic images of children with the measles. Another tactic proposed by Hornsey and his colleagues in past work involves identifying the underlying motives that drive this opposition to science, and tailor multiple interventions to those known as the jiu-jitsu approach — a form of martial arts that says that smaller fighters can beat bigger and stronger opponents with the right knowledge.

To get a better understanding of what those motivations might be, Hornsey and his team surveyed 5,323 adults across 24 countries and five different continents. Participants were asked about their opinions on vaccinations, as well as four conspiracy theories: Princess Diana was murdered, a shadowy group of elites is plotting a new world order, JFK was murdered by the CIA, and 9/11 was an inside job. Results revealed that those who subscribed to conspiracy theories were significantly more likely to maintain anti-vax views. Interestingly, their education level was not nearly as much of an indicator of these unscientific sentiments. This suggests that no amount of research will effectively address their lack of overall trust. Hornsey adds that the sheer size of this effect was most surprising, particularly in wealthier Western nations.

“We found it in all 24 countries, and in the West the relationship was much stronger than any other factor — ten times the size of education and political orientation,” he says.

While the study’s scope is impressive, the findings are not without limitations. A majority of the worldwide sample came from educated individuals, so Hornsey and his co-authors could not completely gauge how less educated people would react. It’s also important to note that although the findings show a correlation between conspiracy theory beliefs and anti-vaccine ones, that does not mean that one causes the other.

Even with those caveats considered, the data does give clues as to why scientific evidence is a waste of breath. Instead, he recommends vaccine proponents, public health officials, and parents combat anti-vax propaganda from the inside, by pretending these theories could be true and then highlighting how there are ulterior motives on the side of the anti-vaccine movement as well. It’s a complicated bait-and-switch, but one that may be more effective at saving lives than repeating past arguments that haven’t worked. 

“Vaccinations are why children can expect to meet their great-grandparents,” Hornsey says. “It’s one of society’s greatest achievements, so it would be a tragedy if the gains we’ve made were lost because of fear or suspicion.”