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Monday, March 10, 2014

Anti-vaccine belief is sometimes made worse (yes, worse) by pro-vaccine information

David Brooks

It is my firm belief that a free press is good for society, but if you show me solid data indicating otherwise I will re-examine this belief.

I might resist your data – after all, I am human – but I wouldn’t accept it as being true and yet cling even more fiercely to an opposing belief. That would be crazy, right? ...

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It is my firm belief that a free press is good for society, but if you show me solid data indicating otherwise I will re-examine this belief.

I might resist your data – after all, I am human – but I wouldn’t accept it as being true and yet cling even more fiercely to an opposing belief. That would be crazy, right?

Yet that’s exactly what happened with some parents in a research project designed to test reactions to messages to increase vaccination rates.

Here’s how it is put by in the research paper describing the work, published in the March 3 edition of the journal Pediatrics: “Corrective information reduced misperceptions ... but nonetheless decreased intent to vaccinate among parents who had the least favorable attitudes toward vaccines.”

Let me rephrase that mind-boggling sentence: Some parents who had avoided the common MMR vaccine for their children out of fear the shots might cause autism learned that the fear is groundless, but then became more (yes, more!) determined to avoid vaccination.

Why? Darned if I know; the researchers don’t know, either. It’s like cutting off your nose to spite your face, except it’s worse: This is cutting off your children’s noses, and maybe other people’s noses, to spite your face.

One thing it does remind us, however, is that reasoned, fact-based arguments aren’t very good at overcoming entrenched beliefs.

“A recurring finding in these sorts of studies is that we over-estimate how persuasive facts and evidence are in changing people’s minds. We’re very good at coming up with reason to discount information we don’t like, to keep a previous belief even if we have reason to not believe it,” said Brendan Nyhan, a professor of political science at Dartmouth College who co-authored the paper, titled “Effective Messages in Vaccine Promotion.”

This study is depressing news as health professionals struggle with a small – very small in New Hampshire, thankfully – pushback against vaccines.

The pushback really started following a fraudulent 1998 study purporting to show a link between autism rates and the MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccine. That study was retracted years ago after the researchers were forced to admit they manipulated the data in return for payments, but the damage was done. The vaccines-cause-autism idea fit into some folks’ concerns about modern medicine (tainted by Big Pharma), government (too intrusive), or society in general (increasingly unnatural), and has been whipped up by minor celebrities who found they can build a career by jumping on this bandwagon.

Health professionals, who have a lot of real problems to tackle, were slow to respond to this mini movement, but a resurgence of nearly eradicated diseases in a few hot spots of vaccine refusers has set off alarm bells and led to action.

Nyhan decided to study that action because he has previously studied how people react to political misinformation and wondered how health misinformation is similar.

The study in the summer of 2011 used web surveys to randomly showed 1,759 U.S. parents of kids under 18 four different kinds of pro-vaccine messages. The messages discussed the lack of evidence linking autism with the MMR vaccine; and used various methods of conveying the danger of the diseases that vaccines prevent. There was also a control group, of course.

The conclusion: None of the messages made parents say they were more likely to vaccinate their child in the future, and debunking the autism study actually made the most anti-vaccine of the parents less likely to vaccinate in the future. (Man, I am stupefied at that reaction.)

Unfortunately, Nyhan doesn’t know how to overcome this dangerous habit of doubling down on error, but it will take a multi-faceted approach.

“People who have concerns about vaccines are quite a diverse group. There is high education, low education; religious, not religious; liberals, conservatives. Some people put the anti-vaccine movement into certain demographic boxes, but that’s an over-simplification,” he said.

He suspects that the best avenue is pediatricians, who are consistently “listed by parents as most trusted source of public health information,” but that’s tricky, too: Doctors can’t rub patients too much the wrong way or they’ll leave, and then they can’t be reached at all.

“It’s very challenging,” Nyhan admitted. I suspect he has more research coming on the topic.

In the meantime, ignore the Internet babble (including, I predict based on past events, wildly indignant comments that will be appended to this article) and vaccinate your children, vaccinate yourself, vaccinate your pets. The world will be better for it.

GraniteGeek appears Mondays in The Telegraph. David Brooks can be reached at 594-6531 or dbrooks@nashuatelegraph.com. Also, follow Brooks on Twitter (@granitegeek).