Protesters gathered in Sacramento last June to try to kill a bill that aimed to make it more difficult for parents to opt-out of vaccinations required for public schools.

Protesters gathered in Sacramento last June to try to kill a bill that aimed to make it more difficult for parents to opt-out of vaccinations required for public schools.

AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli

Why fighting anti-vaxxers and climate change doubters often backfires

*For our full coverage of AAAS 2016, check out our meeting page.

WASHINGTON, D.C.—If there’s a war on science, it’s not just one war. And branding people who disagree with you about vaccines, climate change, or genetically modified organisms (GMOs) as the enemy may be unwittingly fueling the conflicts. Those were some of the arguments made at a session here today at the annual meeting of AAAS (which publishes Science).

The presenters included a philosopher, a medical historian, a plant scientist, and a technology historian. Their talks underscored that the people who worry about vaccinating their children are not necessarily doubters of climate change or even against GMOs. “There are a variety of different concerns behind the resistance in each of these three areas,” said Roberta Millstein, a philosopher at the University of California, Davis. “There’s no overall organized attack going on here.” She said the two sides in each debate might even agree on the facts and the potential risks, but they have difficulty seeing eye to eye on the significance of the risks.

Mark Largent, a historian of medicine based at Michigan State University in East Lansing, urged vaccine advocates to stop portraying parents who are reluctant to immunize their children as ignorant and anti-science. “Just the opposite,” Largent says. “They have very high levels of trust in science and physicians, and they have very large knowledge about vaccines.” He says they actually have deep concerns about the pharmaceutical industry, the insurance structure, and government regulations that they believe do not have their children’s interests at heart.

Studies have shown that 40% of parents in the United States have “tremendous anxiety” about vaccinating their children, Largent says, but no more than 3% are actually anti-vaccine. His opinions are informed by surveys he and colleagues are conducting of parents in Michigan, who as of December 2014 are forced to go through a 30-minute vaccine education program if they want to seek a waiver to a child’s required vaccine. Since instituting the program, waiver requests have dropped 39%. “It’s a huge number,” Largent says. But these are almost all people who never come in for the education and just decide to go get their children vaccinated. In other words, they have reservations about vaccines and the number of closely given childhood inoculation—which is now 35, up from eight in the 1980s—but decidedly do not belong in the anti-vaccine camp.

For those who do come in, he said, “the vaccine education sessions do absolutely nothing to change their minds.” Education, he said, simply “doesn’t work,” though it might have an effect in the long run, which Michigan registries should be able to track over time as these children grow older. Largent said the most important way to reach these anti-vaccinators is to “decouple” vaccine advocacy from the pharmaceutical companies these parents do not trust. “I don’t want Merck talking about the value of vaccines,” he said. “Just be quiet.”

In the case of GMO and climate change concerns, opponents often twist facts, stressed two presenters. Erik Conway, co-author of Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming, noted that there’s even a word (which he did not coin) for manufacturing of fake knowledge—“agnogenesis.” In the book, Conway and science historian Naomi Oreskes contend that with climate change there was even a “Potemkin village” effect created by disbelievers who “replaced science with its opposite” because of their concerns that environmental regulations would harm the free market and damage important business interests. He said the Potemkin village creators exist “to pollute our knowledge of the world.”

Both historian Largent and philosopher Millstein suggested that one way to help calm waters in each of these conflicts is to pay more attention to the concerns of the opponents. Largent said the cartoonish depictions of people who disagree with the scientific “us”—“They’re just wrong and we’re fine”—is “lazy” as it does not require anything from us. “You’ve got to shift your position away from this very combative war on science sentiment, away from I’m a poor and battled scientist, I’m a poor and battled physician, because you’re not. You’re part of the most powerful enterprise in western civilization. You are the authority.” When someone is lost in the woods and contacts you for help, he says, you begin by asking them where they are at.

Millstein went further and said stop calling it a war on science with us versus them. “It’s unproductive,” Millstein says. “We’re making it seem as they don’t care about science and we’re pushing them into another camp instead of trying to bring them into the conversation.”