A popular internet meme juxtaposes a photo of a female scientist working in a lab captioned “Vaccine Research” with that of a woman looking at her smartphone as she sat on the toilet captioned “Anti- Vax Research “. The meme reflects an attitude towards scientific skepticism in general and reluctance towards vaccines in particular.
This attitude automatically qualifies all those who have doubts about the scientific consensus on a certain subject as “anti-vaccines”, “climate skeptics” or “science deniers”, and attributes their reluctance to accept the scientific consensus. to a combination of ignorance, stupidity, recklessness and selfishness.
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As I have argued in my academic work in philosophy, some of these genuine concerns can only be resolved through deep and sweeping social and political reforms. Responding to the concerns of science skeptics requires more than trying to persuade them to trust science – it also requires us as a society to take the social and political steps necessary to increase the reliability of science.
Dismissal and lack of respect
While it can often be tempting to attribute moral or cognitive flaws to those with whom we disagree, we have at least three very good reasons to resist this temptation.
The first is that these contemptuous attitudes towards skeptics of science are condescending and disrespectful towards our fellow citizens, and they are likely to further contribute to the polarization of our society and the erosion of its social fabric.
The second reason is that the hypothesis that skeptics of science are ignorant or stupid is not supported by evidence which seems to indicate, for example, that highly educated people are no less likely to doubt science than less educated people.
The last (but not the least) reason is that these attitudes are likely to be ineffective or even counterproductive. Instead of despising skeptical scientists, we should listen to them and try to understand their real concerns, so that we can take appropriate and effective steps to address them.
The reasons for the reluctance
Russian writer Leo Tolstoy wrote: “All happy families are alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. Something similar could be said about trust in science. As an exercise in reflection, consider the examples of Savita, Maya and Lara, three highly educated middle-aged women. While each of them is somewhat hesitant about vaccines, their hesitation has different roots and takes different forms.
Savita, of South Asian descent and married to heterosexuals, believes her son’s severe allergies were triggered by an injection he received a few days before his first allergic reaction and, while his doctor tried to control it. reassure that it was only a coincidence, she is not convinced and does not want to take any more risks with the health of her children.
Maya, who is black and in a same-sex relationship, is wary of a medical system that has a history of discriminating against blacks and members of the LGBTQ + community.
Lara, who is white and single, doesn’t believe COVID-19 vaccines have been properly tested and believes they only received emergency approval because of the weight the pharmaceutical industry has with politicians and regulators.
While these may be common fears about COVID-19 vaccines, they have been properly tested and evaluated, and adverse events, including allergies and anaphylaxis, remain low.
The dominant approach to tackling scientific skepticism assumes that scientific skeptics do not understand how science works, or ignore the existence of scientific consensus on the relevant issues. According to this view, vaccine reluctance can be addressed by doctors who reassure patients about the medical consensus that vaccines are safe and effective.
However, for patients like Savita, Maya and Lara, these general assurances are likely to ring hollow, as they do not address their own personal concerns. Attempts to respond to reluctance are also likely to appear patronizing, as they suggest that their recipients are ignorant or reckless.
It is much easier to look down on skeptical scientists and talk down on them than it is to try to understand and address their concerns, even when some of those concerns are legitimate. The medical system is biased against marginalized social groups. The relationship between the pharmaceutical industry, physicians and biomedical researchers raises serious concerns about conflicts of interest.
Even focusing only on vaccine reluctance, scientific skepticism is a complex and varied phenomenon. Spreading all science skeptics with the same brush causes us to lose sight of the differences between them, leaves us unable to understand the many different roots of their distrust, and leads us to take a unique and mistaken approach to tackling them.