Vaccines have suddenly become a political hot potato, following some ignorant comments from New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Sen. Rand Paul, raising the question of how best to make sure parents vaccinate their kids.
Conor Friedersdorf, in line with several other commentators, characteristically suggests that shaming or mocking anti-vaccine parents is a losing strategy. Instead, patient, reasonable argument should be used, to avoid alienating these people and entrenching vaccination as a politically polarized issue.
It’s a nice thought. But the truth is that no argument on its own is likely to convince anti-vaxxers. Friedersdorf is right to suggest that avoiding political polarization is an important goal, but it’s one that only conservatives can achieve. It’s time for pro-vaccine Republicans to step up.
Brendan Nyhan, a Dartmouth professor, has done some research on this question. He found that providing vaccine refusenik parents with a dramatic story of a child threatened by vaccine-preventable illness increased their skepticism towards vaccines.
In a post writing up this research, he suggested that people should not be aggressive towards anti-vaxxers, though it's important to note that that didn't work either. Dramatic stories, scary pictures, fact sheets from public health authorities, the kind of patient argument Friedersdorf prefers — they all failed to work or backfired.
That result will not surprise anyone who’s spent time arguing with anti-vaxxers in forums or comment threads.
As Dr. Ben Goldacre said in an interview with Vox:
It’s the same with quackery: people aren’t just buying pills because they’re bamboozled by a guy in the white coat. They are buying things because they are afraid, desperate, or lazy. Giving people a 10-point plan about how to spot bad science isn’t going to help those people because they probably don’t care about science. I don’t think you can reason people out of positions they didn’t reason themselves into. [Vox]
But there is a way of keeping vaccine denial from being politically entrenched. The opposition to vaccinations is an evenly bipartisan phenomenon, but only Republicans have anti-vaxxers among their potential presidential candidates.
Ta-Nehisi Coates once had a great definition of “race hustling” that I suspect fits exactly with what Chris Christie and Rand Paul are doing:
The hustler isn't simply scapegoating one group, he is betting on the thick wittedness of the other group to which he alleges fealty. He is banking on their ignorance. He is profiting from their most backward impulses. He is stoking and then leeching off of their hate. [The Atlantic]
Similarly, the great danger to public health is that irresponsible conservative politicians will view vaccine hustling as a stepping stone to national office, and in the process turn anti-vaccine paranoia into a plank of conservative politics.
It’s critical to short-circuit this process. But only conservatives can do it, because they are the only ones who have the credibility to cement pro-vaccine views as a political norm on the right. Comments from liberals, especially famous ones like President Obama, will only activate the “if Obama said it, it must be wrong” switch.
Fortunately, some conservatives are already doing this. The Wall Street Journal had a fairly strong editorial bashing Christie for his comments. John Podhoretz tweeted about when he got mumps as a child. Marco Rubio said that all children save the immunosuppressed should be vaccinated. The Washington Free Beacon dug up damning comments from Rand Paul in 2009, when he was on the conspiracy nut show Infowars, suggesting that mandatory vaccination was akin to “martial law.” Even Jennifer Rubin is on board.
That’s a laudable start, but remember, this is a party that turned on the governor of Texas for mandating HPV vaccines. The pressure must continue until it is clear that stoking antivaxxer paranoia does not pay politically on the right. Pro-vaccine Republicans, your country needs you. It’s the pro-life thing to do.