Countering Misinformation With Data

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How many times have you heard this conversation play out?

“I believe vaccines cause autism.”

“No they don’t, see my data.  There are many studies that prove this to be incorrect.”

“Vaccines are full of toxins.”

“Vaccines have low levels of certain substances that are not toxic.  The dose makes the poison.”

“It doesn’t matter what you say because you’re an evil pharma shill and you’re getting paid to say these things!!!!”

“I am not and you don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“You’re lying!!!!”

I’ve seen this conversation play out in person and online.  I am a scientist and a communicator.  I love data because it can show things very clearly.  However, data does not counter belief, no matter what it says.  To a scientist, it doesn’t make sense.  If I have evidence something is not correct, the person on the other end of the conversation should change their mind.  I don’t think things play out this way even between scientists.  If we believe we’re right, and someone has a convincing counter argument, the tendency is to hold on to our position for dear life.  So why do many out there try to go after the misinformation with data?

I read a lot of science blogs out there and I have a lot of respect for the writers and what they’re trying to do.  Countering things like the anti-vaccine movement are important.  However, if you read the comments on these posts, there are a lot of passionate comments on why the blog writer is wrong.  Commenters that are pro-science attack the anti-science commenter and no minds are changed.   Everyone is angry.  I say this is the wrong approach.

Part of the problem is with the media portraying the anti-science movements as equal to science.  Someone who claims the Earth is flat should not get the same level of attention as the subject matter expert, but there’s not much we can do about that.  What we can do something about is how we argue the message.

Currently the message is “I’m right and you’re wrong see my data.” To put this in perspective, if you are married (or otherwise paired), how does that message work for you?  Say you think your partner is wrong about something and cite something they did three months ago.  The other person digs in their heels and defends their position.  But you have evidence, why isn’t the other party admitting they are wrong?  This is what I see happening when a scientist says they are right and they have evidence and the other person defending the unscientific position is wrong.

Now a therapist would advise the married couple that the “I’m right and you’re wrong” tactic is an unhealthy way to argue.  The better way is to talk about how an action makes them feel.  If you are a scientist reading this blog post, you may be thinking that telling someone saying misinformation how it makes you feel is silly.  I would say you are right.  However, I would say you can use this tactic to help promote the information you want by making some tweaks.  In the anti-vaccine example, instead of presenting data and telling the persons they don’t know what they’re talking about, maybe talking about being concerned for the health of their children.  Part of that is acknowledging their fears too.

I was able to use this tactic with some success when talking about seasonal influenza.  I remember a few years ago speaking to a person who told me that they never get the flu shot because it’s full of toxins and doesn’t prevent the flu.  They also mentioned how they never get the flu.  I could have given data to counter the misinformation.  Instead I went towards the person never getting the flu.  I asked the person if they washed their hands a lot and stayed away from folks who were sick.  They said yes.  I told them that I think the flu shot can protect them even better, however, the hand washing and social distancing are good things to do and a big reason why they don’t get sick.  No bashing the person over the head with data.  I may not have been able to get them to get a flu shot.  Heck, there are many health care providers that won’t get them.  I believe if we don’t make enemies of the public we are trying to protect, our message will eventually be heard.

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