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"Let's shame them!": part and parcel of the dangerous seat-of-the-pants, evidence-free style of risk communication we are using to protect universal vaccination in US

A thoughtful correspondent asked me what I thought of proposals to "shame" parents who don't vaccinate their children.  I'm against doing that. Actually, I'm not opposed to "shaming" when it makes sense; but I am opposed to doing anything in public policy that disregards the best evidence we have on the challenges we face and the best strategies for combatting them. Here is what I had to say about why shaming parents who don't vaccinate should be viewed as falling into that category:

I myself don't see any value in shaming here.

The conflict-entrepreneur, anti-vax organizers deserve ridicule and are awful people etc. But denouncing or shaming them actually only gives them exactly what they want -- more attention, which in turn does make more members of the public agitated and confused. 

This is known as the “rope-a-dope” strategy. Many vaccine advocates are falling for it big time and are doing more harm than good by falsely overstating the impact of the small fringe of society that is anti-vaccine.

In addition, shaming individual parents risks chilling anxious individuals who aren't militant or political but just confused from trying to get answers to their questions from their drs or neighbors etc. 

No one could think that’s good for public health. Thoughtful and reflective people can actually help those parents see that vaccination makes sense for their kids and for society as a whole--but only if those parents seek out their counsel.

Finally, shaming risks undermining the social norms most worthy of protection here.

One is the general confidence that parents indisputably have (as manifested in maintenance of the public-health goal of 90%+ vaccination rates for over a decade) in vaccine safety. The main source of information that people use to assess risk is the attitude of other ordinary people as evinced by their behavior.

What we definitely don't want, then, is to give people a false impression that fear of and resistance to vaccines are widespread or growing. The incessantly repeated, demonstrably false assertion that vaccination rates are falling & exemptions rising in the US does exactly that: it causes people to misperceive how much confidence US parents have in vaccination -- to misperceive how high our vaccination rates are & have been for well over a decade.

The other is reciprocal cooperation.  People contribute to public goods when they perceive others are -- but don't when they perceive others aren't, in which case contributing makes one feel like a sucker.  Herd immunity is a public good. In fact, studies show that giving people the impression that others are refusing to vaccinate diminishes their own intention to vaccinate.

I'd worry that the spectacle of orchestrated shaming -- b/c the premise for it is falling vaccine rates, etc. -- could reinforce these norm-eroding effects. 

Instead, we should want parents and the public generally to know, as Moms Who Vax wisely emphasize, that “the vast, vast majority of” parents do recognize that vaccines are critical for their kids welfare.  

Those parents have better things to do than march around asserting the obvious, so it is easy to lose the benefit that their behavior and confidence can contribute to the norms that promote universal vaccination.  

Let's follow the lead of MWX and and raise the profile of the behavior and attitude of those ordinary parents.

We should also take the money and attention that would otherwise be devoted to pointless and likely self-defeating shaming campaigns (ones coordinated by commercial marketing firms poised to carry out this questionable strategy) and direct it to research into developing screening instruments that can help identify vaccine-hesitant parents and targeted risk counseling for them.

The scientists doing this research aren't nearly as loud, nearly as self-promoting, as the advocates who are overstating anxiety about vaccines and the need for unresponsive policies like "shaming campaigns."

So like MWV, we should be trying to remedy this inattention by hearalding what these researchers are up to, and helping those dedicated to perfecting our universal vaccination regime to make sure that these researchers are adequately supported in their efforts.

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Reader Comments (1)

@ Dan Kahan said:

The conflict-entrepreneur, anti-vax organizers deserve ridicule and are awful people etc. But denouncing or shaming them actually only gives them exactly what they want -- more attention, which in turn does make more members of the public agitated and confused.

This is known as the “rope-a-dope” strategy. Many vaccine advocates are falling for it big time and are doing more harm than good by falsely overstating the impact of the small fringe of society that is anti-vaccine.

What role do conflict entrepreneurs play in polluting the science communication environment?

Do conflict entrepreneurs cause a polluted science communication environment? Are there other causes that might be at work?

Why are conflict entrepreneurs only successful in polluting some science communication environments? Why, in other instances, such as when it comes to vaccines, have they been successful in polluting only fringe pockets of the science communication environment?

Conflict entrepreneurs are always with us. And, needless to say, the quest for truth is definitely not part of their game. Conflict is. When they happen to hit upon the truth, it is purely coincidental. Nevertheless, their version of the truth is invariably portrayed as self-evident and beyond dispute.

Conflict entrepreneurs frequently use the word "transform." They seek to "transform" the exiting political, economic and social institutions, and they usually seek to to do this by transforming the intellectual institutions first. If the transformation sought is sufficiently radical, then the conflict entrepreneurs become "revolutionaries."

The business of revolutionizing intellectual institutions begins with delegitimizing and destabilizing them. One way to do this is by corrupting and deforming them. This generally happens by slipping a different meaning into the same names: The name is the same, like "science," but the contents are different. The names and nominal contents are kept, but another, completely different content is insinuated underneath, thus giving rise to the well-known doubletalk phenomenon within which the same names have two meanings.

This is what happened to the Church in the 15th century. As Machiavelli observed of the Church at that time,

the nearer people are to the Roman Church, the head of their religion, the less religious they are. And whoever examines the principles on which that religion is founded, and sees how widely different from those principles its present practice and application are, will judge that her ruin or chastisement is near at hand.

Of course revolutionaries will always accuse institutions of being highly corrupt and deformed, even when that is not actually the reality. Truth-seeking, to repeat, is not on the conflict entrepreneur's agenda.

In On Revolution Hannah Arendt spoke of "professional revolutionists" whose "life was spent not in revolutionary agitation, for which their existed few opportunities, but in study and thought, in theory and debate, whose sole object was revolution." "They watched and analysed the progressing disintegration in state and society," she notes, but "they hardly did, or were in a position to do, much to advance and direct it."

There "exists hardly a revolution," Arendt continues

whose outbreak could be blamed upon their activities. It usually was the other way round: revolution broke out and liberated, as it were, the professional revolutionists from wherever they happened to be -- from jail, or from the coffee house, or from the library. Not even Lenin's party of professional revolutionists would ever have been able to 'make' a revolution; the best they could do was to be around, or to hurry home, at the right moment, that is, at the moment of collapse....

The part of the professional revolutionists usually consists not in making a revolution but in rising to power after it has broken out, and their great advantage in this power struggle lies less in their theories and mental or organizational preparation than in the simple fact that their names are the only ones which are publicly known.... The loss of authority in the powers-that-be, which indeed precedes all revolutions, is actually a secret to no one, since its manifestations are open and tangible, though not necessarily spectacular; but its symptoms, general dissatisfaction, widespread malaise, and contempt for those in power, are difficult to pin down since their meaning is never unequivocal.

The last great transformation in Western Civilization's intellectual institutions occurred when science replaced the Church as arbiter of truth. But it wasn't necessarily the revolutionaries who caused the demise of the Church's intellectual authority, along with its political, economic and social authority. In The Theological Origins of Modernity, Michael Allen Gillespie suggests it was, more than anything, events which led to the Church's demise:

The Great Schism, the Hundred Year's War, the Black Death, the development of gunpowder, the dire economic circumstances brought on throughout Europe by the advent of the Little Ice Age, and the dislocations wrought by urban development, social mobility, and the Crusades, were all of critical importance to the formation of the anxiety and insecurity that made the nominalist vision of the world believable.

This new nominalist vision ushered in the scientific revolution. But this new vision, Gillespie concludes, "only made sense because of the tremendous changes in the world itself."

What "changes in the world itself" are now taking place which might affect the legitimacy and authority of science?

Do a civilization's political, economic and social institutions underpin its intellectual institutions, or do its intellectual institutions underpin its political, economic and social institutions? Or is there a symbiotic relationship between the two?

February 15, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn Stehle

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