In The Politics of Autism, I analyze the discredited notion that vaccines cause autism. This bogus idea can hurt people by allowing diseases to spread. Examples include measles, COVID, flu, and polio.
Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, said the scientific community must improve its communication. Expertise, alone, is insufficient when people mistrust the experts’ motives. Indeed, nearly 40% of Republicans report little to no confidence in scientists to act in the public’s best interest.
In a study published last year, Jamieson and colleagues identified attributes the public values beyond expertise, including transparency about unknowns and self-correction. Researchers might have better managed expectations around covid vaccines, for example, by emphasizing that the protection conferred by most vaccines is less than 100% and wanes over time, requiring additional shots, Jamieson said. And when the initial covid vaccine trials demonstrated that the shots drastically curbed hospitalization and death but revealed little about infections, public health officials might have been more open about their uncertainty.
As a result, many people felt betrayed when covid vaccines only moderately reduced the risk of infection. “We were promised that the vaccine would stop transmission, only to find out that wasn’t completely true, and America noticed,” said Rep. Brad Wenstrup (R-Ohio), chair of the Republican-led coronavirus subcommittee, at a July hearing.
Jamieson also advises repetition. It’s a technique expertly deployed by those who promote misinformation, which perhaps explains why the number of people who believe the anti-parasitic drug ivermectin treats covid more than doubled over the past two years — despite persistent evidence to the contrary. In November, the drug got another shoutout at a hearing where congressional Republicans alleged that the Biden administration and science agencies had censored public health information.