On belief, part 2

In my last post we explored how belief dictates behavior and how we can influence and even change beliefs by talking about values. So now, as promised, I’m going to share some wisdom I gained from the badass Dr. Paul Offit on how sometimes we just have to ignore the beliefs and stick to the facts. I know, this contradicts everything I said last time. Stick with me here.

Dr. Offit is an expert on vaccines (he even invented a rotavirus vaccine, RotaTeq). He has written books on the history and science of vaccines and why Americans have such irrational fears of them. Lucky for me, Dr. Offit is a Philly local so I got the chance to talk with him at Public Health Book Club back in October about his new book, “Do You Believe in Magic?“.  The conversation naturally turned to how public health pros can address people’s fears about vaccines and do good public health work. So here is the synthesized wisdom from that discussion in one sentence:

Don’t accept their premise.

When confronted with an anti-vaccinations argument, just stick to the facts. Don’t start down the road of engaging with them about their fears and beliefs, because it’s not a good place to be: telling people what they believe is false (or stupid). People don’t like being told they are wrong or their beliefs are stupid (even if they are). Talk about how vaccines save lives (103 million American lives).  Talk about what life was like before we had vaccines for deadly and debilitating diseases like polio, measles, hepatitis, and influenza.  Talk about how outbreaks of polio pop up in countries that haven’t seen a case in decades. Talk about the outbreaks of pertussis in the last few years that have killed American children.

Go for the saddest stuff out there, take advantage of their emotional response to make the connection that vaccines are necessary, that these diseases still exist and still kill. The emotional response is your key to their hearts and minds. It works the same way as using values to frame other health issues and behaviors. I mean, that’s the goal anyway. Some people will never change their minds no matter the evidence or heart-rending pleas. Just let them go. You have more important work to do. Do not engage with them about mercury or overloading a child’s immune system or whatever other bunk people believe now.

You have science and history on your side. They have beliefs and fear and myths. As Dr. Offit told us at book club, “Ignorance is never an advantage.”

Go get ’em, tiger!

So we were talking about vaccines here, but this same approach can be applied to any issue or health topic. Just follow the advice: don’t accept their premise.

An 1802 illustration depicts Edward Jenner vaccinating a young woman. Several former patients demonstrate the effects of the vaccine—miniature cows erupt from their bodies. (Courtesy of the National Library of Medicine)

And in case you want to geek out about vaccines or bone up for your next Facebook debate, here are my favorite vaccine resources:

The Panic Virus by Seth Mnookin. This book is extensively researched and is engrossing. You can learn all about why Americans are crazy about vaccines and what we dangers lie in the myths that pervade American culture.

A History of Vaccines – a project of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia that shares the science and history of vaccines. It’s really a great website.

Pox: An American History by Michael Willrich.  A book about the smallpox outbreak at the turn of the last century which lead to widespread panic, questionable public health practices and ethical dilemmas about public health versus individual rights. It’s a bit dry at points but worth the effort.


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