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Be A Science Fighter

April 20, 2015

Tara Hills was a Canadian anti-vaxxer mom whose seven children all contracted whooping cough. And most people who have heard about her have probably completely missed the point of her story.

This story of a non-vaccinating parent publically changing their tune when their kids become ill is a deeper story than its superficial coverage would suggest.

First off, Tara didn’t change her mind after her kids got sick. She actually began a vaccination plan with her doctor after a nearby measles outbreak scared her enough to begin looking into the issue more deeply. This was prior to her kids becoming sick. The Whooping Cough infection was just icing on the Anti-Vaccination cake.

Secondly, Tara had never been an ardent anti-vaccination advocate. She was someone who described herself as skeptical of the potential danger of vaccinations and therefore defaulted to a non-vaccinating choice. While her default plan may be logically questionable, this is a far cry from the ardent anti vaccination movement. In fact, when confronted with the aforementioned measles outbreak in her community, her process was nothing, if not scientific.

 

“When the Disneyland measles outbreak happened my husband and I agreed to take a new look and weigh the evidence on both sides. A friend suggested I write out my questions so we could tackle them one by one.  Just getting it out on paper helped so much. I only ended up with a handful of questions. But more potent than my questions were my biases.” -Tara Hills

 

Ms. Hills belongs to a group that is quietly the most important part of this whole debate: The Uniformed Middle. This group is bounded by the informed scientific consensus on one side and the equally as informed (though with false information) anti-vaccination movement on the other. Both of these groups present strong opinions and seemingly contradictory evidence leaving a vast, uniformed middle that the scientific community should start to consider more in our attempts to educate. Changing an ardent anti-vaxxer’s mind is difficult, in some cases maybe even impossible. But the fight for this middle can be won. Minds can be changed. Doctors appointments can be made.

The question becomes how do we reach the middle? How do we get to the Taras of the world? In the case of the Hill family, a good scare and some objective research did the trick. But other than inducing a pandemic and maintaining an accurate Wikipedia page for the MMR Vaccine, how could we use this knowledge to help with the war for the ‘Uniformed Middle’?

The answer is that we need to go where they go, speak where they will listen and prove our points in definitive and digestible bites. Your average suburban mother is not browsing the latest peer-reviewed scientific publications…but she is on Facebook twice a day. And knowing that the smart people she knows not only believe in the scientific consensus, but are willing to publically defend it will likely do more to her opinion than anything Neil DeGrasse Tyson or Bill Nye can say in a lifetime.

Studies show that denialism for subjects like Climate Change or Vaccinations center more around social group support than the pseudo-evidence given as a justification. Disturbing that social group’s cohesion, or at least vocalizing a dissent from it, may be enough to stimulate the research and understanding on their end. If not, at least you shake up their view of a mutual consensus.

So I put the call out to you: the sane, the sensible, the scientific. Don’t just support science, do so vocally. Don’t allow scientifically illiterate comments at a party or at work function or on a Facebook post to go unchallenged. Do not sit back in the cowardly guise of politeness while the fringe group hijacks the Uniformed Middle. 

And don’t allow a minority of people to be science’s spokesmen. Throw your hat in the ring. Fight the good fight as well as you can and support others who do the same. Educate yourself so you know the facts. Look at publically available debates so you know how to present those facts. Instead of being afraid about politeness, use politeness as your tool and like the great Dalton once said 'Rule Number One: Be Nice'. Disagree with ideas, not people and never pick a fight; just be ready to defend scientific consensus or the scientific method itself, should a challenge to either arise.

Never let misinformation go unchallenged. The second biggest mistake an army can make is forgetting that winning small battles is the only way to win a larger war. The first biggest mistake is not recognizing the war is happening in the first place.

Change at least one person’s mind. Maybe nothing will happen. Maybe no one will ever listen to you. And maybe you’ll get one person thinking and stop seven kids from getting Whooping Cough. 

 

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