Aug 25, 2018
In 1998, Andrew Wakefield published his infamous and fraudulent article in the Lancet - a very well known medical journal.
In the article, Wakefield concludes that there is a link between the MMR vaccine and autism.
The article has since been RETRACTED. Indeed, vaccines do not actually cause autism.
With this article, an idea began to spread.
In this episode, I discuss the implications of the anti-vax movement and a recent article published in the American Journal of Public Health entitled "Weaponized Health Communication: Twitter Bots and Russian Trolls Amplify the Vaccine Debate".
In the article, the authors examine Russian Twitterbots and their activity related to vaccine-related tweets.
They divided robo/bot twitter accounts into 3 general categories.
They found that while the "Content Polluter" bots tended towards anti-vax content, the "Russian Trolls" split their posts down the middle. The "Russian Trolls" posted BOTH pro and anti-vax posts. The key here is that the posts were polarising and divisive.
The motives behind the Russian bots are far beyond the scope of this article but the effects are obvious. The pro and anti-vax twitter posts serve to polarize the American public. The simple discussion of both pro and anti-vax ideology give credence to the debate.
The article discusses several important points:
Point 4 is the most concerning. The debate ITSELF becomes a method for spreading disinformation.
This seems to stand in the face of the fundamental beliefs of modern science and medicine! As physicians, we believe that we must ALWAYS continue to reflect, debate and analyze all the data in front of us. But what if the simple act of analysis can lead to patients to take actions that might lead to their death?
The problem isn't that physicians and scientists are always questioning the data. The problem comes when untrained individuals attempt to "do their research" on their own. You don't see me "doing my research" on whether or not Tesla should use lithium cobalt oxide or NCA batteries in their new cars. I wouldn't know how to frame the question. I might be able to figure out the basic differences between the two batteries but I don't have the ability to understand how the differences between the batteries fit into the entire car manufacturing industry as a whole. Much less how it might affect safety, pricing or Tesla's business model and future.
The goal of this podcast episode is not to offer a complete solution to the anti-vax problem. Instead, I want to reframe how we think about the issue. You cannot fight the anti-vax movement with facts alone. Confirmation bias is strong and often facts don't change minds.
The anti-vax movement is a public health problem and should be addressed with the same rigor that we address any other public health issue. While the clinicians gut reaction is to spout out facts and data regarding vaccine safety, this may not be the best way to approach the problem.
I do not attempt to propose a solution here. I suspect the solution will be complex and multi-disciplinary. Instead, I want to encourage the clinician to FULLY empathize with the friend, patient or family member with anti-vax ideology.
Such people are not trained with the same scientific rigor as scientists and doctors. They often lack the critical thinking ability to properly analyze the data they are presented with. Finally, even if they have these abilities, they don't have the fundamental medical knowledge required to interpret the data. This is not to belittle or insult, this is simply the truth.
As I mention in the podcast:
"I don't claim to understand which type of rocket fuel is the best for a Mars mission."
I wouldn't be insulted if you said that I lack the overall understanding of rocket science to fully comprehend why one fuel might be better than another. Nor do I know where to find reliable sources to acquire this data. Is there a PubMed for rocket science?
Probably, but I don't know what it is.
I want to be crystal clear here - this is not to say that ALL scientific discourse is bad. Quite the opposite. We must continue to research, gather data and gain knowledge. However, you must caution the "amateur internet investigator" that they may not have the basic training to understand what they are reading. We must consider that a simple rebuttal of facts is NOT always good enough to change someone's mind. Finally, as clinicians, we must be aware of the propagation of these ideas and address them with rigor and method - not off hand dismissal.
So what do you think? Do you have a solution to the Anti-vax movement?