Vaccine skeptics are my people. Here's how to reach at least some of us.

Let me start by saying I will absolutely be getting the COVID-19 vaccine. No question. I'm pretty excited about it.

I can't say that I always would have felt that way.

When I started my family 20 years ago, I dove into the natural birth/parenting/health world pretty quickly. I gave birth to one of my kids at home (with a doctor who did homebirths) and had another at a birth center with a midwife. I treated my kids' earaches with garlic-steeped olive oil and their conjunctivitis with breastmilk. We keep elderberry syrup on hand for colds and flus and use ginger and turmeric tea as an anti-inflammatory. My husband has successfully used hibiscus tea to lower his blood pressure and acupuncture for prostatitis.

That's not to say we ever shunned Western medicine. We use antibiotics for strep throat, Tylenol if a fever gets really bad, etc. There's a huge spectrum of approaches to health and wellness, and tossing any of them out completely is pretty silly.

There's a lot of good stuff in the natural health world, including a lot that is backed up by traditional science. (See the links above.) There's also a lot of unsupported-by-science woo and misinformation, and that's only gotten worse in the age of social media.

As for vaccines, I started out unsure of what to think about them. I had concerns about injecting my children with what I understood to be toxic ingredients in vaccines, such as thimerosal (a mercury-containing compound that was removed from vaccines in 2001) and aluminum. We had a family doctor who wasn't anti-vaccine but had some hesitancy about certain ones, so we took each vaccine on an individual basis with his input.

We did immunize our kids, but we did it on a different schedule based on perceived risk. For example, we didn't do the Hep B vaccine at birth because the risk of our newborn baby being exposed to Hep B was incredibly tiny, so we figured that one could wait. We felt that our kids were healthy enough to get natural chickenpox immunity through infection, so we skipped that vaccine altogether. (Since we homeschooled, we were able to expose our kids purposefully in our own home and keep them isolated while the infection process ran its course. Totally understand if you cringe at that. I probably would now too.)

If I could go back and do it again I'd likely make some different choices, but at the time we made informed decisions based on the information we had. I'm not sure where I would have ended up if I'd had the big, nutty world of social media at my fingertips.

I was a vaccine skeptic, not a full-on anti-vaxxer, but it's a slippery road from one to the other. In reality, I think there are a lot of people like me out there, and I'm concerned that they're being swayed more and more toward conspiracy theories. Healthy skepticism and scrutiny over what we put into our bodies is, well, healthy. People have questions and concerns, and that's a good thing. How those questions and concerns get addressed is key.

One thing not to do: Don't dismiss all vaccine skepticism as uninformed ignorance. There is some of that out there for sure, but there are also a lot of people who have solid reasons for their concerns, even if they aren't concerns for everyone. Most vaccine skeptics aren't ignorant conspiracy theorists just as not all people who work for pharmaceutical companies are greedy profiteers. If the people with the best scientific information roll their eyes at people for their questions, they will be lured down the rabbit hole of misinformation by those who welcome their skepticism.

There are two truths we need to internalize it comes to understanding people's vaccine decision-making. 1) No one except people who study this stuff for a living has the time to wade through ALL of the information, so humility goes a long way. 2) Even though we all think we're informed, we base our decisions far more on who we trust—and don't trust—than on any specific information we have.

That trust part is huge. It's The Big Key. Any conversation with a vaccine skeptic has to address trust first and foremost. If so simple to say, "Just trust the science!" but the people who say that don't understand how many scientists and doctors there are in the anti-vaccine world who share studies and analyses and whatnot that makes the science seem pretty fuzzy. Which scientists are we supposed to trust? Which doctors? Which studies?

The biggest source of distrust for most vaccine skeptics is "Big Pharma" and the gargantuan profits pharmaceutical companies make. It's a mistake to dismiss that concern out of hand. We've all seen the price gouging of medications—are we supposed to believe these pharmaceutical companies have our best interest at heart? We've all seen medications get recalled because they found out they did some kind of harm—is this the science we're supposed to put our faith in?

When people are starting from that place of distrust, it's a pretty short distance to the conspiracy theory rabbit hole. Once people go down that hole, it's virtually impossible to bring them back, so we have to find the off ramp before people get there.

One step toward the off-ramp, which should come early in the discussion, is to help people establish just how rotten they think humanity really is. I know that sounds odd, but that one thing forms the foundation for everything that comes next. If you're talking to a vaccine skeptic, ask them these questions: Do you think most people generally do the right thing? Do you think most people go into their careers for the right reasons? Do you think most people want the world to be a place where everyone is happy and healthy?

If they seem unsure, ask them to think about all of the people they know personally. Nearly everyone will answer yes to these questions when they think about the hundreds of people they know.

The reason that's important is because our brains tend to generalize and dehumanize processes and industries that involve a lot of people. And the less we actually know about how a process or industry works, the more monolithic we make our generalizations. I see people do this all the time with "the media." As if "the media" is one thing and not a bunch of competing companies that each have their own mission and culture and commitment to certain standards of reporting. Such monolithic ideas remove the individual, dedicated editors and journalists who really try to do their jobs to the best of their ability—the people who actually make up "the media."

We do the same things with "politicians" when we assume all elected officials are corrupt and power-hungry. We do the same thing with "corporate America" when we assume that all corporations are 100% motivated by greed. Monoliths take humans out of the equation and replace them with a nefarious blob of malintent that isn't truly reflective of reality.

When you make "the vaccine industry" a monolith, it seems like this big, powerful machine that exists only to line the pockets of the people who run it. And yes, pharmaceutical companies make buttloads of money, because they can. Yay, capitalism. But break it down. The people in those companies who are responsible for profit-mongering are specific people in the marketing and financial executive departments—it's not the entire company. It's certainly not the individual researchers who spend their days studying virology and epidemiology and immunology. It's not the scientists who dedicate months and years to figuring out how to treat a disease or save humanity from an infectious pathogen. It's not the vaccine development teams or the teams running the trials or the teams analyzing the data. Generally speaking, those people don't have anything to do with the money-making side of the pharmaceutical business in any meaningful way.

That doesn't mean every individual person is trustworthy, of course. Most of us would agree that there are some bad apples everywhere, but that's why we have professional organizations and review boards and standards, so that we minimize the likelihood of a bad apple ruining the bunch. And if you believe that most people do their best work for the right reasons, you have to believe that the vast majority of scientists around the globe who work on vaccines do everything in their power to make sure whatever they're developing is as safe and effective as possible.

Breaking down these big industries into how they actually function and understanding that the scientists making the vaccine are not synonymous with the company selling it can go a long way toward building trust in the science, without actually having to go as far as trusting the companies themselves.

Explaining that people pushing anti-vaccine information are also making money can also help. If people believe Big Pharma is bad, then everyone against Big Pharma seems good, even though there are a lot of quackos and grifters out there who profit big time off of people's skepticism and fear. Being anti-corporate-profiteering doesn't automatically make someone trustworthy.

And though it may sometimes feel like too many people are too far down the rabbit hole to make a difference, helpful explanations of the science from scientists actually does help. For instance, this Twitter thread explains how the mRNA COVID-19 vaccine works in layman's terms. And the questions and answers that follow the main thread are helpful as well for minimizing fear.

Acknowledging that people's questions and concerns are legitimate (even if you know their conclusions are not), is a good first step. Setting a baseline foundation for trust is the second. When you actually delve into those questions and concerns, do so in a way that doesn't just throw data or statistics at them, but actually addresses the underlying fear and distrust that can lead to conspiratorial thinking.

Not everyone will be convinced, but we have to be as diligent as those pushing misinformation and keep putting out facts with calm confidence. So many of us are actually swayable by good information, especially when it comes from people we feel like we can trust.

Courtesy of Movemeant Foundation

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This article originally appeared on 03.19.15


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