Belief in a range of conspiracy theories predicts vaccine denial

vaccine conspiracy theory

Conspiratorial thinking – the belief that the FBI killed Martin Luther King, or that Princess Diana was assassinated by members of the British royal family. Pretty unbelievable, right?

If you support vaccination, which I suspect you do if you're reading this blog, then you might wonder why, in the face of scientific evidence, the anti-vaccination lobby still maintains a strong foothold around the world. According to a paper published in PlOS One, it seems that people who endorse conspiracist ideation (as above) may also be more likely to distrust vaccines – and it could be pretty hard to change their minds.

The researchers found that a rejection of three examples of science – vaccines, climate change and genetically modified foods – can be predicted by the endorsement of a diverse set of conspiracy theories, including that the New World Order are planning to take over the world or that the Apollo moon landings were faked in a Hollywood studio. Such conspiracist beliefs were correlated against beliefs that "the risk of vaccinations to maim and kill children outweighs their health benefits" or that "vaccines have negative side effects that outweigh the benefits of vaccination for children".

The team also examined the link between conservatism, endorsement of the free-market and opposition to vaccination, finding that individuals who endorsed the free-market and were ‘low on conservatism' (i.e. more liberal or progressive) were more likely to oppose immunization. The researchers speculated that those who endorse the free-market might object to government intrusion (such as the CDC) in mandatory vaccination programs, while individuals who are more liberal might object to the work of Big Pharma in the vaccines industry.

What is the upshot of this? That it could be pretty hard to change the mind of individuals who deny vaccines. The researchers write that "providing additional scientific information may only amplify the rejection of such evidence, rather than foster its acceptance". Instead, the researchers suggest that we should make efforts to rebut to multiple conspiracy theories at the same time, making it more difficult for a conspiracist response.

While this paper does have obvious implications for how we communicate science about vaccines, I think we should not be too quick to simply label all vaccine denialists as conspiracy theorists. In the past, scientists have argued that public opposition to GM crops or stem cell research can be ascribed to ‘science fiction fears' employed by the media. Scientists have argued that terms like "Frankenfoods" and comparisons to "Brave New World" can direct the public to being fearful of GM crops and cloning. However, the use of such a ‘sci-fi alibi' to dismiss public concerns as baseless and irrational has been shown to be unhelpful in the communication of science to the public. Let's not simply dismiss vaccine denialism as another conspiracy theory – I think that would be equally unhelpful.

Read the article here >

Comments 2

  1. Ranajit Sen

    Interesting! However clubbing vaccination with GM foods and stem cell therapy is odious. Each must be viewed through a different prism. Vaccination over the years has brought about a dramatic drop in the disease burden particularly in developing and LD countries. GM crops have promised but have not delivered, at least in India. Stem cell therapy is still work-in-progress.

  2. Anna Watson

    Hi Tim,
    I and many parents object to being called vaccine denialists or conspiracy theorists. These labels are loaded, negative and mostly incorrect. So thank you for your rational conclusion to this paper.
    Many of us choose not to vaccinate because we acknowledge or experience the failure of science for their children, not because they believe the earth is flat. My friend’s son, Robert Fletcher, was finally awarded damages 18 years after the MMR left him without speech, with daily epileptic fits, in a wheelchair, and doubly incontinent.

    ….There have been 2 other similar papers published this year, for Unicef (Tracking anti vaccine Sentiment) and Heidi Larson’s anthropological view of Vaccination Choice Influenced by Social Networks.

    But if vaccine uptake is on the increase, and public confidence for the MMR seems to be strengthening, why all the interest in the 5% minority?

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