People who are opposed to vaccination aren’t swayed by numbers or statistics. Among those refusing to get vaccinated — about 15 percent of the population — many reject any discussion that involves science.
Doctors, journalists and politicians claim to be reporting strictly scientific facts that speak for themselves, particularly when it comes to the effectiveness of vaccines in protecting against severe forms of COVID-19. Those who resist the vaccine, however, have a different viewpoint. To them, science is political.
They believe these spokespeople have dubious motives and that they are presenting and manipulating the facts to serve their own personal agendas. To understand vaccine hesitancy or resistance, we need to understand how people interpret certain scientific issues including vaccination.
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Recent articles have highlighted the importance of explaining the scientific process of manufacturing vaccines and showing their efficacy rates and their side effects.
We would add that it is important to make this information accessible, both as new knowledge and as experience that is shared with the rest of the population.
To do this, as communications researchers, we draw on our knowledge of the social and narrative dimensions of meaning-making. Indeed, well-established research in the field of communications — for example, examining how patients understood information about cancer — shows that our understanding is shaped by how we identify with the people in the stories we hear. Since identities and the histories that shape them are numerous and varied, our interpretation of scientific facts can also be diverse. Our understanding can then take on a political dimension and lead to rigid positions.
It’s the experience that counts
According to the sense-making and narrativity theories developed by organizational theorist Karl E. Weick and communication theorist Walter R. Fisher respectively, people first evaluate facts in the light of their own experiences and those of their relatives. These experiences are recounted and exchanged in the form of stories in which people see themselves reflected and with which they identify.
These stories are most effective when they present the listener as having control over their lives. For example, for many people, a story in which a family member made a wise choice about medical treatment will be more convincing than a scientific presentation.
When we look at conversations about vaccines on social media, we see that sharing personal stories remains one of the predominant ways in which people form their opinions about the reliability and safety of vaccines.
People retell their experiences as stories, so they can share and compare but also reassure each other that they are able to make their own decisions.
Disconnected scientific facts
While most people understand vaccination through personal experience, scientific facts are often reported in statistical form without relating them to the experience of their audience — for example the hospitalization rates of COVID-19 patients. These hospitalizations, because they are experienced by others, may not affect those who are resisting vaccination.
Facts are often presented from the perspective of the scientists who produced them, or from media or government representatives, so believing them requires trust in these institutions. A decline in trust may trigger a feeling in some people that the authorities want to take away the control they have over their own lives.
This crisis of confidence is partly due to the fact that a majority of people have no direct experience with institutions such as medical research, journalistic enquiry or political decision-making. So when stories are presented to those who are vaccine hesitant, it feels like they are being expected to let outsiders guide them without getting any opportunity to ask questions.
Scientific facts and personal stories
Based on these findings, two recommendations can be made. The first would be to include more non-scientists in reports on scientific research so that audiences can better understand the issues and feel like they are participating in the debate. For example, with the impending approval of COVID-19 vaccines for five to 11 year olds, parents of children who have participated in clinical trials of these vaccines could be used to demystify the scientific research process and provide stories that other parents can relate to.
Or, as the media is doing at the moment, sharing the stories of relatives of unvaccinated young people who died of COVID-19 may have an impact on those who are reluctant to get the vaccine. Some people may relate to the hesitations these people had about vaccination: “He was worried about the vaccine, yes, but all he wanted to do was to see how people would react to it to make sure it was safe for him and his family before he encouraged them to get vaccinated.”
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In the same vein, we should ensure that those who dissect the data in the media have a scientific background and are able to present the figures in an accessible way. For example, it is possible to compare the number of hospitalizations of vaccinated people to those of unvaccinated people using high school math.
The second recommendation would be to have more public discussions about the kinds of situations people who are worried are experiencing. Those who dare to express doubts today are too quickly removed from the debate and relegated to the status of pariahs. More examples should be presented of people who overcame their doubts, including the process through which they did so.
Some people who refuse vaccination see themselves as informed citizens or concerned parents. For them, this is an act of resistance that allows them to maintain control over their own lives. While it is important to ensure that scientific facts are reported, no one should downplay the importance of these legitimate concerns.
Publishing daily statistics on infections, hospitalizations and deaths is necessary, but is unlikely to be enough to raise awareness among hardcore vaccine resisters. To convince them, scientific facts should contextualized and made relatable to be understood as elements of a human experience.
Joelle Basque is an Assistant Professor, Département Sciences humaines, Lettres et Communications at Université TÉLUQ.
Nicolas Bencherki is an Associate Professor, organizational communication, at Université TÉLUQ.
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