“The reasons people decide to believe things are complicated,” says Eula Biss, a professor of English at Northwestern University and the author of On Immunity, a book examining why people fear vaccines. “With vaccines, some people are primed to be suspicious because of what they know about the historical relationship between the medical establishment and women, or what they know about the history of corruption around pharmaceutical companies. People are drawing on real knowledge, but they’re allowing the answer to one question to be the answer to another.”
For their part, scientists in the Pew survey faulted the media and the public itself for the existence of these gaps. The “public doesn’t know much about science” was reported as a major problem by 84 percent of scientists, and 79 percent considered “news reports don’t distinguish well-founded findings” a major problem. About half of scientists said oversimplification by the media and a public that expects solutions too quickly were major problems.
Fair enough. The translating of dense, precise scientific studies into digestible, clickable news stories is a tricky business. When a publication mistakenly says a single study “proves” something, or, heaven forbid, implies causation where there is merely correlation, those who know better are eager to jump in and point out the mistake. And it probably doesn’t help the publications’ reputations as legitimate sources of information. Of course, no matter how careful a writer is to say “associated with,” to transparently point out small sample sizes, to repeat the scientists’ claim that “more research is needed,” you’ll still get commenters crying “pseudoscience.”
But the clarity, accuracy, and availability of information, while important, is not a magic elixir to change hearts and minds. For example, in a recent study, telling people that the flu vaccine doesn’t cause the flu made people less likely to vaccinate, even if they accepted the information as true. (Though, for what it’s worth, despite the recent hubbub over anti-vaxers, vaccination rates in the U.S. are still very high.) And Kahan says that asking people whether they believe in evolution, as Pew did, has nothing to do with how well they understand the theory.
“It doesn’t measure science literacy, it measures whether you’re religious,” he says. “It’s just an expression of identity.”
Adding to the puzzle is the notion that stories can sometimes be more powerful than data. As Vanessa Wamsley previously wrote in The Atlantic, a personal anecdote from a friend can feel more immediate and important than, say, a statement from a government agency.
Biss told me about a story she heard from a reader of her book, who changed her mind in favor of vaccination after she had a child with a birth defect who was “profoundly vulnerable to any respiratory illness,” Biss said. “And her baby died. It’s an incredibly heartbreaking story, but after she lost that baby, she was really open to thinking differently about medicine … Information alone is not going to do it. Something else has to be given to you that changes your willingness to hear that information.”