Thursday, December 7, 2017

Vaccines, Morality, Facts

“It’s not hard to scare people, but it’s extremely difficult to unscare them.” — Dr. Paul Offit

I'm taking a break today from the constant onslaught to think about vaccines. It started from a recent Vox article called What makes some parents fall for anti-vaccine messaging?, which caught my attention because the research it describes is based on Moral Foundations Theory (which I have discussed here as part of Jonathan Haidt's work).

A quick recap: Haidt and other social psychologists have found, when querying people cross-culturally, that humans innately respond to six types of moral "taste receptors":

  • Care/harm (compassion for the suffering, prevention of harm)
  • Fairness/cheating (looking for balance, punishing cheaters)
  • Liberty/oppression (resisting bullies, resenting restrictions on our actions)
  • Loyalty/betrayal (tracking who is "us" and who is not, disliking traitors)
  • Authority/subversion (valuing order and hierarchy, disliking chaos)
  • Sanctity/degradation (elevating some things, seeing them as pure)
Within the U.S., researchers have found that political liberals have stronger receptors for three of those six (care, fairness, and liberty) while conservatives value all six more equally than liberals, but respond more to loyalty, authority, and sanctity.

The Emory University researchers found anti-vax appeals frequently are framed around liberty and sanctity, while pro-vaccination messages are based on straight-up rationality and, to some extent, fairness and care:
As the researchers wrote, “Anti-vaccination websites also often claim that vaccines contain ‘contaminants’. These concerns may be rooted in the purity moral foundation, with its emphasis on avoiding anything disgusting or unnatural. Another frequent message on anti-vaccine websites is that mandatory vaccination policies violate parental civil liberties.”
The Emory researchers plan to follow up to see if pro-vaccine campaigns based on these two types of morality are effective with parents:
“You could increase the salience of disgust associated with certain diseases, and say vaccines fight those,” said the Emory study’s senior author, Dr. Saad Omer. “Or you could frame purity positively — saying vaccines are a very natural product, they work with a natural system. Messages that talk about liberty, that the freedom to choose for your child is being taken away if other others don’t vaccinate, might work.”
Meanwhile, Penn and Teller have come up with a visual way of getting the pro-vaccination message across that doesn't have anything to do with morality:

This is just another version of the rational argument for vaccines, plus swearing and bowling pins. I guess you could say they're trying to unscare parents at the same time they rescare them, to follow Paul Offit's quote.

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