After my latest experiment failed I decided to take a week off. I wanted to be far, far away from science, scientists, lab, data, publications… so I applied to help out at an ecological farm in Slovenia.
It was a beautiful week. My hosts- a couple and their 9-year-old son- were the most friendly, generous and knowledgeable. I met incredibly kind and interesting fellow travellers. They showed me a different way of living: one not based on consumption, but on respect for nature and its resources. I learnt so many things: how to build a house out of straw and clay, construction out of waste glass and ceramics, permaculture… we worked, cooked and ate together; we fell asleep outside under the clearest skies and a blanket of stars.
Then, there were these conversations with my hosts:
It was painful. How. How do people come to believe that vaccines are bad?
When I got home, I decided to do an experiment: forget everything I know, and I would try to decide, based on information I can get my hands on, whether I support vaccination. I watched John Oliver, I read about Wakefield, the thimerosal experiments, I spent as long as I possibly can on VAXXED TV (oh god)…
This experiment was a complete fail. Here’s why:
Years of scientific training taught me to think critically: reading the thimerosal papers I immediately looked at dosages, sample sizes; the mere act of reading the papers instead of just listening to Rob Schneider talk about them. I learnt to second-guess all the evidence, to check the credibility of my sources of information, to look out for logical fallacies (Atul Gawande explains this way better).
I’m not saying that normal people don’t do it- but how many times were you forwarded something similar to this?
On VAXXED TV there are many videos of parents recounting how active, lively their children were before vaccination, and how they’ve been injured by vaccines. My first question is: how? Assuming that everything the parent described was true, what are the possible biochemical mechanisms behind these effects of vaccines? I know that correlation doesn’t imply causality. The child could have had hidden illnesses- there are many alternative hypotheses.
I’m also aware of how vaccines work, how they came about and their importance. For most people a shot is probably a lab-made secret liquid that stops you from getting some horrible diseases- the effect of which unfortunately is probably not Pinterest-worthy:
Whereas when people learnt about the mercury in the vaccine and the autism controversy, this is what you find on the internet:
This is the crux of the problem: there’s a huge gap between scientists and the rest of the public, in our ways of thinking and our knowledge. Most scientists are not the most eloquent, especially not when it comes to our work. Without trying to explain our motives and methods, we sometimes jump straight to telling people what they should do just because we think we know more. Coupled with our association with the notorious pharmaceutical business, one can see why the public doesn’t trust us.
We are not entirely to blame- the complexity of scientific studies is hard to explain, the conclusions even harder. It’s easier if we could just say, “vaccines definitely do not cause autism”- instead as scientists we say “current scientific evidence does not suggest any correlation between autism and vaccination”. By nature we are cautious- something that we should be proud of, something the public should understand.
So what should we do? What could we do?
Unfortunately- not a lot. Some psychological studies showed that direct confrontation with contradictory evidence usually doesn’t change people’s mind (termed “the backfire effect”– the validity of this itself is debatable).
As my week in Slovenia passed, we talked more- my friends, my hosts. They asked me what I was working on, why I wanted to become a scientist. We worked together. I found out about their lives as chefs in Switzerland, film photographers, solo travellers practising their freedom, herbalists offsetting their carbon footprints. We helped each other out. I taught the young boy Chinese. I listened and learnt about healing abilities of plants and herbs.
Later I realised that albeit our differences in occupation, cultures and beliefs, we are all pursuing a life that we want. For me, I became a neuroscientist not because I wanted big money (all scientists would laugh at this), but because I yearn to find out more about this beautifully intricate thinking-feeling-sensing organ that we were blessed with. I tried to convey that, and I hope that they will begin to see that scientists are not some elusive, money-grubbing children killers, but just rational, cautious and somewhat socially awkward beings that as curious about nature and lives as themselves.
Listen. Be humble; be kind.