Seminar tackles vaccines

Felipe Cabrera

The debate behind whether vaccines are safe has been raging during the past few years.

Brendan Nyhan was a guest speaker at the Nanovaccine Initiative Seminar titled “Countering Myths About Vaccines: Are Facts the Answer?” Thursday at Hamilton Hall.

“His works on vaccines and the decisions of people to accept or not accept vaccines is the best work in the area,” said David Peterson, professor of political science. 

Peterson said Nyhan is the perfect person to bring to Iowa State because he lives up to the university’s motto of science with practice. Nyhan holds a doctorate in political science and is an assistant professor of government at Dartmouth College.

Nyhan’s presentation focused on his studies on people against vaccines and why it is difficult to change their misconceptions about vaccines. Anti-vaccinators are worried that vaccines cause autism and other dangerous side effects. Nyhan said that 1 in 4 parents believe vaccines cause autism.

“People are resistant to information they don’t want to hear,” Nyhan said.

Nyhan added that there is a strong relationship between people’s political identities and their beliefs, even though the evidence available does not support them. When presented with information contrary to their initial beliefs, people take is as a challenge to their belief system and try to make a counterargument.

“Information isn’t enough to change some people’s minds and in some cases can make it worse,” Nyhan said.

Nyhan said that trying to counter false beliefs about science through education is not working. Giving people information may change their attitude but not their behavior.

In one of Nyhan’s studies, people who are hesitant about vaccinations were given information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention countering common myths about vaccines. While they stopped believing vaccines causes autism, they still said they wouldn’t give vaccines to their children.

“Avoid focusing on these myths in the first place,” Nyhan said. “They have the counter effect of drawing more attention to them.”

Myths are difficult to dispel even when factual information is available, Nyhan said.

He also said proponents for vaccines should avoid reinforcing crises around vaccines. If people were told about how most parents in the United States vaccinate their children instead of how many parents opt out of vaccinations, it would enforce it as a social norm.

Medical providers are a better source of information than government agencies like the CDC, Nyhan said. Parents are more likely to trust a pediatrician who they have a personal relationship with than a distant organization.

“Maybe the facts [Nyhan] provides scientists will change the way they think about information,” said Jean Goodwin, professor of English and an attendant at the seminar. “People trust relationships, not facts.”

The next Nanovaccine Initiative Seminar will take place at 12:10 p.m Friday in 2542 Veterinary Medicine.