Proving the negative: the difficulties in challenging vaccine hesitancy

Photo: Marisol Benitez via Unsplash.

I was surprised about how simple my first Covid vaccination was. And, if I’m honest, I was slightly disappointed. Secretly, and perhaps selfishly, I wanted there to be someone screaming that the vaccine is evil, that it would turn you magnetic or into Elon Musk’s new Tesla. Whilst I was (un)fortunate not to have that experience, a friend of mine wasn’t. She had to wait in a queue for about an hour as a woman bellowed those very things.

In typical British fashion, no-one dared to say anything in opposition to her. But, amazingly, when they reached the front of the queue, people began to ask the nurses providing the vaccine what exactly it contained and what the known side-effects were. It was remarkable how this woman shouted ridiculous claims with no evidence, and yet people were convinced enough to doubt their own beliefs. They required justification for the vaccine being safe, but not for the conspiracy. They wanted a reason why the vaccine would not turn them magnetic, rather than why it would.

Proving a negative is not only an unreasonable standard, but also a slippery slope. It is almost impossible to disprove baseless claims: from asking suspected witches to drown themselves to prove their innocence, to claiming that vaccines use your blood to keep the Queen alive, to me accusing you of drinking toilet water. In such cases, those accused might say that there is absolutely no evidence for such a claim only to meet replies of ‘there is equally no evidence against it’.

In order for us to believe something, we typically seek some justification for that belief - empirical evidence that points to its truth. Once we obtain a justification, it is up to us whether we think it is convincing enough for us to believe the initial claim.

In the case of anti-vax conspiracies, many justify their beliefs through the echo chambers of social media. However, there is often no way of discerning whether the evidence read on Facebook or Twitter is true or false, let alone whether it provides a good justification for the conspiracies.

Unfortunately, social media does not have a library distinction of fiction and nonfiction; it presents the truth as a popularity contest. If a piece of content is shared enough times, it takes on legitimacy, and enough unsubstantiated claims can soon become a persuasive argument. The sheer amount of repeated ‘noise’ causes vaccine hestiators to question what they believe in, and thus strengthens the passion of anti-vaxxers. Anti-vaccine groups do not need to convince people that they are right; they simply need to convince them that no-one is.

One absent-minded click on an anti-vax conspiracy post and soon it is the only thing you can see on your timeline. The bombardment of online misinformation amplifies fear and mistrust. That is why one in six 16-29 year olds are vaccine hesitant, according to the ONS.

It’s important to recognise that being blanketed by information is normally taken as a good justification. If ten people tell me it’s going to rain later, I’d be a fool not to take an umbrella - even if there’s not a cloud in the sky. However, on social media, this logic is taken to its nihilistic extreme, where repetition of a claim is seen as evidence of its truth.

The solution seems obvious, right? Simply disprove their claims. Show that there’s no microchip inside the vaccine. That it won’t make us Bluetooth connectable. And that it certainly won’t turn us into food for the “reptile elite”.

Many believe that what anti-vaxxers and vaccine hesitators are missing is scientific information that will refute their claims. The problem is that any criticism of anti-vaccine sentiment will be seen as a cover up, and further proof that their conspiracy is true. This is because clearly I’m working for Prince Harry, Megan and Oprah. Or they turn to another conspiracy, like whack-a-mole - as one theory goes down another comes up.

Anti-vaxxers deem their beliefs to be facts because they are consistent with their other views and theories. If you believe that 5G can cause cancer, it’s not a big leap to think that it causes COVID as well. These multiple conspiracy theories form a framework of interconnected beliefs, which soon becomes a frame of reference for how they perceive the world.

As such, trying to disprove any of their claims in isolation is futile. Their beliefs are far more consistent with their frame of reference than any facts which you might suggest. Why should they accept your evidence, when it is inconsistent with their entire world view? Just ask Galileo.

Instead, a solution is more likely to be established by trying to find a point of common ground - perhaps appealing to a shared ethical principle, political belief, or historical fact. From there, you can explore other shared beliefs which follow from them. Building this chain of agreement can soon lead to a trust in medicine and science based on a shared or personal experience. Eventually, the anti-vaxxer may start to reject conspiracy theories on their own, as they are no longer consistent with their modified frame of reference.

The apathy in ‘agreeing to disagree’ is no longer acceptable. It is incumbent on us to try and find that collective frame of reference. One in which we realise that knowledge is not an isolated idea, but rather a web of interconnected beliefs which all support the same conclusion: that the vaccine is safe and, despite what the internet says, won’t turn us into space food for the billionaires to feed Michael Jackson and Tupac on the moon.