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Simply Demanding Trust in Experts Won’t Cure Vaccine Skepticism

With COVID-19 still traveling and mutating, mass vaccination is an urgent and international priority. But dealing with vaccine skepticism will involve more than just dismissing people’s doubt as irrational. It will require genuine engagement with the doubt and uncertainty that is also a fundamental principle of the scientific method.

Outright vaccine deniers are few, but the number of COVID-vaccine skeptics is far greater. (Getty Images)

One strange phenomenon of our post-truth world is that it overflows with facts. Facts which, as their number and complexity grow, lose their explanatory power, causing a wave of skepticism particularly fatal for public trust in science. Despite some evidence showing trust in science remains at a high level globally, and may even have been bolstered during the pandemic, fear of skepticism’s persuasive strength is on the rise — and with it, suggestions for how to counter denialism and assert the value of science.

Where just a year ago, discussions of science skepticism focused on climate change denial, the gaze has now swung to vaccine hesitancy. As the risks of our climate emergency grow ever more ominous, and the death toll of a zoonotic pandemic races ever upward, a culture of denial of the results of scientific processes that might explain the causal links between our dilemmas flourishes, especially online. But the dominant internet tone of ironic distance, combined with a plethora of seemingly comparable yet contradictory facts, makes engagement with this widespread denialism feel futile. Don’t feed the trolls remains the received wisdom, or, as Fichte (possibly) put it, “So much the worse for the facts.”

Despite the recent shift in the content of concerns, the approach to “curing” skepticism remains broadly the same whether discussing vaccines or climate change: dispute the skeptical position through the presentation of further evidence, demonstrate logical fallacies, point to interested actors propagating untruths. But is understanding resistance to individual scientific issues as part of a category of larger denialism a helpful strategy?

Certainly, there are structural similarities in the way skepticisms of different scientific consensuses spread through the misinterpretation of flawed or outdated research, the selective use of damning statistics, and, perhaps most influentially, the escalation of doubt into conspiracy beliefs through the algorithmic churn of online content. But simply because many skeptics voice their concerns over the results and applications of contemporary science online doesn’t mean these concerns are all driven by the same root irrationality. Existential disbelief in climate change and personal skepticism over the efficacy of a rapidly developed vaccine are clearly different anxieties. As Bernice L. Hausman, author of the book Anti/Vax: Reframing the Vaccine Controversy puts it, “the rhetorical similarity of method should not be confused with the things that actually worry people.” So why are they so often treated as the same thing?

Framing resistance to the claims of the sciences as a singular form of denialism creates an umbrella under which many disparate forms of disbelief can be grouped. Flattening out their distinctions creates one problem, a potentially solvable number, whereas before, an innumerable number of concerns, multiplying in line with the advance of science itself, had to be addressed.

If, as the denialist analysis posits, the superstructure of all these denials can be identified and defined, a mass cure for all the strains can be developed. Claiming a shared form of irrational “denialism” across massively distinct issues reduces the historical and material foundation of skeptics’ concerns to an outbreak of individual errors in judgement, one which can be inoculated against with a stronger dose of explanatory truth.

Following this approach sets up an opposition for the Left. In the case of current mass vaccination programs, there is on the one hand an empathetic desire to understand people’s resistance to being told to accept the word of rapacious pharmaceutical companies and inept national governments when it comes to protecting their and their families’ well-being. On the other, there is the need to convince skeptics that, motives aside, the actions endorsed by the usually suspect actors of state and capital are in this case all for the good. One need not be in thrall to conspiracy theories to notice that the activities of global agribusiness that caused the pandemic share the same operational territory as Big Pharma, a connection Mike Davis has been pointing out for some time. Skepticism borne of this observation merely asks why, if one branch of profit-motivated applied science created this problem, anyone should expect another branch to solve it?

Attempting to answer this concern underlines another paradox in contemporary left views of science: that the actions of capital should be treated with the utmost suspicion; except, that is, when they intersect with the apparently value-free production of scientific knowledge. Pfizer’s investment activities? Reasonably suspect. Pfizer’s lab activities? Objective, neutral, and to be accepted at all costs. But while the efficacy of science’s results may be evident across differing social contexts, the methods and formations of the questions asked of science are undoubtedly inflected by the economic and political forces that govern our daily life, too.

Outright vaccine deniers are few, but the number of COVID-vaccine skeptics is far greater, and their concerns are founded not on a lack of information or understanding — plenty of vaccine skeptics are well educated and well informed, some are even health professionals — but rather in the lack of certainty contained in the information that has been communicated so far.

And, as we know, for many groups, this skepticism over how science, and medical science in particular, operates and is imposed on populations is well founded. Countries whose medical provision now claims to be unbiased and lacking totally in prejudice often have long histories of using science to defend inhumane experimentation on racial and other minorities, groups whose hesitancy over the COVID vaccine is now particularly, and justifiably, high. As William James wrote, truth lives “on a credit system,” “our thoughts and beliefs pass, so long as nothing challenges them, just as bank-notes pass so long as nobody refuses them.” For many, medical science’s credit is spent.

So, what if we took the skepticism articulated by the vaccine-hesitant and others who have formed the view that the motives of big science might not always be progressive seriously? What if, instead of attempting to debunk with more facts, we acknowledged the rationality of science skepticism rather than focusing on the irrational rejection of the claims of positivism? Generally, calls to engage with skeptics are predicated on engaging with the assumed false consciousness of the disbelievers — convincing them that we can’t deduce the outcomes of science from our own daily observations. But this psychological strategy pushes us down one of two routes:

  • Uncritical trust and advocacy of science, and moral condemnation of those who don’t feel likewise
  • Uncritical trust and advocacy of the science, and paternalistic sympathy for those who don’t feel likewise

Neither condemnation nor sympathy is an effective approach to persuading someone to change their mind, particularly when their mind is made up based on their own experiences. In both approaches outlined above, uncritical trust of science forms the backbone of the problem. By refusing to acknowledge the uncertainty and contingency at the heart of the scientific method, and instead insisting that the science should be followed in all cases, we discredit not just the credibility of science but the value of its very methods. That is, we undermine sciences’ skeptical foundation, transforming it into a dogmatic religion.

Uncertainty, contingency, doubt — these are all central and animating principles of scientific labor, which, tellingly, we usually refer to as inquiry. A greater understanding of the tentative curiosity with which the scientific method, as far as such a singular entity can be described, exists would engage more people in the kind of necessary debate Dylan Riley has recently called for. The general left consensus during the pandemic has been that in a time of crisis, trust in the authority of expertise is a necessary compromise with liberalism: only science can get us out of this mess, and back to politics.

But this approach does a disservice not only to the methods of science but also, as Riley points out, to one of the few strengths of liberalism: that it is a system of political thought based on rational debate, not blind trust. As Riley puts it, “in any case, after the debacles of the Iraq War in 2003 and the financial crisis in 2008, why should anyone trust in experts? The whole force of this argument points toward the need for a drastic reform of the material and social conditions for the production of claims.”

Skepticism is not only the method that brings out the best in systems of knowledge production such as science; it is the founding disposition of experimentalism, the annoying voice answering the exciting hypothesis with a whiny “prove it.” Continuous challenge and justification are necessary elements of the scientific process, which claims to describe in human terms the natural world. Separating particular issue-based skepticisms from general science denial is a good first step in salvaging the utility of this approach and applying it in a more rounded way. Not just to the greedy business practices or cronyism of business and government, but also to the kinds of knowledge claims that science enmeshed within those greedy and corrupt systems might produce.

The progressive potential of vaccination should be beyond doubt. But those who are skeptical of this won’t be convinced by the presentation of a platter of more specialist truths — or having their doubts thwacked with hammers of fact when they pop up, whack-a-mole style. The interested element of scientific knowledge production is particularly straightforward to demonstrate in the case of pharmaceuticals, where the profit motive runs so close to the surface. But, as the historian of medicine and technology Caitjan Gainty, researcher on the Healthy Scepticism project, has pointed out, due to the perversity of the market system, the efficacy of the vaccine is actually ensured by the need for profit: pharmaceutical companies rely on consumer trust in the same way as any industry that has to market itself.

There is also an important distinction to be maintained between commercially driven and academically driven science in these discussions, even as education privatization means university laboratories increasingly rely on corporate funding. But the point here is not to weed out all potential elements of nefarious corruption impinging on the production of objective and neutral science in the lab; it’s to argue that there is no such science, all we can do is control for the political and economic influences that dictate the process of inquiry.

As many people as safely possible should be vaccinated as quickly as possible. What stands in the way of people taking up vaccination is not an ignorant skepticism but the blanket refusal to treat doubt and uncertainty as rational and justified positions in response to directives of power.

Skeptics may have correctly interpreted the world. The point, however, is to change it.