Beware the Myth Buster
by Gabriel Conroy
Sometimes myth busting doesn’t work. When it’s doesn’t, it doesn’t for one of at least two not mutually exclusive reasons. Sometimes the people who buy into the myth in the first place double down when they encounter disconfirming evidence. And sometimes the “myth” being busted isn’t really the problem in the first place. If I set out to convince another of something by exposing and debunking a “myth” that other holds about that something, I risk ignoring the true problems and objections held by the one I’m trying to convince.
As a general rule, the idea that people have a hard time dealing with disconfirming evidence is, if not universally accepted, at least generally acknowledged. The second issue, however—that myth busting often misses the mark—seems to me less acknowledged.
Take a recent article by Cari Romm in The Atlantic. Romm does, in my opinion, a pretty good job explaining why, or at least how, demonstrating disconfirming evidence doesn’t necessarily change people’s minds. Her piece is about the flu vaccine and about those people who are resistant to getting it. She cites studies that seem to show when it comes to such people, the knowledge that the standard flu shot does not and cannot cause the flu generally fails to change most of their minds and actually leads them to hold more strongly to their opposition. She then discusses studies about similar reactions when it comes to other vaccines.
I don’t have much to say against those conclusions, and I imagine few people at the OT will be surprised to hear about them.
But I’d like to focus more specifically on her discussion of the flu vaccine. That discussion assumes something about opposition to that vaccine that in my opinion is mistaken. That assumption runs as follows:
“There is a “myth” that flu vaccines cause the flu, and people oppose flu vaccines for that reason. We and scientists know, however, that this myth is wrong. And showing the wrongness of that myth ought to be sufficient to convince someone to get the flu shot.”
My problem with that assumption, which is in my words and not something Romm actually said, is that it seems to ignore some important reasons why someone might be opposed to receiving the flu vaccine beyond the reasoning that the vaccine causes the flu. In the article, Romm explains that the flu shot contains dead, inactivated viruses. Because these viruses are dead and inactivated, they cannot transmit the flu. Fine.
But busting that “myth” doesn’t do much to address a couple other objections. Some people, for whatever reason, have to get a nasal spray instead of a shot. That spray contains a weakened, but not dead form of the vaccine. And WebMD, at least, admits that while the spray can’t cause the flu, it “can result in congestion and runny nose.” Now, that’s not the same as the flu, but it is inconvenient. And knowing the shot doesn’t have a live, active virus does not by itself address the fear about the possible consequences of the nasal spray.
Okay, not everyone gets the nasal spray. And the studies Romm discusses could be amended by refocusing on the flu shot and not the vaccine, or by marshaling evidence to show that the nasal spray is not as harmful as someone might believe.
But here’s another problem. The possibility that the vaccine might cause the flu is not the only objection one can have against it. Some people experience an adverse reaction to the flu vaccine. And even though they might realize the vaccine doesn’t cause the flu, they would prefer not to have the inconvenience of that adverse effect.
I, for example, have had the flu shot the last two or three years (and before that, I’d never had the shot). The two most recent times, I have gotten chills and a low-grade fever. And I had to miss a day of work each time. I don’t for a minute believe those shots gave me the flu. But here is what I think happened. A foreign substance (the dead, inactivated virus) was introduced to my body. My body reacted to that substance and sped up production of flu antibodies. That sped-up production “overcharged” my metabolism or whatever and created a short-lived fever.
In spite of all that, I believe that the shot was and is worth it. It probably immunizes me against a couple of the prevailing flu strains and it keeps me from being a carrier in the herd. For those reasons, I will probably continue to get a flu shot. I’ll just have to plan to be under the weather for a day.
I suppose it’s possible that those adverse effects are explained by something else. Perhaps it’s just an unfortunate and coincidental confluence of a brief cold with getting the flu shot. Perhaps it’s just a psychosomatic thing, on the order of “I got a small fever the last time I got a flu shot, so I’m going to (subconsciously) make my body give me a fever the second time because I’m expecting it.” But the fact sheet I get handed every time I get my flu shot says that the shot itself may indeed bring on a mild-fever and some aches and pains.
My point, though, is that if someone objects to the flu shot because of the adverse effect, the “myth” described in that Romm article isn’t the one that needs busting. In fact, it’s not even a myth. Rather, it’s on the pro-vaccinationists, in this case, to convince those who are reluctant to get the vaccine that the risks of getting the flu or transmitting it to someone who can’t get the vaccine are greater than the risk of mild adverse effect. (And if the risks one way were really pressing, it’s on the pro-vaccinationists to make the argument that the vaccine be compulsory.) While I tend to side with the “it’s better to get the vaccine” point of view, it behooves me to refrain from being too quick to judge others for weighing the risks differently.
Again, I’m focusing on the flu vaccine, and I’m not, as Romm does, carrying the discussion to other vaccines or to vaccines in general. I’m not claiming my discontent over myth busting necessarily extends to those vaccines. And just so people know where I stand, I’ll say that I have very complicated and nuanced views about the debate between vaccinationism and anti-vaccinationism. But I do support compulsory vaccination on the schedule endorsed by most medical doctors.
My main goal in this post is to challenge “myth busting” as the way to counteract arguments or to convince people. Myth busting not only runs into the problems of cognitive retrenching Romm describes in her article. It is often focused on the wrong myths, or misunderstands others’ objections. No matter how well-intentioned, if it is used wrongly, it can come off as just another condescending power play.
[Picture: Flu Shot, via Navy Public Relations, Public Domain]