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Communicating Vaccine Science with Empathy

I was born just before the publication of a now-retracted study suggesting that the Measles, Mumps, and Rubella (MMR) vaccine increased children’s risk of developing autism. At the time, my parents were conservative Christians homeschooling their children, and their community encouraged skepticism toward vaccines. A number of factors, including that infamous retracted MMR and autism study, were enough to convince them not to have me or my younger sister vaccinated. Although I received the DTaP series, I was not immunized against polio, MMR, or any other common illnesses. Throughout most of my childhood, my parents preferred homeopathy over traditional medicine and remained skeptical of recommended vaccines. It wasn’t until age twelve when the state of California required children of my age receive the MMR, that I got my first one.

I wasn’t aware that I had not received all the vaccines I needed until I applied for college. This September, I started Oregon State University as a transfer student. My school requires the full MMR series and several other vaccines, so I put together a complete history of my immunization records. What I found appalled me. This is how I found out I had never been vaccinated for polio or other dangerous diseases, and I was not immune to measles during a recent outbreak here in the Pacific Northwest. On every record of my DTaP booster was a note indicating “Patient/Parent Objection” besides the additional vaccines I was supposed to receive that year. I was dumbfounded. I knew I was behind on my vaccines; I didn’t realize my parents had simply opted out from them. As a university student, I’ve been playing catch-up with my shots, frequently visiting my school’s pharmacy to get the next one on my list.

I have been writing about science for a few years now, and one of the reasons science writing and communication interests me is because I was raised in a repressive religious community that denies and manipulates science. A pervasive distrust of science and medicine was something I witnessed firsthand. Faced with confronting my parents’ anti-vaxx background and my own uneducated immune system, in an age when measles outbreaks dominate the news and anti-vaxx mentality is stronger than ever, I could have lashed out at my parents. Indeed, frustration with them and the damaging effects of my childhood is what led me away from Southern California to Oregon, where I am putting myself through college. Though I have little contact with my parents today, I was able to call up my mom and finally talk to her about her decision to forego my vaccines and talk about the science behind them. The result affirmed why an empathetic approach to science communication is important.

“To create change, you don’t need everyone to agree with you,” writes author Rebecca Solnit, “you just need some people to agree so passionately that they will donate, campaign, march…their passionate conviction may influence others.” Solnit’s words may resonate with science communicators who may find it difficult to accept that we don’t necessarily need everyone to agree with us. We are the passionate few. When it comes to controversial topics such as vaccines and climate change, sometimes simply sharing scientific evidence can create disagreement. Over the last few years, I’ve learned that one of the ways science communicators can overcome frustration is by prioritizing empathy over persuasion; by seeking to understand someone else’s perspective before jumping to trying to convince them that it is wrong.

Communicating with empathy involves three main components: listening to the person with whom you’re trying to communicate, recognizing their level of science literacy, and seeking to understand their concerns without invalidating their emotions. The actual method of communication must be tailored based on what you’ve learned through empathy. Vaccine hesitancy is a great example of this, and an important topic in our current political climate. Just this week, a study published in BMC Public Health discussed effective methods for communicating with those experiencing doubt or hesitation about vaccines.

This is my approach: First, I listen to the hesitant person by politely asking about their concerns. I get to the root of their apprehension or doubts by encouraging them to share their thoughts and feelings. This helps me to recognize their level of literacy on a particular scientific topic. Are their fears rooted in a misunderstanding of chemicals? Are their doubts related to unfounded connections between the MMR vaccine and autism? How much education have they had? Where do they usually get their information and news?

Finally, when I share facts and information with them, I validate their emotions. “I understand your concern about the use of formaldehyde in vaccines because it sounds like a scary or harmful chemical,” I might say, “but did you know there is more formaldehyde naturally occurring in an infant’s body than the amount present in a vaccine?” I put things in context and broaden their perspective by sharing facts directly related to their concerns. I practice using a tone that is not demeaning or vexed. I’ve learned this from first-hand interactions with my vaccine-hesitant parents and community.

I’m certainly not the first person to notice the link between empathy and effective science communication. Feminist approaches to science communication have already found that valuing others and understanding different perspectives are important methods for productive communication. According to Megan Halpern in the Journal of Science Communication, “our knowledge is limited and privileged by our position” as scientists and scholars, and that placing ourselves in someone else’s shoes (a vaccine-hesitant new mother with limited science education, for example) can help us understand their concerns. But in order to do that, we have to treat them as though their feelings are valid, even if they are unfounded. Empathetic science communication helps us do exactly that, especially when it comes to vaccines. Recent research on vaccine hesitancy shows that decision-making is complex and “may involve emotional, cultural, social, spiritual or political factors as much as cognitive factors.”

This perspective isn’t shared by everyone in science, as I found out after suggesting on Twitter that we should have greater empathy towards people who worry about vaccines. Unfortunately, some scientists I have interacted with seem to have little compassion for those who are experiencing complex emotions regarding their vaccine decisions. Some scientists I have encountered on Twitter look down on those who are not science literate as if they are willingly choosing ignorance over education. Though in certain cases this may be true, especially for educated and influential anti-vaxx advocates, those scientists seem to have little interest in empathizing with a parent’s doubts about vaccines. They refuse to hear their concerns. Cries of ableism – though they may be technically valid – serve to further alienate the vaccine-hesitant, to make them the ignorant “other.” Feelings of anger and resentment boil up, rendering further communication useless. I don’t intend to blame the science community for failing to communicate. But railing on people without understanding them does nothing to benefit public health. And the anti-vaxx movement is indeed a public health crisis.

The discussion generated on Twitter connected me with others who are actively communicating about vaccines, and they had a beneficial perspective to offer when interacting with someone who may distrust vaccines. It helps to distinguish between those who are vaccine-hesitant and those who are anti-vaccine. The latter has made a firm decision and is actively trying to convince and persuade others. The former is simply nervous or doubtful, and more likely reachable with empathy and education. Understanding the difference helps prevent emotional burn-out by preventing science communicators from wasting their energy on those who are currently unreachable. What it comes down to is taking the time to understand how “concerned parents approach the question of vaccine safety,” which is different from the way scientists approach it, according to Maya Goldenberg.

Goldenberg suggests that the public should not be viewed as ignorant and in need of education, and instead emphasizes “the importance of trust and dialogue for remediating supposedly intractable conflicts between science and society.” Communicating science for the benefit of public health is incredibly important, and we need to be empathetic in order to be effective. But we also must take into consideration when the public would be better served by stricter health policies, ensuring that children receive vaccines before being allowed to attend school. Although my parents’ beliefs have shifted over time thanks to education and empathetic science communication, the law was the only thing that convinced them to vaccinate me when they finally decided to enroll me in school ten years ago. To combat this public health crisis, policy and science communication must go hand in hand.

Edited by Bill Sullivan, PhD, Indiana University School of Medicine.

About the Author
  • Sarah Olson

    Sarah Olson is currently an undergraduate at Oregon State University majoring in microbiology. Her science and feminist writing have been featured on Medium, Women You Should Know, Science, and Leaps Mag. She also reviews popular science books on her blog ( Sarah lives in Corvallis, Oregon with her fiancé. (Image credit: Ethan Kocak) Twitter: @ReadMoreScience

  1. I love the piece – thank you. however, can I suggest illustrating it with a more realistic syringe and needle for a vaccination? These are the kinds of images used by antivaxxers to scare people. A vaccine is more likely to be 0.5 ml witha tiny needle and nowhere near that much air

  2. Honestly, the first thing I noticed!! Too much air in the syringe. Need a more realistic illustration. The piece is very well written, loved it!

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