British Columbia

When it comes to vaccinations, belief systems can overrule evidence, says author

The author of I’m Right and You’re an Idiot: The Toxic State of Public Discourse and How to Clean it Up says it’s difficult to find common ground between supporters and opponents of vaccinations because of the emotions associated with the issue.

'People seem to be listening to each other shout about an issue,' says author of book on toxic discourse

The Victoria and Saanich Health Unit will both be open on Sunday, April 7 to provide the MMR vaccine to people who are not immunized against measles. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

After CBC reported Saturday that the father at the centre of the measles outbreak in Vancouver didn't vaccinate his children, a social media firestorm was ignited with comments flooding in from supporters of vaccinations as well as those more skeptical about their use.

"People seem to be listening to each other shout about an issue rather than listening to what the evidence is trying to tell us," Jim Hoggan, author of a book about polarization in public debate, told The Early Edition's Stephen Quinn.

A new Angus Reid poll suggests that 70 per cent of Canadians support mandatory vaccinations, but nearly a third of Canadians believe the science on vaccinations is not clear. 

Approximately 110,000 people died from measles in 2017, mostly children under five years old, and the majority of those deaths could have been prevented by vaccination, according to the World Health Organization.

Some people, such as infants, cannot be vaccinated and must rely on "herd" immunity to prevent infection. Others at risk are those who choose not to be immunized, often based on a long-discredited 1998 U.K. study that suggested the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine was linked to autism in children.

Fear and helplessness at heart of issue

Hoggan, author of I'm Right and You're an Idiot: The Toxic State of Public Discourse and How to Clean it Up, says it's difficult to find common ground between those who support mandatory vaccinations and those who are wary of the shots.

His book, which focuses on the issue of climate change, talks about cultural cognition, which theorizes that people are unlikely to change their views when presented with evidence that contradicts the values of their community or tribe.

"When we form these communities of belief, unreasonableness grows and it's very difficult to have a conversation about evidence in that type of public square," said Hoggan.

Some parents, like Kay Reyna, know firsthand how hostile the comments sections of vaccinations news stories can get. 

"I've been told I'm a baby killer, I'm a terrorist. I should have my children taken away from me."

Reyna, who grew up near Edmonton but now lives in Sumas, Wash., has been following news of the outbreak in Vancouver closely.  Her children have some vaccinations but not all. She wouldn't describe herself as anti-vaccine, but she's against forcing parents to vaccinate their children.

She believes the emotional nature of the issue is part of what makes rational discussions so difficult.

"The biggest fear that has ever been, from the beginning of time, is losing an offspring and the helplessness and the emotion that comes behind that," said the mother of three.

Finding common ground

Dr. Natasha Crowcroft, chief of applied immunization research and evaluation at Public Health Ontario, thinks there's more to the issue than those who are pro- or anti-vaccination.

"There are people who, like most people, they're just trying to do the best thing for their kid and they hear something that worries them a bit," Crowcroft told Jayme Poisson on a recent episode of CBC's Front Burner podcast. "And so they don't get them vaccinated and it's not that they're vehemently anti-vaccine."

She says vaccine-hesitant parents are more likely to one day decide they're ready to vaccinate their kids.

"That's also the group that we try to reach because you know they're not inherently, absolutely anti-vaccination."

Hoggan said it's important to avoid confronting or picking a fight with people you disagree with.

"If you treat people who are on the other side of that as idiots, even if it's just your attitude towards them, then it's really difficult to have a conversation with them."

Listen to the full interview with Jim Hoggan on The Early Edition.