Anti-Vaxxers Study Could Inform Climate Debates

Anti-vaccination advocates and climate skeptics have a lot in common.  Both sets of people tend to have a paranoid view of the world, distrust scientists (at least on the issue at hand), and refuse to accept evidence.  So a recent study on communicating with “anti-vaxxers” may shed some light on ways to communicate better with climate deniers:

[R]esearchers conducted a new study designed to test out the effectiveness of one potential intervention aimed at changing people’s anti-vaccination attitudes: highlighting factual information about the dangers of communicable diseases. After recruiting 315 volunteers, the researchers used questionnaires to probe their views on a variety of divisive subjects, including vaccination.

Participants were then randomly split into three groups that received different study conditions. One group was provided with scientific literature that refuted common vaccination myths. The second, a so-called “disease risk group,” was given various materials highlighting the risks associated with three vaccine-preventable diseases: measles, mumps and rubella. These included stories from parents whose children had suffered such diseases, images of infants with the infections and information regarding the potential consequences of failing to vaccinate. The final group was a control that was given unrelated reading material.

At the end of the study, participants’ attitudes were reassessed to see whether the intention to vaccinate their children had changed. Encouragingly, the researchers report, they found that the second intervention successfully changed people’s vaccination attitudes in a positive manner; even those with the strongest anti-vaccination beliefs could be countered with this technique.

If climate advocates were to take a similar approach to communicating with climate “skeptics,” they would focus on the likely impacts of climate change, just as this study focused on the likely impacts of not vaccinating. Stories seemed key in the vaccine study, so testimonials from residents of the arctic on melting sea ice or Hurricane Sandy victims might have a comparable influence on opening minds.

Perhaps a study like this has already been attempted on climate deniers.  But if not, I’d be curious to find out if this approach might work in that context.


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