Denial of Scientifically Based Medicine Poses Danger to Public Health


Until relatively recently, countless Americans had the experience of looking at members of fringe religious groups who refused life-saving medical care in favor of prayer and other superstitious healing rituals and shaking their heads in disbelief or disgust. Reactions like these were by no means limited to atheists; they were shared by plenty of mainstream Christians. The COVID-19 pandemic has changed this phenomenon in at least one important way: the denial of scientifically based medicine is no longer restricted to the fringes or solely linked to religious belief. I suspect that it now has far more to do with which of the two main political parties one supports and where one gets one's news.

While I realize that relatively few Americans seem to be interested in how people living in other parts of the world perceive us, it is clear that our failure to take COVID-19 seriously is a source of puzzlement. Understandably, some have been asking, "What the F--k Is the Matter With These People?" It is a good question and not one that is easy to answer. In a word, I'd say that one important part of the answer is propaganda. It cannot be a coincidence that the portion of our population that gets its news from Fox News has very different attitudes toward vaccination than those who do not. Our vaccination numbers are wildly different between political parties, and they reflect what one would expect given that one party has long embraced hostility to science.

The good news is that some states have done a good job of getting their citizens vaccinated. The bad news is that those that haven't are showing so little progress and such great denial about our return to work that they are now posing a serious problem to the country as a whole. First, there is the question of our children younger than 12. We still don't have a viable vaccine option for them. While it does appear that COVID-19 is less serious for healthy young children, not all young children are healthy. It isn't clear what options parents of such children are going to have as Republican governors force an unsafe return to school as the delta variant spikes. Second, there are still adults who cannot be vaccinated due to a variety of health-related issues. Little has changed for them except that we appear to have a more serious form of the illness against which they cannot be protected. They are one of the reasons I am still wearing a mask, but I do not have much company here in Mississippi. Third, there is the broader issue of even worse variants being more likely until vaccination rates are high enough to eradicate COVID-19. Of course, this is a global concern that even a 100% vaccinate rate limited to the U.S. could not solve.

I had hoped that people would embrace vaccination because it would be perceived as their ticket to a full "return to normal," something most said they wanted. What we have seen instead is that the "return to normal" started long before it was safe and will likely continue no matter what. Thus, there is not much of a connection between vaccination and normalcy in the minds of many who are hesitant to be vaccinated because they recognize that one is not dependent on the other. At least, they do not perceive their own vaccination status as having anything to do with which activities they can resume.

Assuming we have reached the point where everyone who wants to be vaccinated and is medically eligible has been able to do so (and I think we are probably close), it is time to begin the difficult task of persuading those opposed to vaccination to change their minds. We have quite a bit of science about persuasion that can be helpful here, but we will need to clear away an important obstacle if we plan to benefit from it: we will have to stop attacking those we are hoping to persuade. The more we attack, the more entrenched they become. If we are unwilling to treat them with respect, there is little reason to expect them to listen to us.