Four ways to counter vaccine skeptics

Ghent University’s Motivation Barometer suggests that two out of ten Belgians are sceptical about the corona vaccines. Philosopher of science and researcher at Ghent University Massimiliano Simons and moral philosopher Brecht Decoene, two specialists in conspiracy thinking and anti-vaxxers, explain how to counter this doubt and opposition.


Vaccine doubts are not new. Ever since the British physician Edward Jenner developed the first vaccine against smallpox in 1796, it has been there. But Massimiliano Simons is optimistic.

“There are times when there is less skepticism due to success stories. If vaccines could make a difference on a large scale, such as in polio eradication, the doubts diminished. Skepticism today will also partly disappear when it becomes clear that the corona vaccines work.”

That immediately leads us to the first argument to counter vaccine skepticism.

1. Use historical facts to underline the collective importance

Vaccines are actually victims of their own success: the fact that they work makes us forget exactly what they changed. Thanks to a vaccine, polio has disappeared from the world, so we no longer know how bad that disease was. Tell that story, and extend the same logic to the corona vaccine. Hundreds of thousands of people have also died from corona. If a vaccine can put an end to this, any possible side effects won’t overshadow the benefits.

Massimiliano Simons: “Vaccine doubts often involve a tension between the individual and the collective interest. It’s true that a small percentage of vaccines can generate side effects or things can go wrong. As a parent, that risk can keep you from getting your child vaccinated, for example. This goes against our collective interest, where we are prepared to live with those side effects. With historical stories about the development of vaccines, why they were developed, how bad those diseases were, how those vaccines helped, and so on, you point to that collective importance. You put it in perspective. People are prepared to accept the situation whereby we move from 50 deaths in 100 patients without vaccination, to 2 cases of side effects in 100 with vaccination.”

Massimiliano Simons

2. Cognitive inoculation against vaccine doubt

Research has shown that you can “cognitively vaccinate” people against anti-vaxxer messages, says Massimiliano Simons.

“In experiments, participants were given information about common criticisms against vaccines and strategies from vaccine skeptics. This was accompanied by an explanation of what to look out for in such messages. If you then show those people skeptical messages about vaccines, they will be less likely to go along with it and believe it.”

Mapping common arguments among anti-vaxxers and the fact that some have been repeated for decades seems to him an interesting approach to counter the current doubts about the new corona vaccines. “You make it clear that vaccine skepticism is a movement in itself, separate from the current vaccine. And that it is therefore not a good source of information about the new vaccines.”

Brecht Decoene sees three rational strategies to counter or even avoid vaccine skepticism: containing, prebunking and debunking. “Containing means that you ‘contain’ certain ideas. You do this by teaching people the reflex to ask the following critical questions: what is the source of this information, how credible is it, who is the expert?”

“Prebunking is in line with what Massimiliano says above as a way of making people aware. By familiarizing people with certain arguments and explaining what is wrong with them, they can more quickly develop the reflex to recognize certain questionable information. Finally, there is debunking: showing that a statement is incorrect and refuting it.”

"Provide the correct information, deal with the myth, and expose the fallacy in the myth that obscures the truth. Be short and clear."
Brecht Decoene

How do you tackle this debunking? Brecht Decoene: “By using argumentation in this way: provide the correct information, deal with the myth, and expose the fallacy in the myth that obscures the truth. Be short and clear. No long-winded scientific explanation so you can reach many people. An example: on Facebook you see many messages circulating with a whole list of chemicals that are in vaccines, which according to the anti-vaxxers are toxic. From which they conclude that vaccines are toxic. The mistake they make is that they ignore the fact that the toxicity is in the dose and not in the fact that they are there. Of course there are certain substances in vaccines that are poisonous in large doses, but in a small dose – like in a vaccine – they are not at all. Even rocket (arugula) contains nitrites while it is considered healthy. Everything is chemistry! By explaining that fallacy, you can “debunk” the statement that vaccines are toxic.”

Debunking handbook

Want to know more about debunking? Take a look at the online ‘debunking handbook’, a project of Stephan Lewandowsky and John Cook.

3. Use influencers that people trust

The mistrust in the corona vaccines often stems from a lack of confidence. People don’t trust the government or Big Pharma, and blame them for all kinds of bad intentions. Deploying trust is crucial for the government to make a success of their vaccine strategy, says Massimiliano Simons.

“Trust is still too much reduced to a matter of knowledge. You trust what you know. So the government thinks it is enough to convince doubters with a generic website with information. I don’t believe in that. I think we should also focus on the moral dimension of trust. We trust people we know, who are like us, who we see as good moral people, ... People will more often trust their GP than a general website or the government. So use that doctor as an “influencer” to pass on the correct information.”

Brecht Decoene

Brecht Decoene agrees: “According to scientists, we all belong to different ‘moral tribes’: everyone identifies with some ‘tribe’. The likelihood that someone from the “ecological tribe” will accept a statement or even evidence from someone from the “nationalist tribe” is pretty slim. If the same statement comes from someone in their own moral tribe, it is almost automatically adopted without any critical examination. So if you want to convince people, do it through people within the same tribe. It’s all very emotional; there is not much rationality involved.”


4. Don't be afraid of a good dose of emotion

Why do vaccine damage stories often stick? Because vaccine skeptics are very good at disseminating them using storytelling, with an emotional layer. Brecht Decoene strongly believes in storytelling. “Statistics, studies, scientific arguments… don’t stick. However relevant, attractive and credible stories or testimonials do work. Respond to people’s concerns in your stories. If you don’t include those concerns in your story, your substantive part is almost doomed to failure. Those concerns may be unjustified, but they are genuine. Messages that stick share the following six characteristics: simple, surprising, concrete, credible, evoke an emotional response and tell a story.”

In addition to stories, according to Brecht Decoene, you can also use emotional arguments against vaccine skeptics. “Marc Van Ranst advised me to use emotional arguments, by the way (laughs). “They do that, well … we must do that too,” was his reasoning. I’ve found it works. People are more receptive to emotional arguments than to extensive exposés of scientific arguments. An example that’s got traction: imagine that all those vaccines are full of toxins. As a manufacturer, you have to be a real big bastard to intentionally serve that to so many people, including those you love and future generations.”

"People are more receptive to emotional arguments than to extensive exposés of scientific arguments."
Motivation barometer

The Ghent University Motivation Barometer shows how vaccine readiness is evolving in a favorable sense. You can also read why people want to be vaccinated.

Massimiliano Simons got his doctoral degree in philosophy at KU Leuven. He is co-founder of the Working Group on Philosophy of Technology (WGPT) and member of the Sarton Centre for History of Science. As a postdoctoral researcher at Ghent University, he mainly conducts research on contemporary technosciences.

Brecht Decoene studied moral sciences at Ghent University. He is a board member of SKEPP (an organization founded by Etienne Vermeersch, among others, which investigates allegations that are highly unlikely according to the current state of science) and author of the booklet “Suspicion between fact and fiction: critically dealing with conspiracy theories” (ASP publishing house, 2016).

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Read more articles on vaccine research at Ghent University on Dare To Think.

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