By Rachel Alter
Ask any scientist, doctor, or advocate if they would support a debate between a vaccine expert and a vaccine skeptic, and the response will overwhelmingly be, “No.” Debates present a false equivalency between the sides, they will say. For issues such as vaccination, where there is a clear scientifically proven right and wrong answer, it is not appropriate to humor those who argue for the anti-vaccination side. Anti-vaxxers are often charismatic public speakers; they draw on emotions and have no qualms presenting lies and misleading figures as fact. Scientists, on the other hand, tend not to be trained in public speaking, and they are often unfamiliar with many of the arguments anti-vaxxers present, as they have spent their careers studying real science and generally do not have time to jump down the rabbit holes of misinformation.
Live debates present significant challenges to those involved: they are not able to fact-check sources as they go, nor are they able to examine papers’ methodologies; if a paper is presented that a scientist is unfamiliar with, she or he may not have sufficient time to review it and respond appropriately; audience members hear the debaters argue, but they too are unable to follow along with the sources as they are presented.
But vaccine skeptics continue to call for debates to be held, and because very few experts are willing to indulge their requests, the debates that do take place are often accepted by well-intentioned laypeople who are unable to adequately respond to anti-vaccine arguments that come their way. That’s a problem.
Fortunately, one Facebook group has found a solution. Vaccine Talk: A Forum for Both Pro- and Anti-Vaxxers is an international evidence-based group that enforces civility between all its more than 17,000 members. Members from across the vaccine-acceptance spectrum are welcomed to join and participate, so long as they can back their claims with evidence. The group includes a range of experts, including — but not limited to — physicians and nurses, laboratory scientists, epidemiologists, lawyers, and virologists. It also includes a wide range of vaccine-hesitants, from those who are on-the-fence but leaning toward vaccination, to the hardest vaccine deniers. By requiring citations to be provided for claims, members in the audience of the discussions are able to follow along and judge for themselves the legitimacy of arguments that are made. And the group’s track record is phenomenal, with an estimated one thousand anti-vaxxers and on-the-fencers changing their minds and deciding to vaccinate since the group’s inception in 2017.
On May 16th, the forum hosted its first written debate conversation, which took place between two volunteers: a blood-brain barrier scientist who holds a PhD and an academic position at an accredited American university, and a self-declared “citizen scientist” who has peddled dangerous misinformation about autism and vaccines. Ground rules were decided between the pair and the group’s administrators, and the post on which the debate took place was closed off to all members except the two of them until an agreed time when the post would be open to anyone for commenting.
What ensued was nothing short of expected: the scientist presented coherent points and responses, easily followed by a largely lay audience, and his opponent fumbled. It became overwhelmingly evident that the vaccine-skeptic debater was not qualified to be reviewing vaccine literature, let alone pushing her own opinions and solutions to the “vaccine injuries” she claimed were common.
The debate and its format were met with strong approval, not only from vaccine advocates, but from members who had been on-the-fence. Said one member, “Any [anti-vaxxer] who plans to participate in another one of these debates, please be more prepared, especially if you’re given the option to choose the topic to discuss. You’re not helping anyone who is [anti-vax] or [on-the-fence] by debating in this manner. Also, posting article after article without actually knowing the full content yourself is setting yourself up for failure. I’m starting to think there’s a reason for that.”
Another: “80% of my friends are anti-vax. My two children are fully vaccinated[…] but I’m terrified of vaccinations. Mainly because of the scaremongering stuff they share on Facebook! They’ve also added me to a few groups of which I’ve had to leave as they make me feel I’m doing the wrong thing by vaccinating. The debate last night was so refreshing to read! It put all my worries at ease. I’d love to read many many more!”
It is understandable that professionals are wary of the idea of debate. Indeed, a live, televised debate would likely be the wrong approach to take. But in this age of social media, where everyone can see or say anything, something must be done. Perhaps written-format debates are the way to make much-needed changes happen.
There are currently on-the-fencers and anti-vaxxers lining up to be next to debate topics of their choice.
Let’s see what comes of it.
Rachel Alter is a recent graduate from Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health. She began researching vaccine communication while working as a research assistant at the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia’s Earth Institute, and now manages vaccine-related content of the March for Science social media pages.