In this interview with Conatus News, Claire Klingenberg discusses vaccinations and the “anti-vaxxer” movement.
Claire has a background in law and psychology, and is currently working on her degree in Religious Studies. She has been involved in the skeptic movement since 2013 as co-organizer of the Czech Paranormal Challenge. Since then, she has consulted on various projects, where woo and belief meet science. Claire has spoken at multiple science and skepticism conferences and events. She also organized the European Skeptics Congress in 2017, and both years of the Czech March for Science.
Her current activities include chairing the European Council of Skeptical Organisations, running the “Don’t Be Fooled” project (which provides free critical thinking seminars to interested high schools), contributing to the Czech Religious Studies journal Dingir, as well as to their news in religion website. In her free time, Claire visits various religious movements to understand better what draws people to certain beliefs.
Claire lives in Prague, Czech Republic, with her partner and dog.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: The epithet used against those who reject the vast evidence on the effectiveness of vaccines is “anti-vaxxer.” What do they stand for? Why are they a threat to the public health?
Claire Klingenberg: Their idea is that all medical choices should be the decision of the individual or, when it comes to children, the decision of the parent. That is one of their main arguments.
The reason why they are applying this argument to vaccinations is that they believe a lot of misinformation and lies about the harmfulness of vaccinations. They do not understand how serious it is for an epidemic to spread. They don’t understand that it is not just a personal choice that won’t affect anyone else.
Even though, there is an epidemic of measles spreading through Europe right now. Anti-vaxxers do not see that as a consequence of non-vaccinations. They play it off or see getting measles as an inconsequential thing.
Jacobsen: What are the reasons for their pushback to legitimate scientific and public health concerns?
Klingenberg: It is the same as conspiracy groups. They believe the scientists have been paid by pharmaceutical companies or some other secret or shadow organizations.
They believe that true information comes from individual doctors or individuals who are [laughing]no longer doctors or scientists, or even gurus or alternative medicine people. Those people play into that fear.
They are more likely to believe an emotional story of one parent than heaps of data. At the same time, though, it has to be a parent that toes their party line. If it’s a story of a parent who regrets not vaccinating after their child died of a preventable disease, they think that it must be a made up story, or the parent was paid to say that.
Jacobsen: How do parents fall into this other than through emotional appeals?
Klingenberg: There are mainly emotional appeals because there is no cumulative data for vaccine harm. Of course, many people have mild reactions to vaccinations. And yes, there is a small percentage of people who have serious negative reactions.
I do not deny that because to deny that would be to deny reality. But it is such a small percentage, compared to the harm caused by the disease itself. The threat of not vaccinating or of getting a serious disease or of spreading the agents of this disease makes the chances of getting the disease much higher.
There is a big misunderstanding here about the importance of herd immunity. Anti-vaxxers do not understand that it is not just about them. It is not a personal medical choice, but a choice that influences and has an impact on the whole society.
Jacobsen: How can people become more informed about vaccinations in general? How can we contribute to the conversation on anti-vaccination views?
Klingenberg: For quality vaccine information in general, look at the website of the World Health Organization. When it comes to getting information about your nation, it is best to look at the ministry health of a particular country or official health organizations within your particular country. Always use sources which cumulate the most data. Websites and blogs built around one or two stories are not reliable.
Logo of the World Health Organization.
When it comes to spreading the message about vaccinations, there is the Twitter campaign: #provaxchallenge. We invite people to take pictures from when they get themselves, their kids, and animals vaccinated. I’m sure you’ll see my tweets there, too.
Now, unfortunately, the anti-vaccination rhetoric has now spread on to concern pets as well. There is talk of autistic dogs, and how rabies is just a puppy disease you don’t have to vaccinate against.
When we talk to people to get them off the conspiracy train, we cannot reason someone out of something they did not reason themselves into.
You can ask them, “When you were vaccinated, did you have any reactions?” You can make them realize that we do not have polio anymore [laughing]. Ask lots of questions. Be gentle when correcting their point. Show them videos of how kids with serious diseases like measles look like. There is this belief that measles and all of these diseases we vaccinate against do not do great harm. Show them it isn’t true.
At the same time, you need to be careful not to manipulate the other person. Of course, showing heartbreaking videos is a type of emotional manipulation, that is why it should not be the crux of your argument, more like an illustration. Make sure all of the information that you are giving is all correct. No hyperboles, no exaggerations, no matter how well-meaning there are.
First, you cannot afford to lie and manipulate the same way anti-vaxxers do. Second, you don’t have to because the facts are on your side. I understand that it is easier and faster to gain a person’s agreement by manipulating them. However, if you are caught once manipulating information or giving false information, you (and not just you) will lose all credibility and never have a chance to convince that person again.
Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Claire.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. Jacobsen works for science and human rights, especially women’s and children’s rights. He considers the modern scientific and technological world the foundation for the provision of the basics of human life throughout the world and advancement of human rights as the universal movement among peoples everywhere.