How to have a constructive conversation with vaccine skeptics

Jonathan Berman wants us to have better dialogues.

How to have a constructive conversation with vaccine skeptics
Photo: AntonioDiaz / Adobe Stock
  • In his book, "Anti-vaxxers," science educator Jonathan Berman aims to foster better conversations about vaccines.
  • While the anti-vax movement in America has grown, more Americans now say they'll get a COVID-19 vaccine.
  • In this Big Think interview, Berman explains why he's offering an ear to the anti-vax movement.

As two COVID-19 vaccines roll out in America, Pew Research reported a rare glimmer of hope in the ongoing saga of vaccine disinformation: the number of citizens willing to get a vaccine increased to 60 percent. The trend is moving in the right direction, course-correcting anti-vaccination rhetoric that led to the first increase in measles cases (and the highest number of measles deaths) in the modern era.

While we have fabricated research by disbarred doctor Andrew Wakefield to thank for this trend, anti-vaccination efforts are tethered to the first vaccinations. As with seemingly every topic, vaccines are a wedge issue, with a fervent cohort of anti-vaxxers going so far as to be "single-issue voters."

Jonathan Berman, an assistant professor in the Department of Basic Sciences at NYITCOM-Arkansas, grew tired of seeing all of the "dunking on anti-vaxxers." As with many science advocates, he grew skeptical of the anti-vaxx movement while studying for his degree in the aughts. Though he agreed with Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, he recognized them as bullies. Berman wanted to grapple with the underlying reasons for opposing vaccination rather than just write them off.

Those reasons, which comprise a chapter of his recent book, "Anti-vaxxers: How to Challenge a Misinformed Movement" (MIT Press), include issues of social class, race, individual liberties, individual and collective rights, distrust of authority, and changing ideas about health and medicine. Instead of exhibiting knee-jerk reactions, he wants to offer compassion and empathy while expressing critical thinking when analyzing the science of vaccines. As Berman recently explained of anti-vaxxers,

"They're making a risk evaluation just like we're making a risk evaluation. They're doing it in a less reasonable and healthy way and arriving at the wrong decision. That doesn't mean that we have to call them stupid or act like they're foolish. It means we can have a conversation with them. Hopefully, that's a more productive way to go about it."

Conspirituality 31 interview: Jonathan Berman

As he wrote the book before the pandemic hit, Berman is a bit dismayed (though not surprised) by the growth of the anti-vaccine movement. He noticed a convergence point this year: anti-mask and anti-lockdown proponents (as well as QAnon devotees) learned a set of tactics from the longstanding anti-vax movement, while anti-vaxxers took the energy of "personal liberty" and "bodily sovereignty" being expressed by those groups.

There have been a number of anti-vax leaders whose star has risen this year: Mikki Willis has surged since the release of his Plandemic film; Del Bigtree, whose show "The Highwire" is in large part funded by hedge fund managers, is growing more influential; and gynecologist Christiane Northrup, who has used her social media platforms to promote QAnon-related and anti-vax sentiments, is also seeing a rise in followers. As Berman writes, celebrities are not the best sources of information, and their intentions might not be as benevolent as they seem.

"There's a degree of grift in what they're doing. They're collecting donations from their audience of anti-vaccine people they've built up."

Science sometimes suffers from lack of celebrity. Paul A. Offit will never be Neil deGrasse Tyson or Bill Nye. While a select few science educators break through, vaccination advocates are unlikely to achieve that level of star power. Berman, one of the founders of the "March for Science" movement—a rare mainstream moment of science advocacy in the Trump era—knows the difficulty of spreading the gospel of sound scientific methods.

Navigating the tricky terrain of vaccines is difficult. Thankfully, Berman's excellent book offers hope. Twenty-two concise chapters pack a lot of punch: the history of both vaccines and the anti-vax movement; dangerous ploys by grifters; the science of vaccines; and a chapter on vaccine ingredients, like adjuvants.

While Berman is pro-vaccine, he believes Pfizer and Moderna deserve scrutiny. Commentary from outside organizations and researchers should be offered. That said, while pharmaceutical companies certainly have a track record of corporate greed, vaccines only account for 2 percent of profits—hardly cash cows like painkillers and antidepressants.

Berman laughs off the occasional criticism that he's a paid shill. "I'm still on the negative on the book—just because of caffeine purchases while I was writing it."

Disinformation abounds in the modern era. Posts about the dangers of thimerasol and aluminum persist even though neither are in the Pfizer vaccine. Berman advocates for pushing back against misinformation with better data.

"The coronavirus vaccine—these are very simple formulations. There's salt, RNA, and a lipid to help the RNA cross cell membranes. If someone says there's aluminum in that, you can say, 'not in this one.' And if someone says there's mercury in that, you can say, 'not in this one.'"

He knows the challenges that lie ahead. Still, as Pew shows, more Americans understand the role that vaccines play in reaching a post-pandemic world. Berman concludes our talk on what you might say is a hopeful note.

"We're not going to get everyone on board. We just need to get enough people on board."

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Stay in touch with Derek on Twitter and Facebook. His new book is "Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy."

A landslide is imminent and so is its tsunami

An open letter predicts that a massive wall of rock is about to plunge into Barry Arm Fjord in Alaska.

Image source: Christian Zimmerman/USGS/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • A remote area visited by tourists and cruises, and home to fishing villages, is about to be visited by a devastating tsunami.
  • A wall of rock exposed by a receding glacier is about crash into the waters below.
  • Glaciers hold such areas together — and when they're gone, bad stuff can be left behind.

The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.

Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .

"It could happen anytime, but the risk just goes way up as this glacier recedes," says hydrologist Anna Liljedahl of Woods Hole, one of the signatories to the letter.

The Barry Arm Fjord

Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach

Image source: Matt Zimmerman

The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.

Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest

Image source: whrc.org

There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.

The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.

"This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."

Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.

What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord

Moving slowly at first...

Image source: whrc.org

"The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."

The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.

Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.

Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.

While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.

Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."

How do you prepare for something like this?

Image source: whrc.org

The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:

"To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."

In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.

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