Why vaccine opponents think they know more than medical experts

July 12, 2018 by Matthew Motta, Steven Sylvester And Timothy Callaghan, The Conversation
Parents who trust the knowledge of their doctors are less likely to be opposed to vaccination. Credit: Pressmaster/Shutterstock.com

One of the most contentious areas of health policy over the past two decades has been the safety of vaccination. Vaccines prevent the outbreak of diseases that used to be widespread, like polio, and scientific consensus strongly supports their safety. Yet many Americans refuse or delay the vaccination of their children out of fear that it could lead to autism, even though scientific consensus refutes this claim.

Anti-vaccine attitudes have been fueled in large part by growing rates of autism diagnoses as well as a now debunked study in The Lancet that linked and the measles mumps rubella (MMR) vaccine – pushing many parents to see vaccination as a potential explanation for their child's autism diagnosis.

The growing "anti-vax" movement here and abroad has seen parents refuse to give their children mandatory school vaccinations, growing numbers of celebrities questioning , and even pet owners refusing to vaccinate their dogs – forcing the British Veterinary Association to issue a statement in April that dogs cannot develop autism.

Given the consistent message from the scientific community about the safety of vaccines, and evidence of vaccine success as seen through the eradication of diseases, why has the skepticism about vaccines continued?

One possibility is that attitudes about medical experts help to explain the endorsement of anti-vax attitudes. Specifically, building on past research, our research team contends that some U.S. adults might support anti-vax policy positions in part because they believe they know more than medical experts about autism and its causes. We wanted to test this theory.

Vaccine skepticism and knowledge

Vaccination has been one of public health's greatest success stories. It led to the eradication of smallpox and to widespread elimination of polio. Eradication of a disease means that it has been permanently wiped out and that intervention efforts are no longer necessary; smallpox so far is the only disease that has been eradicated. Elimination means a reduction to zero incidence in a specific geographic area as a result of deliberate efforts. Vaccination has protected millions from the ravages of tetanus, whooping cough and even chicken pox.

And yet, vaccine skepticism persists, extending into the political realm, with many politicians questioning the safety of vaccines. Most notably, President Donald Trump has questioned the credentials of doctors calling for vaccination, pushed for slowed vaccination schedules, and tapped vaccine skeptic Robert Kennedy Jr. to chair an administrative panel on vaccine safety.

We wondered: Could the inability of anti-vaxxers to accurately appraise their own knowledge and skills compared to those of medical experts play a role in shaping their attitudes about vaccines? This inability to accurately appraise one's own knowledge is called the Dunning-Kruger effect, first identified in social psychology. Dunning-Kruger effects occur when individuals' lack of knowledge about a particular subject leads them to inaccurately gauge their expertise on that subject. Ignorance of one's own ignorance can lead people who lack knowledge on a subject think of themselves as more expert than those who are comparatively better informed. We refer to this as "overconfidence."

Dunning-Kruger effects and anti-vax attitudes

To test our hypothesis, our research asked more than 1,300 Americans in December 2017 to compare their own perceived levels of knowledge about the causes of autism to those of medical doctors and scientists. After doing that, we asked respondents to answer a series of factual knowledge questions about autism, as well as the extent to which they agree with misinformation about a potential link between childhood vaccines and autism.

We found that 34 percent of U.S. adults in our sample feel that they know as much or more than scientists about the causes of autism. Slightly more, or 36 percent, feel the same way about their knowledge relative to that of medical doctors.

We also found strong evidence of Dunning-Kruger effects in our sample. Sixty-two percent of those who performed worst on our autism knowledge test believe that they know as much or more than both doctors and scientists about the causes of autism, compared to only 15 percent of those scoring best on the knowledge test. Likewise, 71 percent of those who strongly endorse misinformation about the link between vaccines and autism feel that they know as much or more than about the causes of autism, compared to only 28 percent of those who most strongly reject that misinformation.

We recently published our findings at the journal Social Science and Medicine.

How does this affect vaccine policy?

Our research also finds that these Dunning-Kruger effects have important implications for vaccine policy.

In addition to gauging autism , our survey asked respondents to share their opinions on several aspects of vaccine policy. For example, we asked respondents whether or not they support parents' decisions to not vaccinate their children before sending them to public schools. Respondents could tell us whether they strongly agree, agree, neither agree nor disagree, disagree or strongly disagree with that statement.

We found that nearly a third, or 30 percent, of people who think that they know more than medical experts about the causes of autism strongly support giving parents the latitude to not vaccinate their children. In contrast, 16 percent of those who do not think that they know more than medical professionals felt the same way.

Our study also finds that people who think they know more than medical experts are more likely to trust information about vaccines from non-expert sources, such as celebrities. These individuals are also more likely to support a strong role for non-experts in the process of making policies that pertain to vaccines and vaccination.

An uphill battle?

Ultimately, our results point to the uphill battle that the scientific community faces as it confronts growing anti-vax sentiment from the public and politicians alike. Even as the mountain of evidence on the safety and importance of vaccines from doctors and scientists continues to grow, many Americans think they know more than the experts trying to correct their misperceptions.

Therefore, finding new ways to present on vaccines to an audience skeptical of should be a priority. Our research suggests that one interesting area for future research could be to examine whether pro-vaccine information from non-expert sources like celebrities could persuade those with anti- policy attitudes to change their minds.

Explore further: Children with autism and their younger siblings less likely to be fully vaccinated

Related Stories

Children with autism and their younger siblings less likely to be fully vaccinated

March 26, 2018
Children with autism and their younger siblings are significantly less likely to be fully vaccinated than the general population, according to new Kaiser Permanente research published today in JAMA Pediatrics.

Online information on vaccines and autism not always reliable, study shows

June 14, 2018
Research at Brighton and Sussex Medical School (BSMS) has found that information available online can provide unreliable information based on old, 'weak' scientific studies. The study 'Fake news or weak science?' is published ...

Trump asks skeptic to probe vaccine safety, alarming doctors (Update)

January 10, 2017
President-elect Donald Trump is reviving long debunked attempts to link vaccines to autism, meeting with a vocal skeptic to discuss chairing a commission on vaccination safety—a move that alarmed child health experts.

False beliefs about MMR vaccine found to influence acceptance of Zika vaccine

March 15, 2018
People's willingness to use a Zika vaccine when it's available will be influenced by how they weigh the risks associated with the disease and the vaccine, but also by their misconceptions about other vaccines, a new study ...

Anti-vaccination beliefs don't follow the usual political polarization

August 24, 2017
When health officials learned that the 2015 measles outbreak was caused by clusters of unvaccinated children, Americans once more wanted to understand why some parents do not vaccinate their children. In our highly polarized ...

Many Americans say infectious and emerging diseases in other countries will threaten the US

May 21, 2018
An overwhelming majority of Americans (95%) think infectious and emerging diseases facing other countries will pose a 'major' or 'minor' threat to the U.S. in the next few years, but more than half (61%) say they are confident ...

Recommended for you

1 in 9 U.S. adults over 45 reports memory problems

July 13, 2018
(HealthDay)—If you're middle-aged and you think you're losing your memory, you're not alone, a new U.S. government report shows.

Antioxidant benefits of sleep

July 12, 2018
Understanding sleep has become increasingly important in modern society, where chronic loss of sleep has become rampant and pervasive. As evidence mounts for a correlation between lack of sleep and negative health effects, ...

Footwear habits influence child and adolescent motor skill development

July 11, 2018
New research finds that children and adolescents who spend most of their time barefoot develop motor skills differently from those who habitually wear shoes. Published in Frontiers in Pediatrics, this is the first study to ...

How a Mediterranean diet could reduce osteoporosis

July 11, 2018
Eating a Mediterranean-type diet could reduce bone loss in people with osteoporosis—according to new research from the University of East Anglia.

Extreme heat and reduced cognitive performance in adults in non-air-conditioned buildings

July 10, 2018
Students who lived in dormitories without air conditioning (AC) during a heat wave performed worse on a series of cognitive tests compared with students who lived in air-conditioned dorms, according to new research led by ...

Suppressing negative emotions during health scare may whip up spiral of fear

July 10, 2018
Trying to suppress worries during a health scare, like the recent Zika outbreak, may lead to an ever-intensifying cycle of emotional suppression and fear, according to a team of researchers.

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

grandpa
1 / 5 (1) Jul 12, 2018
Vaccines are awesome. That doesn't mean their are not hidden dangers. We have many new problems in our society since vaccines have been implemented. Obesity, diabetes, yes autism, more and more people, ADHD, autoimmune diseases, Manic depressive, myopia. There is no way to tease out statistically how vaccines can alter the 100,000 diseases or conditions that beset humans. Medical professionals, rarely have the statistical knowledge to know if vaccines are better than no vaccines. Medical professionals mostly, 99 percent of the time or more, are only spitting out what the guidelines suggest, and they are under pressure to do so. Seriously, how many statistic classes do you think doctors get. It is one semester class. Something most people forget almost immediately.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.