In a recent interview for an online show, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson was asked how he goes about debunking myths that are unscientific, like conspiracy theories and such. His answer was clear: he doesn’t debunk lies. As an educator, he says that his job is to establish a system of education that produces adults that do not fall for myths, lies and conspiracy theories.
Nevertheless, the volume of anti-vaccine misinformation can be quite daunting, and social media is not really helping. This past Tuesday, Representative Adam Schiff sent a letter to Facebook and Google asking the companies to address the many anti-vaccine groups (in Facebook) and videos (on Google’s YouTube service) that are spreading misinformation. In response, Facebook and Google have stated that they are looking at ways to not promote those groups and videos. They did not, however, speak of outright banning anti-vaccine groups on Facebook or anti-vaccine videos posted on YouTube.
So, what else can be done? Well, we can be like Neil deGrasse Tyson and foment in our young people a sense of understanding about scientific topics so that they cannot be swayed away from facts and into the realm of myths and conspiracy theories. We can use scientific tools like anthropology (the study of people and their societies and cultures) to understand what makes parents not want to vaccinate and develop strategies to counter their beliefs or prevent others from adopting their beliefs. Or we can continue to encourage people with doubts to consult with their healthcare provider on healthcare decisions, discouraging them from going to non-expert sources of misinformation.
Whatever it is that we in public health and education and in the sciences end up doing, we need to do it quickly and as efficiently as possible. Measles outbreaks continue along with an expanding number of people who have been misled into believing some very bad lies about vaccines.