If we want people to refuse COVID vaccines, a recent CNN segment featuring political pundit Max Boot illustrates how we can do it.
If you wanted to convince someone to skip their COVID vaccine, how would you do it? You would first insult them, emphasizing how stupid their political opinions are. After that, you'd tell them there are lots of stupid people who share their views. Wrapping up your sales pitch, you'd finally stress that everyone they disagree with got the vaccine, and the only reason they haven't is because their favorite talk show hosts have duped them.
“Nobody would be so partisan as to commit such ridiculous mistakes while promoting vaccines,” you may say to yourself. But you'd be incorrect. Last week, neoconservative political commentator Max Boot participated in a CNN panel on lagging immunization rates, during which he made literally every mistake described above as he chastised Republicans for refusing COVID-19 vaccines.
CNN is a partisan cable news network, so it's not surprising that it would air a segment like this. Of course, they're not alone; Fox News does the same thing in the opposite direction, blaming all America's problems on Democrats. But on the tail end of a pandemic, CNN was unwise to allow a conservative-turned-liberal political commentator to lecture half the country about vaccines. Let's examine a few of Boot's points in detail so you can see what I mean.
As a freelance writer for many years, a large part of my job was selling story ideas to websites that I thought were good prospects. None of my emails to editors began with, “Your science content is stupid, and so is your audience; publish my articles to make your website less embarrassing.” Common sense dictates that people don't respond well to mockery, but so does a massive body of literature on science communication.
Biologist Richard Dawkins is the classic example of science outreach gone wrong. How did young-earth creationists and intelligent design activists respond to Dawkins' apologetics for Darwin's theory? They turned him into a self-righteous, rapping cartoon character. Suffice it to say, Dawkins' everyone-is-stupid-except-me approach backfired, even though he was presenting valid science. Boot's arguments failed for the same reason.
You're not alone
Boot stressed throughout the segment that vaccine skepticism is a largely conservative issue, complaining that Republicans have swallowed Fox News's scientific "misinformation" wholesale. There's no denying that the right has a soft spot for vaccine scare stories, though they're not the only ones, as we'll see. By singling out conservatives, Boot helped to fortify their existing anti-vaccine sentiments.
Studies have shown that amplifying vaccine refusal facilitates more vaccine refusal. Think about that in our current political context. Boot told Republicans that lots of people just like them are worried about the safety of COVID vaccines, while claiming that Democrats are generally enthusiastic about them. This is the worse possible message you could communicate to the skeptics on the right.
Boot acknowledged that several demographic groups have expressed high levels of vaccine skepticism, namely Republicans, young people, and minorities. He then proceeded to slam only the first group. The right approach isn't to insult all three groups but to utilize messaging more likely to resonate with each group. Xavier Symons, a postdoctoral research fellow at Australian Catholic University's Plunkett Centre for Ethics, explained this to ACSH for a recent story about celebrity vaccine endorsements:
It's particularly important that religious leaders, conservative commentators, sportspeople and ethnic community leaders endorse vaccination as they are more closely aligned with vaccine hesitant groups. Trump getting vaccinated on TV is much more valuable than Biden getting vaccinated on TV.
The power of conversion stories
Conversion stories can be very convincing. For example, surveys have shown that the public is more likely to accept the safety of GE crops if that message is delivered by someone who used to oppose biotechnology. Boot has advertised his credentials as a defector from the American right in his book The Corrosion of Conservatism: Why I Left the Right. This no doubt endeared him to CNN's left-leaning audience, but, by Boot's own admission, that's not the group he's concerned about.
CNN could have done more to facilitate vaccine uptake by inviting a popular conservative onto the panel to extol the benefits of immunization. Instead, the segment with Boot was fodder for the skeptics now warning the world that COVID vaccines are dangerous. Consider how former New York Times reporter Alex Berenson responded to Boot.
Berenson is wrong. Breakthrough infections are quite rare, and those who forgo immunization are undoubtedly putting themselves at greater risk compared to the vaccinated. But none of that matters because Boot's inflammatory rhetoric gave Berenson (and his 280,000 Twitter followers) a perfect excuse to ignore evidence that challenges their narrative.
Our awful media
This episode reflects the broader problem in American media. Reporters have abdicated their responsibility to inform the public and morphed into apologists for their political tribes, who only accept evidence when it fits their agenda. This has a number of corrosive effects, but the worst, in my opinion, is that it tells the public they can cherry-pick the evidence they want to accept. As long as the talking heads remain fairweather friends of science, don't be surprised that everyone else does, too.