Questioning science with science: The evolution of the vaccine safety movement

Koltai, Kolina S.; Fleischmann, Kenneth R.
Proceedings of the Association for Information Science and Technology

This paper sets out to understand the values that motivate vaccine safety advocates who question the safety of vaccines and oppose vaccination mandates. As is generally the case for public scientific controversies, the vaccination debate is inherently asymmetrical. The vast majority of medical researchers advocate for vaccination mandates. While a (smaller) majority of the general public also support vaccination mandates, a vocal and growing minority opposes vaccination mandates. This minority is generally dismissed by most mainstream voices in the scientific literature and the mass media as uninformed and irrational. However, efforts to sway these individuals through public health campaigns have been largely ineffective to date. To understand the factors that motivate individuals within the vaccine safety movement, we conducted interviews with 10 individuals who self-identify as vaccine safety advocates, asking them about the values and information behaviors that have shaped their skepticism of vaccines. Using thematic analysis, we identified four key themes that reoccurred across these interviews: benevolence toward children, intellectual curiosity about vaccines, skepticism toward scientific elites, and respect for the scientific method. The results of this study can help us to understand how values motivate individuals to take positions outside of the mainstream in public scientific controversies, such as climate change and genetically modified foods. Further, the findings help to demonstrate that enhanced understanding of the values that motivate vaccine safety advocates can help us to create shared dialogues that unite rather than divide factions within the vaccination debate, moving from conflict to consensus.