How to Address COVID-19 Skepticism: A Guide to Navigate Difficult Con­versations

Public Perception of Vaccinations

False scientific reports regarding public health issues, particularly vaccinations, have long plagued scientific discourse among the public, and this issue has only become more pronounced during the COVID-19 pandemic. This disinformation is enraging for scientists and dangerous for the public. According to a recent survey done by the Pew Research Institute [1], Americans’ trust in science has steadily declined over recent years. Why does the public have such a warped and mistrusting perception of science? As scientists, healthcare professionals, and educators, it is our duty to identify the root of these issues and help combat them, encourage and engage the public in the scientific process, and build back trust throughout our community. 

Unfortunately, encounters with people who do not trust the scientific process or scientists themselves are commonplace for working scientists. Having lived in the Midwest and the South, I have had my fair share of interactions with science and vaccine skeptics. It is natural to be curious and cautious regarding new information, which compels people to “do their own research.” But with abundant misinformation on the internet, independent research can easily be compromised. In many cases, concerned individuals cite information from Facebook or other social media when defending their distrust. It can be challenging to convince people that their sources are biased or unreliable without being perceived as biased.

A considerable cause of vaccine skepticism is distrust of the medical establishment or the government due to a lack of empathy during discussions of delicate issues. To illustrate how this variety of miscommunication plays out, I will share a very personal anecdote. I have a family member diagnosed with autism at about the age of 3, very soon after their scheduled round of vaccinations. The belief of my family members that vaccinations caused autism in their child has loomed over discussions about COVID-19 vaccinations. Despite my efforts to explain the basics of immunology so they can understand and describe the benefits of routine vaccination, I feel as though I am talking to a wall. In many scenarios like this, emotions triumph over logic. As these discussions are deeply emotional, I do not want to come across as insensitive and disrespectful, causing them to completely shut down and disregard anything I have to say. I have done my best to understand their thought processes and experiences regarding this issue, given their non-scientific backgrounds. As scientists, to be effective in our practice of basic and clinical research, we must respond to these criticisms, questions, and concerns in a non-judgmental, respectful, and empathic way. I do not always respond appropriately. It has taken me time to develop the patience to understand where others come from and how to best approach this particular issue while still remaining calm and kind.

Navigating Difficult Conversations

Start conversations with others who have opposing viewpoints by actively listening and seeking to understand their perspective. Everyone believes and thinks the way they do for many reasons, and it is vital to listen to their reasoning before moving forward with the discussion. Actively listening also provides you with the information necessary to take a different approach to the conversation if needed. During this time, try to remain non-judgmental in both your body language and responses. You already know your stance on the topic, so getting upset or angry does not help the situation—it only causes both of you to become more defensive, building even more walls between you.

Next, go into the discussion with the assumption that you will not change the other person’s viewpoint. It is essential to recognize and accept that vocalizing your opinion and making your case can take time and probably continue over multiple encounters. If possible, it is also vital that you emphasize your availability and willingness to talk more if additional questions arise later. In the example regarding vaccinations, people often will still choose not to get vaccinated for reasons that you cannot change. Acknowledge that this is their decision, and vocalize that you would like to remain as a resource for them in the future. Accept that you respectfully made your case and did all you could do.

Also, it is important to give praise where it is due. In the example of vaccination against COVID-19, it is worth commending responsible measures such as masking or physical distancing, regardless of the decisions made around vaccinations. Encouragement is more beneficial than criticism, as it is more effective in establishing rapport. Any progress is progress, even if it is small. Frame and discuss vaccinations as yet another safe and effective way to protect against SARS-CoV-2 infection.

When we have the opportunity to participate in discussions surrounding the COVID-19 vaccine, we must communicate using jargon-free language. Our goal should be to ensure our audience understands the general background information, as this will help combat misinformation commonly seen on social platforms, such as Facebook. Also, if you do not know the answer to a question, acknowledge that you do not know. After a conversation has ended, follow up, provide a well-thought-out response, and include sources. Always remember to ask about additional questions or concerns—and answer those, too!

A Personal Experience

I want to share a specific example of a reoccurring scenario that I encountered over the last two years. A close friend had been trying to get pregnant with her husband for a year, and they finally conceived. On Facebook, she saw a lot of negative propaganda regarding the COVID-19 vaccination and potential difficulties with pregnancy. She was worried about the consequences for her developing child if she were to receive the vaccination. She had already talked to her primary care physician but still asked for my honest opinion on the vaccine. At that point, I had not done extensive research looking at current data regarding the COVID-19 vaccine and pregnancy, but I found multiple articles from reliable journals on this topic. I used these to help formulate an easy-to-understand, non-biased response to my friend. I shared this with her, and she ultimately decided to get the vaccine. This exact scenario happened three more times with other friends and family. This example illustrates how non-judgmental listening, maintaining an open line of communication, and using clear and concise language can help combat false information to foster trust in the scientific community.

This brief article aims to be a source of encouragement, as I often find myself questioning if what I am doing makes a difference. As scientists, it is easy to be caught up in the details of our research and forget about the ultimate goal—furthering the understanding of the world we live in and improving the quality of life for everyone. It is essential to be reminded that what you say and do matters. We have a responsibility to use our knowledge to further our specific aims in the lab and share this knowledge with others in a way that connects and unifies.



About the Author:

Donnell White, III (Twitter: @_donwhite) is a third-year graduate student in Dr. Qinglin Yang’s lab in the Department of Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics at LSU Health Sciences Center in New Orleans, LA. He uses a novel ATP biosensor to investigate rescue mechanisms by which cells maintain metabolic activity under pathologic conditions in vitro. Outside the lab, Don likes to work out at his local CrossFit gym, try new restaurants in New Orleans, and read psychological thrillers.