When Cambridge-trained physician and author Seema Yasmin started investigating outbreaks for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, she noticed a troubling pattern: Children were falling severely ill or dying from vaccine-preventable diseases, including measles and whooping cough.
Just as troubling was how these outbreaks were fueled by the “concurrent spread of spread of myths and hoaxes and rumors and outright lies about vaccines,” Yasmin said. She notes we’re seeing the spread of mis- and disinformation during the COVID-19 pandemic, too, with a Cornell University study saying that President Donald Trump has been the “biggest disseminator of false information” about the virus.
To expand her expertise in how doctors can more effectively counter the spread of disinformation, Yasmin studied journalism and worked as a print and broadcast journalist, where she covered the first imported case of the Ebola virus in the United States for the Dallas Morning News in 2014. For her team coverage of neglected diseases, she also received an Emmy and was a finalist for a Pulitzer.
Yasmin now leads the Stanford Health Communication Initiative and has published her third book, “Viral BS: Medical Myths and Why We Fall For Them.” The book dissects common medical questions, misconceptions, health and diet fads and conspiracy theories — including the historic reasons for communities of color to be skeptical of medical authority. While she finished the book before coronavirus spread across the world, Yasmin explains how communication issues that arose in past crises are instructive now.
Q. Why are people drawn to medical myths?
A. The world is so uncertain. While scientists are quite comfortable in the uncertainty, humans like a complete narrative with the gaps filled in. The credible scientist will say that vaccines have saved millions of lives, but no medicine or treatment is 100 percent safe, whereas if someone comes up to you and says vaccines are 100 percent dangerous, it’s easier to believe that because there is so much certainty baked into that statement.
Also, a big part of being human is tribalism. So, if everyone in your yoga class, your community, your kids’ school is saying, I’m not getting my kid vaccinated, it can be quite terrifying to be the outlier saying, “Didn’t you know there are millions of data points that show that vaccines are safe?”
Q. What’s the motivation of people, including those in the anti-vaccine movements, to resist scientific data or deliberately push disinformation?
A. I think the motives can be very varied. There have always been people exploiting people’s anxiety and fear. They might be doing it for profit, to scam people. For others, I don’t think it’s about health. It could be about their beliefs that government should not be intervening in private parts of your life.
Q. With COVID-19, we’ve heard the mantra about how we should listen to the science telling us to wear masks and social distance. Why isn’t that working for everyone?
A. The medical field often operates from what’s known as the knowledge-deficit model, in which doctors say, “I’m going to translate this complex information to a level that you will get and then the job is done,” right? It doesn’t work that way. Whether we change behavior depends a lot on our biases.
Q. How could doctors communicate better?
A. The first thing we need to do is listen and listen deeply to really understand the patients we’re speaking with: What are their fears and what are the cultural and historical and religious beliefs that people are coming into the clinic with?
Q. There was the video from the Bakersfield doctors, who cited discredited data to argue against the first COVID-19 lockdowns in the spring. Did that go viral because the doctors were telling people what they wanted to hear at that moment?
A. Yes. It’s complicated. There also were some countries in Asia that handled the pandemic very well without instituting massive lockdowns. But they had really robust testing programs and amazing contact tracing that allowed them to control it. In science, there always is a range of opinions and discourse. You also will see an evolution of ideas. So Dr. Fauci, back in February and March, said you don’t have to wear a mask, then in April and May, he was saying, “Please wear a mask.” It confused people, but he was doing what scientists do, which is assess the shifting landscape of evidence to make recommendations.
Contributed by local news sources