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When The Truth Hurts

One of the occupational hazards of working in the field of social change communications is that sudden slap in the face that comes when you discover that some lies and falsehoods are immune to the truth.

Argue until you are blue in the face, marshal every scrap of evidence at your disposal, there still are some times you just can’t win even when the facts are on your side.

Probably no one is better able to articulate that sad but undeniable truth than Brendan Nyhan, an assistant professor in the Department of Government at Dartmouth College. Nyhan, one of the speakers appearing at frank 2015, specializes in researching why misperceptions — especially in politics and health care — are so hard to combat.

I’m sure he gets no joy sticking that fact to us, but his most recently published study offers yet another example. Writing in the December 2014 journal Vaccine, Nyhan and co-author Jason Reifler, a senior lecturer of politics at the University of Exeter, find that telling people there’s nothing to fear about flu vaccines — that they don’t make you sick — is not likely to get them rushing to their doctor or local pharmacy to get immunized.

Noting that “seasonal influenza is responsible for thousands of deaths and billions of dollars of medical costs” in the United States annually, they write that “influenza vaccination coverage remains substantially below public health targets.” They also suggest that a “possible obstacle to greater immunization rates is the false belief that it is possible to contract the flu from the flu vaccine.” In fact, they point out that more than four in ten Americans, or 43 percent believe the myth that the flu vaccine can give you the flu.

For their study, Nyhan and Reifler provided participants with information from the Centers for Disease Control website explaining that you can’t catch the flu from either a flu shot or nasal spray. Afterward they discovered two things:

–First, people were less likely to believe that the vaccine causes the flu.
–Second, they were even less likely to say they were inclined to get immunized.

Commenting on the study, Nyhan said the “findings suggest that corrective information can successfully reduce false beliefs about vaccines. However, that corrective information may unfortunately cause people with fears about side effects to bring those other concerns to mind and thereby reduce their intention to vaccinate.”

He adds, “We need to learn how to most effectively promote immunization. Directly correcting vaccine myths may not be the most effective approach.”

Isn’t that the truth!

Posted on December 10, 2014

Bruce Trachtenberg
Bruce Trachtenberg is executive producer and editor for The Atlantic Philanthropies. He previously served as executive editor for frank and before that as executive director of the Communications Network.