Don’t Confuse Me With Facts: When Misinformation Kills

3 minute read

More bad news from the loopy world of the anti-vaccine folks. As TIME reported yesterday, a new study published in Pediatrics found that when parents decide not to vaccinate their children because of worries about the safety of the shots, there may very, very little that can be done to change their minds. The researchers tried four strategies to get through to the naysayers—including showing them pictures of kids with vaccine-preventable diseases and providing them the scientific proof that vaccines are safe and effective. The needle barely budged.

This says much less about vaccines or even parents than it does about the human tendency to cling to—and even fight for—ideas and beliefs that just ain’t so. The anti-vaccine camp has a lot in common with other groups that traffic in tales of conspiracies and coverups and terrible things being done by powerful forces. Like the birthers and the truthers and the grassy knollers, like the folks who claim that both global warming and the moon landings are faked, they all see the hand of moneyed institutions (big pharma, ivory tower academia); of government agencies (the FBI, the CIA, the EPA, NASA); of shadowy plotters (Indonesian operatives planting fake birth certificates in Hawaiian newspapers, a complicit or bought-off media) at work.

There is a cunning jujitsu to the way this crowd can use the weight of even the most compelling arguments to prove their conspiratorial point. As Brendan Nyhan, author of the new vaccine study, told TIME, the harder doctors or public health officials fight to persuade parents to vaccinate their children, the more stubbornly unconvinced some of them remain, asking, “Why are they trying so hard to reassure me that everything is safe?” The fact that it is safe never enters into the equation.

All the data, all the research from all the years of studies showing that vaccines work, that global warming is real, gets used instead as conclusive evidence of the opposite. The clean white light of reason goes in one side of the prism and a crazy rainbow of nonsense comes out the other. But here’s the thing: when you argue that climate scientists are on the take or that President Obama was born in Kenya, you distract and distort and make it harder for serious people to do serious work, but your individual influence is minimal. When you go on about Area 51 or moon landing fakery, you may disqualify yourself from serious conversation entirely, but you hurt nobody else in the process.

But vaccine denial takes a more retail toll, a more personal toll. The hard fact is, your beliefs may result in your child being exposed to disease that can cause paralysis or even death. And if any of those things come to pass, it will—not to put too fine a point on it—be your choices that made it happen. Most of the time, conspiracy talk and other blather does no harm. Now and again, however, it kills.

More Must-Reads From TIME

Write to Jeffrey Kluger at