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Business News/ Opinion / Columns/  Vaccine resistance could be traced to the backfire effect

Vaccine resistance could be traced to the backfire effect

Anti-vaxxers often harden their stance if they’re offered data that goes against their argument

Photo: AFPPremium
Photo: AFP

One of the unfortunate side effects of the current Omicron surge is that it has brought back, out of the woodwork, all the anti-vaxxers and science deniers I thought we had seen the last of. You all know who I am talking about. There is probably at least one in every family or classmate WhatsApp group. This time, the focus of their ire is covid vaccines.

If, they argue, these vaccines are actually the miracle cure we were told they were, how come people who have been vaccinated— with two doses to boot—are still getting infected? This is often followed by a rant about the alleged avarice of the pharma industry. They see new booster mandates as evidence of a grand conspiracy that serves no purpose other than to make the medico-industrial complex a huge pile of cash. When they tire of this line of argument, they smoothly change tack to prognosticate about Omicron, claiming that this is “nature’s vaccine", a variant so harmless that it will run through the population, giving us all the immunity that vaccines were supposed to provide. Embrace nature’s cure, they urge. Let us all get infected by Omicron so that the epidemic can finally be over and done with.

A dear friend of mine has, unfortunately, been infected by this contagion of half-baked information. He has taken to haranguing all who will listen to him about the evils of vaccines, peppering them with news snippets and video clips that he believes support his claims. Most of his sources are individuals operating on the edges of acceptability, using their past glories to peddle alternative therapies that have no real basis in science—and yet he accepts all they say with the zeal of the newly converted.

I usually steer clear of WhatsApp debates, but he is a close friend, rational in every other respect, so I felt it was worth trying to engage him in a discussion. All it would take to change his mind, I thought, was exposure to the scientific truth. And so I began to counter every claim he made, backing up my arguments with peer-reviewed papers sourced from only the most well-respected scientific journals I could find. For every allegation against the efficacy of vaccines, I dug up studies conducted across as wide a sample size as possible, analysing data spanning months—if not the full duration of the pandemic. For each new “expert" my friend trotted out, I dug into their antecedents, proving them to be the charlatans I had suspected they might be.

After doing this for more than a couple of weeks, it began to dawn on me that nothing I had said was making a difference. Despite all the hard scientific facts I had provided him, he was obdurately standing his ground. If anything, it felt as if he was taking every argument I made and twisting it around in his head until he had reconfigured it into a form that could then be used to strengthen his beliefs.

I did not realize it at the time, but I had become a victim of the Backfire Effect, a phenomenon that I have described in a previous article. I had gone in thinking that all it would take to change his mind was expose him to facts. I was convinced that facts inform beliefs and that all I needed to do to change his beliefs was present him with those facts.

Beliefs, as it happens, are powerful things that resist change in insidious ways. When our core beliefs are threatened by facts, rather than questioning those beliefs, we try and devise ways in which the facts that have been ranged against us can be re-organized to sustain rather than diminish our beliefs— even if this means selectively picking only those facts that most substantially support them.

The modern internet has weaponized the Backfire Effect. When we democratized access to information, we did away with traditional gatekeepers of knowledge. And, while this has made it easy for us to access a wider range of information, it also allowed unsubstantiated theories, that would previously not have made it past the editorial desk, to proliferate. As a result, for every scientific paper based on scientifically ascertainable facts, there are dozens that brazenly contradict them without even a half-hearted attempt at substantiation.

When we embraced personalized search and curated news feeds, we allowed algorithms to target these dangerous theories at those whose belief systems were most susceptible to them. Thanks to the abundance of messaging apps and social media platforms that frictionlessly connect everyone to everyone else, once released, these theories are able to spread like wildfire, bouncing from person to gullible person at the speed of thought.

That is a significant reason why it has become harder than ever to fight beliefs with facts. Where the Backfire Effect previously twisted reasoned arguments to the service of unshakeable beliefs, today it has the capacity to draw on a near-infinite stream of seemingly authoritative bits of information to corroborate and augment those beliefs.

And so I decided to abandon all attempts at changing minds. Now, whenever my friend launches into a diatribe about the pointlessness of following covid protocols, I wince, but refrain from responding, keeping to myself all the research I have about the efficacy of vaccines or masks and the need to prioritize ventilation.

I still make it a point read everything he sends me with as open a mind as possible. After all, how would I look if, after all I have said so far, I allow my own belief system to reject the material presented to me without even considering it?

Rahul Matthan is a partner at Trilegal and also has a podcast by the name Ex Machina. His Twitter handle is @matthan

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Published: 11 Jan 2022, 10:00 PM IST
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