The Do’s And Don’ts Of Talking To Anti-Vaxxers And Anti-Fluoriders

The Do’s And Don’ts Of Talking To Anti-Vaxxers And Anti-Fluoriders

Dismissing people’s worries as baseless, whether that’s about the safety of mobile phones or fluoridated drinking water, is one of the least effective ways of communicating public health risks.

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Yet it is common for people to “reassure” like this, both at home and in professional roles as experts, officials or corporate managers.

Another poor but common strategy is to try to debunkalt-facts” (lies or misleading statements claimed as fact) like those circulating among anti-vaccination or anti-fluoridation groups.

If your role is to communicate public health risks, it is particularly hard to resist trying harder to help people understand the evidence. This is especially the case when a risk is low, and hence public fears are not only out of proportion but also costly to redress.

If an official’s or doctor’s response to a parent worried about fluoridated drinking water is to show them even more data about how safe and effective it is, they often won’t sound convincing. Instead, they’ll look incapable of unbiased discussion. Indeed, the more information they show, the more it can look like propaganda. This approach can even make the opponent’s argument more memorable.

Not only are reassuring people and countering misinformation ineffective, they can end up doing a lot of damage.

Ineffective communication, however well intentioned, can even boost “alt-facts” by amplifying, not diminishing, people’s worries.

So public health officials, clinicians and involved community members need to shift strategies when dealing with low risks, from communicating evidence to hosing down what has been called “outrage”, another name for public concern.

#1 Hose down your own outrage first

The first step may well be to hose down your own outrage, or your fear about the consequences of public misinformation. Our own outrage stops us listening well to what’s driving public concern. We tend to correct or reassure when we’re motivated by our own worries, strategies that can worsen polarisation in a debate.

Addressing public outrage comes next. This is the type of response that focuses on your audience’s needs and stakes out a middle ground where there’s some room to manoeuvre.

#2 Respect people’s fears

There are good, research-based strategies to manage this type of outrage, starting with the principles of care and fairness.

At minimum, this means acknowledging and respecting people’s fears. A fearful parent needs to know we care about their concerns on say, vaccine safety, and that we have heard and understood their worries. That’s before they will care about what we say.

#3 Build trust

One of the strongest predictors of whether someone believes or acts on a public health message is trust; if we can’t trust the communicator, we won’t believe the message. Care, fairness, competence and openness are all aspects of trust.

Trust is essential for us to be able to communicate effectively over the life cycle of a public health issue, whether that’s about a mistake in public policy, or when new studies lead to new information or recommendations.

So if you are unsure about communication, always choose the strategy that builds trust, as we discuss in a new paper in the journal Public Health Research and Practice from the Sax Institute.

Competence means you need to stick unswervingly to the integrity of scientific method and data where you discuss it. But competence and openness together are best served by being upfront about uncertainty and complexity. It’s better to err on the side of communicating early and often, rather than to wait in the hopes of providing a more reliable and consistent message.

#4 Don’t panic about panic

If you communicate early and the messages change or are confusing, won’t people over-react? Yes, and your job is to hose down your outrage and tolerate such early and usually short-lived over-reactions. People resume their usual habits and choices once they see for themselves they are safe.

Tolerating early over-reactions allows you to remain a trusted source people listen to, even if people don’t change their general views about the risk (and don’t expect them to).

Avoid telling people “don’t panic”. Even calling someone’s fears “panic” is a way of diminishing them. What is “panic” to you is simply “not doing as you think I should” to an anxious public.

#5 Your actions communicate more than your words

Think about what your actions say to the public. For instance, the Australian government’s decision to cancel all temporary visas from West African countries affected by Ebola virus in 2014 signalled that Ebola was a real, terrifying threat. This message undermined consistent reassuring official public health messages that the risk of transmission within the community in Australia was extremely low.

Helping people become less fearful can be as simple as giving them back some control in the situation, for instance by giving people concrete actions they can take. In the case of Ebola, that might mean monitoring their temperature if they think they have been exposed.

Public health units can also work with community members to develop or co-design their own solutions. Deliberative processes such as these, where people can see their stake in the outcome, can be exceptionally strong ways of enhancing public trust in processes and institutions.

#6 Play the long game

Effective risk communication means playing a long game of “getting to maybe”, the “maybe” being where officials can still engage a resistant public, one frightened and persuaded by “alt-facts”.

The aim is to maintain the relationships and the dialogue, not to correct all people’s false beliefs. Ironically this provides the best protection against polarisation and “alt-facts”, and hence our capacity as a society to confront the risks we collectively face.

The ConversationClaire Hooker is the Senior Lecturer and Coordinator, Health and Medical Humanities at University of Sydney

This article was originally published on The Conversation.


  • #7 Let your fists do the talking.
    Don’t even waste your time with #1 to #6. Reason, facts and logic are lost on the terminally stupid, I’ve tried to have measured conversations with anti-vaxxers, it’s like trying to have a dialogue with your goldfish.

  • People aren’t necessarily stupid, but in general, are easily led. The problem is, once they are on that led path, it’s damned near impossible to change their mind. Personally, if I still had children around the house and once I had explained why I’m not happy about their decision, I’d be asking them to stay well away from my family. Hell, stay the hell away from my kids school too. There is more than enough information around that they can avail themselves of, ask them to read both sides of the argument, then just walk away.

  • One point that is missed here is the desire to ‘save face’ and ‘be consistent’. Once someone has voiced a public position and contributed significant effort to a cause, they will often find that they are trapped into continually validating that position despite new evidence.

    They have a sunk cost. They have a persona. And to switch positions would confirm that they have wasted effort and are not of sound mind. You can’t convince someone to change their opinion. They can only change their opinion.

    And finally, once scientists stop burying dinosaur bones I will start believing their other findings.

  • Suggestion #7 – try arguing with the 97% of Western Europe that does not fluoridate its water supply, and then take on all Western European media outlets for being negligent in failing in their duty to whip up hysteria about this state of affairs.

    • 97% of western europe? please state your source. There are only 8 or 9 countries in western europe not 30 so I’m wondering how that 3% works out. So is this 97% of population or area? or maybe just your imagination made that figure up?

  • Context and timing is important… is the person standing on a soap box, or talking to you like a person, how adamant are they, test the waters with a few simple facts and see how they shoot them down.

    My usual one is ask them what they know about Autism, vaccines cause autism… and what is autism??? Its the lack of knowledge what is autism that usually surprises me about the feverant attitude and then see how they react. Its the ignorance of what Autism is that I find alarming, just correcting a few myths about autism can change a persons attitude on the vaccine issue.

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