OPINION14 January 2021

Vaccine debate won’t be won by talking about the science

Covid-19 Europe North America Opinion UK

Research will be vital in understanding people’s attitudes towards and beliefs about the Covid-19 vaccine, says Jeremy Hollow.

About 10 years ago, my son caught measles. He was very young, not old enough to have the vaccine. It took hours and hours to diagnose because no one had seen a case for years. He was very sick but thankfully recovered.

This experience hardened an already strong pro-science, pro-vaccine attitude within me. I simply couldn’t understand why people wouldn’t vaccinate their kids. I do now.

I’d like to make a couple of points in this article:

  • Vaccine uptake is about trust, personal values and the broader cultural context. We will need a more nuanced, compassionate, and inclusive approach to building it. Shouting about how ‘right’ we are won’t cut it
  • Work on vaccine attitudes suggests that traditional research might be missing those people with ‘unpopular’ opinions – thereby underestimating the challenge.

Fast forward to today’s Covid-19 world. It’s thought that we need around 70-80% of the population to be vaccinated for herd immunity to work. Based on current projections, this seems unlikely.

For people like me, our first reaction is incredulity. We want our lives back, our families safe. But we are part of the problem. People at one end of an argument find it virtually impossible to see any value or legitimacy in the views of people at the other end.

Having used social data to explore the attitudes of people in the UK, US and Germany to a Covid-19 vaccine – I now know how limiting this viewpoint is. Several things are going on that we need to consider.

We won’t win people over by using the arguments that convinced us. Explaining ‘the science’ over and over again will only fall of deaf ears. They’ve already heard it and dismissed it. They simply don’t trust it – and have (what they consider to be) valid reasons why not. What surprised me most about listening to these opposing views – was just how logical, considered and reasonable they are,  when you understand their perspective.

It’s not a battle of reason against a lack of it. Rather, it’s the challenge of accepting different standpoints and working out how to meet somewhere in the middle for the public good.

Central to the whole challenge is a simple question: do you fear the vaccine more than the virus? Many people fear the vaccine more – from those who are undecided or uncertain, through to people with stronger anti-vaccine views.

Fear of the vaccine comes from a heady combination of lack of trust (in the medicine, in ‘big pharma’), personal values (eg individual choice vs government mandates) and the broader cultural context (eg politicisation of a vaccine). The more opposed people are, the more suspicious they are of the vaccine: its speed of development, who is making it, the motivations of those involved, the politics, a lack of first-hand exposure to the vaccine itself.

Research will be vital in unpacking these attitudes and beliefs to help develop an effective public health campaign. Which brings me to the second point.

How the observed world (social) reflects the researched world is something we think about a lot. Kantar’s recent work on international attitudes towards a Covid-19vaccine gave us a chance to do this.

Kantar’s work (an online survey in November, and earlier in June) showed consistently similar themes to our work. However, there was one big difference – the strength of the signal from those who definitively won’t take the vaccine.

The Kantar work looked at whether people were more worried about the Covid-19 disease versus a vaccine. This shows three groups:

  • More worried about catching and spreading Covid-19
  • Undecided
  • More worried about receiving a new vaccine.

Looking at the social conversation also revealed three broad groups – characterised by their relative fear of the virus versus the vaccine. Our groups were:

  • The ‘pro-vaccine’ (more fearful of the virus than the vaccine)
  • The ‘conditionally pro-vaccine’ (more sceptical of the safety but not against a vaccine)
  • The ‘anti-vaccine’ (more fearful of the vaccine than the virus).

This gave us a similar basis for comparison. The table below compares the two studies. It shows almost identical ‘pro’ groups, but divergence around the ‘undecided’ and ‘anti’ groups.


One possible explanation for this is that researched data is underestimating views that might be less socially acceptable or controversial. Researched data seems to be overestimating more ‘conventional’ views.

The anonymity of social media may offer a different, more rounded perspective. We’ve been working on two hypotheses to explain the differences:

  • Those with more extreme views or more controversial attitudes are simply less likely to ‘show up’ in traditional research but are happy to further their views on social
  • We found people were scared to admit that they hold less ‘acceptable’ views. We discovered a fear of questioning the vaccine for some. The ‘conditional’ group (ie the undecided) needed to ask questions and to be convinced but were worried about being labelled ‘anti-vaccine’.

While social isn’t nationally representative and tends to pick up on the extremes, it seems important to listen to those views and recognise they exist and are often firmly held. This will then help us design policy and campaigns to help shift attitudes in support of public health.

Jeremy Hollow is founder and managing director of Listen + Learn Research

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