As coronavirus vaccines become widely accessible for the Duke community, juniors Anne Crabill and Ishaan Kumar are teaching a topical house course that explores the politics, history and societal implications of immunizations.
Advised by Misha Angrist, associate professor of the practice at Social Science Research Institute, the course, Vaccines Explained, covers topics ranging from the role social media plays in vaccine misinformation to the deep-rooted history of the anti-vaccination movement. Meeting weekly as a wide scale vaccine rollout occurs worldwide, students in the course are in a unique position to study the role that information, communication and history play in bringing potentially life-saving immunity to communities.
Crabill and Kumar share a passion for the topic of vaccine resistance. Crabill’s interest was piqued as a first-year in the Science and the Public FOCUS cluster, where she, Kumar and Angrist first met. Since then, she has been conducting her own research on society’s relationship with vaccines, spending the last two summers studying vaccine hesitancy—with the British National Archives and one with the London-based Vaccine Confidence Project.
Kumar spent his high school years debating with members of large anti-vaccination Facebook groups.
“I now know that this is not a very effective science communication strategy,” Kumar said. “We have to lead with understanding and openness when you try and communicate and I think there's this ivory-tower assumption that people will just listen to us because we're the scientists. But I think this sort of paternalistic attitude needs to change because otherwise we're running a race with one leg.”
Earlier in the semester, the group heard from historian Nadja Durbach, the author of a book about resistance to vaccination efforts in 19th-century England. “Not only was she a great raconteur, but she was uniquely equipped to show us how the same anti-vaxx tropes from 150 years ago are alive and well in the age of COVID,” Angrist said.
I attended a class session recently. The focus of the class was on how social media can fuel the spread of misinformation regarding COVID-19 and consequent immunization programs. Crabill and Kumar assigned us each a different social media platform, and we spent a few minutes investigating each company’s COVID-19 policies and discussing how effective each company was at filtering out harmful misinformation.
Some of the company policies surprised first-year Andrew Dale.
“Discovering the crazy restrictions that I had not previously known from popular platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram really surprised both myself and the other class members, as we had not understood how strict these rules around COVID-19 had been,” Dale told me.
But despite the restrictions and policies, social media platforms can still accelerate the organization and dissemination of vaccine disinformation.
“There’s the old adage: ‘A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still pulling its boots on.’ Social media means misinformation can spread faster than it ever has. So what do we do?” Angrist said.
The discussions facilitated by this house course attempt to investigate that question and more.
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One tool that Crabill and Kumar have identified as crucial to the battle against vaccine resistance is effective science communication.
“If you're someone who goes home at Thanksgiving and has to argue with their cousin or their aunt about the efficacy of vaccines or the need for vaccines, know that you're not going to change anyone's mind by bashing them over the head with facts,” Kumar said. “All you're really going to do is alienate them and entrench them in their own position.”
Understanding and listening are essential, he said.
“You have to understand them first. These beliefs come from a real concern that they have. And whether the concern is empirical or not, that's not the issue. The issue is that they're not going to put that thing in their body whilst they have that concern. And to address the concern, you need to understand the concern, and to do that you need to listen,” Kumar continued.
Crabill said that achieving more widespread vaccine acceptance is a crucial step to ensuring personal and communal safety.
“Vaccines are one of our most cost effective ways to prevent suffering and death. COVID has made it clear how much more we need to prioritize getting vaccines to people who need them most,” Crabill said.
Angrist has high praise for Crabill and Kumar.
“They are both highly motivated and extremely bright. On top of that they are both original, creative thinkers and lots of fun to be around. I think my biggest contribution to the course has been to stay out of their way and just let them do their thing,” Angrist said.
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Crabill had spent two summers studying vaccine hesitancy with the British National Archives. It has been updated to reflect that she spent one summer with the British National Archives and one with the Vaccine Confidence Project. The Chronicle regrets the error.