I’ll Debate You On Vaccines…

…But we need ground rules.

René F. Najera, MPH, DrPH

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Two men sit in front of a microphone. They are wearing suits. One man points at the other with his index finger. They have serious looks on their faces. The image is in black and white.
“I’ll debate you by the oak tree after school, nerd.” (Photo by Llyfrgell Genedlaethol Cymru / The National Library of Wales on Unsplash)

A group of entertainers and anti-vaccine activists recently tried to harass a well-known vaccine researcher into a “debate” on vaccination. Thankfully, the researcher refused to engage. So, true to form, the entertainers and anti-vaccine activists claimed victory.

This is an old tactic by science deniers and others. They challenge you to an unfair fight, and they claim success if you refuse to engage. It is the same tactic used by the bully in school, who wants to see you after school by the oak tree. If you don’t show up, they win, and you’re branded a coward for making the best decision possible.

Two issues come to mind when these kinds of challenges are made. First, scientific debates are not ruled by the same standards as public or cultural debates. In scientific debate, the different sides present evidence. They back up that evidence with more evidence. And they use opinions — or feelings — as only filler between the presentation and weighing of the evidence.

This is what makes science seem to always change to people who do not engage in scientific debate often. As new evidence is available, the scientific debate shifts, and different scientific recommendations are made. We saw this all the time during the COVID-19 pandemic. As more was learned about the epidemiology of the novel coronavirus causing the pandemic, the recommendations shifted. But not everyone is adept at science, which leads to confusion.

Animated image of Willem DaFoe saying “I’m something of a scientist myself.”
Everyone with a social media following, it seems.

Second, public or cultural debates are more of a popularity contest than an actual debate. The loudest or best-dressed person tends to win. Ironically, people who heard the Nixon-Kennedy debates on the radio in 1960 thought Nixon won. (Maybe?) Those who saw the debates on television thought Kennedy won, as he seemed more at ease in front of the cameras. It was part of the Kennedy strategy to give a good show on television.

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René F. Najera, MPH, DrPH

DrPH in Epidemiology. Associate/JHBSPH. Adjunct/GMU. Epidemiologist. Father. Husband. (He/Him/His/El)