Are Vaccines Red or Blue?

As the long-running debate continues over whether childhood vaccines cause autism, Yale professor Dan M. Kahan (who has appeared on Freakonomics Radio) takes a look at people’s attitudes toward vaccination. He dispels the myth that liberals are more likely to be anti-vaccine. From the abstract of his new paper:

This Report presents empirical evidence relevant to assessing the claim — reported widely in the media and other sources — that the public is growing increasingly anxious about the safety of childhood vaccinations. Based on survey and experimental methods (N = 2,316), the Report presents two principal findings: first, that vaccine risks are neither a matter of concern for the vast majority of the public nor an issue of contention among recognizable demographic, political, or cultural subgroups; and second, that ad hoc forms of risk communication that assert there is mounting resistance to childhood immunizations themselves pose a risk of creating misimpressions and arousing sensibilities that could culturally polarize the public and diminish motivation to cooperate with universal vaccination programs. Based on these findings the Report recommends that government agencies, public health professionals, and other constituents of the public health establishment (1) promote the use of valid and appropriately focused empirical methods for investigating vaccine-risk perceptions and formulating responsive risk communication strategies; (2) discourage ad hoc risk communication based on impressionistic or psychometrically invalid alternatives to these methods; (3) publicize the persistently high rates of childhood vaccination and high levels of public support for universal immunization in the U.S.; and (4) correct ad hoc communicators who misrepresent U.S. vaccination coverage and its relationship to the incidence of childhood diseases.

A summary is available at the Cultural Cognition Project (a research group that Kahan helps lead) and, in American Prospect, Paul Waldman writes: “[N]ot only do very few people believe that childhood vaccines pose a danger, liberals are no more likely to believe that than conservatives; in fact, they’re slightly less likely to believe it.” 

(HT: The Daily Dish)

steve Cebalt

Strawman premise: "Sometimes when this is brought up, someone will mention that liberals believe some demonstrably false things too, like the idea that childhood vaccines cause autism." Do they really?

Is anyone really beating that drum? I've never heard that claim at all. having said that, strategies 1-3 above are good, and strategy 4 is good, with a caveat: often in PR, correcting misinformation isn't worth it, especially on TV news formats. It only perpetuates the falsehood, especially since the falsifiers are usually louder. On TV, volume wins.

I think this is good stuff, except the liberal/conservative stuff throws me way off track, because I've never heard the vaccine discussion debated in that context.


Exactly right on 4, but not about who is louder. The first bit of information is more often the one remembered in that format. They have retractions and corrections all the time but few pay attention to them.


"As the long-running debate continues over whether childhood vaccines cause autism..."

Ugh, really, Freakonomics? I get that the post wasn't primarily about the veracity of this, but there's a debate about this as much as there is a debate between creationism and evolution or a debate between homeopathy and medicine. Let's frame it properly by acknowledging that this is a small set of deluded people attempting to deny reality, not a debate.


Took the words right out of my keyboard, you did.


"Are vaccines red or blue?"

Yes, they are.