Wells: Why do you think this mask misinformation exists? I really do think we got off to a bad start on mask information at the beginning.
Hamblin: This is how a lot of problems start with health information. When you start going into rabbit holes of: How could something possibly go wrong from this healthy thing you advised?, Is it possible for you to tell me that no one has ever had a negative consequence of wearing a mask or that no one has ever had a negative consequence of getting a vaccine?, et cetera.
And then people focus on that rare possibility, which can never totally be ruled out, over the overwhelming evidence that if everyone wore masks, we would save thousands of lives. It’s easy to go down that rabbit hole, but everyone wants to be safe. And it can be real seductive to believe the thing that you want to believe rather than the thing that the evidence is telling you. Most people would actually love it if it turned out that masks were not necessary. I don’t like wearing them.
When someone comes to you with a bizarre idea—like that their kid shouldn’t wear a mask because they’re going to get sick from it—they may have adopted that idea because it is anti-establishment, maybe not consciously even. And so, the more you come at them with scientific consensus and established media, the worse that could make things. And that’s why individual conversations are really important. We need to get people on the same page, especially as the vaccine rolls out, because we need, like, 70 percent of the population to take it.
Wells: Vaccines have long been fodder for misinformation and pushing back against the consensus. Vaccine skepticism and conspiracy theories are not new to the coronavirus. We’ve certainly gotten a lot of questions about that. But I think the thing that is interesting with the coronavirus is: Even people who are not vaccine skeptics have written in with safety questions because of the speed and unusual nature of the development of this vaccine.
Hamblin: I think the term anti-vaxxer is misused a lot. There is a small set of people who are knowingly misleadingly and profiting from spreading conspiracy theories. Many more people who just have questions, don’t understand, are concerned, are hesitant … when you label a person “anti-vax” who’s in that space, you can risk radicalizing people. And now, everyone is in that space with this coronavirus vaccine.
But there’s going to be a lot of reasons to believe in the safety of these vaccines. You have multiple international agencies vetting them, leaders of countries and leaders of the pharmaceutical companies taking them, all kinds of medical experts taking them. There’s going to be every possible reassurance that no one is being deliberately misleading. But it will never be possible to say that, five years from now, we don’t recognize some patterns among people who got the vaccine that were simply impossible to have known about.
Yet, all the good news about the vaccine falls apart if we have a wave of disinformation and we only get something like 35 percent of the population vaccinated. Because then we’ll still have to wear masks and distance. The virus will still percolate in our society for a long time, and in a way that we won’t be able to feel certain that we’re not going to get it.