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Op/ed: There’s More to Coronavirus Vaccine Skepticism Than Just ‘Antiscience Thinking’

Scientist Calls on Public Health Leaders to Rebuild Trust Following a Legacy of Scientific Racism

By Zakiya Whatley and Titilayo Shodiya

Illustration of person getting a vaccine

Illustration by iStock

Vaccine skepticism shouldn’t simply be chalked up to “antiscience” sentiment, write Zakiya Whatley and Titilayo Shodiya, who call for a reckoning with America’s history of scientific and medical racism.

What drives more than 50% of Americans to refuse to commit to taking a vaccine for COVID-19 when it becomes available?

While it may be tempting for the science and medical communities to simply chalk it up to “antiscience” sentiment, they should dig a little deeper, according to a new essay in Scientific American from Zakiya Whatley, a scientist and educator who manages UMD’s Biological Sciences Graduate Program, and Titilayo Shodiya, an engineer and deputy quality manager for the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

The numbers for Black and Hispanic respondents to an AP-NORC poll are even lower, with only 37% committing to take the vaccine. Together, the co-hosts of the “Dope Labs” podcast call for a reckoning with America’s history of scientific and medical racism, ranging from medical experimentation without proper consent to ongoing unequal access to health care for many people of color.

The people and institutions responsible for designing the communication around the coronavirus vaccine have to consider this broad backdrop if we want to get COVID-19 under control. Validating the ways in which the American people, and marginalized groups in particular, have sometimes been misled, mistreated and misunderstood at the hands of “science” is the first step in regaining their trust. There is no shortage of interests who seek to do harm by manipulating the public conversation and exploiting the legacy of medical racism with messages designed to invoke anger and fear. Public health officials who want to advocate for clarity need to understand these same vulnerabilities and address them head-on rather than ignoring them.

But what does this look like in practice? Anthony Fauci appears to subscribe to the “never say no” approach to communication, stepping into less familiar media formats where the audiences—whether deemed scientific or not—already exist: Lil’ Wayne’s “Young Money Radio,” “Instagram Live with Matthew McConaughey” and Khan Academy’s YouTube. There is still a need for more diverse voices and unconventional storytelling approaches. We have received feedback that “Dope Labs” is too casual or not really a science podcast because we refuse to use jargon. But this is by design. We don’t need more content that follows the same style; we want people to reconsider why credibility is assessed based on the presenter’s voice, background and tone.

Read the rest of the essay in Scientific American.

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