November 14, 2019

Why aren’t facts enough?

By Luke Testa

It seems intuitive that providing people with accurate health information will help them make better health decisions. But just providing information backed by research isn’t enough to change minds, let alone behavior.

The way people engage with health information is more complicated than just consuming available scientific findings. Beliefs play a major role in how information is received, interpreted, and applied (or rejected). We’ve seen many examples of large segments of society rejecting expert scientific consensus in favor of personal beliefs. This phenomenon has driven public responses to topics ranging from GMOs to vaccines, despite near uniform consensus by experts on the safety and/or benefits of each.

And this rejection of science has extreme consequences. For example, vaccine hesitancy poses a threat that expands beyond the locus of the family or individual. The WHO identifies vaccine hesitancy as a significant global health threat due to the potential of reversing progress that has been made toward eliminating vaccine-preventable diseases.

Findings from Nyhan et al. suggest that providing corrective information can increase people’s belief in incorrect information. In regard to vaccinations, Nyhan and colleagues also revealed that providing corrective information about the flu vaccine reduced intent to vaccinate amongst those most concerned about vaccine side effects.

These discouraging findings beg the question, What is the health community doing wrong here? Maybe even more importantly, What can be done to remedy these adverse results of sharing corrective information? The answers to these questions vary as more researchers and health experts are beginning to explore the threat of and appropriate responses to misinformation and cognitive-biases in personal and public health.

What is clear is that normative forms of communication may be part of the problem. Rethinking information dissemination and how the public receives health recommendations is critical in working towards a health system based on evidence and equity.

Dr. Aaron Carroll breaks down the facts, fiction, and potential remedies for us here: