Science reporting on flu

It’s that time of year when all good science-based critical thinkers share articles about flu vaccine and unintentionally dissuade fence-sitters from getting the jab.

When dealing with a species that remembers facts by going through the emotional centers of the brain first it’s no wonder that we often react on instinct more than fact. Science thinkers have spent years training their brains to work differently from the average person. Which is why, I think, they are sometimes bad at communicating with the average person.

Huge needles
Cold and clinical, devoid of feeling.
When people are pictured they look anxious.
Or otherwise in the throes of faking flu misery for the camera.

You get it. You’ve seen these images hundred of times at the start of flu season. Usually attached to a fact-based article with good intentions, or — and please don’t be one of these people — a fear-mongering article full of cherry-picked statistics designed to scare you away from vaccination.

As I tend to know a fair number of people who make a living communicating science facts to the public I’ve made it a small personal mission to ask them to share their flu facts with photos that feature HEALTHY people not sick people — the vaccine helps keep us healthy but you wouldn’t know it based on the photos attached to the average article or FAQ poster. And please don’t feature the needle because a lot of regular folks are scared of those and an article featuring a needle is guaranteed not to get as many shares.

Once in a while I get a true science nerd like the science journalist I asked to reconsider his photo policy last week who responded by asking if I have any evidence that the photo makes a difference. What an excellent question. Actually, no. There are heaps of sociological studies that investigate what increases vaccination rates among specific populations but nothing about how the science is reported.

So the evidence is my gut and personal experience. But you have to admit that when you look at this photo the CDC connected to their seasonal piece about flu vaccine you have a different emotional response than you do to the images above.

That smiling face makes a huge difference.

The push back from science types wondering why I would even bother to suggest this small but important change in their reporting frustrates me. They will bemoan the stupidity of the masses for getting the facts wrong but I think they’re missing the crucial emotional element in their effort. It’s a deeply human mechanism that their fear-mongering anti-vaxxers have no issue co-opting for their own goals. And I think this oversight is why the side with reality is losing ground in the fight to spread vaccine not bullshit.

[If you do know of studies that show the effect of imagery used — to either result — please let me know and I will link it in this piece. I’ve searched over the years and never found one.]

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