The Vaccine Blog

Why might PhDs be vaccine-hesitant?

Why are PhDs more likely to be vaccine-hesitant?

1. Introduction


Dr. Robert Malone was banned from Twitter for violating the platform's COVID-19 misinformation policies. Soon after, YouTube removed videos of a controversial interview he did with Spotify podcast host Joe Rogan, according to reports. Leaning on his early contributions to research around the mRNA vaccine technology now used in the COVID-19 vaccines, Malone has billed himself as the “inventor” of mRNA vaccines. In reality, the development of the vaccines and the technology they rely on involved countless scientists and several other breakthroughs. Malone has promoted several false and misleading claims about the COVID-19 vaccines and pandemic. His claim of being the mRNA vaccine inventor and his ability to speak fluidly in scientific terms have given him great appeal to anti-vaccine audiences.

So, why would this happen? Why would someone with a PhD in biochemistry, with also a medical degree, not just have concerns about arguably the most crucial vaccine of this century - but actively advocate against it? Well, if you regularly read my posts, one thing should be obvious


It's not always about the vaccines themselves


It's more often a framework of issues -  psychological factors, culture,  personal experience, among many others. That becomes more and more apparent the more and more you research the topic, the more stories you read, and the more people you talk to. 


Now it's never good to think in absolutes, and this topic is no exception.


So, no, not all PhDs are vaccine hesitant/antivaccine. Nobody is that unidimensional


Also, to that point, there is a significant variation in vaccine acceptance across different fields and disciplines. 



2. Some reasons that those with PhDs may be more likely to express vaccine hesitancy


However, there are some possible reasons why some PhDs may be more likely to express vaccine hesitancy:



2.1 Overconfidence in their own knowledge


PhDs have spent several years developing expertise in a particular field and may feel that they are better equipped to evaluate the risks and benefits of vaccines than the general public. 


Now this isn`t always wrong, per se.


Maybe they have a PhD in virology, epidemiology, or vaccinology.


In that case, yes, they might actually be right in that assessment.


A PhD in English literature….not so much.


I have a BA in Science with a specialisation in Microbiology; I can`t just decide I want to direct Hamlet on Broadway next year, or be President in the next few months. I don`t have the background or experience.


The same principle applies in the converse situation. I have no doubt that a PhD endows people with better reasoning abilities, problem solving, and many others besides. I respect that. I respect the time and effort that goes into it. Here`s the thing. PhDs are intense study of one area. They`re highly specialised. The skills don`t apply to every other domain of study, and some people are under the impression that they do. This overconfidence may lead some PhDs to believe that they know better than publiic health authorities and be skeptical of vaccine recommendations.

2.2  Exposure to misinformation:


PhDs are trained to critically evaluate scientific evidence, but this skill can also make them more susceptible to misinformation that is presented in a convincing manner. 


Everyone-everyone-is capable of believing false information or ideologies. IQ, education, socioeconomic status are all irrelevant. Humans are falliable. If information is consistently repeated over time, it is much more likely to be believed. Regardles of whether or not it's true. This is especially true if false information is repeated by people they interact with on a daily basis.  Especially if it's people we respect and admire. 


But what does that have to do with how misinformation is perceived? Information is information, right? Not necessarily. Pre-existing beliefs influence what information we look for, and what information we discard as irrelevant. 


The internet is awash with anti-vaccine misinformation, and some PhDs may have encountered it and believed it to be true. So think of a PhD who has heard the same misinformation day after day for months or years. They come across it online, and click. Google`s algorithms see they like it, and similar content is promoted in their search results or news feed. Any content contradicting their opinion is low-priority in their feed/search results etc. It's the same with any social media site. With this, they`ve enclosed themselves within an echo chamber online. 


Confirmation bias kicks in and, depending how strong their original beliefs were - you`ve got yourself a conspiracy theorist. 



2.3 Political and ideological beliefs:


Vaccine hesitancy has been linked to political and ideological beliefs, and some PhDs may hold beliefs that are at odds with mainstream scientific consensus on vaccines. 


It's interesting to note that it isn`t always about vaccines themselves. There are two interesting observations to make here. First, people's political affiiations often relfect their values. More liberal people are inclined towards more political candidates, and vice versa for conservative. Also, people's political stances are very often congruent with their stances on vaccination. So by association, vaccination stances can also reflect value systems. 


It is important to note that these are just some potential reasons why some PhDs may be more likely to express vaccine hesitancy. That's not even an absolute statement. Some are more likely, not definitely more hesitant. 


The key is; alway consult with trusted medical professionals and reliable sources of information when making decisions about vaccines; such as the WHO and CDC websites linked in the References section.


2.4 Overconfidence in their own knowledge


It is not accurate to generalize that all PhDs are overconfident in their own knowledge, as individuals can differ in their levels of confidence and self-awareness regardless of their educational background.


IQ and emotional intelligence are two distinct strengths; and one does not necessaraily mean the other is a given. Being aware of your intellectual limitations, and changing your views in response, takes a lot of emotional inteligence. Why? It can really hurt the ego.Of course, it would be wrong to say that we don`t all have an ego. We do. We all want to be admired, respected by the right people, and liked to different degrees. 


However, it is possible that some PhDs may develop a sense of intellectual superiority or overconfidence as a result of their extensive training and specialized knowledge in a particular field.


There`s an important phrase - “a particular field.” One area, probably highly specialised. 


The process of obtaining a PhD typically involves several years of intense academic study and research, which can lead to a deep understanding of a specific subject matter. Again, there's a key phrase - “specific subject matter.” While they are doubtless very competent in their domain, the skills it requires are not necessarily applicable to every area of study. I studied Microbiology, for instance. I can`t suddenly decide that I want to become President within the next 6 months. I do have educational experience, broadly. However, it's nowhere near the relevant area. Becoming the leader of a country takes years if not decades of training. Even then, president are still human and falliable. An analogy can be drawn between this and someone with a PhD in English  believing they have equivalent experience to that of someone with a PhD in vaccinology. That they`re on the same playing field. This isn`t to insult anyone`s intelligence or career.  It`s to make sure those with relevant backgrounds are the major decision makers. 


This level of expertise can sometimes result in a sense of superiority or overconfidence, especially if the individual has limited exposure to other disciplines or perspectives. People in academic disciplines engage with very insular communities. This can also lead to a lack of appreciation for other disciplines, and how they integrate into their own discipline. 


Additionally, the academic culture within some fields may reinforce an overconfident attitude. Especially in saturated, highly competitive areas with difficult career progression. Although, this is true of all areas to some extent. You`re not going to get into a PhD without some degree of confidence in yourself. You might not even apply. So possibly, more confident people are likely to apply for PhDs in the first place, and this is where a culture of overconfidence stems from.


That said, it's important to note that many PhDs are also highly self-aware and humble, recognizing the limits of their knowledge and open to learning from others. Developing this capacity might also come with experiences.  In science, for instance, a lot of experiments will go wrong before one will go right and you get results.  You`ll get a lot of feedback and constructive criticism on your assignments before getting them right. Although, it is rarely this simplistic, and many factors play a role in the ability to take feedback. It ultimately comes down to the individual's personality, upbringing, and life experiences, rather than simply their educational attainment.


3. How does exposure to misinformation cause vaccine hesitancy?



Exposure to misinformation can cause vaccine hesitancy by creating doubt and distrust in the safety and efficacy of vaccines. Misinformation can be spread through various channels, such as social media. This can cause mass-propogation of misinformation or disinformation, causing mistrust in vaccines on a large scale. .


This can erode trust in the medical community and government agencies that regulate vaccines. Misinformation can also play into people's pre-existing beliefs and fears, such as a distrust of pharmaceutical companies or concerns about vaccine side effects.


One common type of misinformation about vaccines is the claim that they can cause autism, which has been debunked by numerous studies. However, this misinformation continues to circulate, leading some individuals to refuse vaccines or delay vaccination for their children.

Other types of misinformation about vaccines may include false claims about the ingredients in vaccines, such as thimerosal or aluminum, or claims that vaccines are unnecessary because certain diseases have been eradicated. These claims can further fuel vaccine hesitancy and reluctance to vaccinate.


Overall, exposure to misinformation can create confusion and distrust in the safety and efficacy of vaccines, leading to vaccine hesitancy and ultimately contributing to the spread of preventable diseases.



4. How do political and ideological beliefs cause vaccine hesitancy?



Political and ideological beliefs can cause vaccine hesitancy by shaping people's attitudes and beliefs about vaccines. In some cases, political or ideological beliefs can lead individuals to question the safety and efficacy of vaccines or to view vaccination as a matter of personal freedom or choice rather than a public health issue.


For example, in some countries, vaccine hesitancy has been linked to political or ideological movements that emphasize individual liberty or distrust of government intervention. Some individuals may reject vaccines on the basis of their political or ideological beliefs, even if they are not opposed to vaccination in principle.


Additionally, political and ideological beliefs can influence the sources of information that people trust and the types of information they are exposed to. Political polarization can also contribute to vaccine hesitancy, with some individuals viewing vaccination as a partisan issue rather than a public health issue. This is important as it appeas to tribalistic tendencies. This can create a situation where individuals are more likely to reject vaccines if they perceive them as being associated with a political or ideological group that they oppose. As I said, political and vaccaintion stances often reflect value systems. For that reason, interacting with someone who has a different vaccination stance than us can trigger our tribalistic tendencies. They`re in an outgroup. You can`t always do anything about this. 


Generally, in the course of everyday life this doesn`t cause issues. Nobody gets hurt; people can be ignored, you can walk away. However, substitute vaccines for whatever issue it is that is causing disagreement. Add in tribalism. Even between just two people, that's enough of a recipe for disaster. Scale that up to the level of millions, however, and you can understand why people become so divided over vaccines. .



5. How can we address vaccine hesitancy among PhDs?

Addressing vaccine hesitancy among PhDs, or any group of individuals, requires a targeted approach that takes into consideration their specific concerns and backgrounds. Here are some strategies that can be effective in addressing vaccine hesitancy among PhDs:


5.1  Provide accurate and reliable information: in combination with stories


PhDs value evidence-based information. Provide them with clear and accurate information about the vaccines, including their safety, efficacy, and the scientific process behind their development. Address any misconceptions or misinformation they may have encountered. The WHO and CDC websites (which I`ve linked in the References section), are generally the best source of information. Regarding vaccine development, there is an excellent book called “Vaxxers” written by Drs. Sarah Gilbert and Catherine Green, the developers of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine. It details the process of vaccine development, the reasoning behind each step, and reasoning behind changes that occurred due to the pandemic. 


Not only this, combining accurate information with stories is an excellent way to capture people's attention, as well as maintain it.  Groups advocating against vaccinations have long known this. It is only recently, however, that this approach has been adopted for vaccine advocacy. I use it a lot in my blog posts, actually. I didn`t so much when I began. However, as I developed skill in writing, I started to appreciate how powerful stories can be. 


For instance, take a look at the two short paragraphs below:


  1. From the CDC website; “In a multistate network of U.S. hospitals during January–March 2021, receipt of Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna COVID-19 vaccines was 94% effective against COVID-19 hospitalization among fully vaccinated adults and 64% effective among partially vaccinated adults aged ≥65 years.”




  1. In an article for the national nonprofit organisation, Famiies Fighting Flu, " On Thanksgiving Day of 2003, Vira noticed that her 23-month-old daughter, Elizabeth, wasn’t feeling well.At noon that day, Vira was sitting on the sofa with her daughter when she suddenly threw up. Vira noticed blood in the vomit and immediately grabbed her daughter and ran to the neighbors’ house for help. They called 911 and Vira started doing CPR on Elizabeth, who had become unconscious. When the paramedics arrived, they took Vira into another room of the house so that they could work on Elizabeth. They worked on her for what seemed like forever, but Elizabeth died. An autopsy confirmed that Elizabeth had contracted the flu – H1N1 specifically – and that it had led to a complication called bi-lateral pneumonia in which her lungs filled with blood.".


The first has the rigorous scientific information; the second has an emotional story. Combining these  is key to optimise the liklihood that someone who reads it will vaccinate. 



5.2 Foster open dialogue:



Create a supportive and non-judgmental environment where PhDs can express their concerns and ask questions. People are much more likely to listen to information when they feel empathised with. Otherwise you can`t really get anywhere. That`s, really, the missing ingredient in many attempts to increase vaccination rates. It`s also what needs to characterise future ones.

5.2  Engage trusted influencers


This is an important one, and can be applied in many contexts. Influential figures within the PhD community, such as respected professors or researchers can publicly share their vaccination experiences and advocate for vaccination. Hearing from peers or mentors whom they trust and respect can have a significant impact on individuals' decision-making. Who do they respect? Who do they trust? Who will have the most impact? Why? The beauty of this is that it can be applied basically anywhere. Even online. The Internet has made communication quicker and more efficient than ever before- it's crucial to leverage that. 



5.3 Address specific concerns


Understand the unique concerns that PhDs may have regarding vaccination. For example, they may have questions about the vaccine development process, long-term effects, or potential impact on fertility. Tailor information to address these specific concerns and provide scientific evidence to alleviate any doubts. Some people have had specific experiences of vaccines or vaccine preventable-diseases; be they positive or negative. All of which can focus their attention on one or more aspects of vaccine efficacy.



5.4 Highlight the benefits


Emphasize the personal and collective benefits of vaccination. Explain how widespread vaccination contributes to public health, protects vulnerable populations, and helps in the fight against the pandemic.


Further, if you want people to really perk up and listen, there has to be something in it for them.


So, ask yourself that question.


What`s in it for them?


 You might, for instance, highlight the potential benefits for their own research, such as reducing disruptions and enabling a return to normalcy


Not only this, it's ideal if you can communicate this in a way that is engaging and relatable. Emphasizing benefits such as being able to socialise again, do hobbies and actives again see loved ones again etc. There are many more I could list - but I think you get the point. 




5.5 Leverage social networks:


Remember; people mainly want to do what their friends do. Social norms are one of the most effective ways for a group of people to accept new information or experiences. Normalise it. It's assumed that “everyone just does it”. So why wouldn`t you? In fact, “presumptive language” is found to be highly effective in encouraging vaccination. That is;  assuming that parents are going to vaccinate by saying “It's time for Xs vaccines today.” Social norms are powerful. Don`t underestimate them as a vaccine advocate. 



5.6 Address systemic barriers


Recognize and address any systemic barriers that may contribute to vaccine hesitancy among PhDs. PhDs (like anyone) are busy. They have responsibilities and practical concerns. 


Will I get time off?


What about potential side effects?


Where/when can I get it?


How long will I have to wait afterwards?


How much will it cost, if anything? 


The list could go on.

Remember that addressing vaccine hesitancy is an ongoing process. Continuously assess the concerns and feedback from PhDs and adapt communication strategies accordingly.



5.7 Tailoring approaches to different populations



Vaccine hesitancy can vary across different populations, communities, and demographic groups. I think that`s well understood, and not especially controversial to say. People are different, so groups of people are different.


 Each group may have unique concerns, cultural beliefs, or historical experiences that influence their attitudes towards vaccination. 


A single group may have two or all of these factors. 


Maybe different segments of a group have entirely different concerns. 


Or have similar concerns, but for different reasons.


The possiblities are endless, no group of people is ever a monolith.


For me, that`s really what people miss when talking about hesitancy. Diversity among people`s perceptions and expereinces. 


So for all these reasons, addressing vaccine hesitancy requires ongoing efforts to understand and tailor approaches to specific populations, considering their specific needs, cultural sensitivities, and barriers to access.



6. Why is addressing vaccine hesitancy an ongoing process?


Addressing vaccine hesitancy is an ongoing process for several reasons:



6.1 Evolving knowledge and research


The field of vaccination and the understanding of vaccines continue to evolve. People wondered during lockdowns - why did recommendations keep evolving? Well, because research evolves. It always did. It`s just that the COVID-19 pandemic publicised how dynamic the research process really is. Many interlinked factors cause this.


New scientific findings, research studies, and data emerge over time, providing a better understanding of vaccine safety, efficacy, and long-term effects. As new information becomes available, it's important to update and adapt communication strategies to address any emerging concerns or misconceptions. 


For example, is there a new public health behavior (ie. masking/distancing) people need to adhere to? 


How can we communicate it to them in a digestible, efficient way?


How can we anticipate possible concerns people may have?

Answering all these questions relies on understanding how the public relates to science. This is built on their relationships with scientists, scientific institutions, health authorities, and policymakers. Naturally, the dynamic of any relationship changes over time. The relationship between the public and the mentioned institutions is no different. So for that reason, being attuned to the next point is key;



6.2 Changing public perceptions


Being attuned to public perceptions requires understanding what drives public perceptions. It won`t surprise you, or anyone living in the 21st century, that media coverage is a key one. Social media, blogs, videos, radio and television all report science to the general public. Which means that generally, they are responsible the image of science that is presented to the public. The problem is that there is a significant lack of acknowledgement of the weight they hold in influencing public perception. That, in my view,  leads to a lack of regulation on their part. 


So unregulated, unchecked information can be mass-propogated. Quickly. Social media sites, for instance, promote information that gets the most engagement. Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, it doesn`t matter. These features of social media can rapidly change public perception.  Even a single piece of viral content can have a significant impact. 


We essentially live our lives online today. As the world becomes more and more digital, this effect is only going to amplify


For that reason, addressing vaccine hesitancy requires staying attuned to these changing perceptions and continuously adapting messaging to counteract misinformation and address new concerns.



6.3 Emerging variants and public health challenges


The emergence of new variants of the virus can create new challenges in the vaccination landscape. Vaccine effectiveness against new variants may vary, and public health strategies may need to adapt accordingly.


Emerging variants and health challenges are hugely stressful scenarios for people. I`ve said this many times before,and I`ll say it again. Lack of control and fear of the unknown are two of the biggest things people fear. A new variant is the perfect recipe of both of these. We can`t control how contagious new SARS-CoV2 variants are, nor how severe disease caused by them will be. The same applies to any strain of virus or bacterium new to infecting humans. 


Ongoing monitoring and communication about the effectiveness of vaccines against emerging variants is crucial in maintaining public trust and addressing any concerns that may arise.


7. Conclusions


Utimatelly, PhDs are still people. As is anyone you talk to about vaccines, or any difficult topic. We all want to be respected and understood. Let's remember that. Thanks for reading.



8. References:


  1. PolitiFact | Who is Robert Malone? Joe Rogan’s guest was a vaccine scientist, became an anti-vaccine darling
  2. PhD Lifecycle UCD | Stages Of your PHD Journey at UCD| UCD Graduate Studies
  3. Overconfidence is responsible for a lot of mistakes, here's how to avoid itMisinformation, disinformation and hoaxes: What’s the difference? 
  4. Determinants of COVID-19 skepticism and SARS-CoV-2 vaccine hesitancy: findings from a national population survey of U.S. adults
  5. Overconfidence is responsible for a lot of mistakes, here's how to avoid it 
  6. Snobbery in the academy is alive and well and doing harm
  7. Immunizing the public against misinformation
  8. Autism - Vaccine Safety
  9. Vaccines Did Not Cause Rache`s Autism, Dr. Peter Hotez
  10. Enhancing public trust in COVID-19 vaccination: The role of governmentsHow to Address COVID-19 Vaccine Misinformation | CDC
  11. How to talk to someone who is vaccine hesitant | Rotary International
  12. Effectiveness of Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna Vaccines Against COVID-19 Among Hospitalized Adults Aged ≥65 Years — United States, January–March 2021
  13. Influenza and Pneumonia | The Cover Family
  14. Beyond vaccine hesitancy: Understanding systemic barriers to getting vaccinated
  15. Using community influencer groups to address COVID-19 misinformation and vaccine hesitancy in Uganda: a protocol for a prospective quasi-experimental study | BMJ Open 
  16. Three ways to improve the uptake of COVID vaccines by ethnic minority groups in the UK 
  17. Seth Mnookin - The Panic Virus
  18. A Brief History of Vaccination
  19. Evolving public perceptions and stability in vaccine uptake - ScienceDirect
  20. Summary WHO SAGE conclusions and recommendations on Vaccine Hesitancy