It’s been a week!
If, like me, you’re a fan of Nicki Minaj, you may have seen her tweet on Sept. 13 about doing more research on the Covid-19 vaccine before getting it:
Following that, she tweeted about a friend of her cousin’s who claimed the vaccine made him impotent.
As you may have suspected, this set off quite a storm of responses by thousands of people who feel passionately about the vaccines, one way or the other. As a science communicator, I felt that I should open a dialogue with Nicki to talk it through, so I responded to invite her to chat. I also shared a rap in my response to her that I made last year, which speaks on how our immune systems react to vaccines:
My intent wasn’t to spark a Twitter feud or bring any negativity to the situation—it was to connect, through thoughtful conversation, shared knowledge and music.
Unfortunately, not everyone had the same approach. Western Sydney Health crafted a meme that was belittling. There are more effective ways to present scientific data (which, to be fair, they did include) without alienating the audience you’re trying to reach.
A Yahoo News article, for which I provided comments, summed up the exchanges well, but we still have a long way to go in positive exchanges of information … especially on social media.
Why is there skepticism surrounding vaccines?
There are a number of valid reasons why people may be hesitant to take a vaccine. In the Black community specifically, there’s a long history of medical mistrust in the U.S. And there’s a reason for that mistrust.
The Tuskegee Study, which goes all the way back to 1932, claimed to be treating Black men for “bad blood” when really the doctors were observing the effects of untreated syphilis and pretending to give them medicine (while effective treatments were accessible), only to monitor how they responded to placebos. More than 100 people died in that unethical experiment.
Though her tissue was utilized to benefit the greater good (by way of research for the Polio vaccine, and gene mapping), Henrietta Lacks was another victim of medical deception. A poor tobacco farmer in the 1950s, Lacks was being treated for cervical cancer when her cultured cells—taken from a tumor on her cervix—were removed and used without permission to conduct various experiments because they were the first cells that doctors had ever seen that behaved in an “immortal” way, reproducing indefinitely. A significant discovery in science? Sure. but they didn’t ask Mrs. Lacks for her cells, they simply took them and for years her identity was unknown.
In addition to events like these, there are systematic reasons why people don’t have access to or don’t know how to access certain scientific information. College isn’t free. School systems are a HOT MESS. Scientific journals are sometimes expensive to access if they’re not made public. It’s our job as science communicators to work hard to eliminate the barriers of elitism in science and accept that not everyone has the privilege of freely accessing science information.
When people say, “I just want to do more research,” they sometimes mean they just want to find someone they can trust.
So, how do we fix it?
We need to create opportunities for people to feel comfortable discussing their skepticism and meet people where they are. Sometimes the goal shouldn’t be to convince someone of our opinion, but give them the information and space to discover truths on their own.
In Nicki’s initial tweet, she was actually following the pattern that many scientists follow when conducting a study. She was gathering information to form a hypothesis to then test that hypothesis and arrive at a decision. She acknowledged measures to take in the meantime as reflected in her encouragement for people to wear masks. Now, she’s accepted an invitation from The White House to meet with medical staff and learn more about vaccines so she can make an informed decision for herself and her family.
This just proves that we should all do our best to put emotions aside and listen to people’s experiences. Everyone’s viewpoint is important, even if they differ from our own. I founded Black in SciComm to invest in black science communicators who can bridge the gap between science and marginalized communities.
When it comes to matters of public health, we’re all in this together, so let’s do our best to make sure there are experts accessible in the science community who people can trust to provide factual information and deliver it without judgement.
Do you have suggestions for great science resources to share? Share them in the comments section.