OPINION: With less critical thinking comes more vaccine hesitancy

Early this month, a handful of protesters gathered outside the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention after rapper Nicki Minaj shared her unvaccinated status in a tweet. Minaj, who has more than 20 million followers, noted that the famed Met Gala required attendees to be vaccinated.

Minaj said she was not getting the COVID-19 vaccine until she had done enough research. She then shared an unverified story about someone in her native Trinidad having adverse effects after getting the vaccine. The protesters, fans of the celebrity, said they believed Minaj was telling the truth and felt the CDC had lied to them.

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This story would have struck me as odd if I hadn’t just a few months earlier had an experience with a worker who arrived at my home unmasked and unvaccinated. When the question of vaccination arose, the worker began telling me all the reasons why I should not have taken the vaccine — the government experiments on Black people, the fast-track development meant the efficacy was questionable and the vaccine is actually a tracking device in disguise.

The worker was a person of color, and in the early days of vaccine availability, Black and Latino Americans lagged in vaccination rates. Concerned about the spread of misinformation, the NAACP launched a campaign to help vulnerable and unvaccinated people in Black communities to make more well-informed decisions.

The racial gap has since shrunk, according to a recent report in The New York Times, but many of these conspiracy theories continue to be shared in those communities.

Republican voters are also among the least vaccinated, and while some of the conspiracy theories have crossed racial and political dividing lines, there are some differences. Libertarianism and hostility toward science and media have left conservative counties across the country unprotected and with a higher death toll from COVID-19, according to the Times report.

Fewer than 50% of Georgia residents are fully vaccinated, a percentage that falls below the national average of 55%. There is a small percentage of people, those with health concerns, who definitely should not get the vaccine, but vaccine opponents invested in conspiracy theories or more wedded to political leanings than public health share more than an aversion to the vaccine, said Steven Pearlman, author of “America’s Critical Thinking Crisis.”

“Cognitively, in terms of what is happening in people’s brains, we see some very similar things occurring,” said Pearlman. “We don’t have a populace that was taught to think critically through their education … what we have instead is people who confuse an opinion they may have based on a source that is not reliable with actual critical thinking done by people who have the expertise to do so.”

American education, he said, is predicated on the idea that we have a central authority figure in the classroom and that person is the arbiter of right and wrong. But when we get out of school, we may not choose the right authority figure. And that is how Donald Trump, Nicki Minaj, Dr. Anthony Fauci or any number of YouTube theorists have all come to be equally accepted sources of information on the COVID-19 vaccine.

While Americans place high value on critical thinking skills — 95% said they were necessary in a 2018 survey from the Reboot Foundation, an organization dedicated to promoting critical thinking — most of us are not doing it well.

It isn’t an issue of intelligence, Pearlman said. There are very smart people who don’t have the ability to think critically — the skill is one that must be developed and exercised throughout our lives. Even worse, people who don’t have the ability to think critically don’t know what it is and don’t know they don’t have it, he said.

Our brains work by having models to help us understand the world, how to act and how to predict what will happen next, Pearlman said. No one had a model for the pandemic, and it left us all scrambling for the closest model we could find to cope.

Fear and emotion shut down the part of our brains that computes higher order thinking, leaving most of us in survival mode reaching for whatever information our emotions dragged up.

“It is not that we are thinking poorly, it is that we are actually not thinking,” Pearlman said. “To sit back and say what is science saying versus what I am feeling … some people could move past that fear and find safety in a vaccination.”

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Some of us chose the model in which we don’t need a vaccine because the president told us the virus is a hoax. For others, the model was the government’s 40-year-long Tuskegee experiment on Black men that made us doubt the vaccine. And for some, the model was to get the vaccine without delay because that is how we’ve managed almost every public health crisis in American history.

The ongoing hesitance surrounding vaccines has been disappointing to Dr. David Sanchez, an associate professor at Western University of Health Sciences College of Pharmacy in Pomona, California, who volunteered for the Moderna vaccine trials in September 2020 because he wanted to do his part to help the vaccine get approved faster.

“I did the trial so everyone could get the vaccine, stop wearing masks and stop having all these changes in our lives,” said Sanchez. The worst thing was hearing people say that the medical community was testing the vaccine on people by administering it to members of the public, he said.

Many people who questioned the speed at which the vaccines were developed don’t understand that the vaccines were built on decades of medical research.

“We as taxpayers have been paying our medical infrastructure for years of work to get to the level where we could actually have a vaccine faster,” said Sanchez. “We have technology now that people five or 10 years ago didn’t have. A lot of people are stuck in history where it sometimes took 10 years to make a good vaccine.”

Sanchez said the medical community could have done a better job communicating this to the general public, as well as providing more information about the diversity of participants in the clinical trials.

He shares this information with his students along with historical context, such as the 1947 smallpox vaccination campaign in New York City in which city officials mobilized millions of people to get vaccinated.

“We struggled with a lot of infections in the past as a country and as a society, and we got through and it was because of communities coming together,” Sanchez said.

Sanchez understands the need for critical thinking, and I have to believe he is doing a better job of grooming young minds and providing them with those skills. There will surely be another public health crisis in our future — global pandemic or otherwise — and we will need these critical thinkers in-training to lead us out of it.

Read more on the Real Life blog (www.ajc.com/opinion/real-life-blog/) and find Nedra on Facebook (www.facebook.com/AJCRealLifeColumn) and Twitter (@nrhoneajc) or email her at nedra.rhone@ajc.com.

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