Why is it so difficult to persuade people on health?

As the father of a 5-year-old, I was appalled by the CDC’s unanimous decision last week to add the COVID jab to the childhood vaccine schedule. Since I live in Florida, the guidance has no impact on us specifically. However, policy analyst Eugyppius said best what many of us are thinking: “The doses administered under these rules will kill a small but nontrivial number of children in exchange for nothing at all.”

Whatever the motivations of the CDC Board, the entire COVID fiasco has highlighted a monumental challenge for those of us seeking a new paradigm for public health: Why is it so hard to persuade people to make smart health choices?

Here are three theories of mine.

First, people’s views on health and lifestyle are fused to their identity. And identity trumps evidence. If you consider yourself part of the “expert” class, the government’s motives will forever be pure and media reporting is unimpeachable. Doctors know more than you and must be right. You see this phenomenon when personal trainers give up on clients whose identity is their weakness, obesity, or pain.           

Second, Gell-Mann amnesia makes progress impossible. Gell-Mann amnesia refers to the experience of reading a newspaper article on a topic you know well, and recognizing that the story is full of errors and that the author is a moron. But then you move on to the next article, and you swallow all the claims wholesale. In medicine, Gell-Mann amnesia looks like this: The government agencies that established the food pyramid did incalculable damage to people’s health, but when those same agencies approved statins, they obviously did the right thing. Turns out that statins caused all manner of harms without any proven benefit, but surely anti-depressant pills are targeting the right chemicals. Well, serotonin is actually unrelated to depression, but let me tell you what we’ve made available for Alzheimer’s …

Third, fear freezes people in place. There’s no particular reason to believe that less corruption and more planning went into the approvals of the rest of the injections on the childhood vaccine schedule. My wife, who completely grasps the issue at hand, nevertheless can’t take the next logical step. (Which is: fcuk all this junk.) Because, Keva, if we don’t really understand how or whether vaccines work, then how can you guarantee my baby will be safe from disease and illness? If the experts are wrong, then how can I protect my baby, Keva?

All these theories can work together to make things worse. Identification with the expert class amplifies medical Gell-Mann amnesia, which further lowers logical defenses against fear-based marketing. It’s a tough nut to crack.

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