Gunnar Tjomlid - blogger
Norwegian blogger Gunnar Tjomlid has a popular science blog, where he writes, among other things, about vaccines and vaccine denialism. His blog has caused quite a stir in Norway. In this interview he explains why he joined the discussion on vaccines and the reactions he has received.
Q: One of the main topics on your blog is vaccines and vaccine deniers. Why have you chosen to blog about this?
A: I’ve always been interested in science and keeping a sceptical mind. I wrote my first blog post about vaccines somewhere around 2012, after a discussion in the Norwegian press. A well known doctor had written a critical article about alternative medicine and vaccine deniers, to which a homeopath and healer submitted a reply in which she claimed that vaccines were both ineffective and harmful. She had a long list of arguments, and that is what sparked my interest.
”This is perfect!” I thought to myself, ”this is an almost complete list of all the vaccine deniers’ arguments against vaccines!” I decided to go through them one by one and check if there was any scientific basis to any of the claims. A couple of doctor friends helped me find the relevant studies and articles, so I could link all my arguments to scientific evidence. It turned out to be the longest blog post I’ve ever published, about 100 000 characters (the equivalent of 50 book pages), but I really tried to take the anti-vaccine article seriously and address every point that it made.
It was a very scientific, somewhat nerdy blog post, and I didn’t think a lot of people would be interested in it, but it ended up getting a lot of readers. This shows that people really want this kind of information. Most people are actually interested in science, if it’s presented to them in a way that they can understand, and that is relevant to them.
That is what I’ve been doing ever since; picking up the arguments from vaccine deniers or critical newspaper articles, checking whether there is any scientific truth to them, and writing about it on my blog. I find that people like to read posts that comment on topical matters.
Q: What are your main concerns about the anti-vaccination movement?
A: On a personal level, I get really irritated when people tell lies. Most of the arguments of the vaccine deniers are lies, and I think quite a lot of them are aware of this. They have been told the scientific truth so many times that I can’t understand how they can keep promoting these lies.
The other thing is of course the public health perspective. It is quite a delicate balance; if we want to avoid outbreaks of these deadly diseases we need enough people to get vaccinated. I just think we have to keep up the fight because if the vaccine deniers get a lot of publicity and manage to scare people from vaccinating their kids, it isn’t hard to see a future where some of these diseases come back. We have already seen it, even in Europe, but also in the United States with the big outbreak of whooping cough. We’ve seen babies dying of diseases they wouldn’t have caught, or at least wouldn’t have died from, if they had been vaccinated. So this is a matter of life and death, it’s really serious.
Q: You write quite a lot about ”science denialism” – the fact that there is a tendency to disregard scientific evidence in the discussion about vaccines. How do you deal with this?
It is difficult, sometimes I feel it’s an impossible battle. ”You cannot reason people out of a position that they did not reason themselves into” the physician Ben Goldacre writes in his book Bad Science. I think this is very true. If someone has not reached a standpoint based on facts you can’t really persuade them to change their view using facts. The opposition to vaccines is more of a personal issue for many of the anti-vaxxers, so it’s hard to reach them.
But trying to get through to them is what I’ve been experimenting with on my blog. I try to address the issue in many different ways, in order to reach different people. In many of my blog posts I bury myself in scientific evidence, linking to all the studies and sources I can find. Some people are convinced by this, because they can change their minds if they encounter scienctific proof and good arguments. Other people need to be reached at an emotional level. To achieve this I’ve written about the authour Roald Dahl, whose daughter died from measles when she was 7 years old, something he wrote a really gripping piece about. I’ve also highlighted some comments from the comment section on the blog, where people have written about their own experiences, of parents who didn’t vaccinate them and forced them to live through all these illnesses when they were young. Some never really forgave their parents for this.
There are studies that have tried to investigate what makes people change their minds, and it is actually the emotional level that is usually the most effective. Videos and pictures of babies turning blue because they are coughing so hard they can’t breathe are effective, because they show that this is a serious issue. People don't want their own children to have to go through something like that.
Q: What reactions do you get to your blog?
The vaccine deniers find me really controversial, and it’s not really about facts and science, it’s about the way they view reality. They have this idea that what is natural always is the best thing, and that vaccines are dangerous because they are made of synthetic chemicals and therefore unnatural. I’ve addressed this by arguing that the really natural thing for some of your kids is to die before they reach the age of 15. What we are living in is a world that is completely unnatural, and therefore our children actually grow up to become adults. One or two hundred years ago you couldn’t really expect most of your kids to survive.
But in general I get three types of reactions. There are the really mean ones, people that attack me viciously, writing harmful things because they want to discredit me as a writer. Then I get the people who just don't agree with me, which is OK, and the third group is people who really like what I write and who thank me. I’ve had quite a few experiences where people have reached out to me and said that because of what they have read on my blog they have changed their mind, and have decided to go and vaccinate their children. Or have the HPV vaccine for example, if they are grown up women. So sometimes you really see that this has an effect.
Q: Who do you reach with your blog?
When you are active in these discussions it’s easy to feel that everyone is against vaccines, because these are the people you argue with. I have to remind myself that over 90% of Norwegians do vaccinate themselves and their kids. It’s the small remaining percentage that causes the big debate. And as I said it is quite a delicate balance, because even if 90% are positive about vaccines, they worry when they see an article on the front page of one of the biggest Norwegian newspapers, claiming let’s say that the HPV vaccine has ruined a girl’s life. Those things really make parents uncertain, which is understandable. That is why I think it’s important that I and others actually go out and show people that claims like these are not backed by scientific evidence.
Q: Do you think social media is an effective tool to reach the general public on matters to do with vaccination?
What I do is I always try to write my blog posts in the form of an answer to a question or response to a specific claim. When people see the claim, they can post a link to my article and say: ”Here is what science has to say about this.” This usually means my post is shared and spread, and reaches a lot of people.
My best answer to the institutions is therefore that they should try to be more current. They ought to set up something like a blog, where they can react quickly to issues in the media, and be there within 24 hours.