Comment/Teaching:Myths, vaccines, teaching

Some thoughts on myths, vaccinations and teaching American government.
Brendan Nyhan of Dartmouth and his colleague, Jason Reifler of the University of Exeter, have generating a great deal of buzz around their fascinating study of the role that myths play in the effort to promote public health vaccinations. The gist of their argument is that efforts to overcome resistance to vaccination (in their study, the flu vaccine) by debunking anti-vaxx (i.e., anti-science) myths may not be an effective approach to dealing with the problem. “Corrective” messages from the CDC to counter the myths regarding the flu vaccine did reduce belief in the false claims of anti-vax folks, but it “also significantly reduced intent to vaccinate among respondents with high levels of concern about vaccine side effects – a response that was not observed among those with low levels of concern” (from abstract).

Beyond the specific issue of vaccinations, climate change and other areas where myths play a significant role in our politics and policies, this study focuses attention -- and begs the question -- about our understanding of myths and their role in our daily lives. The approach taken by most folks who study myths is that they are presumptively falsehoods, and thus can be most effectively handled through debunking, as per the CDC approach. It baffles the myth-debunkers when you get results such as those in the Nyhan-Reiffer study -- it just
makes no sense. And therein lies the problem, for those who find this puzzling fail to appreciate the central role that myths play in the public’s comprehension of of our increasingly complex world.

Myths should not be treated as falsehoods to be debunked, but as those stories and narratives that help us make sense of the world around us. Once you have an appreciation of the everyday sense-making power of myths, you have the foundation to developing effective means for overcoming their more negative consequences.

My views about myths and their role in politics and policies are reflected in the overall theme and opening chapter of
American Government: Myths and Realities, a textbook co-authored with Alan Gitelson of Loyola University of Chicago and Robert Dudley of George Mason University. Over the years (this is the 11th edition -- the first published in 1987), we have shifted the book’s thematic stance from an emphasis on myths as falsehoods (or partial truths) to be debunked or corrected to one that speaks to the sense-making role they play as widely shared narratives about government and politics. We highlight the fact that the ancient Greeks accepted two ways of comprehending the world: mythos, which relied on stories about their gods, and logos, which relied on understanding through reasoning where that was possible. Their view did not favor one over the other, but reflected an appreciation of the complementary (and necessary) nature of each perspective.

In recent editions we have continued to highlight myths and the contrasting role of reasoning (i.e., “reality”), but noted as well the important role that beliefs and ideologies play as well. The fact is, it is often difficult to untangle myths from beliefs, ideologies or even reasoning.

In my class lectures I focus on the “American creed” as a foundational shared national myth and then engage students in a discussion of seven basic historical narratives that have played significant roles in how we view civic life in America. From the “chosen people” myth articulated by Winthrop and the “frontier nation” narrative that complemented America’s internal development to the ”vulnerable nation” and “indispensable nation” that helps shape (or rationalize) our current foreign policies, myths have played (and continue to play) a major role in our approach to governance. In addition, I work in the “American dream” myth by having my students watch the keynotes from the
2004 Democratic (Barack Obama) and Republican (Arnold Schwarzenegger) conventions.

Bottom line for me is that once we accept the role of myths in human understanding as a basic and inescapable “reality,” we can develop approaches to deal with the problems or dysfunctions it create -- whether for purposes of enhancing civic life or in improving the effectiveness of vaccination policies.
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