Day by day, news of emerging COVID-19 vaccines is popping up like spring dandelions. This week, with a shot broadcast ‘round the world, British nonagenarian Margaret Keenan stepped up for the first jab, followed shortly by 81-year-old William Shakespeare and others to hopeful applause. Will Americans follow suit?
The data scientist and his colleagues have analyzed billions of collected tweets and other social media data to decipher Americans’ views on the first coronavirus vaccines. The verdict? Many people are hesitant, skeptical and downright resistant to embracing the new technology.
“Anti-vaccination sentiment is nothing new,” says the Ammon, Idaho native, who majored in biology at USU. “But we’re seeing uneasiness among people who generally support widespread inoculation.”
One of the obstacles is the mind-blowing speed at which the new vaccines were developed.
“It’s an amazing scientific and technological feat and yet, being used to a much longer path, many are incredulous and wary of vaccines yielded in such a politically charged atmosphere,” West says.
Concern about the economic motives of vaccine manufacturers and overly eager politicians is often cited. Others worry about the ethics of the nation’s frailest citizens, along with the lowest-paid frontline workers, being the first to receive the unseasoned vaccinations. Still others, especially people of color, heed warnings of the past.
What West and his colleagues also see is the lightning-speed spread of misinformation – honestly mistaken untruths – along with disinformation – intentionally misleading falsehoods – through the Internet landscape.
“Stemming this spread is at the core of our center, which has, as its mission, to resist strategic misinformation, promote an informed society and strengthen democratic discourse,” he says. “Our exit out of this pandemic very much depends on the dissemination of accurate information and people getting effective vaccinations.”
West, who earned a doctorate from UW in 2010 and joined the school’s faculty in 2013, says his passion for research and learning was fostered at Utah State. Entering the school “on a generous academic scholarship,” the 1996 graduate of Idaho’s Hillcrest High School participated in USU’s Honors program and soon got involved in undergraduate research.
“My faculty mentors, Keith Mott from Biology and David Peak from Physics, were deep thinkers,” he says. “Their collaboration opened my eyes to the value of an interdisciplinary approach to complex problems. And their willingness to invest time in me, as an inexperienced student with no knowledge of research, empowered me.”
It’s an approach West explores in his newly released book, Calling Bullshit: The Art of Skepticism in a Data-Driven World, which he co-authored with UW colleague Carl Bergstrom.
“Public research universities like Utah State and the University of Washington are pivotal players in efforts to promote scientific solutions to world crises, like our current pandemic,” West says. “Through their outreach, citizens are empowered to seek accurate information and work together to solve challenges. I feel so lucky to be a product of this mission.”
In a related note: Science Unwrapped at USU, presents “Vaccine Fears,” presented virtually by USU Biology faculty member Thayne Sweeten Friday, January 22, as the College of Science’s public outreach program’s 2020-21 series, “Brave New World” continues.
Public Relations Specialist
College of Science
Associate Professor and Director
Center for an Informed Public, Information School, University of Washington