BBC viewers have been offered a glimpse into the world of the vaccine sceptic after Question Time featured an audience made up of people who have refused to take the Covid jag.
While the show faced criticism for the idea from some corners, public health expert Professor Linda Bauld told The National that “something positive” could come from the idea if it was handled correctly.
As well as representation from The Telegraph, Labour, and the Tories, the show featured Victor Adebowale, chair of the NHS Confederation, and Robin Shattock, a professor of infection and immunity at Imperial College London who led the team researching a Covid vaccine at that institution.
Shattock (below) had been saying how “serious adverse events [linked to the vaccine] … are extremely rare”. He said there was no secrecy around the data, and that he had great respect for people who wanted to question it as that is a fundamental part of science.
“The evidence and the facts are there,” he said. “They are indisputable.”
However, in a clear demonstration of the way in which misinformation can spread, an audience member took exception to that statement.
He claimed that he had seen that data himself, from the “yellow card reporting scheme”. This is the UK’s Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) self-reporting tool for adverse drug reactions, defective medicines, and counterfeit or fake medicines.
Shattock interrupted to say his assertions had been based on far more than that, and he had been talking about data on a “global basis”.
The audience member vocally accepted this, but continued on the same line of argument. They said that there had been a Select Committee in 1999 which estimated that only 10-15% of cases were reported through the yellow card scheme.
there’s a man on question time, whose qualifications include a philosophy degree, attempting to school a professor of immunology on the yellow card system.
fascinating viewing pic.twitter.com/pmO9vATWHy
— Ava-Santina (@AvaSantina) February 3, 2022
The cherry-picking of arguments to fit the anti-vaccine narrative is clear. The audience member is forced to cite irrelevant points from more than two decades ago in order to have facts align with the conclusion they have drawn beforehand, namely that the vaccine is dangerous.
Picking up on the refusal to accept the information put forward by the “world-renowned” Shattock, host Fiona Bruce asked if “nothing he says is credible to you, given what an eminent scientist he is”.
The audience member then said: “I studied philosophy at university and I learned that an appeal to authority is not an automatic win of an argument.”
He said that if the argument would go down that route, he could point to Dr Robert Malone, “who is the man who invented the vaccine”.
This is disinformation, pushed by Malone himself. While he did conduct some experiments in the 1980s that would later prove key to the development of MRNA vaccines, Malone was far from the cornerstone. As Shattock pointed out, such vaccines were not the work of a single person.
Furthermore, Malone has become a totem figure in the anti-vaccine movement for his pushing of disinformation around their efficacy and dangers. He has been banned from Twitter for spreading falsehoods, and it was an episode of the Joe Rogan podcast which featured the discredited scientist that eventually led to the ongoing international Spotify dispute.
Despite a stereotypical call for people to do their own research, the audience member relied on classic anti-vax talking points (Malone and the yellow card scheme for two examples).
Furthermore, Shattock was not “appealing to authority”. He is an established expert in the field presenting the facts as they stand. But to believers of a conspiracy, such facts will be discarded if they do not align with their preconceived narrative.
After his mention of Malone, the audience member in question was left behind as the questioning moved on.
A clip of the exchange has gone viral on social media, with many mocking the audience member as an “armchair vaccines expert whose knowledge stems from half-arsed internet research”.
However, such a reaction is likely to only breed resentment among the anti-vaccine community and make it harder to let them see the “indisputable” facts Shattock referred to.
When talking to people who believe conspiracy theories, a more careful, delicate, and human approach is likely to be far more effective.