So, while you might have liked yoga and organic food before, Caulfield says seeing others like you who like those things and are anti-vaccine, anti-mask, and believe the pandemic is a scam will make you more likely to adopt those tenets of the identity as well.
And, as Caulfield noted, some of the ideas are, on the surface, pretty universally ideal. That’s certainly the case with the truth and freedom aspects of conspirituality. Like Williams says, she’s not necessarily anti-vaccine, she’s for “informed consent.”
Caplan thinks language about freedom and choice surrounding vaccines is just a replacement for older, disproven anti-vaccine rhetoric about safety.
“There are a lot of anti-vaxxers who found their arguments about safety have weakened,” he says. “They are shifting ground to choice. In my view, it’s nonsense — it’s just a different way to oppose vaccines.”
While freedom is an appealing argument, Caplan notes that our freedoms have limits.
“Vaccination is about protecting your neighbor, protecting the weak and the vulnerable, protecting newborn babies who have no immune system or people who are suffering from cancer, or AIDs, or other things where they are especially likely to get sick and die from something,” Caplan says. “This notion of personal freedom, people tend to forget it carries responsibility. You’re not personally free to drive 150 miles per hour around the roads and ignore stop signs.”
And yet, rhetoric about medical freedom and things like ”health sovereignty” (another popular Instagram hashtag) is playing a part in how the public views the vaccine.
“People have their doubts about the COVID vaccine because it came so fast. While that’s a good thing, it also raises fears that maybe it went too fast,” he says, explaining that the vaccine was discovered and approved quickly because of the overwhelming amount of scientists dedicated to finding it, and funding that isn’t usually available during vaccination development. “They also have inherited some doubts about vaccines because they hear reports on the internet that people are having adverse events and they mix that up with long-term effects from the vaccine, as opposed to not feeling well the next day. And people take the occasional case of people having a real [non-vaccine related] problem and put that up with troubles with vaccines.”
But wanting to be well, Caplan says, shouldn’t be antithetical to getting vaccinated. While wellness often pits “natural” remedies against scientific ones, he said part of being well is staying alive — and the COVID vaccine is the best way to prevent deaths related to the virus.
“The case for taking the COVID vaccine is somewhere between overwhelming and unbelievably strong, best weapon we’ve got,” he says. “When you’re promoting wellness, you oughta be capturing that fact.”
Vaccines aren’t appropriate for everyone and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises that certain small groups of people shouldn’t get the currently available vaccines. Still, it’s been found to be safe in clinical trials that included more than 70,000 people.
Beyond vaccines, not all alternative health is “magical thinking.” Ayurveda practices date back centuries, and many alternative therapies like acupuncture have been shown to be effective in managing the symptoms of some conditions. Ideas about holistic preventive health, including healthy eating and exercise, are universally accepted as beneficial and helpful in improving overall health.
It would be naive to say that we need science to backup everything in our lives. Sometimes, the benefits we feel or perceive are enough to prove that whatever we’re doing works, as long as it’s not harming us in the long run. But there’s a difference between, for example, taking cold showers because it makes you feel good, and claiming it will prevent COVID.
While the spread of this particular type of misinformation might affect the COVID vaccine rollout, Caulfield says he remains optimistic.
“I do think things are going to get better because … people are taking the spread of misinformation much more seriously,” he says. “I hope one of the legacies of the pandemic is a greater appreciation of the value of science in our lives and the harm the tolerance and spread of pseudoscience can inflict. If that legacy plays out, I hope we’re going to be going in the right direction.”