Why DUB published the opinion of an anti-vax student

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Should a news platform allow someone who emphatically refuses to get vaccinated to speak freely, without immediately publishing a rebuttal? DUB has received many e-mails with that question following Sam De Weerd's opinion piece. But we also got messages from people who can relate to Sam's reasoning, saying they're glad to see a different perspective. Editor-in-chief Ries Agterberg reveals why DUB opted to publish the piece after all, after much thought.

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Master's student of Energy Science Samuel de Weerd is a blogger for DUB's Dutch website. Asked whether he belonged to the group of students who haven't been vaccinated for Covid-19, he reacted with a long argument. The alarms went off at DUB's headquarters. In this day and age, can we publish the point of view of someone who is so openly opposed to vaccination? Is it reasonable to amplify the voice of a small minority when the vast majority of students has gotten both jabs?

There was no consensus among the editors whether or not to publish this opinion piece. But they didn't think it should go straight to garbage bin, either. Sam is not the only student who's not vaccinated: another group of unvaccinated students has recently signed a manifesto about the possibility of the university having to implement the Covid pass. If that does happen, it will either become harder (3G) or impossible (2G) for unvaccinated students to be educated on campus. The Dutch government has decided not to establish a Covid pass mandate, at least not yet. But this type of measure does make life difficult for these students. So, where does one draw the line?

Listen to their arguments
The unvaccinated are usually dismissed as mere woo-woos, people who fall for conspiracy theories that shouldn't be taken seriously. But, lately, there has been a little more understanding for this group: there's a growing consensus that we should listen to their arguments in order to be able to react to them.

Sam's piece was brave, sincere, and motivated. This student acknowledges the pandemic, but tries to put the problem in another context. In his view, the vaccination efforts mean fighting the symptoms without actually tackling the causes of the pandemic. He sees a world that's being exploited by humans and finds that one should search for balance between humans and nature.

Misinformation
Such a story is interesting and ambitious. The editors judged that this voice should also be heard. However, is such a point of view realistic in a crisis? Besides, how trustworthy are the sources he uses to support his arguments? Our editors wanted to avoid spreading misinformation. That didn't seem to be the case, although in hindsight it is sometimes hard to draw a line between "another point of view" and "incorrect interpretation".

Several scientists told DUB that it crossed the line by publishing this article. "The question is to what extent a university, which is supposed to defend science, should give a space to thoughts without any rational or scientific basis in an open society", wrote a professor. "It's DUB's responsibility as journalists to not give anti-vaxxers a podium to convince other people without immediately publishing a rebuttal", states a PhD candidate in Philosophy.

Question marks
A discussion ensued in the comment session of the article. "By not getting vaccinated, you're making an extra contribution to the problem you describe", says someone. "It is still a question whether healthy young people contract less infections. Besides, young people get into contact with other people in the city, so you cannot say that they only infect other students". Others have called the examples used by Sam into question, regarding the use of pesticides and the biodiversity of bacteria. "He mentions a study that says that vaccination influences the viral balance in healthy people. But if you take a good look at that study, you'll see it is more about the decline in the immune system as you age and the role a virus plays in it.”

In the comments placed on the English page, the op-ed is being considered biased and compared to a Facebook post. His argument that humans' relationship with the earth is one of the causes of the pandemic is challenged with the following statement: "pandemics have always existed, even before the Industrial Revolution." Another person, who says she has an auto-immune disease, says Pfizer has saved her life. She calls the op-ed "misleading".

Physical integrity
Anytime the subject matter is related to our health, it is understandable that emotions are going to run high, writes Laura in her comment. When we see people dying from a certain disease, it's understandable that we will want to do something about it. At the same time, she writes, physical integrity is part of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. "You don't have to be a virologist to make a choice about your own body. You don't have to have studied Medicine to determine if you want to undergo a medical procedure or not."

Scientists react
And that's exactly what makes this discussion so difficult. What is the limit to physical integrity when your choice impacts the lives of other human beings? You can infect someone else, and that person may die. Shouldn't you get the vaccine out of solidarity, although it can also cause you to get less sick if you catch the virus?

It is a good thing that we're having this discussion. I am not afraid (as some of the people who wrote to us suggested) that publishing Sam's op-ed without an immediate rebuttal might be dangerous for it will reinforce people's doubts about vaccination. But it is surely important to hear what the real experts have to say about the student's arguments. That's why the editors have chosen to produce a follow-up article in which we ask UU scientists to react to Sam's questions. 

But let's be honest. This pandemic is not going to be solved just like that. There are dilemmas involving what works medically, the violation of physical integrity, and showing solidarity towards those who are vulnerable to this disease. Let us dare to name these dilemmas.

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