Battling misinformation when health is at stake

As a researcher and mother of a child with autism, PhD student Kristin Lunz Trujillo was appalled by the harmful misinformation being spread about vaccines causing autism.

"I’d go online, and I’d see all this misinformation surrounding autism. And it was just outrageous," Lunz Trujillo says.

While her passion about misinformation around vaccines derives from personal experience, she’s also making a splash in the research world, including with her most recent work (published in Political Research Quarterly ) around the MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccine, which is at the center of some major public health debates.

A first-generation student, Lunz Trujillo chose the University of Minnesota for her PhD because of the collaborative nature of its political science department.

"[The department] creates a community of scholars, and also a community of friends, which has really helped me flourish in terms of feeling encouraged to follow things that are really interesting to me," she says.

It was there that she met then-graduate student Mathew Motta (now an assistant professor with Oklahoma State University), who reached out to Lunz Trujillo not long after her son was diagnosed with autism. He was conducting similar research on MMR vaccines.

They’ve now coauthored several projects, including in The Conversation , where Lunz Trujillo and Motta explain their findings showing that about one-fifth of Americans, and more than half of people who hold skeptical views toward vaccine safety, may be unwilling to pursue vaccination for COVID-19.

"Misinformation in health and medicine can be extremely dangerous because lives are at stake," says Lunz Trujillo. "If we endorse misinformation on who gets sick, how we get sick, and how we can prevent or avoid the disease, it can result in a devastating loss of life."

Lunz Trujillo defines her research as studying political behavior and public opinion. One of her goals is to confront some of society’s larger issues surrounding misinformation through her research.

"If we want to correct some of this misinformation, we need to think about underlying motivations-underlying psychological dispositions that make people accept this in the first place," she says.

"These problems include misinformation and an increasingly hostile us-versus-them [dynamic], both of which are undermining our politics and making it difficult for the country to effectively tackle issues, to properly represent its citizens, or to create effective, good, and fair policies."

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