← Quick Find

Epistemic Relativism

Dialogue between patients and healthcare professionals can be a good way to answer questions and clear up misconceptions for vaccine-hesitant patients. In this dialogue, it can be helpful to understand the underlying reason why a patient might be reluctant to get a vaccine. We call this underlying reason the ‘attitude root’. Attitude roots refer to deep psychological factors, such as a person’s level of trust or distrust, that shape and constrain people’s beliefs and attitudes.

This tool explains some of the most common attitude roots and how they may show up as arguments expressed by a vaccine-hesitant patient. It also identifies some of the most common themes related to each attitude root, so that we can address them.

Understanding the attitude roots of hesitancy also helps us guide our empathy with a patient. Empathy is an important component of communication, and one way in which we can show empathy is by affirming the reasons for a patient’s concerns. For example, we can acknowledge that there have been cases in which governments have shown themselves to be untrustworthy. This tool gives some examples of affirmations for each attitude root. We can use those examples to understand and empathise with how the patient is feeling about vaccination.

Finally, the tool provides refutations for common arguments and misconceptions that a patient may have. These refutations take into account the likely attitude root and try to correct misconceptions while still affirming the patient’s psychological predispositions.

Epistemic relativism, or “the subjectivity of how knowledge is determined”, is a philosophical view that social conventions determine scientific facts. In this viewpoint, facts are subjective and based on historical context, social and cultural norms, and individual standards. From this perspective, there is no objective knowledge. Several forms of epistemic relativism have been linked with vaccine opposition.

For some people, relativism implies that scientific evidence and subjective experiences are equally valuable in generating knowledge, or that personal experiences outweigh evidence. Common expressions of extreme relativism include:

  • Appeals to “maternal intuition”.
  • Invitations to “do your own research”.

Truth is relative

Rejection of scientific epistemology and objectivity, claiming that knowledge is relative


Individualistic epistemology

People are experts on their bodies and children (e.g., mother knows best, intuition and instinct)


Epistemic superiority

Alternative perspectives on health as more comprehensive and informed than science


Anecdotal evidence

Overreliance on testimonies and personal experiences that contradict scientific research


All or nothing

Impossible expectations: We should not accept anything that is less than 100% effective