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Bill Roth headshot

Personal Beliefs, Vaccinations and Climate Change

Words by Bill Roth

America confronts a potential measles epidemic because up to 47 percent of the U.S. population doubts the statistical evidence that vaccination is safe and effective. We confront a similar situation with climate change. Statistical scientific analysis documents that global warming is real and manmade. While our Senate did vote in agreement that climate change is not a hoax, a majority of senators rejected the statistics on climate change to vote that global warming is not manmade.

This raises a paradoxical behavioral economics question: Why would moms and politicians ignore statistical evidence when the consequences can include death, epidemics and irreversible climate change?

Statistics and behavior

Do numbers lie? That is really the question when people use personal beliefs for rejecting statistical evidence on the benefits of vaccination or the threat of climate change. Statistics is a mathematical tool used by scientists and economists to test the validity or “norm” among a set of numerical observations. A “sure bet,” like the sun rising in the east, has a low statistical standard of deviation. Your Powerball numbers have a large standard of deviation in terms of their probability of being the winning numbers.

Vaccination statistics versus personal belief

Measles is a tragic example of how humans act irrationally in the face of strong statistical evidence. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offers statistically valid evidence that vaccinations prevent, and can in fact eradicate, diseases like measles. Vaccination is proven to reduce the incidence of diphtheria and smallpox by 100 percent, and measles by more than 99 percent. If I told you a set of lotto numbers had a 99 percent probability of winning, what would you do? Yet a shocking percentage of Americans are betting against the probability of vaccinations preventing contagious diseases.

Personal beliefs is the stated reason used by people rejecting vaccinations. While there are anecdotal conversations that vaccinations can cause adverse consequences like autism, they are not supported by statistical evidence. The Autism Science Foundation reports that scientific studies have not found a link between vaccinations and autism. So, why is a significant percentage of Americans acting irrationally?

One insight is that 20 percent of the millennial generation believes there is a link between vaccination and autism. The millennial generation has integrated social media into their decision making to the point where they use social media postings from strangers in approximately 50 percent of their procurement decisions. Evidence suggests that much of the millennial generation’s false belief about vaccinations is based on a discredited research study that still lives in Web search engines and social media.

Individual liberty is another personal belief issue that stands in the way of eradicating diseases through vaccination. Approximately a third of U.S. citizens believe it should be a personal choice expressed through individual liberty on whether someone is vaccinated. Imagine highway safety when individual liberty enables a personal choice for a third of all drivers in deciding to obey a stop sign. The behavioral economics question is whether the consequences of a contagious epidemic should be left to individual choice on whether to vaccinate.

Climate change science versus personal belief

In a reversal from just 10 years ago an overwhelming number of Americans believe climate change is occurring. This sea-change in public opinion comes as scientific evidence and news reporting overwhelmingly confirm that climate change is real. Equally compelling is the scientific evidence that it is human emissions of greenhouse gases that is causing the climate to warm. NASA reports that 97 percent of climate scientists observe a link between global warming and human actions.

The use of statistics by scientists creates a “grammatical” gap in their communication that global warming is real and manmade. Rather than saying there is an absolute link that mankind is making the world hotter, scientists correctly represent the statistical probability that global warming is manmade by stating there is a “high likelihood” or statistically-significant probability that humans are creating global warming.

The U.S. Senate used the precision of scientific statistical analysis as a reason for voting that climate change is not manmade. “I am not a scientist” was a common refrain among those senators voting that climate change is not manmade. A personal belief that only God controls Earth’s environment was the stated reason by the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works chairperson for voting that climate change is not manmade.

This is the food upon which behavioral economics feasts! The issue is not whether climate change is real and manmade. Statistical evidence is compelling in its support of this conclusion. The behavioral economics question is: Why would a majority of the U.S. Senate risk their country’s economic future and the health of their constituents by voting against an outcome probability that is now statistically a “sure bet?”

The American crossroad

Delayed consequences defines the behavioral economics on issues of vaccinations and climate change. In laymen language, there are no free lunches, and failure to act will eventually result in highly damaging consequences. The behavioral economics question is: How much human suffering will occur before the consequences of choosing the statistically unsupportable choice become too painful to sustain personal belief?

Americans are at a crossroad in terms of the ramifications created by how we make decisions. We are a society that will always value personal freedom and individual liberty. The behavioral economics question is how to balance individual liberty in the face of a massive threat to the common good. Will we believe the numbers and take actions for the common good, or will we respect personal beliefs even if doing so can cause climate change or a deadly epidemic?

Image credit: Flickr/El Alvi

Bill Roth is an economist and the Founder of Earth 2017. He coaches business owners and leaders on proven best practices in pricing, marketing and operations that make money and create a positive difference. His book, The Secret Green Sauce, profiles business case studies of pioneering best practices that are proven to win customers and grow product revenues. Follow him on Twitter: @earth2017

Bill Roth headshotBill Roth

Bill Roth is a cleantech business pioneer having led teams that developed the first hydrogen fueled Prius and a utility scale, non-thermal solar power plant. Using his CEO and senior officer experiences, Roth has coached hundreds of CEOs and business owners on how to develop and implement projects that win customers and cut costs while reducing environmental impacts. As a professional economist, Roth has written numerous books including his best selling The Secret Green Sauce (available on Amazon) that profiles proven sustainable best practices in pricing, marketing and operations. His most recent book, The Boomer Generation Diet (available on Amazon) profiles his humorous personal story on how he used sustainable best practices to lose 40 pounds and still enjoy Happy Hour!

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