Panicking about small risks, oblivious to large risks

There are several factors involved in vaccine rejectionism. Vaccine rejectionists lack even the most basic knowledge about science, immunology, and statistics. They don’t have even rudimentary tools with which to analyze the claims of charlatans. Just like the flat earthers, they are persuaded by what “seems” reasonable to them in their limited experience.

Another important cause of vaccine rejectionism is the inability of Americans to understand risk. In particular, Americans have great difficulty understanding health risks. We routinely panic about insignificant health risks (high tension wires, X-rays) and routinely ignore large health risks (driving without a seatbelt, tanning). This explains, in part, the fear bordering on panic generated by theoretical vaccine “risks”, and the fashion for “alternative” treatments.

David Ropeik, Director of Risk Communication at the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis, discusses the causes of misperception of risk in his article The Consequences of Fear. He mentions three main factors, control, choice and origin, that are especially relevant for understanding the misperception of risk among Americans.

Take the issue of choice, for example. It is widely accepted among scholars of risk analysis that risks over which we feel as though we exercise control are perceived to be smaller than risks that are imposed from outside. In other words, people not only tolerate the substantial risk of not wearing a seatbelt, but they perceive the risk to be relatively small, when, in fact, it is relatively large compared to risks that evoke more fear, like the risk of a plane crash or a terrorist attack.

many Americans sought a sense of control and safety after 9/11 by driving instead of flying. Air arrivals in Las Vegas were down 6.5% and motor vehicle arrivals were up 7.3% at the end of April 2002, compared with the same period in 2001, according to the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority. Consider the public health ramifications of such a choice. Driving is far more likely to result in injury or death. A study by Michael Sivak and Michael Flannagan of the Human Factors Division at the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute found that roughly 1,000 more Americans died in road accidents during October–December 2001 than would have been expected based on a comparison between figures from January–August 2000 and January–August 2001.

This leads vaccine rejectionists to take risks with their children’s lives by “choosing” to refuse vaccination. They labor under the misperception that making a “choice” to reject vaccination is safer than subjecting their children to the impersonal mandates of the government. Just as travellers imagined they were safer when driving, because they were not subject to the whims of terrorists, vaccine rejectionists imagine that their children are safer when rejecting vaccines, because they are not subject to the whims of the government. Even though the drivers felt safer, over 1,000 extra people died. Similarly, even though vaccine rejectionist parents think their children are “safer,” they actually face much greater danger.

A second factor that modifies perception of risk is a sense of control. There is a sense of control that comes from rejecting vaccines, as opposed to vaccinating children, which is mandated. The risk of death from NOT vaccinating a child is 1,000 times higher than the risk of death from vaccinating a child. Vaccine rejectionists appear to be entirely clueless on this point. In their minds, they cannot control the side effects of vaccines, but they can control the “health” of their children by feeding them “healthy” food and limiting their exposure to other people. They are more frightened by trivial or even imagined “risks” of vaccination which they cannot control, than the very real risks of infectious disease, which they think they can prevent.

The third factor is that risks of technology are widely perceived to be greater than risks from nature, even though in many cases they are not.

…many people fail to protect themselves adequately from the sun, in part because the sun is natural and because, for some of us, the benefit of a healthy glowing tan outweighs the risks of solar exposure. However, solar radiation is widely believed to be the leading cause of melanoma, which will kill an estimated 7,910 Americans this year.

It is axiomatic among “alternative” health advocates that “natural” choices are inherently safe just because they are natural. This is not and has never been true. Catching whooping cough or polio is entirely “natural,” and far more dangerous than any technological method of preventing or treating these diseases.

Many Americans are absolutely certain that the risks of not wearing a seatbelt are so small as to be trivial and are far outweighed by the risks of “toxins” in the environment. Similarly, vaccine rejectionists are absolutely certain that the risks of refusing vaccination are so small as to be trivial and are far outweighed by the risks of “toxins” in vaccination. This is a misperception of the risk. Because rejecting vaccination encourages a sense of control, is a risk that is freely chosen, and is perceived as natural the risk of vaccine rejection is misunderstood. The consequences of this misunderstanding are deadly.