How Vaxxers and Anti-Vaxxers Control Your Mind

In case you haven’t noticed, the mainstream media outlets are currently clogged up with stories of measles outbreaks and some boy who got chickenpox after suing not to get vaccinated.

So today I want to talk about the national vaccination conversation.

You’re probably wondering what the subject could possibly do with “the rich life.”

Well, beyond issues like personal choice… the collective good vs. individual rights… and other big-picture philosophical concerns, the current vaccination debate is also a great example of the way numbers and words can be used to manipulate our emotions and viewpoints.

It’s critical that you understand this idea, especially if you want to preserve and growth your wealth (not to mention your mental freedom).

Now, you’ve certainly heard the aphorism that “figures don’t lie but liars figure.”

But when this topic comes up, most people focus on how the numbers are generated or selectively presented.

Taking a Closer Look at the Numbers

For example, “a survey of 1,000 people showed overwhelming support for the new gun law.”

It doesn’t answer the question of who the 1,000 people were. Was the survey conducted at an NRA convention? Or did they ask 1,000 people who donated money to the Brady Foundation?

This is called “biased sampling” and it’s closely related to another similar transgression of not gathering enough information to draw a reasonable conclusion – i.e. a small sample size.

I could keep going in this vein…

The way scales are drawn on charts to amplify or diminish a particular point…

Why averages often distort individual data points…

Or how many people falsely connect two unrelated points.

But there’s another more insidious way that people can present numbers to influence our thinking… and government scientists are doing it with regards to vaccination. 

I recently read about the concept in Daniel Kahneman’s excellent book, Thinking Fast and Slow.

That’s why I immediately recognized it at work in the rapidly-escalating debate over compulsory vaccination.

It’s especially interesting in this context because the pro-vaccine camp loves to deride “anti-vaxxers” as illogical, uneducated, and unscientific.

Yet consider these two paragraphs from The Center for Disease Control’s Frequently Asked Questions page on measles…

Q: How effective is the measles vaccine?

A: The measles vaccine is very effective. One dose of measles vaccine is about 93% effective at preventing measles if exposed to the virus. Two doses are about 97% effective.

Q: How common was measles in the United States before the vaccine?

A: Before the measles vaccination program started in 1963, about 3 to 4 million people got measles each year in the United States. Of those people, 400 to 500 died, 48,000 were hospitalized, and 4,000 developed encephalitis (brain swelling) from measles.

Reading Between (and Through) the Lines

What you’ll notice about these two questions is that the first one is answered in percentages while the second one is answered in raw numbers.

Why?

Simple. The CDC is pro vaccination and is expressing each answer in a way that best supports its case.

To highlight this, let’s keep the first question in percentages and convert the second answer to percentages as well.

In 1963, the U.S. population was roughly 189 million so…

Q: How effective is the measles vaccine?

A: The measles vaccine is very effective. One dose of measles vaccine is about 93% effective at preventing measles if exposed to the virus. Two doses are about 97% effective.

Q: How common was measles in the United States before the vaccine?

A: Before the measles vaccination program started in 1963, about 1.5% to 2.1% of the population got measles each year in the United States. Of those people, .01% to .0125% died, 1.37% were hospitalized, and 1.1% developed encephalitis (brain swelling) from measles.

You can probably see why they chose percentages for the good stuff (protection from the disease) and raw numbers for the bad stuff (complications from the disease).

Indeed, this is a way to take mathematical concepts and manipulate how we feel about them while still being able to say that you’re presenting accurate scientific information.

Saying the measles killed hundreds of people sounds a lot worse than saying it killed .01% of the 1% or 2% of the population who contracted the disease.

As should now be obvious, even the way the entire answer was originally framed overemphasizes the bad stuff.

If you take them as a percentage of the first number stated – the total U.S. population – then the measles hospitalized .025% of the U.S. population and killed about .00024% of the population every year before vaccination.

A Little Reverse Psychology

Now, here’s another interesting trick. Rather than talking about who got the measles, let’s take the same answer and reverse the percentage so we talk about everyone who avoided getting measles…

Q: How common was measles in the United States before the vaccine?

A: Before the measles vaccination program started in 1963, about 98.5% to 97.9% of the population avoided the disease each year in the United States.

This is why the CDC doesn’t ever say the measles was common in their original answer. It wasn’t.

Before vaccination, one or two percent of the population contracted the measles every year. Then, out of that relatively small percentage … a tiny percentage had further complications… and an extremely tiny percentage died.

Now, let’s look at a third question on the CDC’s page for additional context:

Q: Could I still get measles if I am fully vaccinated?

A: Very few people—about three out of 100—who get two doses of measles vaccine will still get measles if exposed to the virus. Experts aren’t sure why. It could be that their immune systems didn’t respond as well as they should have to the vaccine. But the good news is, fully vaccinated people who get measles are much more likely to have a milder illness. And fully vaccinated people are also less likely to spread the disease to other people, including people who can’t get vaccinated because they are too young or have weakened immune systems.

Okay, so 3% of the population is “very few” in this answer.

Also note that they included only the group with two vaccinations since a single vaccination leaves 7% of the population still susceptible per the CDC’s earlier answer.

This begs the question: If the CDC considers 3% — the percentage of people who fail to be protected by a vaccine — to be very few, then what does it consider 1.37% — the percentage of people who end up having a serious complication if they actually contract measles?

Logic would dictate that the CDC thinks very few people will suffer a serious complication from the measles. They just won’t ever say that explicitly because it would weaken their case.

Bottom Line

The bottom line is that scientists should be unbiased when they present information to us or their peers. If it’s a government agency, that’s doubly true.

But like all humans, even scientifically-trained people – and in many cases, government agencies – have deeply-held beliefs that sometimes conflict with the raw data.

Or at the very least they want to present information

They might feel morally justified in doing so because it’s “for our own good.”

However, that doesn’t make it any more honest.

So no matter where you stand on the vaccination topic, be aware of this type of data manipulation from BOTH sides of the argument and in every article that’s being written on the subject.

For me?

There is no denying that some vaccinations have had a positive impact on the world. There is also no denying that, with diseases like measles and the chicken pox, the vast majority of cases resolve themselves without major issues.

And between those two major points, there may be a ton of as-yet-unknown or unrecognized aspects to the debate, stuff that has never been researched… quantified… or linked causally.

In the end, I simply want everyone to apply critical reasoning to all the numbers and arguments they see – whether it’s about an investment trend or an infectious disease.

Only when we have apples-to-apples information that is presented in a straightforward way can we make informed, unemotional decisions about topics that greatly affect our lives.

To a richer life,

Nilus Mattive

— Nilus Mattive
Editor, The Rich Life Roadmap

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