What does Christie know that the rest of us don't? My guess is nothing (or even less that that actually)
Thursday, February 5, 2015 at 12:02AM
Dan Kahan

Doing his part to increase the quality of the public debate over the public's non-debate over vaccine safety, NJ Gov'r  Chris Christie delivered a gift to empirically unencumbered pundits by indicating his support (momentarily, at least) for "parental choice" on childhood immunizations.  

News stories the next day were filled with authoritative-sounding insight on what Christie's stance tells us about partisan divisions on universal vaccination.  Most explained  that Christie was trying to "appease" the Republican Party's Tea Party wing.

But there is another possibility: Christie was just making a fool of himself.

Why do I say that?

Well, to start, there is tremendous public support for universal vaccination across all demographic, cultural, religious and other lines in the U.S.

Yes, there are some people who are "anti-vax."  They are outliers in all of the groups that play a recognizable role in contested political life in the U.S.

The media is filled with stories about "growing parental" resentment and "plummeting vaccination" rates.  But those stories are based on the failure of fact checkers to do what they are paid to do.

True, the blogosphere is filled with (contradictory and even comically self-contradictory accounts) of how being "anti-vax" proves this or that cultural or poltical group is "anti-science." The only "polls" those are based on are the ones that fact-free commentators perform on themselves, or possibly the people they meet when they go shopping at whole foods.

But if Christie said he thinks that there should "parental choice," surely that must mean that in fact some significant fraction of the Republican party is anti-vax, right?!  Likely it's those stupid, evil, anti-science Tea Party members!  He must be trying to curry favor with them!

Maybe.  

Or maybe he is just a bonehead.

To test these competing hypotheses, I decided to ... look at some actual evidence!

Based on data from the CCP Vaccine Risk Perceptions and Ad Hoc Risk Communication Report,
the figure illustrates the relationship between partisanship (measured with a scale that combines measures of liberal-conservative ideology and political-party identification) and the perceived benefits and risks of vaccines taking survey respondents' Tea Party membership into account.

Because only around 1% of the relatively liberal, Democratic respondents identified as "Tea Party members," I compared TP and non-TP members only among the relatively conservative, Republican members of the sample, of whom 30% identified as belonging to the TP (where does one sign up, btw? where are the meetings held? seriously!).

Well ... Eighty-four percent of the relative liberal, Democratic respondents and 78% of the conservative, Republican ones agreed that vaccine benefits outweigh their risks.  Boy, that's going to be a real wedge issue in the 2016 election, don't you think?

But wait-- the TP members!  A paltry 74% of them think vaccine benefits outweigh the risks! 

Look, in case you are tempted to try to squeeze a "culture conflict" out of the differences in how overwhelmingly pro-vaccine these groups of citizens are, here's graphic that shows the partisan breakdown on climate change, taking TP membership into account, in this same sample.

See the difference?

No? Well, then check out difference between what a polluted science communication environment and an unpolluted one looks like.

And if that doesn't work, then check out what happened when Glen Beck peed himself with excitement over the size of the difference in the science literacy scores of TP members (the same ones featured here) & the rest of the population.

So either 

(1) the brilliant and brilliantly advised Christie made a super shrewd move in appealing to those particular TP members who are out of step with 3/4 of their fellow TP members, and with the same proportion of non-TP conserv/repubs, thereby yanking the rug out from steam-rolling front-runner Jeb Bush, who is obviously being advised by rank amatures on this issue;

or

(2) Christie is a bonehead.

Call me a "contrarian" (someone did the other day for suggesting that it is actually useful to look at data when trying to interpret public opinion on science issues), but I pick bonehead.


Update on Thursday, February 5, 2015 at 9:43AM by Registered CommenterDan Kahan

Loyal listener @AnIgyt reasonably points out that "risk perception" & policy stance of "individual choice" on universal vaccination are different things.  

True, analytically, but not psychometrically & psychologically. Or so I would argue -- and do in my response to her/him. But an interesting & important point that I'll address more -- "tomorrow"!

Meanwhile--draw the inferences you think the evidence bear. And don't confuse evidence-free, echo-chamber-reverberating & story-telling conjectures as evidence on this issue, or any other.

Article originally appeared on cultural cognition project (http://www.culturalcognition.net/).
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