Posted by: COSI | October 27, 2009

Frustration & Flu

flu_photo2If I wonder how much we’ve failed in science and math education, the current flu season and the challenges of the H1N1 (swine) flu virus has made it clear once again. I’m astounded by the reports (and even what I personally hear) of the number of people who say they won’t get a flu shot for themselves or their children due to concerns about the vaccine.

Hundreds of millions of people get the flu each year and on average 36,000 die in the US each year from flu related causes as reported by the CDC. Yet people fall prey way too often to believing internet legends or talk show ranting about the dangers of the flu vaccine or linkages with other childhood problems.

I did some quick checking at sources I’d encourage others to use such as the Center for Disease Control’s website or to check some of the facts using the best knowledge scientists and health professionals have gathered from around the world.

What we have in too short a supply is an understanding of the scientific process, basic math of probability, and the difference between correlation and cause and effect. We don’t have a population that is fully equipped to make smart and health choices about their lives—putting them and the rest of us at higher risk.
One report of a death after a vaccination (cause or correlation?) or talk show discussions about autism and vaccine preservatives (proven or conjecture?) seem to be enough for some people to outweigh extreme efforts at safety and the evidence of safety and decide vaccinations are bad. (And it’s not just the flu vaccination at issue).

Life has risks. We can’t stop them but we can play the odds, but only if people understand and act on the odds.

Linking a story of a possible bad reaction with the prediction it will happen to you or your child seems to in too many people’s minds to be a better given than the study of millions of doses of a virus and those remote dangers that can be scientifically associated. Plus people don’t seem to understand the difference between correlation (an observed linkage in change between two activities) and cause and effect (a proven cause of one result by the first one taking place).

I still remember this difference being highlighted in one of my early research classes. Did you know there is a strong correlation between ice cream sales and crime? They both increase significantly in the summer.
Does eating ice cream drive more people to commit crimes? Of course not! There are many factors around summer–longer daylight hours, warmer weather and people outside more just for example which contribute to the increase in both behaviors. That’s correlation—not cause and effect. Just observing that two actions (flu shot and some medical issue) occurred in close timing doesn’t prove that one caused the other. Yet I hear people citing some odd occurrence they’ve heard of to justify their decision to forego vaccination.

People also don’t seem to understand probability. Are you more likely to contract the flu or suffer a perceived (not proven) side effect? Do you have a greater chance of death from the flu (remember that 36,000 normal year death rate) or some unproven side effect of the vaccine?

Our society has more and more information upon which to base intelligent decisions about our personal health, the health of our children, and even the health of our environment and planet. Yet we don’t seem to be equipped as a society to make judgments that fully reflect what we actually know and have the greatest evidence to support. It is extremely frustrating.

We have discussed at COSI and at national and international levels among science centers worldwide about how do we play a greater role to help people to make reasoned personal decisions based on the best knowledge of the time.

What can we do at COSI that we are not doing to help this situation? I’m open to ideas as we look at our role connecting our community to the real issues and the real science related to those issues so we can all lead healthy lives and create a sustainable future for our children and grandchildren.



  1. What can we do at COSI that we are not doing to help this situation?

    Basically, I would love to see COSI exploring the more “controversial” topics like vaccines, astrology, other types of pseudoscience and teach critical thinking. Some topics could easily be geared towards children while others could be geared to adults. You could fool people’s brains. Show how easy it is to trick people’s senses and how they aren’t always trustworthy. Does astrology work? There are some fun ways you could test this.
    I would love to see more events geared to adults that delve into some of these vaccine issues. Similar to the religion/science debate you recently had. Bring in some doctors to discuss the science and myths behind vaccinations.

    I love COSI, keep up the good work!

  2. I appreciate the encouragement—we will be looking more closely at the partnerships we can develop, particularly around public health and energy & environment (two areas where individual decision making is so important to our society’s successful navigation of the challenges facing us), where we can add more public/adult activities.

    David Chesebrough

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