February 04, 2015

Future Anti-Vaccinators

Patrick Marren
Partner

Opposition to proven preventive measures is not a left-right issue - and metaphorically, it also affects a lot of businesses. 

In the past few days, a mighty attempt has been made by various Media Creatures to shoehorn a controversy over a measles outbreak and non-vaccination of children into yet another left-right bipolar fight.

The trouble is, this issue truly does not conform to the kind of simplistic Manichaean food fight we've become so used to of late. 

It is true that a couple of Republican presidential contenders made statements of sympathy for parents who choose not to vaccinate their kids.

However, there is a group on the left that also seems allergic to vaccination: so-called "crunchy moms." A report on this morning's Morning Edition on NPR told the story of one such mother. She said she felt that vaccinating her daughter, yielding to her pediatrician, would mean "losing part of who I was." 

Since then, Juniper Russo, the mother, has come around to believing in the importance of vaccination. But it appears that resistance to vaccination across the United States has been growing for some time. Whether the current measles outbreak marks a high point for the "anti-vaxxers," or merely the first resistance to a movement that may grow much larger, remains to be seen.

At any rate, what we may be seeing is not a left-right disagreement, but rather a more broad-based rejection of authority in this country. 

At some level, we are all laypeople. We may be experts in our particular fields, but on almost every other subject, we are rank amateurs. As knowledge continues to accumulate at an accelerating rate, the possibility that any one person could retain the mental wherewithal necessary to make informed decisions about every important topic he or she faces asymptotically approaches zero. 

This seems to have resulted in a general sort of fatalistic agnosticism among some people. They simply choose an accepted, certified expert to make decisions for them, and hope for the best.

In other people, differently psychologically constituted, perhaps, the reaction is more rejectionist. They see that the experts are often wrong, or at least the media seems to portray them as being so. They feel pressure to go along with the crowd and choose a certified expert (pediatrician, financial advisor, personal trainer, dietitian, interior designer), but they refuse to go along. Often they will find groups of like-minded rejectionists and find some sort of more broadly defined alternative explanatory framework to support their gut decision not to comply with societal norms. (Note: the people going along fatalistically with the experts are also embracing an explanatory framework to support their own gut decisions.)

At some level we all have to take a lot of things on faith, perhaps because we are not equipped emotionally to handle the terrifying actual level of uncertainty in our lives. We have to believe that vaccinating our kids, or NOT vaccinating them, will guarantee that they will never suffer. We have to believe that our 401-K is invested in the right things to ensure we will not be working at a McDonald's register until we die in the harness. No one can be an expert on all the things about which we as individuals are required to make (allegedly informed, but actually mostly very ill-informed) decisions about.

Even Wall Street experts made gigantically terrible decisions leading up to 2008. Yet somehow we are held responsible by many political actors to do a better job with our investments than, e.g., Goldman Sachs did, and we will not get a bailout if things go wrong for us. No wonder a large percentage of Americans are beginning to distrust established institutions.

Business is an interesting case. As in the "civilian" world, business CEOs and leaders of other organizations may be experts in their narrow field, but once they arrive at the top, they are forced to adjudicate between the strongly held opinions of a passel of experts in order to make fateful decisions about the future. 

Far too often, these laypeople - they are generalists in their current function, no matter what their previous expertise - decide that picking a "most likely future" is the only option open to them. They may simply decide to go with the most persuasive expert among all those hectoring them at the time. I imagine LBJ went with McNamara on Vietnam because he was the most persuasive. Chief executives often go with the person who can give them the most concrete vision, especially if that vision is expressed numerically, in terms of probabilities, perhaps, or quantitative estimates of future outcomes. 

But that is a failure of leadership. Because there ARE ways to deal with the future that explicitly factor in the impossibility of certainty (or even estimating probabilities to any reasonable level of usefulness). Of course I am particularly speaking of scenario planning here, because that's what we are flogging. Scenario planning simply assumes that the future can evolve in vastly different directions, and then works backward to derive the plausible logics that might apply to cause such widely varying futures to come to be. The scenarios themselves are of no importance. What they provide, however - a crowbar to open the mind of the strategist to alternative possible realities, and to anticipate an arbitrary number of possible future eventualities, mechanisms, types of actors, new equilibria - is invaluable. And the stress-test of current and possible future strategies it provides cannot really be replicated in any other way.

In the end, for a business, this is the best possible form of vaccination. For non-epidemiologist/pediatrician parents, it might be quite excruciating to open their minds this way, to imagine scenarios in which there really are side effects from vaccines that are unanticipated; but the far more plausible and numerous scenarios in which their child is protected from serious danger by vaccination would almost certainly outweigh the former. For a business, thankfully, normally the stakes are not quite so immediate and maddening as to paralyze decision-makers and prevent the full use of their imaginative powers. 

Yet most businesses, instead of imagining a broad array of possible outcomes and planning for that full range of uncertainty, still choose to select one particular detailed future vision and act as though the probability of its coming true were 100%, instead of the actual "almost zero." It's a shame, because it does not have to be that way.

As a professional scenario consultant, I'd like to end on that strong marketing note. But as a scenario writer, this new trend of distrust of established institutions is what catches my eye. We are always looking for "the next blue-red divide," that societal cleavage that will replace the by-now increasingly annoyingly familiar liberal-conservative polarity in our politics. Will a science/government/education/institutional pole reveal itself as one extreme, opposed by a conspiracy theorist/anti-science/anti-education/religious pole? 

It's a scenario...

Thoughts?