Elementary, My Dear Watson! A Pandemic Mystery Solved
Updated: Jan 21
By Matt Nadelson / New York City
As an amateur stat geek, I take great pride in discovering patterns in data that the pros may have missed. The mountains of Covid-related data are no exception. My burning question lately is why some parts of the country have such vastly different vaccination rates than others. I’ve read the theories, and the statisticians all seem to be fixated on the usual suspects of race, wealth, education, or political affiliation. But what if they are missing the elephant in the room?
When looking at the states with the highest vaccination rates– Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Maine– the temptation is to say, ”It’s just a New England thing.” Or if you’re into baseball, you might say, ”It’s just a Red Sox fan thing.” But surely there must be more to it than that.
So I generated another hypothesis: these were states where people had a greater level of trust in government, and therefore a greater level of trust in vaccines. There was only one problem: according to the data, my theory was dead wrong. Northeastern states actually have the least amount of trust in government.
So I had to keep digging. My next theory was that perhaps these states had a stronger middle class. Surely, if people have their basic financial needs met, they will have more faith in the mainstream scientific and political institutions that encourage them to get vaccinated. But nope–I was wrong again. Not one of the highly vaccinated states cracks the Top 10 when it comes to the strength of its middle class.
And then my sleuthing took a sudden and shocking turn, a turn that for a man of some religious conviction like me was quite painful to realize. It occurred to me that the highly vaccinated states were not very religious ones. What I thought would be a commentary on how trust in government may help vaccination rates was about to become a commentary on how religion may undermine them.
My greatest fear was realized when I came across this study. Of the five least religious states in America, strikingly four of them were also the most vaccinated ones. I had finally found my smoking gun data point, but it was not at all what I had hoped for.
It turns out that religiosity is not only a good predictor of who is getting vaccinated; it’s also a good predictor of who isn’t. Of the five most religious states in America, three of them were among the least vaccinated. A recent study by the National Academy of Sciences reached the same conclusion.
The study found that "a significant predictor of vaccine attitudes in the United States is religiosity, with more-religious individuals expressing more distrust in science and being less likely to get vaccinated.”
However, despite this finding, only about 1 in 10 Americans say they believe that a Covid-19 vaccine conflicts with their religious beliefs. This discrepancy suggests that people are not very self-aware about the extent to which their religious views impact their overall worldview.
So what, if any, Covid-19 policy adjustments should we make from this startling discovery? That’s a case for another day, but one I think is worth exploring. Religion and science have a long and storied history of butting heads in this country. As far as my own Covid statistical journey goes, this is a case of be careful what you investigate - you might find something you’re not looking for.
Matt Nadelson is the founder and president of Computer Camaraderie Corp., a full-service IT support firm based in New York City that specializes in the unique needs of home and small-business users.