The selfishness of anti-vaxxers and why they suck at game theory

April 26, 2010

Today, Orac posted a story about an upcoming PBS show called The Vaccine War that promises to look at “both sides” of the “controversy” surrounding vaccines. Now so far it looks like it will be weighted more on the side of the medical experts despite the false balance between experts and celebrities.

But what really got my attention was a video clip of the show that Orac embedded in his article. Unfortunately, I was unable to embed it here. So I will refer people to Orac’s piece (click the link above) to watch it.

What disturbs me about the mothers featured in the video (other than the complete lack of, you know, fathers because the idea that anyone would want to hear the opinions of male parents is just madness!) is the complete inability of the mothers in the clip to recognize the blatant, inherent flaws in their own logic and their solipsistic inability to see the big picture. According to these mothers, while vaccines may benefit the health of the society as a whole, their only concern is for the welfare of their specific child and fuck everyone else.

Now first of all, vaccines are the safest form of medical prevention mankind has ever produced and the benefits far outweigh the risks. So we’re dealing with a false choice here. It’s not a protect the individual versus protecting the group scenario. That’s silly.

The second problem I have with their position the interviewer tries to address, though his facts are just flat-out dismissed because the women say they just don’t believe it. Apparently, reality is shaped by what these few scientifically illiterate mothers consider to be believable. Anyway, my second problem with their position is this naive false dichotomy that vaccines either work 100% or 0% without any room in between. If I were the interviewer, I’d have asked if they thought condoms were either 100% safe and effective or 0% effective. Then I’d ask them if cars crash 100% of the time or 0% of the time. Then maybe I’d hold up a yellow card and ask them whether the card is red or blue.

But my main problem is that they’re clearly being told  in that segment the fact that whether they choose to vaccinate their kids or not does in fact affect the health and safety of others, including infants too young for the vaccines, those with specific medical conditions preventing them being vaccinated, and of course those just like the children of these women who go against their own interests by simply choosing not to vaccinate their kids when they otherwise could.

So if we follow their logic to its inevitable conclusion, they’re encouraging other parents to be just as negligent as them, and in doing so actually INCREASE the likelihood of their own kids’ deaths. Not only are they not vaccinating their kids in the name of protecting the individual over the group while relying on the vaccinations of others to protect them, but in the process, they are encouraging fewer people to vaccinate, in effect diminishing the very herd immunity their children and others take for granted and lean on for protection. A comparable example is drunk driving.  One could apply the same flimsy arguments to the personal freedom to drive drunk.

These women are like the Gungans from The Phantom Menace only at least the Gungans were smart enough to eventually recognize that they live in an interconnected world where sometimes what’s best for the individual is doing what’s in the best interest of the group. This is a lesson that even chimpanzees and thousands of other species on the planet have figured out, and yet these morons can’t seem to grasp the concept.

The problem is they can’t see beyond themselves. What they lack is even a basic understanding of game theory.  A Nash equilibrium is created when the players make the best decisions they can, taking into account the decisions of the others. It’s that taking the other players’ decisions into account part that’s the important part. Now Nash’s equilibrium doesn’t necessarily guarantee every individual involved will ultimately benefit but it does improve the likelihood of success.

A classic hypothetical used to test Nash’s equilibrium is the Prisoner’s Dilemma:

Two suspects are arrested by the police. The police have insufficient evidence for a conviction, and, having separated both prisoners, visit each of them to offer the same deal. If one testifies (defects from the other) for the prosecution against the other and the other remains silent (cooperates with the other), the betrayer goes free and the silent accomplice receives the full 10-year sentence. If both remain silent, both prisoners are sentenced to only six months in jail for a minor charge. If each betrays the other, each receives a five-year sentence. Each prisoner must choose to betray the other or to remain silent. Each one is assured that the other would not know about the betrayal before the end of the investigation. How should the prisoners act?

In the case of vaccines, it’s a little different. If everyone plays defect, the result is essentially an execution for all. This is a terrible strategy, one that could potentially kill us all.

A variation on the Prisoner’s Dilemma is featured in the film The Dark Knight: