Inoculating Against the Anti-Vaccine Meme
The debate over vaccination is raging (c.f. Wired article) and it smacks of one of those conundrums that is unlikely to get resolved by scientific inquiry. I offer the following hypothesis and a way out of the dilemma.
Hypothesis: Vaccination is something that is good at the societal level but bad at the individual level. That is, it is a tragedy of the commons. You want all your neighbors to get vaccinated so they don’t pass on the germs to you, but there is enough risk from the vaccination process (at least for certain ones) that you’d rather not do it yourself.
The mathematics of the commons tragedies suggests that there are two ways out. One is to change the payout/incentive structure, in other words, make the vaccine’s less risky to the individual, or at least change the perception of the individual risk (as the Wired article suggests). The problem with manipulating perception is, what if you’re wrong? The marketplace of ideas can be efficient, crowd wisdom can be greater than individual understanding. And even in the cases it’s not, the market can remain irrational longer than you can remain alive.
The good news is there’s another way out. Just as with the Prisoner’s Dilemma, you can iterate.
What would this mean in the case of vaccines? It would mean that as a society we must recognize that if we “play the game” enough times we will find that not vaccinating as a whole leads to poorer outcomes to the the individual. That means YOU. And thus it becomes recognized that taking the “I’m not going to vaccinate” stance is immoral, or at least unacceptable. Sure there will be “defectors”, just as there are people who don’t vote. But those who don’t vaccinate — just like those who don’t vote — do so quietly. They don’t shout it from the rooftops or let their neighbors know. And sometimes they even lie and say that they did vote when they really didn’t….
The level of defection is inversely proportional to the level of transparency — the less your neighbor can find out about your behavior, the more likely you are to defect. Thus, we solve the dilemma by making public the record of everyone who vaccinates, along with their address. Those not on the record are assumed to be defectors.