A Touch of Gray

The entire purpose of The Parallax Machine is to get its five and a half readers to think more in shades of gray versus black and white. Of course, anybody still reading this blog probably already understands that concept, but in the (increasingly likely) event that humanity collectively poops the mattress, I’m recording this for whatever alien civilization digs us up and wonders what the hell happened. One of the things most certainly likely to be our downfall is our inexplicable affinity for polarization, for black and white, for on or off, for the love of God.

As with many things recently, the public dialogue about COVID-19 and vaccines has superbly demonstrated our shortcomings in this regard. Anti-vaxxers are constantly regurgitating things along the lines of “if you can get COVID even if you’re vaccinated, why get vaccinated?” Or the classic “if you’re vaccinated and I’m not, why should you care since you’re protected?” And who can forget the ground-breaking “I won’t get a vaccine because I don’t trust it, but I’m perfectly fine with taking an experimental medication once I get COVID”.

The concept of gray – also known as probability – is not new even to the anti-vaxxers among us. Most of us watch baseball enough to understand the batting average, and while “batting a thousand” is a fairly well-known catch phrase, none of us ever see it in practice, precisely because life is not black and white. If the local weather forecast says there is a fifty percent chance of rain, most of us can at least get some sort of mental picture of what that means. How many anti-vaxxers go to Vegas to unwind with one form of gambling or another? Surely these people are not unfamiliar with the concept of odds, which is just another way to say probability and “gray area”. Were that not the case, winning would be absurdly easy.

So why is probability so hard to understand with vaccines? First of all, no, vaccines don’t prevent people from getting COVID. They make it less probable that a given person will contract it, and if that person does contract it, the vaccine makes it less likely that person will get ill enough to take up a precious bed in a hospital somewhere, and even less likely that person will die. By giving a person a head start in fighting the virus, a vaccine also gives the virus that much less time to experiment with new mutations that can make it more dangerous (including more resistant to the vaccines themselves).

It’s no stretch say a good chunk of the people who won’t get vaccinated also love their guns. So let’s play Russian roulette. If you’re unvaccinated, then there are three bullets in the gun, and if you’re vaccinated, there is one. Either gun might kill you, but which one would you prefer? If you’re fighting in a war, aren’t you going to take every step to gain every advantage you possibly can? None of those steps guarantee victory, but would you use that as a reason not to take any one of them?

Now let’s flip the odds around for why people don’t get the vaccine. Ignoring the notion that the vaccine somehow contains tracers to tell the Government where you are at all times (and again, if you found that theory on your cell phone, you are drowning in irony), let’s just focus on the anecdotal but completely real cases where someone has a negative reaction of some sort to a vaccine. This is not unique to COVID vaccines; we’ve had to deal with it here and there for years with other vaccines (such as those for the flu). I’m not going to spew numbers at you; you can look those up yourself. And what you will find is that the probability (and in general, the consequences) of vaccine complications pale in comparison to the probability (and consequences) of getting COVID. This is basic risk management, which is good business, which makes money, which is supposed to be what a certain party with an elephant mascot stands for, among other things. Back to Russian roulette, let’s make the absurd leap to say this takes you from one bullet to two if you get vaccinated. That’s still less than three. Which gun are you bringing to the game?

This is not rocket science. It’s not calculus. It’s not even algebra. This is math we get exposed to in early elementary school, and we have no problem putting it into practice in just about every other aspect of our lives. It’s highly likely anti-vaxxers can probably figure it all out. Unless, of course, they don’t want to. Yay freedom.

This is how we roll.