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The virus of error

July 20th, 2004

In the most recent London Review of Books, Hugh Pennington has a generally excellent article on measles and erroneous (to put it charitably) research linking the combined MMR vaccine to autism. It’s a pity therefore that, on a peripheral issue, he perpetuates an equally glaring error, saying

‘Most people have an intuitive appreciation that the best vaccine programme, from an individual’s point of view, is one where almost everyone else is vaccinated while they are not, so that they are indirectly protected without incurring any of the risks or inconvenience associated with direct protection.’ If too many people act in this way, the infection becomes commoner in the population as a whole, and returns as a real and significant threat to the unimmunised. This is a modern version of the ‘Tragedy of the Commons’ described by Garrett Hardin in his influential 1968 essay: 16th-century English peasants had free grazing on commons; their need to supplement food supplies and income was very great; the resulting overgrazing wrecked the commons for everyone.

As I’ve pointed out previously Hardin’s story was, in historical terms, a load of tripe.

It’s interesting to note that, in repeating Hardin’s story, Pennington adds the spurious specificity of “16th century England”, whereas Hardin’s account was not specific regarding dates and places, and therefore harder to refute. This is characteristic of the way in which factoids are propagated.

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  1. Harry Clarke
    July 20th, 2004 at 23:07 | #1

    I assume you are saying the historical reference is wrong not the analogy. As in your previous post there is a distinction between common property and open access — the latter being the more damaging form of exploitation.

    Individual owners have good reasons for voluntarily agreeing to a cooperative restriction on their access to an open access resource like land. There are prisoner’s dilemma reasons for them being unable to do this so, if they cannot negotiate a cooperative agreement, a coercive agreement forcing them to restrict their access to the land can be designed making them all better-off.

    Similarly there are reasons for people foregoing the benefits of non-immunisation. And equally strong (prisoner’s dilemma) reasons for enforcing a rule favouring compulsory immunisation. The analogy seems close.

    (But maybe not perfect. I wonder if the Samuelson-Weitzmann theory works with non-immunisation. With land, enforcing property rights creates social gains but gains to property owners exceed those to land users — the landlord is not worth his full hire (similarly pricing a congested roads reduces the welfare of all road users without compensation). Not clear this is so if you take the resource to be the right to be non-immunised. Not clear that a competitive market can be defined. I’ll need another Stoli to figure out if network externalities stuff up the result in this case. Maybe there are uncompensated gains in this case.)

  2. William
    July 21st, 2004 at 11:24 | #2

    Medicine on trial by Dr Michael Fitzpatrick

    http://www.spiked-online.co.uk/Printable/00000006E019.htm

    ‘The scandal of lawyers spending millions in legal aid, on research trying to prove that MMR causes autism.’

  3. July 21st, 2004 at 15:11 | #3

    Regular readers may remember that I gave an example of someone being restrained in his use of commoner’s rights in “Fallacy of the Commons”. That was one of Oliver Cromwell’s relatives; what I didn’t mention was, that happened in the 16th century. There’s your refutation of the specific claim.

  4. Iggy Nobel
    August 15th, 2004 at 19:39 | #4

    Much has been made at this blog of the historical inaccuracy of Hardin’s concept, but this form of veracity must represent one of its most trivial aspects.

    At a glance, it seems to be merely an adaptation of the basic microeconomic theoretical labour productivity curve. In this model, additional labour units applied to a fixed quantity of capital give rise to production increases at first, but above a certain labour force, production falls with the addition of each marginal labourer.

    This model seems to hold some explanatory and predictive power for the current putative global warming situation (substituting Earth for the fixed captial and the sources of carbon dioxide emission increases as the increasing labour force) and possibly for the ozone hole effects that appear to have been reducing rainfall levels in the southern half of Australia for the last few years by causing our continental atmospheric low pressure system to migrate further south than it used to.

    One final theoretical protestation. Historically, it has been a feature of the ‘discovery’ source of wealth creation that some of the most profound new concepts have resulted from erroneous research directions, or other forms of mistake. Let’s get our prirorities right. It is Olympics time. Let us take a moment to contemplate the importance of respecting the integrity of those making genuine effort to find truth, no matter how misplaced those efforts (as perhaps in Hardin’s case), and try testing proposed concepts for the presence of useful and constructive features before discounting them on trivial grounds or dismissing them out of hand merely because they don’t apply well (or at all) to our current problem. And where critics insist on this destructive kind of activity, let their readers interpret the criticisms as more applicable to the critics than to their targets.

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