Source: Joseph Mazur
Lately, friends have been asking me about their chances of contracting Covid-19. They are also worried about the risks of dangerous side effects to the new vaccines being approved and rolled out so fast. Why should I not know something about the odds of anything happening? After all, I am a mathematician who has written extensively about the history, mathematics, and the psychology of gambling illusions.
People are asking probability questions I cannot answer. Can anyone? Relevant data involving ferociously mind-boggling people-behavior is not available, making that kind of odds question impossible to answer.
Two centuries ago, the typical naïve gambler knew almost nothing of the mathematics of risk. They knew, though, that drawing a full house is just about a hundred times more likely to happen than drawing a straight flush and that a straight is almost twice as likely as a flush. That knowledge was part of the cultural instinct, almost devoid of mathematics[i]
We now live in a world with a virus that has killed more than 380,000 people in the U.S., now averaging well-above 3,000 a day. More than 22 million Americans have tested positive. Testing positive means your health situation could be okay or somewhere between not-good and death; moreover, it means that you have a non-zero probability of long-term consequences or death. And still, so many Americans believe that because many COVID patients beat the virus, they can too.
I suppose that belief comes from a confidence in good fortune, a trust encouraged and reinforced by earlier gratifying escapes from failure and rewards of success. The gambler dealt a straight flush believes it will soon happen again.
Much of gambling behavior rests on prior gains and losses. For many, winning a hundred dollars at a slot machine is a strong incentive for risking those same hundred dollars on a game with wildly skewed odds. There is a feeling that you are playing with the house money, free money to lose. Gambling choices are rarely made by accounting for past losses; they come from witnessing former fortune outcomes. So what we find is that the longer people survive being Covid-free, the more hope they have to live through the crisis safely.
It may be the reason why some Americans continue to mingle with others, mask-less. They have survived or eluded Covid, so far. That escape is equivalent to being given house money, extra time to live with or without a mask, a gift that brings with it the impression of being invincible, the proverbial gambler’s illusion.
When it comes to human behavior and the management of risk, we find apparent contradictions. Behavior toward risk depends not only on that calculated risk but also on risk-taker views of gains and losses, vis-à-vis whether the person is risk-averting or risk-seeking.
Replies to my weekly Psychology Today blog tells us why. Here are a few of the comments it has received so far.
- I stopped wearing a mask last summer. The virus hasn’t caught me in all that time since summer, so I must be immune. No?
- Covid death numbers are hoax authoritarian rants on CNN.
- Even the experts were duped, including Fauci and WHO (they weren’t duped, as much as paid off). Nothing like this has ever been rolled out so fast. The damage caused by the lockdowns in both human and financial costs makes this one deadly hoax.
- Why we need a vaccine for a flue [sic] with 97% survival rate? Why the mask if the 6 feet works? Medicine has known for 100+ years fresh air and sunlight kill viruses: so why are hoaxers warning us to ‘stay indoors’.
What should my answers be, in the face of so much successful anti-vaccine disinformation? Should I say to the person who believes he is immune to the virus that he might be a broadcaster? Should I ask the reader, who sees a 97% survival rate as something positive, for whom? Should I point out the enormously large death rate for those folks in certain age groups or the troublingly sizable death rate for people with compromised immune systems and children with asthma?
All I ever do say is forget the mathematics and do as the nineteenth century naïve gambler did when the stakes were high: Use your instincts. Do you seriously believe the FDA would approve a vaccine for millions of Americans without overwhelming scientific evidence of safety?
We shall all soon have the option of getting a Covid vaccine with a 95% chance of keeping us safe. But who is that us that will be safe? The latest Gallup Poll estimates that 37% of Americans have decided not to get the vaccine. Many of those people mistakenly believe that there is a strong chance that an illness far worse than that of the virus will follow vaccine inoculations.
It is just a poll, of course, but well-designed polls do translate into rough numbers: In this case, almost 121 million Americans! That does worry me. Not for myself, but rather for those who are misunderstanding the odds of not accepting a gift to stay alive long enough to get to their natural end date. So why are so many Americans willing to gamble with their lives in following crushingly debunked Covid conspiracy theories fabricated by trendy manifestos?
It is a threat to human existence and liberty, is the rallying cry for an uncomforting number of readers who were worried about the speed of vaccine acceptance. Along with that, there is so much misunderstanding about what mRNA is.
- The first Covid-19 vaccine to reach the market will be one completely unalike any before. Developed by Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna is new mRNA technology, never before approved for use in humans in the United States; “m” is for Messenger.
- The risk of taking a vaccine, any vaccine, is connected to the unknown numbers of men becoming sterile and women giving birth to autistic babies. I’m young enough to take my chances in not accepting a vaccine to avoid being sterile.
- Once injected, you create a threat to yourself and then go to war against the threat you created. This is a deliberate manipulation of the very core of our biological makeup. This vaccine has a very real potential to alter who and what we are!
- Well sir, with a 97% recovery rate and a rushed, experimental mRNA-altering vaccine, logic suggests NOT taking it is the smarter play.
Again, what can I say? First, there seems to be a misunderstanding of what mRNA is. Without getting into the detailed workings of amino acids, the public should know that every human body is forever building new messenger RNA, single strings of RNA molecules with a very short half-life, that transmits genetic instructions from DNA. That is how cells get information about what to do when making proteins that maintain health. Those messengers have information to help maintain the health of every cell and organ in the body.
The mRNA in Moderna and Pfizer vaccines have added instructions to the ribosomes that are molecular machines that link amino acids together in the order specified by the delivered genetic instructions. The vaccine solutions contain spike-gene mRNA with instructions for manufacturing a decoy virus spike protein that sets off an alarm for the immune system to produce antibodies and T cells directed against the virus spike protein of Covid-19, thereby protecting the vaccinated patient from infection by the virus.
That injected mRNA does not, and cannot, make any change to a personal DNA. Once the messenger RNA completes the deliverance of its directives, it has no other function. It leaves the cytoplasm so new mRNA can develop to bring new messages to the ribosomes in the cytoplasm. Injected mRNA cannot modify a person’s DNA. If it ever did, that would lead to an inconsistency in the basic laws of genetics. So, no, it will not alter who and what you are. You will always be who you are. And you will be in control of who you want to be—always.
Secondly, I would ask, why are you worried about new vaccines created using new technologies? Are you afraid of creative vaccine advancements? Judging from the information I’ve received from biochemists, I am confident that mRNA vaccines are—and will be for future viruses—far safer than those using old techniques of making cell-based vaccines from replicated viruses grown and incubated in hen eggs.
Is it a risk to be injected with something involving mRNA? Sure. It does depend on the added instructions the messenger RNA sends to the ribosomes. However, we now have some reliable statistics coming in about side effects: With more than 10.28 million people vaccinated, none reported having permanent issues. The odds of having serious side effects is less than 1 in 357,000, much higher than the odds of being dealt a straight flush (1 in 72,192). By the time 30 million Americans are vaccinated, those odds will be smaller than the likelihood of winning the Jackpot (picking all 6 numbers out of 42) of a Tri-State Megabucks lottery (1 in 5,245,786).
When you see front-page stories about people going into anaphylactic shock after being given a vaccine, you have to tell yourself that single stories, broadcasted as news of the world, will always seem to be more typical than rare.
Risks of the rare are the gambles, the games, the balance of expectation and fate. And luck rarely comes without risking the possibility of loss, injury, trouble, vulnerability, ruin, or damage in a universe of opposing chances.
Odds are, by definition, the chances of things going one way or another. We take risks when we leave our houses and explore the uncertain boundaries of secure and reliable neighborhoods, all as part of the animal nature of survival. The urge to take risks is just one of the hard-wired universals of being human. Risk is the possibility of loss, injury, disadvantage, destruction, or anything that creates or suggests a hazard or adverse chance.
As long as this virus lingers in the population, some variants will randomly occur, as they do in all evolutions of genetic codes. Some, with a virus’ luck, will direly affect the spread by escaping the immune system. Fortunately, the virus has neither mind nor objective to fool and weaken a vaccine. But in time, with the luck of the randomness of mutations, it might. Let us not give it that time.
We could view the decision of not accepting the gift of a vaccine as a poker game based on a risk-reward evaluation. With poker, you may compute the probabilities of being dealt a favorable card. You have to weigh the risk of not getting a fortunate card against how badly it would be to lose the pot. You have to assess the odds of your hand overriding the one you are trying to beat. The same is true with a vaccine decision, where “losing the pot” translates to death or a near-death experience. The amount of risk you are willing to take should be less than the return you are likely to clear.