If stop signs work, why should my refusal to stop hurt you?

Stop Traffic Sign On Country Road

If vaccines work, why should my refusal to vaccinate my children hurt your children?

In the world of anti-vax, this is supposed to be an incisive, penetrating question. Of course, in the world of anti-vax, there’s not a whole lot of thinking going on. To understand the foolishness of the question, it helps to think about a similar issue.

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Joe has done his research and decided that stop signs don’t work.[/pullquote]

If stop signs work, why should my refusal to stop hurt you?

There’s a plethora of stop signs at intersections everywhere. The theory behind stop signs is that if you stop before entering an intersection, there’s less chance of being hit by another driver traveling through the intersection. If stop signs work, then every time you stop, you avoid a potential accident.

But suppose Joe doesn’t believe that stop signs work; or perhaps Joe believes that there are too many stop signs. Joe has done his research and made his own decision. As Joe points out he’s not blind. It is entirely possible to tell when another car is coming and stop only then. If the intersection is clear and Joe doesn’t believe that stop signs work, isn’t it his right to refuse to stop? And if Joe is wrong and he’s T-boned at an intersection, what’s the problem if he’s willing to accept the responsibility?

If stop signs work, how could Joe’s decision to ignore stop signs at his discretion harm you? If you stop at every stop sign, how could you possibly be hurt by Joe?

It doesn’t take deep thinking to recognize that stop signs work best when everyone stops at them. Indeed, they work in large part because everyone stops at them.

Sure, if there’s great visibility at an intersection you can avoid other cars because you can see them coming. If Joe is barreling through the intersection, you can wait however long it takes for him to get through the intersection before you move into it.

But what if visibility is poor and you can only see cars that are very close to the intersection? In that case, simply stopping at the stop sign before entering the intersection is not enough to protect you. You could be T-boned by Joe because you didn’t see him coming, and he was too far away to see you entering the intersection in time to stop. In other words, you could be injured or killed even though you stopped at the stop sign.

How can that happen if stop signs work? Doesn’t the mere fact that accidents like these can and do happen prove that stop signs don’t work?

No and no.

Stop signs do protect people who heed them even when others do not. But stop signs work best when everyone heeds them. Even if only one person ignores a stop sign, multiple people can be killed. Indeed, it happens nearly every day when people ignore stop signs because they are drunk or they are in a rush.

Vaccines are like stop signs in that regard. They work to protect those who receive them, just as stopping at a stop sign protects those who do. But they work best when everyone receives them, just as stop signs work best when everyone can be counted on to stop.

But what about Joe who has done his research and concludes that the fact that stop signs don’t always protect people means that they don’t work? Does he have the right to refuse to stop because he believes that stop signs are ineffective or harmful? I suspect that most people, even the most ardent libertarians, believe that Joe’s rights don’t cover refusing to stop at stop signs. Why not? Because stopping at stop signs is a public good and the burden of stopping even if Joe does’t want to do so — and even if Joe believes it doesn’t benefit him to do so — is outweighed by the tremendous harm that is prevented.

Vaccines are like that, too. The extensive rights enjoyed by people in a free society don’t extend to the ethical right to refuse vaccination. Having everyone vaccinated is a public good that prevents tremendous harm to others. Refusing vaccines is immoral. That’s not an admission that vaccines don’t work anymore than forcing everyone to stop at stop signs is an admission that stop signs don’t work.

Some things only work best when everyone does them. That’s not an admission of failure; it’s reality.

  • Allie

    TL; DR: Stop signs and vaccines alike are preventative measures that are proven to be safe and effective in the vast majority of cases, provided people use them. No need to get too caught up in the details.

  • AgentOrange5

    This is the best analogy explaining the “herd” idea behind vaccines that I’ve seen.

  • Damo

    I fully 100% support vaccines and think vaccines are the best thing to happen to society. I loathe anti-vaxxers. I hate the idea that you would risk your children’s health just so you can be “right.”

    However, this is a false analogy.

    • Tigger_the_Wing

      Why is it false? If everyone obeys the stop sign, then on the rare occasion that someone’s brakes fail no-one will be injured or killed because everyone else will have stopped. If everyone vaccinates, then the rare occasion of someone’s immune system not working will mean that no-one gets hurt.

      The more people who refuse to stop, the greater the chance of a collision. The greater the number of people in an area refusing to vaccinate, the greater the chance of a disease outbreak.

      The analogy works for me just fine. Think of babies too young to be vaccinated, and those who cannot be vaccinated for genuine health reasons, as pedestrians who have a right to expect people in cars will stop at the sign, enabling them to cross safely.

      • Damo

        Because, not all stop signs are on all 4 corners.

        • Nikalix

          That make even less sense. A stop sign is a stop sign, those who choose to ignore them put us all at risk,regardless of the number of corners that have stop sign.

          • AnnaPDE

            I think the analogy really needs the “Stop signs are there for all 4 directions” assumption of the typical North American setup of a four-way stop, in order for the safety aspect to work as an analogy to vaccines.
            At such a stop, if someone’s brake failed and they just sail through, everyone else obeying the signs means they’ll probably have a clear intersection. This is similar to herd immunity.

            However, this is not how Stop signs are used in the rest of the world (with the exception of South Africa): Normally, at the crossing of two roads, a Stop sign is only put up for the low-priority road, and it works as a stronger version of the Yield sign, forcing people to take extra care in giving way to traffic on the high-priority road. The Stop sign protects the ability of the drivers the high-priority to drive through the intersection without slowing down. It does nothing to protect anyone in the case of something failing.
            If a car on the low-priority road can’t stop for some reason, chances are that they’ll crash into fast-moving traffic, with evasive action even less likely as no one thought it necessary to slow down and check.
            This, clearly, is completely different to herd immunity. It’s more like having a vulnerable population that needs immunising, and a population that is unharmed by the disease but is still happily spreading the germs.

  • NostradaMart

    bullshit analogy…You have a LEGAL obligation to stop at a stop sign. there’s no LEGAL obligation to vaccinate in most countries…

    • Nikalix

      The analogy is not about legality, it’s about safety.

      Every analogy has differences, spotting a meaningless difference doesn’t invalidate the analogy.

      • Roadstergal

        Yup, an analogy with no differences is a tautology…

    • Robert Baden

      Bullshit argument. In my lifetime It was illegal for black and white people to marry. My mother could not legally use white women’s bathrooms. Legal and illegal is not the same as moral and immoral.

  • George

    And for those unable to stop at a stop sign?

    For babies too young to have been vaccinated and people with compromised immune systems, herd immunity saves their lives. One’s decision not to vaccinate his or her child can kill that newborn or that person with an immunodeficiency disorder, both of whom might be sitting a few feet away at the doctor’s office or on the subway. I hope to live 100 more years with as robust of an immune system as I have now, but those two desires are mutually exclusive. I also hope to be a father one day. My chances of being in one or both circumstances are relatively high, so one’s decision not to get immunized can have a direct impact on my own health or those of my loved ones.

  • Sue

    One of many oft-repeated anti-vax tropes – trotted out as if the logic were so perfect, it should be followed with a silent “duh”.

    It would be a good idea to compile a handbook of all the old anti-vax tropes and their corrections. Then, an abbreviated response could be “that’s a #34a and a #46. Look them up in the handbook.”

    • crazy mama, PhD

      Anti-vax bingo card! I don’t have the link to it right now, but it’s a great thing. I used it when a friend-of-a-friend started hitting all the classics, and she flounced out the discussion huffing that I didn’t “respect” her “education.” (She’s right, I did not.)

  • Mel

    “Well, like the vast majority of humans, my child feels pain when they see their friends suffer a serious illness or die. As a human, I do not want your child to suffer or die – even if the child is completely unknown to my child.

    “Since you are espousing an extreme libertarian view – even for this area of the US- how are you planning to reimburse your insurance company or hospital for the costs of weeks of treatment for diphtheria, whooping cough, polio, tetanus, etc? It’s insane that you would expect everyone else to pay for your risky behavior towards your own children.”

    If you ask an “incisive” question, you’ve better be damned sure that you’re willing to live under the morality that makes the question incisive….

  • Nikalix

    “If vaccines work, why should my refusal to vaccinate my children hurt your children?”

    That sentence alone is proof enough that the person saying it has not done any research at all on vaccine.

    • Sue

      In the anti-vax world, less than 100% is the same as 0%. “Works” means for every person, every time, any less means “doesn’t work”.

      • Anj Fabian

        Nirvana Fallacy – anything less than perfection is unacceptable.

      • LaMont

        Also, if a disease doesn’t kill 100% of its victims, it “isn’t dangerous” and you can write that risk down to zero. (However! If a vaccine kills one person ever, it is horrifically dangerous, equivalent to a certain death.)

  • Russell Jones

    “Joe has done his research and made his own decision. ”

    Can’t.

    Stop.

    Laughing.

    This is both the lulziest and most maddening component of anti-vaxxism. Every last goddamn one of these clowns firmly believes at some level that becoming an anti-vaxxer automatically qualifies one as an expert on every conceivable topic. “Yeah, I may be just an unemployed techbro, but I’m an anti-vaxxer who’s done the research, which necessarily means that I’m qualified to wax authoritative on medicine, medical ethics, statutory and constitutional law, economics, highway design, food additives, institutional corruption and the price of tea in China.”

    And, of course, it never takes more than a few seconds to discover that claimed expertise is a mile wide and about 1/8 inch deep, comprised entirely of buzzwords culled from sensationalist clickbait headlines from crackpot aggregations like whale.to or Ranger Mike Adams’ site. Predictably, the quality of reasoning such “expertise” generates ain’t exactly stellar. The same “analysis” anti-vaxxers use to “prove” vaccines cause autism can readily be adapted to show that police officers cause crime.

    • Roadstergal

      I just wish every anti-vaxxer would take a basic immunology course. You know, where you learn concepts instead of buzzwords. It doesn’t take much education _in the relevant field_ to realize that “it doesn’t work like that” is the only real response to their inanity.

      • MI Dawn

        Heck, how about a basic microbiology course first? Let’s start with the real basics. This is a bacteria.

        • Ozlsn

          This is a virus. They are NOT the same. This is airborne transmission. This is fecal-oral transmission. They are NOT the same. Good sewage systems do not prevent measles.

          • shay simmons

            I have it on excellent (anti-vaxx) authority that good sewage systems prevent smallpox.

          • AnnaPDE

            Well if you can conveniently drown people in a sewer, they’re less likely to get measles. There, a correlation!

        • BeatriceC

          I’d be happy with basic science. Like let’s back up to 5th grade and start from there kind of basic.

          • Rabidlyprovax

            My 120 level bio class and my first micro class were what morphed me from a vocal pro-vaxxer to “Drooling, rabid pro-vaxxer so help me G-d”

      • Russell Jones

        That’d be really great. And absent obtaining a bit of actual education in the relevant field – which would require effort beyond typing “Paul Offit is a murderer” into Google – it’d be great if they had the basic decency and fundamental honesty to acknowledge that, despite having real concern for an interest in the subject matter, they don’t really know what they’re talking about.

      • Bugsy

        It was my Coursera course on epidemiology that turned me from somewhat anti-vax to staunchly, staunchly pro-vaccine. I’m proud to say that I’ve finally done my research; sadly, it’s not the type of “research” that most anti-vaxxers support. (i.e.: not random anecdotes from random people online.)

    • Allie

      I don’t know, an 1/8 inch is actually pretty deep. I’m thinking the appropriate unit of measure is a pubic hair, though we may need to go microscopic.