About one year ago I posted this question on social media: Was it worth writing a book on how to reason properly? One thoughtful response was that absent examples, the project would be too abstract. One needs to work through a specific issue.
Fast-forward to 2021, and we have one: Covid vaccines and the response to them.
Before jumping into this, it is first helpful to recall why reason matters: Because it is one of the critical advantages that sets us apart from animals that act by instinct or reflex.
Thought, and critical thought, allows us to proactively think ahead, to link cause-and-effect and (hopefully) solve some pressing problem.
Which brings us to vaccines.
Opposition to inoculation and vaccines has existed for at least two centuries. More recently, skepticism about the efficacy or safety of vaccines was given an additional boost because of a made-up study published 23 years ago. In 1998, British physician Andrew Wakefield published a study in the British medical journal, The Lancet, which purportedly showed a connection between vaccines and autism.
Other authors of the paper later disassociated themselves from the paper and it was later retracted by the Lancet. In 2012, Wakefield had his medical licence revoked by the British Medical General Council. In 2013, the British Medical Journal (BMJ) pronounced the original 1998 paper “an elaborate fraud.”
Wakefield had faked data. There was no connection between vaccines and autism. The BMJ’s editor-in-chief, Dr. Fiona Godlee, summarized the findings regarding Wakefield’s paper: “Clear evidence of falsification of data should now close the door on this damaging vaccine scare."
Nevertheless, despite the retraction, investigations, and Wakefield’s own loss of his medical license, his faked study has contributed to increased anti-vaccination views ever since.
Fast forward to opposition to the Covid vaccine. There are a number of reasons offered for skipping the vaccine and most are invalid as arguments—they are anti-reason, in other words. They often pop up in various social media posts, videos, and memes in various guises.
Here are a few and why they lack proper reason. I’m not going to address every possible claim or micro-analyze every rabbit trail that can flow from various statements. The goal here is instead to show the mistakes in reasoning using some of the Covid claims as examples.
“Israel had high vaccination rates and now has another Covid outbreak. This proves the vaccines don’t work.”
The tacked-on assertion does not follow from the initial observation. The latter is what’s known as an unsupportable inference: You can’t claim the latter from the former.
To put this in logic language, one cannot draw from one fact—Israel’s covid rates are rising—the latter claim: “Covid vaccines don’t work.”
As Simon Clarke recently wrote in the UK’s Spectator, “the vaccines blunt the threat posed by the Delta variant, but they don’t eliminate it.” In Israel, vaccines initially worked to bring Covid cases, hospital and ICU admissions, and deaths, down. However, Israel has recently seen an increase in Covid cases including among the vaccinated. That’s a result of vaccines not lasting as long we’d all like—forever.
This is especially relevant when large chunks of Israel’s population are still unvaccinated, including among the ultraorthodox sect, which then catch the virus and pass it along. It doesn’t mean the initial vaccines didn’t work. They did, including a lessening danger of becoming critically ill if one is vaccinated and still catches Covid.
If Israel’s Covid infections and deaths in the past year had never come down, one might be entitled to infer vaccines never worked. But they did decrease for a time. Also, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reports that a majority of the critically ill in Israel with Covid at present are unvaccinated: “Among the 680 critically ill patients, 413 have not been vaccinated at all, 179 got two doses and 64 received their third [booster shot].”
That vaccines don’t work perfectly or forever does not allow one to conclude they are not mostly effective, or don’t work at all. Moreover, the booster shots (the third shots) now being administered in Israel are again depressing the Covid rate.
“Insurance companies are exempt from liability for their Covid vaccines. What does that tell you?”
Remember that when the Covid outbreak first appeared in February-March 2020, (or fall 2019 in China, if you believe some accounts), politicians worldwide pled with pharmaceutical companies to develop a vaccine as quickly as possible.
Right, and many did, with amazing speed.
But those same firms also did the smart thing vis-à-vis governments” “You’re asking for a near-miracle in a compressed time-frame. We can’t guarantee perfect outcomes as if we had 10 years to do this. We don’t want to be held responsible for your (political) rushed request.”
And fair enough. If I was asked to deliver a product in the fraction of the normal time, I’d want an exemption from normal rules of liability as well. This is not a reason to not take a Covid vaccine; it’s more a talking point for determined anti-Vaxxers or for the genuinely afraid.
To be sure, a rushed job can be dangerous. But there’s no reason yet to think Covid vaccines are any less or more dangerous in terms of side effects than vaccines developed for others viruses. As the Mayo Clinic puts it, “The emergency situation warranted an emergency response but that does not mean that companies bypassed safety protocols or didn't perform adequate testing.”
Which lead to the next logical fallacy: Possible side effects are a reason to avoid vaccines altogether.
“The Covid vaccines have side effects, sometimes deadly.”
Any invention has possible side effects, including Covid vaccines. So too does letting nature run its course. (See: The Spanish Influenza circa 1918-1920 before a flu vaccine was available.) Nature itself is hardly benign, from snake poison to deadly viruses to arsenic, the assumption and fallacy often employed in opposition to vaccines is that nature is preferable.
Except that until the development of modern medicine and an empirical approach, life for most people was, the philosopher Thomas Hobbes observed, nasty, brutish, and short. We might romanticize pre-industrial life and peasants on the farm, but they wouldn’t. Their lifespans were shorter and chances of dying from nature—i.e., diseases – much higher.
The useful question is whether the risk of side effects of a vaccination outweighs the risk of getting Covid and suffering and/or dying from that.
I’m not being flippant here. I have one friend who almost died from Guillian-Barre syndrome. She recovered but given that in rare instances the Johnson & Johnson vaccine (or surgery or both more generally) can in rare instances trigger that syndrome, it would be folly to claim that vaccines are 100% safe. That would be a logical error in the opposite direction.
As possible side vaccine effects vis-à-vis the risk of getting the Coronavirus, the most accessible way to explain the trade-off came from a post I saw on LinkedIn: “If you gave me a bag of 100 M&Ms with one poisoned, or one [bag with one poisoned] out of 2,000, I’d pick the larger bag.”
“I don’t want to be a guinea pig.”
This is related to the argument that Covid vaccines were rushed.
Ironically, for years, I and others have argued that government over-regulation has made new vaccines and medicines absurdly long to develop and expensive to boot.
Now, finally, governments eased off the over-regulation pedal and scientists and others developed Covid vaccines in record time. We have a real-word example of how entrepreneurial and enterprising men and women can get things done quickly in a crisis absent the suffocating blanket of government.
Now some use such success as a reason not to get vaccinated. That’s a mistake. We’re back to a numbers game: whether getting vaccinated or not is the safer bet.
The risk/reward ratio is clear: You have a higher chance of contracting Covid than getting a deadly side effect from a Covid vaccine. And if you get Covid, you could end up ill, with long-term complications, or dead.
For most people, the risk of contracting Covid and of serious illness and death as a result is still statistically higher than the risk of a deadly side effect from most Covid vaccines.
“Not all vaccines work. / Not all vaccines work all the time.”
This sets up perfection as the standard by which one chooses to get vaccinated or not. Akin to an argument from anti-development activists, where the precautionary principle is invoked to avoid any risk-taking (i.e., a new oil pipeline that could conceivably leak), setting up “perfect” as the standard over “pretty good” is a recipe for never leaving one’s house.
After all, you could get run over by a car, hit by lightning, or bit by a dog with rabies. No one can guarantee perfection but if the chance of some activity turning sour is small, it is usually worth the risk.
“The chance of getting Covid is only X percent.”
The Mayo Clinic again summarizes the problem with this argument: “Circulating on social media is the claim that COVID-19's mortality rate is 1%-2% and that people should not be vaccinated against a virus with a high survival rate. However, a 1% mortality rate is 10 times more lethal than the seasonal flu.”
Back to Simon Clarke who put the case for vaccination succinctly: “For all the talk of the vaccine providing weaker than expected protection against transmission of the Delta variant, if you don’t catch the virus, you can’t pass it on to anyone else.”
It’s not about policy: It’s about your own response
None of this is a comment on government policy, or the desirability (or not) of mandates, or a comment on whether governments have overacted or under-reacted. Plenty of anti-reason and overreactions and overreach exists among the political class and those who advise them.
But that’s hardly a reason for the rest of us to slip into anti-reason positions as well.
Mark Milke wears many hats and one is that of an author. His most recent book is The Victim Cult: How the culture of blame hurts everyone and wrecks civilizations.
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