Quick and Dirty Hypothesis Testing on the Utility of Preventative Vaccines
A Homework Assignment
This post is intended as an intellectual exercise. Therefore I will not argue for a particular conclusion, especially since my conclusion is significantly nuanced.
Arguments are not made by simple assertions. It’s very common, in almost any circle, to see “arguments” presented that are accompanied by such overwhelming "evidence" as can be crammed into a a photograph, a paragraph, a link to a damning article, a youtube video, the latest insult, or the bloodied candlestick in the broom closet of Colonel Mustard. Or… no evidence at all. Just an assertion.
Sometimes it escalates to something further. If you disagree with this overwhelming “evidence”, it's all held up as incontrovertible proof of (in increasing order of severity): stupidity, lack of education, intellectual dishonesty, corruption, or even evil, which only a blind man can't see and a dishonest person won't see.
We’re seeing this with several issues these days in “covid dissident” world. Two of the issues are the utility of vaccines and germ theory (but there are more). I'm intentionally not naming names on either side of the equation. I'd prefer that people form their own judgments without coloring things with personalities, even though I also at times let my desire to psychologize get the best of me.
For the purposes of this point, I'm asking everyone else who comments here not to name names, either.
Interestingly, this issue has gotten much more rabid (pun intended) with germ theory than with vaccine efficacy.
There’s a syllogism at play here: "I present here incontrovertible proof of the evil of person X. Here it is. If you won't grasp it, you are also evil. And if you know someone who won't grasp it, they are evil. And if you don't divorce yourself from all evil associations, you are even more evil. So there. Listen up and fly right. Yours, God."
I think the people most often associated with this technique (I won't call it a process of reason or logic) are generally honest and well-intentioned in some way. They want to do right and defend the good, but their arguments are disastrous because of their intrinsicism: they believe that rational minds can grasp truths by simple statements. I’ve been around these blocks before, and I’ve seen this before in more evangelistic circles in the science community going back 2-3 decades. Two quick examples were the Intelligent Design Wars of the late 90s, and the Good Calories, Bad Calories debates of the 2000s.
People frequently believe that the truth is inherent in simple statements -- as if an assertion and a few randomly selected words and facts constitute sufficient intellectual grounds for another person’s mind to reach a complex judgment about the matter at hand. Worse, if their intellectual opponent fails to immediately respond to their demands or questioning, it’s game over. Argument won. Suck it, bitches.
Big issues are never resolved this way, because persuasion doesn’t work this way.
Even in debates between honest interlocutors, consider the following: when have you ever known anyone observing a debate on a highly charged issue who immediately changed their mind because of a slam-dunk, airtight argument presented in this debate? Think back to debates you may have seen in your college days, for instance.
It almost never happens. Persuasion takes time. The more real-world gravity that is perceived to be accompanied by a shift in worldview on a particular issue, the longer the persuasion will likely take. This is especially the case when the knowledge base is tens or hundreds of thousands of publications deep.
There’s also the issue that in matters that are highly technical, a layperson who has read a well-referenced book (something that contains perhaps a few hundred scientific references, even) that appears like a slam dunk just can’t understand why people aren’t persuaded by the same evidence. But the problem is that the cherry-picking and other epistemological errors aren’t always that easy to demonstrate. They are time-consuming and resource-intensive to compile. And most of us have better things to do.
So here we go. A tidbit of an intellectual exercise on vaccine efficacy and actually, even more broadly… modern public health interventions of several different types. (I will later write a short post on my thoughts about germ theory, without reference to personalities, as influenced from my own professional experience in parasitology. That one might take awhile.)
Since I did half the work, you can do the rest, and it will take you far less than 10 minutes.
Step 1: Look up the major medical intervention commonly believed to have eliminated high mortality levels of each disease, and plot when in history it was introduced on each chart. Downloading the charts so that you can make your own notes or markings may be helpful. (Edit: The Y axis is deaths per 100,000.)
I’ll even help by telling you what that intervention is — the intervention commonly accepted by the medical establishment, that is. (If you disagree that the intervention is the commonly accepted one I’ve presented, feel free to object.)
Tuberculosis — better nutrition
Strep — scarlet fever, strep throat, etc. — antibiotics
Diptheria — vaccine
Pertussis — vaccine
Step 2: What questions did this exercise raise in your mind?