Monday, March 06, 2023

The mRNA Vaccine Controversy and "Reason"

Ben Bayer, "director of content" over at ARI, wrote an article back in May of 2022 arguing that "vaccine refusers" (i.e., people who refused to take the mRNA vaccines) should not be criticized for being "selfish," that on the contrary, getting vaccinated is very much in the individuals rational self-interest. Bayer of course takes it for granted that the mRNA vaccine's are "safe and effective":

While some people have good medical reasons not to get vaccinated [writes Bayer], others are disproportionately worried about rare side effects. Of these, far too many are irrationally allowing themselves to be taken in by quackery and conspiracism.

Now Bayer believes he has come to this conclusion by the use of his "reason." This means he has evaluated all the relevant facts and, through "logic" and valid concept formation, has arrived at a correct (and "certain") conclusion. But here's the problem. He actually hasn't done any of that. He undoubtedly thinks he has, but he's deluded. His conclusion, far from being based on all the relevant facts and/or logic, is instead derived from an argument from authority (which is technically a logical fallacy). Because the medical and scientific establishments have claimed that the mRNA vaccines are "safe and effective," he has decided that's good enough for him. However, there's a potential contradiction here. How can Bayer be certain that these establishments are in all respects trustworthy? After all, can Bayer truthfully contend that he always accepts the conclusions of the scientific establishment, regardless of what they might be? Would he, for example, accept the scientific establishment's views on climate change and global warming? If not, why not? If he accepts one and not the other, isn't that an example of cherry picking the evidence?

Perhaps the primary "reason" why both Bayer and ARI accepted the pro-establishment view of the vaccines is that these therapeutics were developed by private corporations---in other words, by "capitalism." The unstated argument here is that we can all trust Big Pharma because it's not in their self-interest to put out a product that would harm thousands, if not millions of people. But what if a corporation such has Pfizer has no legal liability for a specific product (like vaccines, for example), is allowed to seal their data derived from their clinical trials from public scrutiny for seventy-five years, and has a long track record of criminally negligent behavior, having paid close to $3 billion in criminal fines and settlement fees over the last two decades? In light of such behavior, how is it rational to assume that Pfizer might not be lying about the mRNA vaccines? From 1998 to 2016, Big Pharma (i.e., the world’s largest publicly traded pharmaceutical companies) spent nearly $3.5 billion on lobbying expenses —  which is more than any other industry. For every $1 spent on “basic research,” Big Pharma spends $19 on promotions and advertising. Are these companies really the exemplars of capitalism and heroic scientific achievement that Objectivists such as Bayer seem to think? And if not, why are Objectivist so predisposed to trust them? And what about the FDA? Do Objectivists, with their uncompromising support of laisssez-faire capitalism, even believe that FDA, which is tasked with regulating the pharmaceutical corporation, should exist? 

The uncompromising support of the mRNA vaccines by orthodox Objectivists is rich in ironies. When these vaccines were first released, the only evidence on their behalf consisted of very large randomized clinical trials run by the Pharmaceutical companies. Although the data from these trials was not made available to the public, it was nonetheless reviewed, at least in part, by both the FDA and the CDC. On the basis of this review, these government agencies declared that the vaccines were "safe and effective." So the question then becomes: can these government agencies be trusted? If we evaluate the evidence, it's not clear that they can be. According to an article published by Harvard University's Center for Ethics in 2013, it would appear that the FDA may in fact be a compromised institution:

This evidence indicates why we can no longer trust the FDA to carry out its historic mission to protect the public from harmful and ineffective drugs. Strong public demand that government “do something” about periodic drug disasters has played a central role in developing the FDA. Yet close, constant contact by companies with FDA staff and officials has contributed to vague, minimal criteria of what “safe” and “effective” mean. The FDA routinely approves scores of new minor variations each year, with minimal evidence about risks of harm. Then very effective mass marketing takes over, and the FDA devotes only a small percent of its budget to protect physicians or patients from receiving biased or untruthful information. The further corruption of medical knowledge through company-funded teams that craft the published literature to overstate benefits and understate harms, unmonitored by the FDA, leaves good physicians with corrupted knowledge. Patients are the innocent victims.

Now merely because there are viable reasons for mistrusting the FDA (and by implication the CDC), this in itself does not conclusively prove that those institutions were peddling misinformation about the mRNA vaccines. But it does raise serious suspicions that provide reasons for doubt. When the vaccines were introduced to the broader public in 2021, the American public was placed in a difficult position. Each and everyone of us was forced to make an educated guess based on inadequate and perhaps compromised datasets as to whether to succumb to vaccination.

Now an Objectivist might claim that "reason" is the only tool that will enable us to figure out whether the mRNA vaccines were "safe and effective." Very well then. What would "reason" have told us to do in relation to the vaccines? The fact of the matter, Objectivist "reason" would not be capable of telling us a thing. Without a sufficient data set, "reason" is blind. Unfortunately, our intrepid Objectivist columnist doesn't seem to understand this. He clings fast to his delusion that "reason" whispered in his ear that the vaccines were heroic achievements of capitalism and "the Science" and that they were therefore mandatory for all rational individuals. 

It would seem that an important aspect of Objectivist "reason" is not doing one's homework; for this is hardly the first time we have run across an example of an Objectivist reaching conclusions based on insufficient evidence. The entire Objectivist so-called "Philosophy of History" consists of little more than vague speculations on an absurdly abbreviated, cliff-notes version of history. Their epistemological speculations are not much better, sadly lacking, as is so evidently the case, in data drawn from cognitive science.

But perhaps it was for the best that Bayer chose to follow the bent of his ideological proclivities rather than "reason," because it must be admitted that on the few occasions where he actually makes an attempt at ratiocination, he often makes a mess of it. At one point in his article, Bayer accuses "vaccine refusers" of "recklessly letting their guard down against a serious threat." But was the Covid-19 virus a "serious threat" against everyone? Since when? To be sure, the virus could be deadly against the elderly and individuals with co-morbidities. But against healthy young people it posed very minimal risks. So how did Bayer, a presumably "rational" thinker who always follows "reason," get this so wrong? Inquiring minds what to know.


Lloyd Flack said...

Collecting and logically analyzing the relevant facts is the most reliable way to understand an issue. It is also a slow way. Too slow for us to be able to use it in most cases. We have to use shortcuts most of the time.
One of these is to use intuition and heuristics. These are faster but less accurate than reasoning, at least most of the time. One thing about these is that the intuitions of someone with a lot of appropriate subject matter experience will be more reliable than those of someone who does not have that experience.
Another way is to trust the judgement of someone who has been able to spend the time on a reasoning their way to a conclusion. The question is "How do we know who to trust among those who claim to have studied the matter?". I can think of two main things to look for. One is "Is this person actually interested in the subject rather than trying to win?". The other is "Are there other people checking their facts and arguments?".

Anonymous said...

TV drug ads have all have the typical list of side effects-------

which are often worse than the original disease.

Then there's the punch line: ask your doctor if our snake oil is right for you!

Milton Friedman said that regulatory agencies are often captured by the industry being "regulated".

So why should we trust Big Pharma?

Anonymous said...

Dear Mr. Nyquist:

There is a typo in my last post.

Could you delete one of the haves?