Recently, Covid vaccine sceptics have enjoyed a growing profile. In an article on Bari Weiss’s Substack, Vinay Prasad and John Mandrola draw attention to sudden deaths and studies which link the vaccine with myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart muscle. Reading such articles, I can say little in response; Prasad is a professor of epidemiology and Mandrola is a practicing cardiologist and their arguments seem reasonable.
I think this is a bit naive, but then my own heuristics are biased towards reflexive skepticism of the claims made by institutional science, especially as regards politically or economically charged subjects. This is the result of a lifetime of having experienced such things as the Oxycontin or Vioxx scandals; the replication crisis; terrible dietary advice (margarine is healthier than butter etc.); publication bias; Ioniddis' work showing that the bulk of the biomed literature is statistically irrelevant; and so on. Furthermore, my experience in academic science has generally been that most scientists are profoundly lacking in curiosity outside of their narrow specialization, leading to a highly restricted perspective on the world that makes it very easy for them to be suborned by bad faith ideological or economic actors. Thus my heuristic is 'don't trust' rather than 'trust'.
Your larger point about the importance of trust is certainly correct. This is something I've been trying to hammer into the heads of my own tribalist colleagues for many years now, whenever they bemoan the growing tendency of the great unwashed to be 'anti-science'. Humans use heuristic reasoning, and when it comes to trust that's essentially a binary choice. Scientific institutions painstakingly built up a large amount of credibility over centuries. Recently it seems to me that this credibility has been strip-mined by various actors looking to leverage it for marketing purposes (Big Pharma) or to advance various political agendas (climate change, sorry the 'climate emergency'; 'anti'-racism; gender theory; etc). Time and again they've been caught lying, while shouting down dissenters, always with negative societal consequences. Every time that happens the credibility of institutional science is depleted. At this point it's in tatters. Rebuilding that trust, if it's even possible, will take a long time and require some very serious soul-searching in the scientific community. Blaming the masses for being stupid and ignorant, which seems to be the default of the credentialed class, is not going to do it.
Great piece, Tom, which kind of chimes with my recent one about 'proportionate scepticism'. Many people claim that the various bits of evidence that 'experts' and 'science' are not always a panacea have simply opted for a different heuristic. Reflexive distrust. It's just as lazy and misleading as never questioning what The Guardian and leftish Twitter says.
Thanks for being your own person.
I don't completely agree, but I hear you on the "do your own research" point. I am hyper-numerate - probably more numerate than Neil Ferguson, and as numerate as people who work for the ONS. So, when I started (on Twitter) taking apart what I considered to be various exercises in bad maths, people tried to get me to write about covid from a scientific perspective.
But I had to rebuff them - I last did biology at O-level! My "global" area of expertise is also in law, not science. I'd already been making public comment, both on telly/radio and in print, about the undermining of civil liberties and parliamentary scrutiny.
I was thus placed in a very awkward position when it comes to covid commentary, which I discuss in this piece. It focusses on the extent to which I thought my civil liberties arguments stood on their own merits, and outweighed the scientific arguments:
"No one can undertake all their own investigations and, in most cases, reliance on heuristics is permissible." This is true, but at a certain point you are going to have to pick a topic like this and go down the rabbit role if you want to evaluate this particular heuristic that you've come to rely on. I think its a bad heuristic, but it would be unreasonable for me to expect you to take anyone's word on that. This is as good of a topic as any. The number of established norms in medicine, epidemiology, and even vaccine development that were flaunted then sold to the public as necessary due to conditions of emergency is pretty remarkable. I don't think it will actually take you that long to consider, especially if you maintain some degree of self-awareness and epistemic humility, which you appear to. If you were to commit to such a journey, there would be grave consequences if you found that 'expert consensus heuristic' lacking. From my perspective, and feel free to correct me if I'm wrong, that heuristic is integral to your entire professional purpose as it closely relates to the function of institutions. What if institutions throughout the west have slowly changed over time such that their main function is not their purported function, but to advance the class interests of the individuals that operate and manage those institutions? This is what I believe, because I think most people when challenged by perverse incentives contrary to their purported purpose tend to immediately cave in to this pressure. Not all, but most, and this majority represents the basic archetype for those that have come to run all institutions throughout the west. Trusting institutions that are unworthy of trust seems like a recipe for disaster. It is a lot of work, and it does take time, but I would investigate at least one thing like this with an open mind to test that heuristic of yours.
A long-winded way of saying "Because what would my friends think?"
The article by Mr Prosser is sadly typifies the common approach to this issue. The question he has glaringly omitted to ask himself is this: 'Who gains by telling untruths, or covering up truth?' The answer does not take a lot working out. There are many people with huge vested interests in promoting the vaccines. These people have a huge stake in maintaining its credibility. The opposing voices, including many who are distinguished and highly educated, highly informed people have no pecuniary stake either way. So: the question begs: who is more likely to be lying. I suggest that the answer is obvious.