Monday, December 28, 2020

The Call of Science

I added an important update and reconsideration below.

In October Scientific American endorsed Joe Biden for the presidency, the first time it had endorsed a candidate in its 175-year-history.  No wonder he's been saying "Trust the Science."

The trouble is that Science is a lot like God, in that we laypeople have no direct access to Its truths.  We have to rely on human intermediaries, and even they admit that they are flawed, imperfect vessels.  Yet we must hearken and obey.

First we have the scientists themselves, but they rarely pollute themselves by speaking to us directly.  So we must also rely on science coverage in the corporate media, despite the fact that scientists constantly attack science news for incompetently or maliciously misrepresenting True Science.  And they're not entirely wrong about that.  Like politicians, though, scientists are apt to claim they've been misquoted even when they have been quoted accurately.

Think again of last week's Great Conjunction, commonly called "the Christmas Star" in even nominally secular news media.  I still don't know why they got the facts -- the Science -- so wrong so persistently, but they did.  Even the scientists they quoted directed mostly bollixed it up.  And this was an event of no worldly importance at all, so there could hardly have been outside pressure from interest groups or sponsors to make them distort the science.  Nor was it highly advanced science on the order of quantum or string theory.

So take something like the novel coronavirus and the new vaccines currently being distributed.  That's very important to people's lives and livelihood, so the scientists and the media would try much harder to get it right, wouldn't they?  No.  There are billions of dollars at stake, and the Science is being filtered through pharmaceutical companies who have an interest in beefing up their prestige and making a return on their investments.  The news media could, in principle, scrutinize their claims, but in practice they rarely do that.  Even 'educational' media like our public broadcasting systems, despite their devout Scientism, identify Science with corporate-branded research and production.  Look for BiDil in this post, a drug marketed (unsuccessfully, as it turned out) as an African-American-specific treatment for high blood pressure: even after it had been discredited and taken off the market, an NPRscience program endorsed it to promote a scientific-racist agenda.

This post from Naked Capitalism makes some important criticisms of the promotion of the Pfizer vaccine, and this one shows that Pfizer carefully made important information almost inaccessible in the published report on it.  Does that mean that Pfizer's vaccine is bad?  No, it means that we don't and can't know things we need to know about it to try to decide whether it's good or not.  By "we," I mean not only you and I but medical and other scientific professionals who couldn't get at the data.

[UPDATE: A reader sent me a link to this post by Marcus Ranum, which is a good critique of the Naked Capitalism post I linked above.  The writer doesn't address the question of data exclusion (though one of his commenters does), but his arguments against the post are good.  He shows that the anonymous doctor who wrote the NC post misrepresents some of his examples, notably the Cutter Incident of 1955 in which a batch of defective polio vaccine caused 40,000 cases of the disease; "within a month the first mass vaccination programme against polio had to be abandoned."  This was, as the blogger stresses, a production failure, not the result of inadequate testing of the vaccine as Doctor Anonymous claimed.  Other errors and disingenuous takes in the NC post pretty much discredit it, it seems.

[Rather than revise this post to eliminate mention of Doctor A, I'm leaving him in.  If I hadn't linked it, I wouldn't have learned about Ranum's critique; so I, and I hope readers, will be better informed as a result.  The reader who sent it to me accused me of too much skepticism; it should be obvious that I wasn't skeptical enough. Ranum begins by noting, "It’s hard to tell contrarianism from disinformation or just ignorance and usually my approach is to try to detect the signs of dishonest or motivated reasoning."  I agree, though I feel that at times Ranum skates close to authoritarianism with his references to "heroes" and the like. Reliance on experts is often a necessity, because there's too much we need to know, but it's an unfortunate one. I think that one warning signal of what Ranum calls "contrarianism" is a refusal to question one's own authority.  As Nietzsche wrote, the important thing is having the courage for an attack on one's convictions.  Anti-maskers, anti-vaxxers, Trump cultists aren't really skeptics in that sense, and don't really reject authority.]

This post, which I found in Vagabond Scholar's annual blog roundup, also discusses a question that had been stirring in my mind ever since the first announcements of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines: Just what does "95 percent effective" mean?  The explanations I heard didn't really add up.  Out of curiosity I looked up the effectiveness of polio vaccine: according to the CDC, "Two doses of inactivated polio vaccine (IPV) are 90% effective or more against polio; three doses are 99% to 100% effective."  That makes me feel a little better, but then we have sixty-five years' experience with polio vaccine.  The flu vaccines now in use are much less effective, though I'm not sure by how much: the CDC fudges by using a different criterion of effectiveness: "recent studies show that flu vaccination reduces the risk of flu illness by between 40% and 60% among the overall population during seasons when most circulating flu viruses are well-matched to the flu vaccine."

Like Thomas Neuberger, who discussed effectiveness in the post I linked to, I'm not saying that people should not get vaccinated when they get access to it.  "This," Neuberger wrote, "is not a recommendation not to be vaccinated against Coronavirus. It’s an encouragement to decide for yourself and your family when to be vaccinated and which vaccine to choose based on the most accurate information available."  The trouble is that Pfizer's and Moderna's promotional material, or media reports that simply repeat it, are not necessarily the most accurate information.  I'm not gloating over the limitations of science, I'm very concerned about them and their ramifications for ordinary people like you or me.

Think again of Doctor Anthony Fauci and his public claims that Santa Claus is immune to COVID-19 (true of the fictional Santa, not true of the human beings who play him during the Christmas system) and that he personally had vaccinated Santa.  The latter is a flat-out lie, but most adults think it's cute to lie to children. I just finished reading the historian Stephen Nissenbaum's book The Battle for Christmas (Knopf, 1996), which traces the development of Christmas in (mostly) the US since the colonial period.  Nissenbaum makes an interesting suggestion about the importance of Santa Claus to adults: although he was a commercial figure, he stood for a pre-commercialized ideal of gift-giving outside time and history.  "In that sense, it was adults who needed to believe in Santa Claus" (175).  Many adults, including Fauci, need to lie to them.  Besides, Fauci thinks of the public as children who must be ordered around by men of Science like him, so he has no compunction about lying to us. See him lying to the naughty children in the clip Krystal Ball plays a few minutes into this commentary; the whole clip is worth watching for its catalog of institutional failure during the pandemic.  As Ball says, Fauci is far from the worst high-level figure in the story, but the adulation liberals are heaping on him has nothing to do with his real virtues.  It's because of his grandfatherly manner and because they see him as an anti-Trump figure.

This isn't just about Fauci, of course.  If we're to trust duly credentialed experts, our government, Science, they must earn our trust.  If the vaccines blow up in our faces, it will detonate trust in them, and they won't be able to blame anyone but themselves - not that they won't try.  Again, though: it's not about them, about their status, about saving face.  Human lives are at stake.  That basic reality keeps getting lost.

P.S.  Because I evidently haven't made it clear, let me stress that I am not against vaccination, not an "anti-vaxxer."  I get a flu shot every year, I've had anti-shingles and anti-pneumonia vaccinations as my doctors have prescribed. I got polio and other shots as a child, and though that wasn't my decision, I have no regrets about it.  I probably haven't stressed enough that I accept the FDA approval of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, though as I think I said, I am concerned about the necessary rapidity of the process, and I think everyone should bear in mind the "emergency" nature of the approval.  I thank Marcus Ranum clarifying the precautions being taken against allergic reactions when someone gets the vaccine: someone is standing by with an epipen in case of trouble, since allergic reactions show up show up almost immediately.  I think many people would be reassured if the media pointed this out in their video coverage of people getting the vaccine; so far I have not noticed them doing so.  That would take precious time away from speculation and baseless predictions about What the President Will Do or What Senator McConnell Might Do, however.  What I was ranting about in this post was bad science reporting, and poor communication from medical spokesmen like Fauci.  But just as I find I'm too naive when I'm accused of cynicism, I find I'm not skeptical enough.