Tag Archives: covid

Vaccines, Science, Judgement, & Discourse

My very first entry into this blog—back on July 2, 2020—was about wearing face coverings because of Covid. That was fairly early into the pandemic, but I think the post has aged very well and I still stand by it.  It seems clear that when there are many cases of a serious new infection, people should wear masks if they go into an enclosed space with lots of unknown others. I also think, though, that it would be wrong to have government mandates requiring that people wear masks (except in places, like nursing homes, where the occupants would be at a known and significant risk) and that private businesses should decide the policy for their brick and mortar operations, just as individuals should decide the policy for their homes.  There is nothing inconsistent in any of that.

Similarly, it seems to me that everybody who can, should want to be inoculated against serious infections (having had the actual infection is likely sufficient). Again, that doesn’t mean that it should be government mandated. (I’m so pro-choice, I think people should be able to choose things that are bad and foolish; I don’t think they should be able to choose things that clearly cause harms to others, but neither the vaccine nor its rejection by an individual does that, so far as I can tell.) We shouldn’t need government mandates to encourage us to follow the science.  So let’s discuss that.  

Acetylsalicylic Acid alleviates headaches, fevers, and other pains.  I don’t know how that works.  Here’s a guess: the acid kills the nerves that are firing.  I actually doubt there is any accuracy in that guess at all, but it doesn’t matter.  I don’t need to know how aspirin works.  I know it works and is generally safe so I use it. How do I know this?  It’s been well tested, both by scientists and by tremendous numbers of people throughout the world.

Now, I actually think I have a better sense of how vaccines work than how aspirin works, though I doubt that holds for the new mRNA vaccines and I realize I could be wrong.  Again it doesn’t really matter.  I’ll use them nonetheless—and for the same reason. The fact is that most of the time, most or all of us simply trust in science.  We use elevators, escalators, cars, planes, trains, clothing with new-fangled fabrics, shoes with new-fangled rubber, foods with all sorts of odd new additives, etc.—all of which were developed with science.  And we don’t usually let that bother us.  

What seems to me foolish in standard vaccine refusal is roughly the same as what seems foolish to me in opposition to using the insecticide DEET in areas where mosquitoes carry malaria, which kills many people. It’s true that the DEET causes some significant problems, but it is unlikely that those problems are worse than the many deaths that would result without it.  This seems clear just based on historical use of the chemical. Similarly, vaccines may cause some problems but the (recent) historical use suggests pretty clearly that they save lives.

Of course, there are always mistakes.  Science is constantly evolving—it is more of a process, after all, than a single state of knowledge.  Scientists make mistakes.  Worse, sometimes scientists bend to their desires and sometimes industries have enough financial power to change the way science is presented. (Looking at you, sugar Industry!) Given that and a personal distrust of government, I certainly understand when people want to wait for evidence to settle.

A drug or other scientific advancement used too early may well turn out to be more problematic than its worth.  But aspirin has been well tested.  And vaccines have been well tested.  Even the recent Covid vaccines have been well tested.  The fact is you are far more likely to die from Covid if you are unvaccinated than if you are.  Granted, the odds of dying either way are thankfully slim for most of us.  But what people are now faced with is a free and easy way to avoid (a small chance of) death.  Admittedly, it’s possible that in 20 years we’ll learn that these new vaccines cause cancer or such.  But scientific advancement will continue and the fight against cancer is already far better than it was any time in the past.  So the option is between a free and easy way to avoid a chance of death or serious illness now combined with some chance of added problem later that we may know how to deal with and, well, not avoiding that.  Maybe this is a judgement call, but the former seems pretty clearly the better option in standard cases.  (Other downsides, so far as I can tell, are mostly fictitious.  If you’re worried about a computer chip embedded in the vaccine, for example, realize you could have had one put in you when you were born.)

About it being a judgement call. Consider using a GPS.  Some people just slavishly listen to the directions from their GPS. Unfortunately, this can have pretty bad results.  Other people refuse to use a GPS at all, perhaps thinking they have to do it on their own. For me, the GPS (in my phone) is a tool that is helpful to get where I need to go when I can’t really remember all the directions well or simply don’t trust my ability to do so. Still, I listen to the GPS and sometimes override its directions, for example, if I think it’s going in an unsafe way or a way that’s likely to cause more problems.  Here too, judgment is needed.

Unfortunately, we all seem to think we individually have great judgment even though it’s obvious that not all of us do.  Or perhaps better, none of us do all of the time.  Sometimes one has to recognize that we have to trust others to know better than we do.  

So, what should we do?  We should each try to be honest with ourselves about whether our judgment is likely to be better than those telling us to do other than we would choose. We should listen to people who are actually able to consider all of the relevant evidence.  Because it’s unlikely that any single source of information will always be completely trustworthy, we should likely listen to variety of generally trustworthy sources. 

We need to find people we can rely on—mentors or people recognized as experts in the relevant field—and take their views seriously.  This may simply push the problem back a step: those whose judgment lead them to make bad choices may simply choose to listen to other people with similarly bad judgement.  That is a real problem worth further investigation.  My only suggestion here is to trust those who are leading good lives and who have the trust of their professional peers.  I don’t pretend that is sufficient, but can’t say more here except to note that we can only hope to get better decisions, for ourselves and others, if we have better discussions.  To that end, see this postAlso, realize that if people would in fact standardly make better decisions (in part by having better discussions prior to making decisions), there would be less call for government intervention.  Indeed, if we had better conversations across the board, we would have less people wanting government intervention.  Realizing that those who have suffered through COVID are inoculated, for example, should stop others from trying to pressure them to get vaccinated.


Thanks to Lauren Hall, Connor Kianpour, and JP Messina for suggesting ays to improve this post.

Collective vs. Individual Risk Assessment: An Illustration

This is a guest post by John Hasnas (Georgetown University)


I move between two worlds. I work at Georgetown University in Washington, DC and I live in the Lake Barcroft community in Northern Virginia. The former is governed by the collective risk assessment made by the government of the District of Columbia and the University. The latter is largely governed by the individual risk assessments made by the residents. The former is a sad, lonely, and oppressive place. The latter is a cheerful, friendly, happy place.

This semester I have been teaching a hybrid class at the Georgetown Law Center. Entering the building in the hours before class is like stepping into the twilight zone episode, “Where Is Everybody?” in which Earl Holliman wanders through a totally deserted city. The class is held, not in a classroom, but in a large auditorium, which in pre-pandemic times seated 328 people. Now a maximum of 35 out of the 105 enrolled students sit in their own 42 square foot bubbles. The students, all of whom have tested negative for the coronavirus, are required to wear masks at all times and are not permitted to eat or drink in the building. During the 10 minute break in the 2 hour class, they must stand on little blue circles on the floor separated by 6 feet when they talk to each other. The law school encourages students and staff who observe violations of these rules to report the offenders who may then be barred from campus. Some of my students were reported for taking their masks off to eat or drink during the break and for standing too close to each other. I have been fully vaccinated since March 13, but I must teach wearing a mask.

The Lake Barcroft community surrounds a lake that has several artificially created beaches. Sunday was a beautiful, warm, sunny day in Northern Virginia. I decided to take a kayak out onto the lake for relaxation and little exercise. When I got to the beach it was filled with people. Families were playing together. Kids were wading and paddling around on kayaks and paddle boards. Several groups of friends, both teenagers and adults, were socializing together or playing frisbee or spike ball. There was laughter. And nary a mask in sight.

On the other hand, on my way to the beach, I passed individuals and couples who were out for a walk by themselves, some wearing masks, some not. Some of these crossed the street to make sure they did not come too close to me. Everyone nodded or waved hello as we passed.

I am fairly certain that my students and I would behave differently if we were free to make our own risk assessments. I believe that several of my students who are aware that everyone in the room has tested negative for Covid would sit closer together, socialize more in the break, and perhaps not wear masks. I certainly would not wear a mask when teaching. Having been both vaccinated and tested negative, I do not believe I am at risk myself or pose a significant risk to the students, the nearest of whom are several yards away from me. Of course, some of the students who come to class might not be comfortable with such conduct, and may decide to stop attending in person and join the rest of the class who are taking the course online. The two groups would be the analog of the people happily congregating at the beach and those walking alone along the street.

When we are free to make risk assessments for ourselves, we consider not only the danger to be avoided, but also the cost of what we must give up to avoid it. When risk assessments are made collectively, all that is considered is what will most effectively reduce the danger. There is no way to consider the varied personal cost felt by each individual and no incentive to do so. This is a rather mundane observation. But as I move between my classroom at Georgetown and the beach at Lake Barcroft, I feel its profound effect on the happiness of those in each camp.