Misguided journalist argues that science—and wearing of facemasks—are based on a quasi-religious faith

January 12, 2021 • 10:15 am

Despite what I consider my strong refutation of the idea that “faith” is pervasive in both science and religion, that idea persists. I won’t go through the arguments that I made in Faith Versus Fact or, more concisely, in an article in Slate, “No Faith in Science,” but people nevertheless persist in their nescience. The latest attempt to argue that science is faith-based is in the pages of The Post Millennial, a conservative Canadian news magazine. It’s just so tiresome in every way that I get no pleasure from putting fingers to keys. But since that rag is fairly widely read, I’ll say a few words.

The article is really a disguised harangue about how mandates to wear face masks during the coronavirus pandemic are infringements on our liberty. In other words, it’s the right-wing libertarian argument against masks that we see so often in the U.S. And, says Andrew Mahon—identified as “a Canadian-British writer based in London who has written for the Spectator, the Daily Wire, Conservative Woman, New English Review, Brexit Central, Catholic Journal and others”—the notion that masks reduce Covid-19 transmission is based on faith, because there’s supposedly no evidence behind it.

Click on the screenshot to read and weep:

You can read my Slate piece to see that when scientists use the word “faith”, they use it differently from believers. Scientists use it to mean “confidence born of experience.” And when people say “I have faith in my doctor” or “I have faith in Anthony Fauci’s views”, they mean that they trust authority figures who have a good track record. That’s not the same as religious faith, characterized by philosopher Walter Kaufmann as ” “intense, usually confident, belief that is not based on evidence sufficient to command assent from every reasonable person.”

Read my piece if you want more. The upshot is that the scientific notion of “faith” does not turn science into a religion, as Mahon implies in his headline. If you look up “religion” in the Oxford English Dictionary, you find this definition:

 Action or conduct indicating belief in, obedience to, and reverence for a god, gods, or similar superhuman power; the performance of religious rites or observances.

Even if science were based on a religious-like faith, which it isn’t, it couldn’t be described as a religion. We have no obedience to or reverence for gods or the supernatural. End of story.

Mahon, who I suspect is a believer, has a weird notion of religion, claiming that it is not based on evidence or claims about reality. That’s of course untrue, but it does adhere to the Gouldian “Non-overlapping magisteria” view of science and religion:

The religious impulse cannot be avoided. Alongside faith, everyone participates in ritual and follows prohibitions in one form or another. We do it in every human interaction, and we certainly notice whenever anyone doesn’t follow conventional norms. The question becomes where to direct the religious impulse. And, leaving aside the truth or falsehood of its claims, what Christianity achieved was to direct man’s religious impulse to the ideal place, away from the empirically knowable. Unlike other religions, Christianity directed it wholly towards things unknowable, unprovable and unfalsifiable. This effectively freed up the knowable world, severing it from the realm of faith, and allowed the scientific method to step in and transform human civilization.

Away from the empirically knowable? But if you’re a Christian, don’t you have to have some “knowledge” about the existence of Jesus and God,  and of their powers and their plans? In fact, empiricism is the only way to know about these things, making the term “empirically knowable” a bit of an redundancy. I guess he’s talking about “other ways of knowing,” i.e., revelation, authority, and sacred books, which are non-empirical. Neither are they a way to arrive at the truth, as we know from all the contradictory claims of the world’s diverse religions. As Mike Aus, a pastor who quit the church, said:

When I was working as a pastor I would often gloss over the clash between the scientific world view and the perspective of religion. I would say that the insights of science were no threat to faith because science and religion are “different ways of knowing” and are not in conflict because they are trying to answer different questions. Science focuses on “how” the world came to be and religion addresses the question of “why” we are here. I was dead wrong. There are not different ways of knowing. There is knowing and not knowing, and those are the only two options in this world.

So, although Mahon gives credit for science to religion’s wise decision to step away from empirical claims, I can’t be all that grateful. And I wish that religion would keep its mitts off evolution.  But of course Mahon’s claim bespeaks a profound ignorance of religion, many of whose proponents really do make claims about reality that they believe absolutely, and are constantly trying to buttress with evidence (viz. Biblical archaeology, miracles, and so on).

But the “religious impulse” that “can’t be avoided” is now, argues Mahon, directed towards the pandemic, in particularly those nasty mandates to wear masks. He gets into his anti-mask argument slowly, as he doesn’t want to look like a crazy right-winger at the very beginning.

Step 1: A general assertion:

The rush to accept the claims of scientists with blind faith rather than insisting on proof is a distinct sign of our times, as is the demand for proof of unprovable tenets of Christianity. In thrall to this topsy-turvydom, many scientists expect politicians to trust them in the absence of evidence and many Christians try to construe the book of Genesis as if it were a scientific treatise.

Step 2: Mahon gets more specific:

Surely, given the unprecedented disruption to people’s lives, the suppression of basic liberties and the destruction of the economy, the decision to shut down society ought to have been evidence-based rather than faith-based. But with few exceptions, our politicians didn’t insist upon evidence, choosing instead to defer to (or should we say, hide behind) their scientific advisors, who presented them with predictions, models, worst-case estimates and beliefs.

And of course those scientific advisors, who were blindsided like many of us, initially went on the best guesses they could make from evidence derived from previous coronavirus epidemics and from epidemiology. In other words, they went on evidence, scanty as it was at the beginning of 2020. They weren’t always right, but they did not rely on revelation, sacred books, or mere unevidenced pronouncements of authorities. And of course those scientists eventually presented the politicians with a vaccine. That vaccine wasn’t, of course, based on faith.

Step 3: Mahon reveals his real animus:

Take mask mandates. People who believe in wearing masks think that they’re basing those beliefs on science. But if that were true, they’d be able to show evidence. What you get instead is a patronizing cartoon of people peeing on each other, or Paul Rudd trying to be funny and then yelling at you from his celebrity pedestal. “It’s science!” he shouts. But is it?

Wearing masks makes some people feel better. It also satisfies a naive intuition. The mask is clearly a barrier that will at some level prevent fluids travelling through fabric, just like your pants. But that doesn’t constitute scientific proof that masks prevent the spread of a virus. Scientific proof in this case would take the form of randomized controlled trials. There was one five years ago which compared medical masks to cloth masks and found that “Moisture retention, reuse of cloth masks and poor filtration may result in increased risk of infection.” This was the line that most governments were taking at first, in the absence of any evidence to the contrary. But then they altered course without any new evidence, and the vast majority of people now accept it as an article of faith that masks save lives.

There has been a grand total of one randomized controlled trial conducted to determine the efficacy of masks in preventing the spread of SARS-CoV-2. The Danish study that initially struggled to find a publisher conclusively showed that there is a statistically insignificant difference between wearing a mask and not wearing a mask. Add to this the fact that masks are disgusting, unhygienic sneeze receptacles that in practice are rarely washed or replaced, that people touch their masks and faces constantly before feeling up avocados in the supermarket, that because of the false sense of security, people wearing masks are less likely to do other, more effective things, like wash their hands, and finally, that there is little to no evidence of asymptomatic transmission, and we have to wonder why all these healthy people are still walking around with their faces covered. The answer is quite simply that their faith is misplaced.

Now let’s grant that we lack the direct controlled, randomized trials that we need to show with absolute certainty that masks are useful in helping contain the epidemic. (Of course other things are very useful as well: hand-washing, avoiding big social gatherings, quarantining, and so on.) Doing those types of experiments would be unethical.  But we have correlational evidence that show mask wearing by symptomatic and asymptomic people, whether the latter be infected or not, reduces the incidence of transmission; that masks contain respiratory droplets, a source of infection; and so on. All the evidence is summarized in this post on the website of my doctor, Alex Lickerman—a post I’ve mentioned before (click on screenshot to read it):

You won’t find any faith in the post above, just data—data sufficient to buttress the argument that we should all be wearing masks.

At the end, Mahon reprises his claim that mask-wearing is a religious act, and makes what I call “The Argument from the Norm”:

Not wearing masks is the norm, freedom to visit family and friends is the norm, freedom to conduct business is the norm, and evidence should be required to displace by legal compulsion each and every one of these norms. But too many people aren’t interested in that, preferring instead to trust in the government’s claim to be following “the science,” and if challenged, they often react the way a religious person reacts when his beliefs are criticized — offended and scandalized.

Well, read Alex’s post above and see if you think there’s no “science” behind mask mandates.

But the best part of Mahon’s argument is his claim, at the very end, that because the erosion of Christianity in our society has also eroded the distinction between “the knowable and the unknowable”, then perhaps a return of Christianity will actually help revive science! I kid you not:

I’m not sure whether a return to Christianity is necessary to salvage the unknowable/knowable partition and preserve the utility of the scientific method. But whatever direction our society chooses to go in future, one thing’s for sure: we will have a religion. We may not have science.

Can you believe that? Mahon’s not even wrong here. Eventually religion will largely disappear from Western society, but science never will because it cannot. In the modern world, we don’t really need religion that much, but we’ll always need science. How else would we have gotten a vaccine? Science is the only good way to materially improve humanity, whether it be through technology, nutrition, or health. And, of course, it’s the only way to satisfy our insatiable curiosity about the cosmos.

The Post Millennial was in fact irresponsible in printing this piece, implying as it does that mask-wearing has no effect on viral infection rates. Mahon may have the right to endanger Canadians with his pabulum, but the paper should exercise better judgement in allowing columnists to make misleading statements about science, particularly when they affect public health. If this column were on Twitter, it would have gotten one of those “false tweets” warnings.

h/t: Paul

p.s. If you saw a mattress ad, ignore it. I had to turn off adblocker to get the article, and accidentally copied that ad. It should be removed now.

Stanford’s faculty senate condemns a colleague for exercising free (but misguided) speech

January 6, 2021 • 9:15 am

Once again we have a professor who said stupid stuff—not hateful this time, but medically wonky and potentially dangerous—and was officially condemned by his University.

Hot off the press from The Stanford News (click on screenshot): Scott Atlas, a senior fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution—and formerly a professor and chief of neuroradiology at the Stanford University Medical Center—became a coronavirus advisor in the Trump administration, and proceeded to make a number of pronouncements about the pandemic that contravened medical wisdom.  Last Thursday he was condemned in a Stanford faculty resolution, with 85% of the faculty voting for that resolution.

So here we have the usual conflict between freedom of speech and the “harm” imputed to that speech. And once again, while condemning the speaker, I defend Atlas’s right to say what he wants without institutional condemnation.

From the report:

A resolution, introduced by members of the Faculty Senate Steering Committee and approved by 85 percent of the senate membership, specified six actions that Atlas has taken that “promote a view of COVID-19 that contradicts medical science.”

Among the actions cited are: discouraging the use of masks and other protective measures, misrepresenting knowledge and opinion regarding the management of pandemics, endangering citizens and public officials, showing disdain for established medical knowledge and damaging Stanford’s reputation and academic standing. The resolution states that Atlas’ behavior is “anathema to our community, our values and our belief that we should use knowledge for good.”

The resolution singles out for criticism Atlas’ recent Twitter call to the people of Michigan to “rise up” against new public health measures introduced by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to curb disease spread.

“As elected representatives of the Stanford faculty, we strongly condemn his behavior,” the resolution states. “It violates the core values of our faculty and the expectations under the Stanford Code of Conduct, which states that we all ‘are responsible for sustaining the high ethical standards of this institution.’”

In approving the resolution, members of the senate called on university leadership to “forcefully disavow Atlas’ actions as objectionable on the basis of the university’s core values and at odds with our own policies and guidelines concerning COVID-19 and campus life.”

The indictment goes beyond simply damning Atlas for misrepresenting the scientific consensus in a potentially harmful way (presumably if he misrepresented continental drift there would have been no faculty resolution), but criticizes him for giving the imprimatur of Stanford and the Hoover Institution to his words. This is a common way to criticize speech: by saying that the speaker is an authority figure and puts the weight of his/her position behind the words.

In discussion, David Spiegel, the Jack, Samuel and Lulu Willson Professor in Medicine, who has been among Atlas’ most vocal critics, reiterated his belief that the university has an obligation to act because Atlas has inappropriately used his position at the Hoover Institution to give credibility to his COVID-19 positions.

“What Atlas has done is an embarrassment to the university,” Spiegel said. “He is using his real affiliation with Hoover to provide credibility in issues he has no professional expertise to discuss in a professional way.”

Yes, of course what Atlas said was dumb, and would have potentially harmful effects on those who followed his public statements. (But be mindful that there have been dissenters from the received wisdom about how to control the pandemic. Sweden, for instance, initially (and fruitlessly) sought to stem the pandemic through herd immunity—one of Atlas’s recommendations.)

But stupid pronouncements, even when made as an official of the Trump administration (and a fellow on leave from Hoover) constitute free speech. Atlas’s intent, or so he said in his response to the resolution, was neither intended to cause harm (the guy was just clueless), nor, if harmful, did it cause immediate harm. Ergo it’s free speech under the First Amendment.

And it doesn’t violate freedom of speech to make a pronouncement as an individual affiliated with Stanford. As far as I know, if I tweeted, as Professor Jerry Coyne, “Face masks are useless for preventing spread of the virus,” I would not be violating the First Amendment simply because I mentioned my position.  I might be violating a company’s regulations, or Stanford’s regulations (though I don’t know if that’s the case), but Stanford, although a private university, should not have rules that prevent free speech among its faculty.

Indeed, faculty who voted against Atlas recognized the tension between free speech and “harmful speech”, but resolved it in favor of preventing harm. It’s a case of “we favor free speech BUT. . . ”

In his comments on the issue, [Stanford] President Marc Tessier-Lavigne said he was “deeply troubled by the views by Dr. Atlas, including his call to ‘rise up’ in Michigan.” Tessier-Lavigne noted that Atlas later clarified his statements, but he said that the tweet “was widely interpreted as an undermining of local health authorities, and even a call to violence.”

Tessier-Lavigne reiterated Stanford’s commitment to free speech and academic freedom. Atlas, he asserted, remains free to express his opinions.

“But we also believe that inflammatory remarks of the kind at issue here by someone with the prominence and influence of Dr. Atlas have no place in the context of the current global health emergency,” he said. “We’re therefore compelled to distance the university from Dr. Atlas’s views in the strongest possible terms.”

No, President Tessier-Lavigne, Atlas’s misguided statements were NOT a “call to violence”, at least of the immediate and predictable kind that does violate the First Amendment. Atlas even made that clear. How a statement is interpreted by people is not important; what’s important, if you’re seeking to damn someone for free speech, is what they intended to do. 

The University didn’t have to pass a resolution “distancing itself” from Atlas, and that wouldn’t have happened at the University of Chicago. For passing such resolutions chills speech, and, as our Kalven report emphasizes, says these wise words:

The instrument of dissent and criticism is the individual faculty member or the individual student. The university is the home and sponsor of critics; it is not itself the critic. It is, to go back once again to the classic phrase, a community of scholars. To perform its mission in the society, a university must sustain an extraordinary environment of freedom of inquiry and maintain an independence from political fashions, passions, and pressures. A university, if it is to be true to its faith in intellectual inquiry, must embrace, be hospitable to, and encourage the widest diversity of views within its own community. It is a community but only for the limited, albeit great, purposes of teaching and research. It is not a club, it is not a trade association, it is not a lobby.

In this case the University (Stanford) is the critic, making public pronouncements so it looks good. And by so doing, it chills the speech of those faculty who would advance renegade views. Some of the faculty even recognized this:

The discussion of Atlas’ actions raised issues of academic freedom and freedom of speech, as it has in the past. Among those expressing concern about the resolution’s effect on freedom of speech and academic freedom was John Etchemendy, former provost, the Patrick Suppes Family Professor in the School of Humanities and Sciences and the Denning Family Co-Director of the Stanford Institute for Human-Centered Artificial Intelligence.

Etchemendy said that the resolution could be interpreted as suggesting Stanford faculty members have less freedom of speech rights than members of society in general.

But Etchemendy said, “As far as the statements that have been made by Atlas, as a private citizen he has the right to make those statements. I am troubled by the idea that a person who has those rights to speak and to assert certain things – however outrageous – have fewer rights to speak, given that they are Stanford faculty. I find that to be contrary to what is, I think, the highest value of the university, which is the value and promotion of free speech and open dialogue.”

I agree wholly with Etchemendy. But clearly most faculty, even if they do favor free speech and academic freedom, favor the “free speech BUT. . .” variety. One more quote:

Debra Satz, dean of the School of Humanities and Sciences, said she believes the resolution has reminded the university of the importance of leading with its values.

“In our messaging, we have sometimes been more focused on the legal issues rather than the value issues,” she said. “This brings the value issues front and center. We have been pretty good at pointing to the value of freedom of speech and freedom of inquiry, which I believe are central. But there are other values at stake. As a university, we have a commitment to push back against the undermining of expertise and knowledge. That is one of the great threats to our democracy at the moment.”

In my view (others may differ), those “other values”, which constitute misinformation—even potentially harmful misinformation—do not outweigh the great value of freedom of speech, especially at a university. Stanford should have kept its collective mouth shut.

Now you might be asking, “Well, what’s the difference between what Atlas said and false advertising, which DOES violate the First Amendment?”  After all, Atlas’s statement, like false advertising of drugs, could be harmful to people’s health.

As far as I know, commercial advertising has a bit less leeway than other forms of speech, and what has been prohibited by the courts is deceptive commercial advertising, when a firm makes claims it knows to be wrong. That is not the case for Atlas, who believed what he said. But even if he knew what he said was wrong, he should be damned and excoriated for it by counterspeech, not subject to official university condemnation. Universities, after all, should be kept as unsullied as possible by the chilling of speech, for they are places where ideas should be freely expressed and debated.

Atlas is a moron, but even morons get to say dumb things under the First Amendment.

I was going to put a poll here, “Do you agree that Stanford should have had a vote on condemning Atlas?” But I’d rather hear what you have to say in the comments, so speak up.

Did the CDC favor social-justice optics over American lives?

December 24, 2020 • 1:45 pm

When I heard that Illinois was giving covid-vaccine priority to all “essential workers” over the aged, I was puzzled. Not because “essential” workers should all queue up behind older people, but because some “essential workers” weren’t really essential in a sense that should give them priority over older people whose chance of dying from the infection was much higher. “Essential workers” include, according to Yascha Mounk, bankers, liquor-store employees, hardware-store employees, and movie crews. On what grounds, especially considering the differential risk of death or serious illness, should these “essential workers” be given vaccination priority over adults with high-risk medical conditions or older folks (over 65, 70, or 75, depending on the state and the ordering)?

Yet that is what the CDC decided not long ago, realizing, even by their own accounting, that such a decision would cause more people to die than if the order was reversed. The decision to let people die was apparently based on social-justice considerations, as older people were deemed to be more white than were essential workers.

In this article from Persuasion, Yascha Mounk, Associate Professor of Practice at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, argues that such a decision is unethical. Click to read:

Mounk begins with some premises that he thinks people will agree on about what what is just and unjust:

. . . there are also some bedrock principles on which virtually all moral philosophers have long agreed.

The first is that we should avoid “leveling down” everyone’s quality of life for the purpose of achieving equality. It is unjust when some people have plenty of food while others are starving. But alleviating that inequality by making sure that an even greater number of people starve is clearly wrong. The second is that we should not use ascriptive characteristics like race or ethnicity to allocate medical resources. To save one patient rather than another based on the color of their skin rightly strikes most philosophers—and most Americans—as barbaric. The Centers for Disease Control have just thrown both of these principles overboard in the name of social justice.

In one of the most shocking moral misjudgments by a public body I have ever seen, the CDC invoked considerations of “social justice” to recommend providing vaccinations to essential workers before older Americans even though this would, according to its own models, lead to a much greater death toll. After a massive public outcry, the agency has adopted revised recommendations. But though these are a clear improvement, they still violate the two bedrock principles of allocative justice—and are likely to cause unnecessary suffering on a significant scale.

He then recounts a talk that Kathleen Dooling, a public-health official, gave at the CDC, a talk that wound up undergirding the initial order of non-healthcare-essential workers > older adults that the organization mandated for vaccination. The decision was based on “feasibility [ease of implementing vaccination in an identified population], science, and ethics.” Dooling presented a chart, below, purporting to show that implementation was easier in a group based solely on age (true: it’s substantially harder to identify “essential non-healthcare workers” as well as define whether someone has a “high-risk medical condition”), and the science itself, she said, showed no difference in outcomes based on priority.  (The “+” signs are indices of priority, and are somehow combined to create the order of vaccination.)

The “science” bit is especially wonky. Although older adults without comorbidities are given the same science rating as essential non-healthcare workers (column 1 versus 3), Mounk says this:

According to the CDC’s model, prioritizing essential workers over the elderly would therefore increase the overall number of deaths by between 0.5% and 6.5%. In other words, it would likely result in the preventable deaths of thousands of Americans.

Remember, that is a model that supposedly takes into account all scenarios for mortality, including deaths produced by non-vaccinated “essential non-healthcare workers” who spread the virus to others:

Thus, deciding to prioritize non-healthcare essential workers over adults over 65 rested on grounds of “ethics” is deciding to prioritize “ethical considerations” over life (as if differential death was not an ethical matter!) Mounk says the “ethics” came down to race:

And yet, the presentation concluded that science does not provide a reason to prioritize the elderly. For, as Kathleen Dooling wrote in one of the most jaw-dropping sentences I have ever seen in a document written by a public official, differences in expected consequences that could amount to thousands of additional deaths are “minimal.”

This allowed Dooling to focus on “ethical” principles in selecting the best course of action. Highlighting the most important consideration in red, Dooling emphasized that “racial and ethnic minority groups are underrepresented among adults > 65.” In other words, America’s elderly are too white to be considered a top priority for the distribution of the vaccine against Covid. It is on this basis that ACIP awarded three times as many points to prioritizing the more racially diverse group of essential workers, making the crucial difference in the overall determination. Astonishingly, the higher overall death toll that would have resulted from this course of action does not feature as an ethical reason to prioritize older Americans.

As far as I know, Mounck is correct is stating that this is the basis of the decision.  It is based on social-justice optics. Now nobody would want to take a path in which one could foresee a worse outcome—in terms of death or anything else—for members of different races. If one could predict that the death rate among such groups would differ as a result of such a policy decision, that would violate the ethical principles above. But that’s not the outcome here. In fact, as Mounck notes, the proportion of people of color among essential non-healthcare workers isn’t much different from their proportion among the elderly, and it’s in fact conceivable that prioritizing column 1 over column 3 could lead to the deaths of more people of color than the other way around!

The difference in the percentage of white people across age groups is comparatively small. The difference in the percentage of infected people who succumb to Covid across all age groups is massive. Giving the vaccine to African-American essential workers before elderly African-Americans would likely raise the overall death toll of African-Americans even if a somewhat greater number of African-Americans were to receive the vaccine as a result.

Indeed, a few people noticed and objected to this order:

In the days after ACIP published its preliminary recommendations, barely any epidemiologists or health officials publicly criticized its findings or its reasoning. But thankfully, prominent journalists like Zeynep TufeckiMatt Yglesias and Nate Silver publicly made the case against them. (So did I.)

You might look at the data in Silver’s tweet, since many people seem to trust him.

Finally, as the controversy grew, the CDC changed its recommendations, putting (after medical workers) Americans over 74 AND essential frontline workers in the second phase.  Mounk sees this as an improvement, but one that could still lead to higher deaths (for example, prioritizing frontline workers over those 65-74 could still lead to overall higher mortality).

Although I’m over 65, I don’t really have a dog in this fight. I will patiently wait my turn to be vaccinated whatever and whenever the state of Illinois decides. But what the CDC was trying to do originally—and may be doing to a lesser extent now—smacks of prioritizing the appearance of equity above the lives of Americans—and that includes black lives. I see no other explanation once you realize that the CDC is supposed to have done the math about overall deaths caused by their different strategies—and then opted for a ranking that would increase the number of dead. We all know the importance of optics (Glenn Loury calls it “ass covering”) over substantive and meaningful progress these days, especially when it comes to alleviating inequalities among groups. To use one example, optics rather than achievement is the basis of land acknowledgments.

In the end, Mounk uses this ranking as an example of why we shouldn’t even trust government institutions like the CDC, which is supposed to be using science to make its decisions. Although ethics has to figure in somewhere, if you can’t trust the CDC’s science, what can you trust? And I agree that there was a misstep in the CDC which only public scrutiny prevented. Mounk is especially exercised by the failure of the press to notice and call out the CDC’s priorities, unlike Nate Silver:

Until a few years ago, it was obvious to me that I can trust what is written in the newspaper or what I am told by public health authorities.

Now, I am losing that trust. I still believe that most people, including the journalists who write for established newspapers and the civil servants who staff federal agencies, are the heroes in their own stories. They genuinely mean well. And yet, I no longer trust any institution in American life to such an extent that I am willing to rely on its account of the world without looking into important matters on my own.

The reasons for this mistrust are perfectly encapsulated in the reports that mainstream newspapers published about the CDC’s recommendation. The write-up in the New York Times, for example, barely mentions the committee’s last-minute change of heart. A faithful reader of the newspaper of record would not even know that an important public body was, until it received massive criticism from the public, about to sacrifice thousands of American lives on the altar of a dangerous and deeply illiberal ideology.

Weigh in below; is Mounk’s take right or wrong?

Why we shouldn’t be worried (yet) about the new strain of Covid-19

December 23, 2020 • 10:30 am

Reader Jim Batterson sent me this 25-minute video with the comment:

I know you prefer to read rather than watch a video, but I wanted to make you aware of a 24-minute YouTube video from Vince Racaniello, a virologist at Columbia University who leads a cast of virology geezers and one younger immunologist in a weekly zoomcast production of “This Week in Virology”.  He did this standalone presentation to rant a bit on the way that this latest variant in the UK is being hyped to the world. I think he does a pretty good job for any viewer who has had a biology course in the past five or so years.
The point is that viruses are mutating constantly, and yet none the coronavirus mutations have yielded a new “strain”—that is, a mutant type that has new biological properties. The property touted for the new virus is its purportedly increased “spreadability”, but, as Racaniello notes repeatedly, that simply hasn’t been demonstrated. As he shows, you can get some variants spreading more widely than others simply by accident: the variant may not have any effect on spreadability itself but can increase in frequency as a byproduct of “superspreader events”—the main way the virus spreads—because only a small subset of all viruses get passed to other humans.

Racaniello then shows the changes in the new mutant “strain”, noting that only one of the several mutants in the spike protein is even a candidate for a change in spreadability, but there is not an iota of evidence that any of those mutations actually make the strain more spreadable.  Nevertheless, all of us are inundated with media scare stories about this “superspreader virus”.

Racaniello’s point is that though there are epidemiological data showing a correlation between the presence of the mutant in some areas and a greater spread of the virus, that’s just  a correlation without evidence of causation. And there could be several causes, including accidents. To show this mutant is a “super virus”, you simply have to do lab experiments; epidemiological correlations show nothing.

Racaniello doesn’t rule out that this mutant spreads faster than its ancestors, but he’s not convinced it is, and doesn’t think that we yet have a reason to be concerned. In fact, he suggests that the changes in the new strain may make it less spreadable. Let me add that Racaniello knows what he’s talking about, as he’s co-author on a well known textbook of virology.

Like all good scientists, Racaniello isn’t declaring that this virus is “neutral” compared to its competitors—he’s simply saying that we don’t have any data suggesting it’s more nefarious. In fact, the same story happened earlier with a different mutant that spread widely, but nothing ever came of that.  We need experimental cell-culture data from the lab on viral shedding, and that doesn’t exist.

His final comment:

“We should move on from the scary headlines, and get ahead with vaccination programs, which are underway—and that is going to be the way we get away from this pandemic.”

Anyway, this is a good and clear mini-lecture, and listening to it should calm you down a bit if the media have gotten you worried.

Dr. Lickerman on the Moderna vaccine

December 22, 2020 • 10:30 am

My GP has written another post on vaccines, this time on the new Moderna vaccine, which has just been approved by the FDA.  Click on the screenshot to read it, or you’ll likely be satisfied with the conclusions and unanswered questions below, which were remarkably similar to his take on the Pfizer vaccine.

That’s because, except for a difference in storage conditions (the Moderna vaccine requires far less cold than does the Pfizer one), the trials show both are about equally effective (94.1% for Pfizer, 95% for Moderna, which are probably not statistically significant. Both are also mRNA vaccines that inject the code for making part of the virus’s spike protein into the body, where part of the protein is made, activating antiviral antibodies, and then the mRNA is degraded. (See below for an article about how these vaccines work.) There’s a slightly higher incidents of side effects with the Moderna vaccine as well: muscle pain and joint pain after the jabs are about 20% higher for Moderna’s vaccine (an incidence of around 40%) than for Pfizer’s (incidence about 20%). But these aren’t severe side effects.

The Pfizer vaccine was tested on individuals older than 16, while Moderna’s on individuals older than 18, so efficacy in that two-year age range remains an unanswered question for Moderna.

Finally, the two doses of Moderna’s vaccine were spaced 28 days apart rather than Pfizer’s 21, but this may not be important since there seems to be a leeway of a few days. Consult your doctor.

The overall take (these quoted from the post):

  1. The vaccine is highly effective in preventing symptomatic COVID-19 infection.
  2. The vaccine is safe. Adverse reactions, both local and systemic, are mostly minor. Though the study hasn’t yet gone on long enough to prove there are no serious long-term adverse affects, such adverse affects, if they exist, are likely to be rare and non-life-threatening based on other Phase I and II studies of other RNA vaccines.
  3. We recommend everyone who is eligible to receive the vaccine should receive it when it becomes available to them.
  4. It very well may take all of 2021 to get everyone who’s willing to be vaccinated to receive the shots, which means it likely won’t be until early 2022 that life returns to pre-pandemic normal. In the meantime, continue to wear a mask when indoors with anyone you don’t live with, wash your hands frequently, and refrain from dining indoors at restaurants.

And the unanswered questions:

  1. While suggested by the study, still left unproven is whether BNT162b2 prevents severe COVID-19 infection, whether it prevents COVID-19 infection after just one dose, and whether it prevents COVID-19 infection in subjects who’ve already had COVID-19.
  2. The study didn’t look to see if the vaccine prevents asymptomatic infection. Nor did it assess whether subjects who developed COVID-19 despite vaccination are less likely to transmit the virus. Thus, it’s not yet clear how effective the vaccine will be in containing the spread of the infection.
  3. The study hasn’t gone on long enough to tell if subjects who were vaccinated yet still contracted COVID-19 have a lower risk of long-term effects of COVID-19.
  4. We don’t yet know if the vaccine reduces the risk of dying from COVID-19.
  5. There was insufficient data to draw conclusions about safety and efficacy of the vaccine in children younger than 18, pregnant or lactating women, and patients who are immunocompromised.
  6. We don’t yet know how long immunity lasts and whether or not booster shots will be necessary.

As far as which one you should take, I think Alex’s recommendation would be to take whichever one is offered to you. The news last night said that big pharmacies like CVS may well stock both types, in which case you should consult your doctor.

Here’s a new NYT article by Jonathan Corum and Carl Zimmer about how Moderna’s vaccine works (click on the screenshot; I think the article is free for all). It’s a comic-book-like series of graphics which are very good, and I’ve put a summary at the bottom.

You’ll have to click on the screenshot below, perhaps twice, if you want the whole story in one place.

My heart is broken: Eric Clapton and Van Morrison release an anti-mask and anti-lockdown song

December 21, 2020 • 8:45 am

Shoot me now! According to the Vanity Fair article below (click on screenshot) Van Morrison wrote a song, “Stand and Deliver”, clearly meant to denigrate Britain’s public-health restrictions during the coronavirus pandemic. Worse—the song was performed by Eric Clapton (below).  Both of these guys were musical heroes of mine, but now I’m not so sure. And I wasn’t aware that this is Morrison’s fourth anti-lockdown song. Well, nobody ever claimed the guy was fully on the rails, but—et tu, Clapton?

You know, a lot of rock stars were loons or nasty s.o.b.s, but so long as they produced good songs, I didn’t much care. But this time they’ve released an odious song!

A few words from the Vanity Fair article:

Eric Clapton and Van Morrison, both age 75 and therefore at 220 times the risk of death from COVID-19 compared to people 18 to 29, have released a blues-rock track raging against public health codes.

“Stand and Deliver,” written by Morrison and sung by Clapton, includes couplets like “Do you wanna be a free man / Or do you wanna be a slave? / Do you wanna wear these chains / Until you’re lying in the grave?”

It continues “Magna Carta, Bill of Rights/The constitution, what’s it worth?/You know they’re gonna grind us down/Until it really hurts/Is this a sovereign nation/Or just a police state?/You better look out, people/Before it gets too late.”

The phrase “stand and deliver” is associated with highwaymen, suggesting that Morrison and Clapton feel that governments scrambling to keep their populations alive are somehow stealing from them. The track concludes with the line “Dick Turpin wore a mask too.” Turpin was an 18th century British criminal known for highway robbery.

The song was released just as a new and faster-spreading COVID strain was identified in the United Kingdom, with a 40 percent increase in cases from just one week ago. British Heath Secretary Matt Hancock called the new strain of COVID “out of control.”

Earlier this year, Morrison referred to preventive measures as pseudoscience, and “Stand and Deliver” marks his fourth anti-lockdown track after “Born to Be Free“, “As I Walked Out,” and “No More Lockdown.” This latest, though, is the first to infect another Rock and Roll Hall of Famer.

Snopes adds this:

In late 2020, music legends Van Morrison and Eric Clapton announced they had collaborated on a new a single, to be released on Dec. 4. They announced the profits were going to Morrison’s Lockdown Financial Hardship Fund, a philanthropic project to support musicians whose livelihoods have been harmed by a series of lockdowns in the U.K., designed to combat the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.

Here’s the song, with the lyrics below. There’s no doubt it’s about opposing pandemic restrictions. If you don’t believe that, read the lyrics—especially the last line. I have to say, though, that this is a pretty crappy song. I doubt you’ll be hearing it on the oldies stations in the future.

Lyrics: (my emphasis in last line; Dick Turpin was a highwayman).

Stand and Deliver

Stand and deliver
You let them put the fear on you
Stand and deliver
But not a word you heard was true
But if there’s nothing you can say
There may be nothing you can do

Do you wanna be a free man
Or do you wanna be a slave?
Do you wanna be a free man
Or do you wanna be a slave?
Do you wanna wear these chains
Until you’re lying in the grave?

I don’t wanna be a pauper
And I don’t wanna be a prince
I don’t wanna be a pauper
And I don’t wanna be a prince
I just wanna do my job
Playing the blues for friends

Magna Carta, Bill of Rights
The constitution, what’s it worth?
You know they’re gonna grind us down, ah
Until it really hurts
Is this a sovereign nation
Or just a police state?
You better look out, people
Before it gets too late

You wanna be your own driver
Or keep on flogging a dead horse?
You wanna be your own driver
Or keep on flogging a dead horse?
Do you wanna make it better
Or do you wanna make it worse?

Stand and deliver
You let them put the fear on you
Slow down the river
But not a word of it was true
If there’s nothing you can say
There may be nothing you can do

Stand and deliver
Stand and deliver
Dick Turpin wore a mask too

h/t: Barry

Andrew Sullivan: party like it’s 1920! (and a word on Mayor Pete)

December 19, 2020 • 1:30 pm

Now that Trump is toast and we have two vaccines in the offing, Andrew Sullivan is ebullient. His latest piece at The Weekly Dish celebrates The Good Times Coming with a historical analogy: the outburst of hedonism in the Roaring Twenties following the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic. Click on the screenshot below to see the column, though it will do you no good unless you have a subscription (I do, so I’ll quote sparingly):

The Beagle Man can barely contain himself!:

With a new president, a new season, a miraculous set of vaccines, and a booming economy, it will be easier to put Covid behind us than it might otherwise have been. And we can tell ourselves a different kind of story than in 1919. The difference between this plague and every one before AIDS is that it didn’t blow itself out. We put an end to it. The passivity and fatalism that marked many human experiences of plague are, in this moment, avoidable. We can rightly see this turning point as a real scientific breakthrough, with vast implications for tackling plague viruses in the future.

And freezing a society for a while, putting the entire social order on hold, allowing ourselves to think again and reassess where we are and where we were, has consequences, many of which we cannot know at all right now. I explored this theme in an essay earlier this year. Whole industries will be re-imagined; careers will change; people will move; workplace patterns will permanently shift; babies will be born in larger numbers; the younger generation will rise; and the culture itself will throb with renewed energy.

That this future is unknowable is partly why it’s so invigorating. Coop an entire society up for a year, suppress all the human instincts to be together, surround everyone with fear and caution … and then set them all free. The end of this epidemic is coming. We know that now. We can see it in the future. And can almost taste it. So get ready to party. Because 2021 will rock.

I think, when Andrew says that Covid-19 differs from previous plagues in that humans ended it instead of waiting for its natural waning, he’s forgotten about smallpox and polio. But never mind. What perplexes me—and I see this on the news a lot—is the idea that we’ll be better off as a species for having weathered this storm. That’s almost tantamount to saying that in the net, the pandemic was a good thing. I don’t claim that Sullivan is saying that, but he, like many others, seems bent on finding something good emerging from a horrible epidemic.

But what can we expect, or prognosticate, will be the salubrious consequences? Well, we know how to deal with a pandemic better now: we know how to do contact tracing, we’ve developed vaccines—with messenger RNA!—in less than a year, and we know better how to distribute them. Perhaps that will help us the next time the world rouses up its bats and sends them forth to die in a happy city. But that would be about just the same result had we never had this pandemic. We had to learn this sometime! And don’t forget the dead, who will number more than two million when this is over.

As for the other salubrious consequences, I don’t see them. Restaurants will be gone, people will be more afraid of each other, many kids have lost almost a year of schooling, and so on. I think people want to get back to what existed before (I’m excepting the social movements that were already in play when the pandemic started), not engineer a brand new world with no places to eat and where sociality is limited to bumping fists and elbows. Truly, I think it would have been better had the epidemic not knocked us back on our heels. But perhaps I’m wrong—perhaps some readers see a silver lining that I can’t. If so, weigh in below. Will anything good—beyond a better ability to deal with epidemics—come from this plague?

********

During the primary I was a big fan of Mayor Pete as a Democratic candidate, even though he lacked experience on the national level. Buttigieg was whip-smart, so he could learn on the job, was eloquent, and was not on the extreme AOC wing of the Left. I guess I thought of him as a white, gay Obama.  Now, fortunately, Biden has appointed Buttigieg as Secretary of Transportation, even though Pete was a former rival.

It can only be a good thing that Mayor Pete is now Secretary Pete, as I’m sure he has a big future in politics. And it’s great that he’s a Democrat. But what I didn’t think of is how Buttigieg could strike fear into the Far Left wing of the Democratic Party—you know, the wing that turns centrists into Republicans. And, in his weekly offering, Sullivan quotes Matt Yglesias and then adds his own gloss:

“I hope this is obvious to everyone, but it just can’t be stressed heavily enough that social media performative Pete-hatred is not actually about Pete [Buttigieg]. I’d say most generously it’s about an accurate sense that his existence threatens the young socialist left’s belief that the future belongs to them.

Joe Biden, yesterday’s man, is easy to live with. So is the politically clumsy Kamala Harris. But the prospect of a charismatic, talented, ambitious normie Democrat who’s not going away any time soon is terrifying.

But this is good! Right now Democratic Party politics is largely polarized between an ossified and uninspiring establishment and a group of young, dynamic leftists who are wildly out of touch with political reality. Fresh faces who know how to be interesting while also knowing how to read public opinion surveys are exactly what the country needs,” – Matt Yglesias, Slow Boring, the best new thing on Substack.

That last sentence is very good. And here’s Sullivan’s take:

In our post-Trump attempted return to normalcy, a man like Pete Buttigieg matters. Yes, he’s blandly ambitious in a very Rhodes Scholar way. He’s super-smooth in debate. His precocity is a bit irritating. He offends the Alphabet People because he’s such a normie gay man, threatening to complicate the hard left’s assertion that being attracted to the same sex must be turned into some ideological identity — LGBTQ+ — rather than just being who you are, and finding some path to happiness.

But a successful liberal polity desperately needs fewer Twitter extremists and more pragmatic over-achievers. Like, well, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. They turned out to be pretty good for the Democrats, no?

Well, I’m not sure about Clinton, but I won’t argue. You know, sometimes I think that if I were in my twenties now, I’d be further on the Bernie Sanders “progressive” spectrum of Democrats. Have I gotten more conservative as I’ve gotten older? I can’t tell, because I can’t do the experiment of going back in time and presenting the young, hirsute Coyne with today’s Democratic platform (if there is one) to get a reaction. All I know is that the country is deeply polarized and I’m pretty sure that if liberalism is to survive in this climate, it won’t do so by touting “progressivism” (which, by the way, is tainted with anti-Semitism).

Guest post: The New Yorker suggests that “other ways of knowing” can cure Covid-19

December 17, 2020 • 9:15 am

A few years ago I got an email from a colleague who was disturbed about the anti-science attitudes of the New Yorker, which include an emphasis on “other ways of knowing” —often through the arts and literature. But first I’ll repeat my colleague’s analysis:

The New Yorker is fine with science that either serves a literary purpose (doctors’ portraits of interesting patients) or a political purpose (environmental writing with its implicit critique of modern technology and capitalism). But the subtext of most of its coverage (there are exceptions) is that scientists are just a self-interested tribe with their own narrative and no claim to finding the truth, and that science must concede the supremacy of literary culture when it comes to anything human, and never try to submit human affairs to quantification or consilience with biology. Because the magazine is undoubtedly sophisticated in its writing and editing they don’t flaunt their postmodernism or their literary-intellectual proprietariness, but once you notice it you can make sense of a lot of their material.

. . . Obviously there are exceptions – Atul Gawande is consistently superb – but as soon as you notice it, their guild war on behalf of cultural critics and literary intellectuals against scientists, technologists, and analytic scholars becomes apparent.

Today’s topic, though, is “other ways of knowing through folk wisdom“. In particular: ways of healing used by indigenous people. Now this shouldn’t be rejected out of hand; after all, many modern remedies, like quinine, derive from plants used by locals. But that doesn’t imply a wholesale endorsement of “the collective lived experience” touted in this video about plant-based healing. For the “collective lived experience”, after all, sometimes includes shamanism and, in the example below, “spiritual elements” as a way of curing disease. And here the disease that “lived experience” tackles is something the Siekipai of Ecuador have never experienced: Covid-19.

Reader Jeff Gawthorpe saw a New Yorker video at the link below; I’m not sure whether you’ll have free access, but you will using the yahoo! finance link at the bottom, where the video was republished.

Jeff is about as distressed as I by the fulminating wokeness of the magazine and delivered his critical “review” of the video, which I asked if I could put up in full, including his name. (I don’t like paraphrasing other people’s words, especially when they’re as good as the analysis below). Jeff said that was fine, and so here is his take, indented. I have to say that I agree with it, and have a few comments of my own at the bottom.

Around 30 minutes ago I happened across a dreadful video on the New Yorker‘s website, which drove my temptation to meet head with keyboard through the roof. This piece of ‘journalism’ was entitled: “Fighting COVID-19 with Ancestral Wisdom in the Amazon”. And yes, It’s as bad as it sounds: unscientific, irresponsible nonsense. Complete tosh.

The message which the piece attempts to convey is that COVID-19 can be dealt with by ‘lived experience’, ancient ‘ways of knowing’, and a few bits of boiled tree bark. Then, if you hadn’t had enough already, Just before the end, a caption pops up saying: “With a new stock of plants, the Siekopai are prepared to address future outbreaks of the virus according to their traditions.” Urrrhhgg.

You’ll notice that they are canny enough to maintain a degree of plausible deniability by making no definite claims. To me this demonstrates the very worst of journalism:

  • Conveying mistruths to support an ideology
  • Lacking the courage to commit to claims by asserting them as supportable facts

That’s bottom of the barrel journalism at the best of times, but now it’s irresponsible, reckless even. It presents a clear message that indigenous knowledge and ancient wisdom are perfectly acceptable ways of dealing with the pandemic. At no point is it mentioned that these ‘remedies’ are not backed by evidence, clinical or otherwise.

As you know, many western societies have huge anti-vax movements which often distrust and denounce mainstream medicine. Unfortunately, this video just adds fuel to the anti-vaxers fire. By failing to mention that these plant ‘remedies’ have zero efficacy, they are providing implicit support to the anti-science, anti-vax groups. Worse still, they are acting like digital snake oil salesmen, imbuing members of the public with false confidence that that they can avoid or fight off this virus with a couple of well chosen tree bark specimens. It’s dangerous, irresponsible nonsense.

Click below to see the video:

My own comments are few. First, it looks like the “remedy” includes cinchona bark, the source of quinine, as a palliative (the remedy seems directed at symptomatic relief rather than a cure).

Second, even “lived experience”, while useful, is no substitute for double-blind clinical trials. Granted, the Siekipai can’t do that, but they sure as hell should take the vaccination when it gets to them.  And, like Jeff, I think it’s totally irresponsible of The New Yorker to present this video without any kind of caveat. After all, when Trump skirts the truth, they don’t hesitate to correct him.  I guess “lived experience of indigenous people” is a different matter—it’s not as if they’re recommending drinking bleach or anything.

My doctor’s new post about the Pfizer vaccine: your questions answered (and you can ask the doc if you have others)

December 14, 2020 • 10:15 am

My GP, Dr. Alex Lickerman, has once again put up a coronavirus post on his practice’s website, and allowed me to reference it here. It’s timely because it’s all about the new Pfizer vaccine. (A ICU nurse in New York may have been the first to get the shot.) How effective is it, and how do we know that? Is it safe? What about kids under 16, who weren’t part of the clinical trials? And pregnant women, who also weren’t tested? Since this is a mRNA rather than a killed-virus vaccine, should we have extra concerns about safety? What adverse reactions have been reported? If you were already infected, does the vaccination also reduce your risk of getting reinfected?  When will “normal” people who aren’t healthcare workers or nursing-home patients be able to get their jabs?

Alex has kindly agreed, as he has before, to answer readers’ questions about the new vaccine, so put your questions in the comments section below and he’ll address them as he has time. Alex has read all the relevant scientific literature, as well as the data from the vaccine trials, so ask away! But do read his 4-page summary beforehand, as it has a lot of information.

I’m not going to put up his whole post; you can go to his site to see it,  which you can do by clicking on the screenshot below:

I’ll just post Alex’s recommendations, followed by his list of “unanswered questions” (indented). The short message: GET THE SHOT AS SOON AS YOU CAN!

CONCLUSIONS

  1. The vaccine is highly effective in preventing symptomatic COVID-19 infection.
  2. The vaccine is safe. Adverse reactions, both local and systemic, are mostly minor. Though the study hasn’t yet gone on long enough to prove there are no serious long-term adverse affects, such adverse affects, if they exist, are likely to be rare and non-life-threatening based on other Phase I and II studies of other RNA vaccines.
  3. We recommend everyone who is eligible to receive the vaccine should receive it when it becomes available to them.
  4. It very well may take all of 2021 to get everyone who’s willing to be vaccinated to receive the shots, which means it likely won’t be until early 2022 that life returns to pre-pandemic normal. In the meantime, continue to wear a mask when indoors with anyone you don’t live with, wash your hands frequently, and refrain from dining indoors at restaurants.

UNANSWERED QUESTIONS

  1. While suggested by the study, still left unproven is whether BNT162b2 [Pfizer’s name for the vaccine] prevents severe COVID-19 infection, whether it prevents COVID-19 infection after just one dose, and whether it prevents COVID-19 infection in subjects who’ve already had COVID-19.
  2. The study didn’t look to see if the vaccine prevents asymptomatic infection. Nor did it assess whether subjects who developed COVID-19 despite vaccination are less likely to transmit the virus. Thus, it’s not yet clear how effective the vaccine will be in containing the spread of the infection.
  3. The study hasn’t gone on long enough to tell if subjects who were vaccinated yet still contracted COVID-19 have a lower risk of long-term effects of COVID-19.
  4. We don’t yet know if the vaccine reduces the risk of dying from COVID-19.
  5. There was insufficient data to draw conclusions about safety and efficacy of the vaccine in children younger than 16, pregnant or lactating women, and patients who are immunocompromised.
  6. We don’t yet know how long immunity lasts and whether or not booster shots will be necessary.

Pfizer vaccine deemed safe and effective by the FDA, and a question for readers

December 8, 2020 • 8:45 am

Ripped from the headlines of CNN!  Click on the screenshot to read:

Many of us know that the FDA is meeting Thursday to decide whether to approve the Pfizer vaccine for general use. If the approval occurs, vials of vaccine will be making their way across the U.S., ready for immediate transfer into the arms of Americans.

Now, judging by the headline above, it looks almost certain that the FDA will indeed approve the vaccine in two days, and the first ranks of Americans will start getting vaccinated. Who gets it first appears to vary from state to state, but, rightly, healthcare workers and nursing-home patients (and their carers) will almost always be the first in line—and that’s what the FDA recommended as well.  After all, if the vaccine is safe and effective, why wouldn’t it be approved?

The good news gets even better: it appears that some immunity is conferred even after the first dose, which appears by itself to be 50% effective (two are required for the 95% effectiveness). Flu vaccine—the single shot we should all have gotten already this year, is only between 40% and 60% effective. “Effectiveness” is the reduction of risk that you get when you are vaccinated.

From CNN:

An advisory committee to the US Food and Drug Administration on Tuesday released a briefing document detailing data on Pfizer and BioNTech’s Covid-19 vaccine candidate, which will be considered this week for emergency use authorization in the United States.

The document confirms that the vaccine’s efficacy against Covid-19 was 95%, occurring at least seven days after the second dose – an efficacy that had been previously reported by Pfizer. The proposed dosing regimen for the vaccine is to administer two 30-microgram doses 21 days apart.

However, the document also notes that the vaccine, called BNT162b2, appears to provide “some protection” against Covid-19 following just one dose.

The document describes the efficacy of Pfizer’s vaccine in the time between the first and second dose as 52.4%, but the document notes that “the efficacy observed after Dose 1 and before Dose 2, from a post-hoc analysis, cannot support a conclusion on the efficacy of a single dose of the vaccine, because the time of observation is limited by the fact that most of the participants received a second dose after three weeks.”

In other words, “the trial did not have a single-dose arm to make an adequate comparison.”

The document goes on to detail the safety profile of the vaccine as “favorable” and notes that the most common adverse reactions to the vaccine have been reactions at the injection site, fatigue, headache, muscle pain, chills, joint pain and fever.

Severe adverse reactions occurred in less than 4.6% of participants, were more frequent after the second dose and were generally less frequent in older adults as compared to younger participants, according to the document. The document adds that swollen lymph nodes also may be related to vaccination.

That’s good enough for me, and I’ll be taking the shots as soon as my doc recommends it—which I presume will be as soon as I’m permitted to get them.

A STAT-Harris Poll published last month, however, showed that the proportion of Americans willing to get vaccinated depends on the vaccine’s efficacy, but only weakly.  Below are those data in graphic form.  What’s disturbing is that if the vaccine were 50% effective, only 60% of Americans would be likely to get the shots. And even with over 90% effectiveness, which is the case with all the vaccines about to hit the market, the willingness rises to only about 63%—a pathetically low figure. I’ve heard that the acquisition of herd immunity in the U.S. to coronavirus requires that 70% of Americans have immunity; even counting those who were infected, the figures on willingness to get vaccinated doesn’t give us that level of immunity. However, it will protect those smart people who get the shots.

So here’s the question: assuming you can get the shots because you don’t have a condition that bars them, are you going to get vaccinated? (I’m assuming that the Pfizer vaccine, or one with similar effectiveness, is the one on offer.) If not, why not?