Persuading the right audience

It’s hard to persuade someone if you don’t understand what they’re already thinking. There’s a strange debate going on in the media right now about whether the FDA/CDC’s “pause” on the Johnson & Johnson vaccine for COVID is likely to improve vaccine hesitancy or make it worse. As of now, there have been six serious blood clots among people who have had the shot, and one person has died. Proponents of the “pause” say that by confirming the safety of the vaccine, people will eventually feel more confident about it. Opponents say that this just adds ammunition to the anti-vaxxers stock.

As far as I can tell, people who think that this pause will increase vaccine confidence just don’t understand who they’re trying to persuade. Some media and academic types have observed that many anti-vaxxers right now are Trump voters, and this is true. But I don’t think I’ve seen much about what can be done to persuade them to get the shot. These are not typical anti-vaxxers; their objections are not necessarily about the safety of the vaccine. Rather, their objections are about the necessity and sufficiency of the vaccine.

Folks who work in public health are sort of by definition going to think differently than very populist libertarian types who think public health is at best meddlesome, and at worst a subtle (or not so subtle these days) means of illegitimate control. So consider this brief post an attempt to reconstruct the populist view, and then see if you think the pause will help convince these people to get vaccinated.

Because it’s necessary these days, let me pause <wink> and put some cards on the table. I think it is hard to conceive of any moral justification for the FDA/CDC’s decision. I grant that they have a reason to act as they did. But merely having “a reason” is not good enough. No moral theory or system that I can think of would justify this decision. (And yes, I do think I have the relevant expertise to say this.) I am also generally well-disposed toward public health efforts and good healthcare, and I think public health is a legitimate function of government. I am…not a fan of Trump.

For some data to support the following analysis, refer to this latest YouGov poll. (Yes I know it’s one poll; it’s just an illustration.) Yet most of my reconstruction below comes from actually talking to some of these people about this.

(Partial update: YouGov compared results from people who took the poll before the announcement vs those who took it after. There’s a big drop in confidence in J&J’s vaccine. I’d interested to see the demographics of the change. Even a question like “After hearing the CDC’s announcement, are you more or less confident in the safety of the vaccine?” I suspect Trump voters’ opinions aren’t the ones changing.)

These populist anti-vaxxers (PAVs) think that vaccines are unnecessary. They think that COVID in general has been overblown. The risk is no where near as high as the “liberals” in government have made it out to be. Most people who get COVID won’t get terribly sick, most sick people won’t infect anyone else, and the economic and social fallout from a year of tight restrictions will be far worse than the disease. (Note that these beliefs aren’t obviously false.) COVID has just become an excuse for the government to impose on citizens’ lives and to infringe on their liberties. (See poll question #6.)

The “pause” just boosts this belief. If the government were really worried about COVID, they would be doing everything possible to get shots in arms as fast as they can. But now they’re willing to stop giving one of the shots—the one that is the most convenient on several dimensions—possibly for a few weeks to assess the risks implied by one death.

If you’re disposed to think that this is really about government control, and that vaccines would end the pandemic and thus the political cover for that control, it is hard to see how the decision would do anything but strengthen your belief.

(Again, for clarity, I think these folks are wrong about the risks of COVID. And also unfair about the motivations of public health officials.)

PAVs also think vaccines are not sufficient. (Poll questions 22-24.) A decent number of Trump voters (and ideological conservatives) believe that it is not necessary to wear a mask right now. They also think that travel is safe. Some of these beliefs imply that the vaccines aren’t necessary. But it also shows that they think getting vaccinated won’t really change anything. The FDA, CDC, and other public health figures have not helped on this point. Refusing to describe an “end-game” to the pandemic has been a constant source of frustration to these folks. The goal posts keep moving. Remember “15 days to slow the spread”? Yeah.

So suppose that the CDC and FDA do the review, and determines that the vaccine really is safe still. Yay! (Does anyone really think that there will be a different result?) What has changed for the PAVs? Not much, it seems. They didn’t really doubt that the vaccine was safe. (See poll questions 11-19.) They just doubt that there’s any point in taking it, so what’s the rush? And look! The CDC agrees that there’s no rush!

The trouble throughout is that public health types believe that these anti-vaxxers don’t trust the vaccine. But that’s not right. They don’t trust the government, and especially the unelected federal bureaucracy.

So I think the “pause” will have little notable effect on populist hesitancy. (Though compare poll questions 14 and 18. It will be interesting to see how #18 changes in the next couple of weeks. And see this NY Times piece on the worldwide impact.) It won’t do anything to address their actual concerns. If anything, the pause will likely entrench their belief that their government really doesn’t have their interests in mind, and doesn’t really believe its own messaging. And honestly, I’m not sure how to show they’re wrong about that.

A political difference of note

Much digital ink has been spilled on the increasing political divide in the United States. Yet on this election day in 2020, it struck me that there is a difference I haven’t seen discussed, and that may be relevant for explaining different kinds of political enthusiasm and for thinking about the next few years. I, like so many others, would love to see the political temperature of the nation lowered. However, it is hard to see how this is likely to happen so long as the citizenry fails to obey the Psalmist’s injunction to “put not your trust in princes“.

It seems to me that the typical Democratic partisan has no personal memory of a “bad” Democratic president. The last two Democratic presidents were Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. Democrats largely regard both as generally successful chief executives. (Obviously Republicans disagree.) You have to all the way back to the 1970s to find a “bad” Democrat—Jimmy Carter. Though Mr. Carter is still alive, few enthusiastic Democratic voters will remember his administration. I suspect they’d have to be at least in their 50s to have any meaningful political memory of that era.

In contrast, the typical Republican voter can think of at least one that they would regard as bad. Trumpists likely regard George W. Bush as a bad president (at least in some key respects), and every time John Roberts fails to give them what they want, their opinion of Bush diminishes a little more. Hurricane Katrina was the end of a number of seemingly significant policy failures, whose archetype was the Iraq War. Never-Trump Republicans think Trump himself is a bad president. Reasons for this belief are too many to enumerate here. Even those Republicans who don’t think either Bush or Trump are all that bad may be able to remember George H. W. Bush’s four years, with their mix of global upheaval and failed promises. (“Read my lips”—look it up.) Ross Perot, the O.G. Trumpist, got such traction because Bush Sr. was disliked by Republicans.

Now, when I say “bad” president, I don’t mean morally bad. I don’t want to register an opinion on that aspect. (That’s not to say that I lack an opinion on it…) I just mean that they were not particularly good at the job. Whether through administrative or political errors, often combined with bad luck, they didn’t accomplish what they set out to do.

(Note too that this is about how their administrations are perceived by their supporters. Republicans could give a long list of policy failures they would attribute to recent Democratic administrations, and vice versa. Nor do I intend to say that these administrations actually are inept about everything. Sometimes they can accomplish good things that never really make it to the general political consciousness. This applies to Trump too.)

Given this history, it seems comparatively easy to understand how Trump voters favor him as a kind of totem—a way to “own the libs” or “drain the swamp”—rather than as a skillful chief executive. Republicans are familiar with having bad chief executives, so it’s easier to ignore all of Trump’s failings on that score. They expect relatively little of him on the policy front, and instead relish how he makes the political class act insane.

Democrats think their presidents have been pretty good chief executives. Though there are some that wish Clinton and Obama could have pushed an even more left-wing agenda, Democrats seem to regard those administrations fondly. (After all, the latest two Democratic presidential nominees were very much part of both administrations.) The country was generally pretty prosperous and relatively peaceful. Major policy changes got put in place. And so on. These successes feed an existing technocratic impulse that shades to the left.

I fear that Mr. Biden has all the markings of someone who might not be a good executive. He has little experience in that kind of role, and in his few opportunities it seems that his achievements have been slight at best. Technocrats would seem to tend toward good government, though sometimes they are better at policy than at politics. Perhaps a Biden administration would find good subordinates to handle the essential executive tasks. (Merely filling key administrative posts would be welcome.)

I do not think ineptitude in the White House is a good thing, regardless of which party its occupant represents. Right now we need an administration that can get some things done. An effective White House would be a nice change, and in the moment, a critical necessity. (See Kevin Williamson on the crisis of political competence in the 21st century.) I strongly suspect that basic executive competence from our national government would do much to reduce the political rancor in our society.

But for the sake of lowering the political temperature, I wonder if it would be salutary to have a relatively inept Biden administration. (And, to be clear, as I write this, I have no idea whether a Biden administration is going to occur.) It might be useful for Democrats to be reminded that just having a D after one’s name on the TV screen doesn’t make you a good politician or a good administrator. It is good for us to be disappointed by our political leaders every so often. A great many Biden supporters seem to think that his election would bring profound change to the country. I doubt that this is actually so. I’d be very glad if a change in administration would restore some executive competence, and I can’t really hope for something else. But I do wonder.

A duty to be informed

Philosophers are discovering a host of new arguments for the value of their discipline these days. COVID-19 has pushed to the front a variety of topics that philosophers think about frequently, though often in bloodless, abstract terms. Ethics of triage and scarcity, for example, has moved from models of trolleys and organ donors to real-life questions about who should get limited medical resources.

Epistemology and philosophy of science are also getting their day in the sun. Much of the anxiety about COVID-19 arises because we just don’t know much about it, so the range of reasonable beliefs about the outcome of this all is very wide. People are discovering that science involves more than crude applications of a technique, and that real scientific expertise includes practiced judgment about hard-to-quantify uncertainties.

I suggest that this crisis illustrates an interesting combination of ethics and epistemology: a duty to be informed. For some, this duty is quite extensive, but I think there is a case to be made that anyone making or influencing decisions right now has some degree of a duty to be informed about what is going on. A duty to be informed is not a duty to be right, for that would be impossible. Instead, it is a duty to sincerely and virtuously seek to acquire more knowledge—to be a good knower; to apportion belief according to evidence; to reason well; to avoid bias and remain open to correction.

I’ll start with the obvious cases: those in positions of authority. Our public officials are making huge, life-changing, society-altering decisions every day. They already have extensive public duties; that’s what the job requires. (Actually, one might say that they have public obligations, since they "volunteered" for their positions.) I think it is obvious that public officials should seek to be informed about the facts of the situation.

But we can say a little more about what being informed requires. First, it requires that they take into account the facts. Whatever we know about COVID-19 should be included in their deliberations. Facts are true or false. If two public officials disagree about some fact, then at least one of them is wrong.

Second, they should be actively seeking better information. Jason Brennan has been arguing that a lot of our public officials are making huge decisions without trying to improve their knowledge, and just falling back on facile "trust the experts" platitudes. The initial response to COVID-19 has been very strict, in order to account for uncertainty, and let us grant that strict rules were at least initially justified. (They almost certainly have been.) Yet severe measures may lose their justification as we learn more. So much is uncertain or unknown, but knowable, and public officials are uniquely poised to accelerate our learning. It seems as if there are daily updates to the best estimate of COVID-19 infection rates, fatality rates, treatment capacities and strategies, etc. Some of this information can’t be updated overnight, but the process can at least be underway, and it isn’t obvious that we’re actually making a lot of progress on this front (or that our public officials are leading and coordinating it).

Third, public officials should be reasoning well. The duty to be informed includes not just acquiring lots of true facts, but thinking about them effectively. They need to reason correctly about scientific and mathematical facts, such as sampling error, uncertainty, Bayesian conditionals, endogenous and exogenous variables, lagging indicators, and even basic arithmetic. (From the beginning, politicians, media personalities, and—sadly—some scientists have been making elementary errors even in multiplication and division.) They also need to have some basic awareness of how to evaluate scientific research, or at least have trustworthy advisers who can do so. Here we can include economists among the scientists, for many decisions are not merely medical decisions.

Public officials also need to think well about ethics. Some seem to think that preventing any loss of life from COVID-19 justifies any amount of public restrictions. Others seem to think that having 1-2% of a country’s population die from this disease is an acceptable tradeoff, even though for most countries that would make this disease the deadliest event in the last few centuries. Or they think that it’s OK to let older and sicker people die, because…? It is usually a mistake to put a dollar value on a life, but when making public policy we have to do this all the time. Refusing to acknowledge the tension is just bad reasoning, and thinking simplistically about what makes a life good won’t help either. Perhaps more common are public officials who are officious, where they appear to think that crises permit them to be "punitive and capricious". A crisis does not change what the government can legitimately do, and if anything, a crisis is a good opportunity for showing patience and forbearance.

Other public figures bear some of these same obligations, though perhaps to a lesser degree. I suggest that our media figures are nearly as responsible as our public officials. Because media types don’t actually have to decide, they are uniquely positioned to be critical. Yet being merely critical shirks responsibility, for it is easy to get attention just by being contrary. At the same time, many of our public officials desperately need their decisions challenged, if only to force them to improve their communications. The media can both inform the public, and also criticize the decision-makers. But to do so, they have to be as well-informed as anyone.

We can move on down the tree of responsibilities. Employers obviously have some duties toward their employees. Their capacities are much more limited, but so is their scope of concern. Pastors owe it to their congregations to be informed so that they can make good decisions (which might, at some point, involve disobeying poorly-informed public officials). Heads of households should know what will affect their own families.

Even a single individual has at least a mild duty to be informed. As this crisis has revealed in great detail, our actions affect others whether we intend them to or not. Complying with public policies, heeding medical advice, and caring for others around us requires us to understand to some degree the implications of our own decisions. We have to know enough to exercise good judgment, and at least for that we each have a duty to be informed.

One final word about duties: I don’t think duties are absolute. We all have many duties, and being informed is just one of them, and one that may compete with others. If someone starts forgetting to feed their kids because they’re trying to keep up with the latest research, that’s not good (definitely my temptation). But I think a duty to be informed is one of our duties, and so we ought to take account of it when deciding what would be the best use of our resources.

Crying wolf and doing our part

A number of people have noted that it is hard to persuade people to take COVID-19 seriously because it feels like the boy who cried wolf. Previous outbreaks of infectious disease, from ebola, SARS, MERS, etc., have been generally contained in a few regions, so the cries of pandemic have seemed overblown. To some people’s minds, this latest outbreak is just another in a long line of cases where media and public officials have restricted liberties and spread what feels like unnecessary panic. More cynical observers might even say these crises are pretexts for greater government control over citizens’ everyday lives.

The trouble is that this particular outbreak looks a lot more like a real wolf. As of writing, the growth in cases around the world exhibits the classic signs of exponential growth, and there is compelling evidence that many countries are severely under-reporting the actual number of cases (including, it seems, the United States). Furthermore, this virus seems to be in the "sweet spot" for a public health concern, for it isn’t so deadly that it burns itself out (like ebola), nor is it so mild that medical facilities can absorb it (like the common cold or the seasonal flu).

But there is another aspect of "crying wolf" to consider. The way to combat this virus is to create "social distance" so that the virus doesn’t spread as rapidly. This is a classic collective action problem, because for the vast majority of people, there is little personal benefit to social distancing, and often quite a lot of personal cost. Typically the government and media persuade by showing how a particular behavior is in an individual’s self-interest. In this case, mitigating the risk for those for whom this virus is very dangerous requires people who have almost no risk of their own to massively alter their behavior.

In short, we need everyone to pitch in and do their part, even if it doesn’t seem to benefit most people directly. But this kind of rhetoric is also common, and often has looked like crying wolf.

One can hardly walk through a museum or a zoo without being bombarded with claims about what dire things will happen if we don’t all contribute to the cause-du-jour, even when some of these causes are distinctly out-dated and poor candidates for action by individuals. Individuals can only rarely affect many of these causes, such as reducing pollution, minimizing plastics, divesting from fossil fuels, mitigating acid rain, protecting the ozone layer, conserving water, preventing species extinction, etc.. All of them may be good things to do, but the problems are ones of public policy or technology. Acid rain, for example, wasn’t reduced by ordinary citizens’ acting together; it was mitigated by better public policies and improved technology. The typical visitor to the museum can have only the tiniest effect on the problem, and often at a personal cost that makes this sort of ostensibly-virtuous action available only to the relatively well-off (e.g., using less fossil fuels).

But now, with COVID-19, we seem to have a real case in which it actually is important that we generally act in a coordinated way, and for which we have no time for improved public policies or technological solutions. But to people who have learned to ignore the overstated "we all have to do this together" messages in our society, and who have internalized the "what’s in it for me" style of advertising, it’s hard to explain why this time it’s different.

If everything is a crisis, then nothing is. I think our cultural elites (not a pejorative) have too often made everything they care about into a public crisis, evangelizing for their current interests, only quietly revising their predictions, rarely moderating their confidence, and almost never conceding error. And then a real crisis comes along, and no one is willing to listen.

Pulled in two ways

Events in the last couple of week have once again highlighted for me the tensions in the gun control debate. The United States has had yet another mass shooting—a real one, with lots of victims—and not just one event, but two. And just a few days earlier I had my own brush with illicitly-used firearms. Someone shot up my front door, either by mistake or bad aim, apparently intending to shoot at my neighbor.

bullet hole

I completely understand why some folks would renew their cry for additional gun control. The more shootings of this sort there are, the more strident the cries will be, and the more powerful the emotional pull will be. Everyone seems to think that we ought to do something, but I don’t think the suggestions have really improved.

Gun control advocates struggle to convincingly claim that they aren’t after all guns, even those owned and operated legally. Often their suggestions betray basic ignorance about guns themselves, or propose policies that already exist, or that wouldn’t meaningfully affect the mass shootings that have recently plagued our society. They often don’t seem to appreciate that most meaningful restrictions on guns really will require a constitutional amendment, and that without an amendment, private gun ownership is a civil right. I think it’s wishful thinking to believe that the 2nd amendment was ever intended to be so narrow as some critics suggest, and relying on the courts to restrict guns would just add to the list of cultural hot-buttons that have been removed from the democratic process.

Now, I am not opposed to seeing a constitutional amendment. I increasingly think that a carefully-constructed amendment might be just the right approach. A model that shows the strategy and the danger might be Prohibition. The federal government, seeking to end the scourge of drunkenness in society, actually got the Constitution amended to permit bans on alcohol. Prohibition mostly had its intended effect, a fact not often admitted. Of course, it also had many unintended effects, sometimes in surprising places, and which arguably outweighed its benefits. But as a one-time “surge” of enforcement to change the culture, it seems to have done the trick.

Perhaps something similar could be done for guns. Gun rights advocates also seem unserious about stopping mass shootings. They point out that the shooters have a variety of other issues, and they’re not wrong. (Most notably, these shooters are nearly always young, male, mentally unstable, and fatherless.) But the relatively easy access to guns is obviously also a factor. True, violent boys could do a lot of damage with knives or other deadly weapons. But a knife attack would be a low slower and a lot easier to stop. It is also true that most of the proposals for restricting guns focus on cosmetic features, rather than actual deadly effectiveness. Yet insofar as one of the problems is the sheer number of guns in the society, any limitations, however arbitrary, might have a good effect.

Another possible advantage of a Prohibition-style constitutional amendment would be the possibility of varying local laws. Big cities like New York, Los Angeles, or Chicago might essentially ban guns entirely, while small towns in Wyoming, Utah, Texas, or Maine might not be so strict, thereby reflecting the different typical uses of firearms in these various places.

One reason that I still remain skeptical about gun control was highlighted for me by the events in my household over the last week. As I said at the top, someone shot my apartment door four times last Sunday morning. Two bullets went all the way through, and one of them ended up on the other side of my apartment, having gone through an interior window and hitting a flashlight on my desk. It happened around 3:45am. My wife got up right after it happened, thinking that someone was knocking on the door. She literally stood right in front of the door that had just had new holes punched in it before she realized what had happened. Thankfully, my kids mostly slept through it all, and woke up a couple of hours later to police investigators in the living room.

We found out this week that this is not the first time this person has shot at my neighbor this month. At the beginning of the month, he shot at my neighbor in the parking lot in the middle of the day. We were out of town, and didn’t find out until after he had tried again.

This is what gives me pause about the Prohibition model: without some means of powerful, legal self-defense, we’d end up entirely dependent on the police for protection from these kinds of people, and I’m not convinced they’re up to the job. I’m not anti-police. They usually serve well, taking risks instead of me, caring for people who are hard to care for, etc. I’ll even stipulate for the sake of argument that the various high-profile cases of police misconduct are extreme outliers. My worry is that they might not be up to the task of enforcement for something so profoundly society-shaping as a huge gun-control program. The current track record of enforcing the laws that already exist isn’t great. I think it is perfectly reasonable to be not “pro-gun” but rather “government-skeptical.” Nor does it seem likely that someone like the shooter here would care much about rules forbidding gun ownership. It would matter a lot how exactly the law would be enforced.

None of this is to say that I could have done anything with a gun myself. The shooter didn’t even come all the way up to the level of my front door; he just shot from the steps. I assume he was long gone before I could have responded personally. Though it seems hard to find good information about how many crimes mere private possession of a firearm has prevented, my case couldn’t get added to the list regardless, since it was all over before I was even really awake.

As far as I can tell, my local police haven’t caught the guy who shot my door, even though they seem to be pretty sure who did it. They also haven’t been willing to talk to me about it. The officers who responded last Sunday were kind and helpful—just the sort of police you’d want. But since then it’s been crickets. I’ve learned more from my neighbors than from the men and women who asked me to waive some of my Constitutional rights so that they could collect evidence in my dwelling. I have nothing against their moral standards, but I’m not yet convinced by the organization’s competence.

For now, at least, I think this is my biggest hesitation about gun control. It’s not that it’s a bad idea, but that the mechanism for doing it relies too much on an institution that all too often doesn’t seem up to the tasks it already has. But stopping the slow-motion riot of mass shooting is a compelling aim too, so I am pulled in two ways.