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A Somewhat Charitable View Of Vaccine Refusers

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In my last three posts I examined David Brooks’s theory that vaccine refusal is is one result of the rejection of his version of the epistemic regime of the his version of the creative class, and with it the expertise and knowledge claimed by scientists, academics and other experts. He relies in part on Jonathan Rauch’s book The Construction Of Knowledge. Brooks is just wrong; here’s what Rauch actually says.

I don’t think people reject the scientific method or the epistemic regime under which it operates. I don’t see anyone saying physicists are wrong about quantum mechanics, or that antibiotics don’t work. People go to the doctor when they’re sick in the same numbers as always.

I think the actual problem with vaccine resisters is that they think that whether or not to take a Covid vaccine is a political issue or a social issue about which they are entitled to have an opinion, instead of public health problems firmly in the realm of professional expertise.

To explain this further, here are some of the factors that governed my decision to get the vaccine. I did my own research. I knew most vaccines are made from attenuated viruses or inactivated viruses. Covid vaccines use a different technique. Here’s the New York Times description of the mechanism. Here’s the Wikipedia entry for mRNA vaccines. Here’s a comprehensive description of the construction of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. Here’s a comprehensive description of the manufacturing process for the mRNA vaccines.

This research raised questions I cannot answer. For example, are there proteins in a normal body shaped like the spike protein and is that a problem? I have to rely on experts on that question. But is the FDA so politicized it would approve a dangerous vaccine because Trump interfered?

I talked to a friend, a health care journalist, about the issue of politicization of the FDA. He seemed confident that the FDA was safely independent. One of my brothers has worked on getting FDA approval for drugs for serious diseases, and he explained their procedures. He was also confident about FDA independence.

In the Fall of 2020, my extended family got into an email discussion of the vaccines. One of my nieces is a virologist who is working on a monoclonal antibody treatment for Covid. She told us to take whatever vaccine we could get the day we could first get it.

I knew I wouldn’t be in the first wave of people getting vaccinated. That maeant there was an even bigger trial out there, all those people ahead of me.

In sum, I did my own research, but other factors were vastly more important than my understanding of the vaccine. I have no way to assess the accumulated stores of scientific knowledge that led to the vaccine, or any way to evaluate the clinical trials or the data they generated. All I can hope to do is come to a rough understanding, and perhaps come up with a question about the applicability to my personal situation.

This is true of all scientific matters. Mostly it doesn’t matter. My computer works. I don’t have to understand it. I just have to learn how to use it for my own ends. I use a several drugs to protect my eyes from further damage. I checked, and I can vaguely understand how the experts think they work, but really, I just take my doctor’s advice.

So far I’ve only looked at knowledge about the physical world. The problem is different in the social world. For example, I pay attention to politics, and I think I have a reasonable set of principles and priorities that govern my political views. I can evaluate political issues by comparing them to what I personally observe, what I see in the media, and my principles and priorities. But I’m fully aware that most of my thinking comes from reading the views of other people, and trying to incorporate them into a coherent picture with other things I think.

In my last post I quoted Rauch talking about the importance of family and tribe in making decisions. I agree with him that on a wide range of life issues the decisive factors are our family, our tribe, and the people and groups with which we generally agree. One of the very few exceptions is our specific efforts to increase human knowledge, where we stick closely to Rauch’s reality-based epistemic regime. We all depend on others in making decisions about everything, not just our layman’s understanding of scientific matters.

I assume other people operate about like I do. They listen to family, tribe, trusted people, and read stuff on the internet. Then they test that information against some internal standard, and either accept or reject it. Most people across all divides in our society think they are capable of doing this accurately. This idea has its roots in a view of human beings and in the ideology of individualism. It’s at the heart of neoliberalism, which says we can always figure out what we want and need. I don’t think so. I agree with C.S. Perice that all we really want to do is avoid the unpleasant feeling of doubt by coming to any firm belief.

So what we have with the vaccine refusers is a category error. If this were a straight issue of scientific knowledge, most people would realize they cannot evaluate it and are dependent on professionals.

The Trumpified Republicans and their media and armed wings amplified the idea that the pandemic and Covid are political issues. Because the government and politicians were out front in dealing with Covid, people were primed to think of Covid as a political issue. Too many people tried to evaluate vaccines and public health measures as political issues, which led them to listen to their usual political sources, right-wing media and politicians, and their friends and trusted groups.

Their confidence was buoyed by the availability of information from the internet. But they weren’t looking at the information in the links I put above. They were listening to intentional liars, Qrazies and anti-vaxxers. Social media algorithms probably amplified this disinformation.

People tried to construct a mental picture taking their new information into account without upsetting too much of their general world view. That didn’t work, because there was too intense a conflict between the reality of the pandemic and the views they were getting from their preferred sources. So we hear people denying that Covid is a real thing and constructing detailed theories about conspiracies between Doctors and Big Pharma to make tons of money. We get theories that vaccines and masks are government efforts to control our lives. For the larger number of people who don’t follow closely, this becomes confusing and vaguely scary. In the end, we as a nation are no where near the necessary number of vaccinations.

This explanation doesn’t justify anything or anyone. You have to be sunk in stupidity to think that a vaccine is a political or social issue. You have to be a piece of human garbage to encourage people to reject vaccines against a dangerous disease. But it’s hard to blame low-information people for being worried about this ginned-up controversy.

It’s really maddening.

Why I’m Angry At David Brooks

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… [S]ome people waited anxiously [for the release of the Mueller Report]. Others already knew the result. As a Trump supporter named Donna Kowalczyk told the journalist Ben Bradlee Jr., “I don’t think there’s anything to it. If they find something, they will have made it up.”

To say that she and I approached the question differently would be an understatement. As a professional journalist, I am evidence-based, dispassionate, and fair-minded. I decide after I have the facts, not before. At least, that is how I flatter myself.

But really, am I so different from Ms. Kowalczyk? Or am I merely a member of a different tribe, and as biased and blind to my biases as she or anyone else? And suppose, for argument’s sake, Ms. Kowalczyk is in fact less evidence-based and dispassionate than I: whose way of thinking is more normal and natural? Whose way is more serviceable for most humans in most circumstances?

The answer: not mine.

Rauch, Jonathan. The Constitution of Knowledge, Pp. 20-21, fn omitted.

I was outraged by David Brooks’ article in the Atlantic, How The Bobos Broke America. In my last two posts I’ve tried to explain why I’m so angry. Of course everyone knows Brooks is a shallow apologist for the dominant class. Of course he dips into books and scholarly papers looking for passages he can twist to support his permanently fixed world view. Of course he blames liberals for all the damage done by the dominant class. Of course he wants readers to focus on his arguments and ignore his filthy rich patrons behind the curtain. I spent hours working my way through his dribble, reading Rauch, and writing these posts, so at one level it worked.

It’s genuinely stupid to blame the creative class for Trumpism, as Brooks does. Most people are happy to enjoy the work done by the creative class, and really don’t care what individual members of that class like in the way of coffee or lettuce or music. Just like we don’t really care if they like NASCAR and Country Music. Each to his own.

Everybody knows that the only reason anyone cares about these culture war issues is that sickeningly rich right-wing fanatics, opportunistic politicians, and paid media liars pump up hostility about the outrage of the day, hoping that the rage of their little minority coupled with the unthinking votes of long-time Republicans will keep them in power through gamed elections.

I’m occasionally pissed off at the people who fall for that garbage, but it always used to pass, and I certaoinly wasn’t angry at them. That’s changed. In writing these posts I realized that I’m genuinely angry at the anti-vaxxers, and at the Trumpists and their armed wing, collectively the Right. That anger boils over onto every Republican who ignores the threat the Right poses to our democracy.

At first I was furious at Brooks’ intellectual laziness. Rauch carefully describes an Epistemic Regime developed over centuries that dragged us out of ignorance and gave us tools to make our lives vastly better. Brooks calls it a group of people who determine what’s true. That’s an appalling misrepresentation.

Brooks insinuates that he works under the Epistemic Regime, but no. Brooks is a member of a bias-confirming community, a “… social affinity [group] where we seek not to test each other’s beliefs but to affirm them.” Rauch, supra at 114. In fact, he’s a confirmer-in-chief, a leader. I knew that, and now I have formal words to describe his despicable intellectual dishonesty rather than obscenities.

I’ve worked out two justifications for my anger at the Right as a whole.

1. Brooks argues that the creative class makes the Right and the Republicans feel disrespected.

If creative-class types just worked hard and made more money than other people, that might not cause such acute political conflict. What causes psychic crisis are the whiffs of “smarter than” and “more enlightened than” and “more tolerant than” that the creative class gives off.

Brooks is saying that the creative class creates psychic crises leading to political conflict by being different. The creative class has its own tastes in consumer goods, entertainment, and intellectual activities. It has a different moral sense than the Right. He’s saying that we in the creative class should not tell the Right about our tastes, maybe even that we shouldn’t have them. He says we should never argue with the Right about the thinking or lack of thinking behind our respective moral judgments. We must never try to put our own moral choices into law. He’s saying the Right’s tastes and morality should be respected, but it’s fine for them to hate us for ours. He’s saying that we should never use the law to rectify injustice as we see it.

Well, David Brooks, you might accidentally be right about this, but you contributed to it, and it’s bullshit. You the rest of your bias-conforming community can just fuck right off.

2. After reading Rauch, I began to see the Right differently. They aren’t just worried about living their own way, which somehow is threatened by my moral sense and the laws I think are necessary to make things better for all of us. Just like David Brooks, the Right rejects Rauch’s Epistemic Regime.

It’s the usual practice under the Epistemic Regime to insert disclaimers about problems with everything we defend. Not this time. Rejection of our system for accumulating knowledge is dangerous, stupid, and scary. The alternatives offered by the Right are ignorant, absurd, and guaranteed to produce misery for everyone. The people who push those alternatives are ghouls, misfits, nihilists, and power-maddened freaks.

We are constantly admonished that the fault lies with the leaders and mis-leaders, not the great mass of our fellow citizens. We should be nice to the latter, it’s not their fault. I could almost accept that when they complained about equal marriage, abortion rights, and the War on Christmas. But now they attack the entire way of thinking that gave us the vaccine for a deadly disease, and then organized to produce vast quantities of the vaccine, safely, in a matter of months.

The Right’s rejection of vaccines, for whatever ridiculous reasons, threatens me personally and the people I love. I work hard to be a member of the Tribe of the Epistemic Regime, and I take it personally, I get angry, when the Right Tribe attacks it. More broadly, rejection of the Epistemic Regime is a threat to the continued accumulation of knowledge, which is crucial if our planet and the human race are to survive.

That threat justifies intense anger.

David Brooks Says Smart People Caused Trumpism

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David Brooks wrote a too-long article, How The Bobos Wrecked America. blaming smart people for Trumpism. I discussed one aspect of this in my last post, focusing on Brooks’ use of the term Epistemic Regime. It’s a phrase he picked up from (I’d guess) reading a couple of chapters from a book by Jonathan Rauch, The Constitution Of Knowledge. I’m reading Rauch’s book. The first four chapters discuss the Epistemic Regime as a system we as a society developed to decide what is true.

Rauch follows Charles Sanders Peirce’s concept of truth. I discuss this important definition here. Truth in Rauch’s sense means that a proposition has been thoroughly checked for error, and so far has held up. Truth, then, just means our best guess at a useful and accurate description. The goal of the Epistemic Regime is to eliminate error, not to establish some objective truth “out there”.

The word “epistemic” is related to epistemology, the branch of philosophy concerned with knowledge. Here’s Rauch’s definition of an ideal Epistemic Regime:

… a public system for adjudicating differences of belief and perception and for developing shared and warranted conclusions about truth…. P. 76.

Rauch’s Epistemic Regime is a community of institutions through which individuals cooperate and compete in generating and disseminating new propositions, checking them for errors, and if cleared, fitting them into the store of knowledge, subject to being amended or dumped if later found to be erroneous. There are, of course, other methods of determining what is true, such as bias-confirming regimes, or those which just accept the word of an authority figure or group.

Rauch’s Epistemic Regime is self-organizing. No one controls anything. The communities are open. Anyone willing and able to do the work can participate. It’s impersonal, in that conflicts are about propositions, not people.

The range of subjects covered by this Epistemic Regime is large, but it is not all-encompassing. The limits are set by considerations about what we can falsify. For example, we currently think the universe began with a Big Bang, and that we cannot know what happened before the cataclysmic event because it obliterated all evidence.

The general method of construction of truth can be applied to many areas. For example, we can apply aesthetics to decide if Emily Wilson’s translation of The Odyssey is good. [It is.] We can make warranted judgments about aesthetics, morality, and other fields using tools honed by the Epistemic Regime, such as respect for precedent, persuasive argument, careful attention to detail, and willingness to accept criticism.

This isn’t what Brooks drew from Rauch. He claims that over the past few decades a new group of social classes has evolved, one Red, one Blue, and both hierarchical. One of his Blue Classes is the “creative class”, which he characterizes as:

… the same scientists, engineers, architects, financiers, lawyers, professors, doctors, executives, and other professionals who make up the bobos [his group from his book Bobos in Paradise].

Here’s his thesis:

The creative class has converted cultural attainment into economic privilege and vice versa. It controls what Jonathan Rauch describes in his new book, The Constitution of Knowledge, as the Epistemic Regime—the massive network of academics and analysts who determine what is true. Most of all, it possesses the power of consecration; it determines what gets recognized and esteemed, and what gets disdained and dismissed.

Brooks seems to think Rauch’s Epistemic Regime is just a group of people, identical to the creative class, or at least overlapping it. That’s not what Rauch says.

The Epistemic Regime is a system developed over a long period and followed by a lot of people seeking to increase our knowledge. We act under the Epistemic Regime when we seek knowledge. The habits of thought we use under the Epistemic probably influence us in other aspects of our lives, but I don’t root for Notre Dame, or admire Jane Austen, as part of any Epistemic Regime.

The creative class does participate in creation of new knowledge, but it also works in the area of culture, taste, and politics. Tools generated under the Epistemic Regime can be applied to criticize specific aspects of each. But the Epistemic Regime doesn’t tell us how to enjoy our lives or which political party to support, because our individual choices can’t be falsified. De gustibus non est disputandum. Chacun à son goût. Each to his own. All societies agree on this point.

No one, and certainly not an entire class, controls the Epistemic Regime. And, the Epistemic Regime doesn’t control anyone. Its a system for adjudicating truth as best we can, not of domination.

Brooks seems to thinks the creative class is homogeneous in cultural matters, which is dumb. The only thing this class uniformly accepts is insistence on Rauch’s Epistemic Regime when working to generate knowledge. Outside that, members are diverse on every social axis.

Brooks tells us that the creative class disrespects the culture of the Red Classes. That makes them resentful so they vote MAGA.

What causes psychic crisis are the whiffs of “smarter than” and “more enlightened than” and “more tolerant than” that the creative class gives off. People who feel that they have been rendered invisible will do anything to make themselves visible; people who feel humiliated will avenge their humiliation.

Brooks doesn’t explain the connection between these two sentences, probably because there isn’t one.

It’s certainly true that there are tastemakers among the creative class, and that they are snotty about it. The snotty people of an earlier generation referred to High and Low Culture. For most of human history cultural superiority was solely a pleasure of the filthy rich, like the Medici or French Aristos. They were scary because they exercised physical power over people’s lives. That’s not true today. Why would anyone care what the creative class thinks about their cultural and taste preferences? And why would that turn political? Brooks doesn’t say.

Discussion

1. Brooks doesn’t say anything about the cultural views of the Red Classes that are “dismissed and disdained” by apparently, the entire creative class. I’m pretty sure it’s mostly a toxic mixture of self-pity, racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia and other anti-social attitudes.

I’d guess most of the Creative Class doesn’t like that toxic mixture. Generally we (I include myself in the creative class, just like Brooks does) think we should try to follow the Golden Rule. We justify and expand that view with tools provided by Rauch’s Epistemic Regime. We try to squelch bad impulses in ourselves and in society. And we don’t care if that hurts the feelings of racists, women-haters, homophobes and xenophobes.

2. Brooks is trying to explain why so many Americans reject vaccines and other public health measures. He does this by conflating the creative class with the Epistemic Regime, as if the two were identical. If you reject the creative class then you have to reject the Epistemic Regime and its fruits, like vaccines, but somehow not Ivermectin and monoclonal antibodies. He doesn’t even try to justify this absurd idea.

3. Brooks is right that the Red Classes are angry and hostile towards the Blue Classes, but he makes no effort to explain how they got so worked up they’d suicidally risk sickness and death over it. He says it’s now become political, but he doesn’t explain why anyone would think that makes sense.

He doesn’t mention the economic power of the filthy rich, or their role in generating and amplifying the grievances of the Red Classes; or why it seems to be a policy choice of his Republican Party. It’s just natural, he says, as if that explains something.

4. In other words, this relentlessly long article contributes nothing to knowledge. You’re just supposed to assume that because it’s so bloody long and drops a bunch of names it’s a brilliant defense of the Trumpian Republican Party to say:

“If only those smart people weren’t so rude”.