Note 48: How to argue the Anti-Vax position more effectively

If I'm going to be arguing about COVID vaccines and beating the virus, I'd rather face off against good counterpoints than stupid ones.

Welcome back to Notes from the Void. I apologize for the posting hiatus, and we’ll be back to the normal format shortly. I’m still processing a lot of changes since my last Note, and need a bit more time to unpack all that. (Don’t worry - nothing terrible’s happened. Just stuff that’s different.)

Over the past week, I spent a good amount of time splitting my time between arguing that Joe Biden is a failure as an American President while US citizens are caught up behind Taliban lines while Joe makes his “surprised face” and yelling at people online who insist on burnishing their anti-vax views as if it makes them G.I. Joe, fighting for freedom against the pro-vax Cobra.

My position on the topic hasn’t changed, but aside from dealing with people who I believe are fatally wrong, I was a bit frustrated at the quality of arguments that they leveraged to try to make their point. While I remain a pro-vax guy, the anti-vax folks are not doing their views or their cause any favors with the rejoinders and “evidence” that they trot out to validate views that were made well in advance them viewing the latest YouTube video that they’re sharing or reading the dodgy anti-vax sites that are more likely intended to carry out a financial grift (“We need your help - please donate $X to help us lift America out of ignorance!”). There are some stronger arguments that can be made, and I may be doing an evil thing here, but my love of good argumentation is too strong to sit by and let folks keep making shitty arguments.

So, that said, let’s get started.

A brief trip back to Old Nassau…

Probably the most consequential branch in my life was when I was accepted as an Early Admission student to Princeton University. As a rural high school student in a forgotten corner of New Mexico, I didn’t have a lot of business applying to an East Coast Ivy League school, especially since New Mexico State University was basically offering to pay me to attend the southern state school.

Nonetheless, admissions officers saw fit to admit me, and it was never a question of whether I should go or not. If someone hands you a Golden Ticket, you take it. (The second-most important rule after “If someone asks you if you are a god, Ray, you say YES!”)

Now, I could fill years of Notes with my fish-out-of-water tales, but the one that’s relevant here is how a computer science student in his Junior year found himself in the nation’s best undergraduate Constitutional Interpretation class (ConInterp). The gist of it is that I hung out with economics and political science types who were on likely trajectories to go to law school and become important lawyers, professors, and politicians. There were no prerequisites for the course, so I went ahead and enrolled, wanting to see how well I could hold my own against my classmates for whom this was one of the more important classes that they would take. The course was taught by one of the foremost Constitutional authorities, Robert George.

In addition to being the most notable conservative mind on campus, Professor George was also on a one-man crusade against grade inflation at the time, and started out a couple steps behind my classmates in that I had not taken ConInterp’s sibling course Civil Liberties, AND my civics and political science instruction up to that point had been at the hands primarily of high school basketball coaches, who needed a teaching position to stick around in the off-seasons and get paid. A few of my “history coaches” were solid teachers (Marc Stephenson deserves special recognition for his excellence), but most the rest were there to teach how to play effective man-to-man defenses more so than the Reconstruction Amendments.

Life’s random number generator did me a solid when I signed up for ConInterp. Not only was I in the same precept (regular schools call these “sections”) as my college friends, our precept was led by George himself, not one of many junior-level political science faculty. (Talk about learning at the feet of one of the greats!) Now, despite his reputation as one of the nation’s foremost conservative minds, George didn’t treat his course as some kind of indoctrination camp, where he churned out anti-abortion activists (outlawing abortion being one of his bigger causes). Instead, he taught a course on what the Constitution said, how different folks have interpreted it over time, and how to read and evaluate Constitutional arguments. If you somehow avoided learning about George’s personal politics before starting the course, you’d be none the wiser having completed it.

One of the most important lessons that I took from that course was the idea that you don’t really understand your own argument if you’re unable to marshal a compelling argument against it. Life is never so cut and dried that there’s an Platonic right answer and wrong answer, so unless you can make a compelling argument against what you’re proposing, you’re unlikely to make a compelling argument for it. In ConInterp, this was operationalized as “moot court” exercises, where students would be assigned to defend positions that they disagreed against, and the vast majority of your grade was dependent on how well you made the argument against what you believed before the assignment. (The remainder of the grade was based on your participation in precept - George didn’t tolerate folks who surfed by in silence in the back row.)

I ended up doing pretty well in the course, earning a B+ in ConInterp. Given George’s fight against grade inflation, it should be scored alongside A’s in other courses where professors don’t care as about reflecting the normal distribution to college grades. It’s one of the things I’m most proud about from my time at Princeton, and it’s in the spirit of Moot Court that I’m going to attempt to put forth my best argument for the Anti-Vax position. It’s not going to be a full argument unto itself, but rather some tips and pointers that I would follow, were Professor George grading me on the subject. (I’d need the better part of a week to complete that assignment.)

Anti-Vax argument DON’Ts

This is a list of the kinds of things that I would leave out of my argument, as their presence weakens the case and provides folks hostile to your position an easy “out” to write you off and ignore you altogether.

Leave VAERS out of it.

For those of you who haven’t been involved in these arguments, VAERS stands for the “Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System” from the Department of Health and Human Services, where “adverse events” that happen to folks who received a vaccine are reported. A favorite talking point among anti-vax folks is the tens or hundreds of thousands of “adverse events” that have been reported after a COVID shot as evidence that the shot is unsafe.

Here’s the problem. An “adverse event” such as an injury or death after a vaccine is so open-ended if I get hit by a bus crossing the street and I was vaccinated, my case gets reported to VAERS. That means that the numbers anti-vax folks are citing as evidence against the vaccine’s safety is complete bullshit. If you do want to use VAERS to make your case, you have to cite the numbers from the bottom of the funnel, after cases unrelated to COVID or the vaccine (such as my bus fatality) have been filtered out of the system. You end up with several orders of magnitude fewer relevant “adverse events” that you hurt your case.

Related to this, unless you can get to the point where a medical examiner has weighed in with an opinion that COVID killed or was a contributing factor in someone’s death, quit citing news stories days after a death of someone who received the vaccine, until you have evidence that their death was vaccine-related. (On the flip side, the same warning applies to folks who died and were infected with COVID - that doesn’t mean that they are all COVID deaths - excess mortality is a better number to use to determine COVID’s body count.)

Vaccine passports are a feature, not a bug. Don’t encourage folks to support them by arguing that they’re anti-American or anti-freedom.

We’re at the point in the pandemic that if someone wants a vaccine, there are several layers of government and public health workers who will trip over themselves to be the one to get you the shot first. Access to vaccines is no longer an issue, which means that there are not systemic features that are keeping one unvaxxed, rather entirely personal ones, primarily one’s own choice to get the shot or not.

So, vaccines are widely available, yet we’re still dealing with the worst parts of the COVID pandemic when we didn’t have shots: exceeding ICU capacity, indoor mask mandates, hobbled public events, canceled concerts and shows, etc. While you may think that a vaccine passport that controls access to various parts of our economy and society is the evilest thing since Hitler had Jews wear yellow stars, folks who took the shot see unvaxxed folks as the only thing keeping us from getting back to normal. You’re not a persecuted minority in their eyes, you’re an ignorant laggard who won’t make the right decision on behalf of the common good and your local community to get back to the Good Old Days.

There was less tolerance and interest in vaccine passports earlier in the pandemic than there is now. Every day that passes where a vaxxed person has to wear a mask or doesn’t get to go see live entertainment is a day where support for vaccine passports rises. Don’t remind your rhetorical opponents of this.

Quit citing COVID’s “survivability rate”.

If you’re going to make a quantitative argument against the vaccine, stop saying that COVID’s a minor illness, with a 99.7% survivability rate. To you, that 99.7% may look like a good number, but to anyone who can do simple multiplication, you’re leading them to think that in a population of 325 million Americans, you’re perfectly content that 975,000 be dead Americans (325 million x 0.003 = 975,000) just so you don’t have to take the shot. We didn’t lose that many Americans liberating Europe (twice), defeating Communism in the twentieth century, or our adventures in the Middle East COMBINED. The only thing that kills Americans more than COVID is cancer and heart disease.

On the flip side of this, anti-vax folks will argue that they think that they are safer taking their chances with COVID (and its 99.7% survivabity rate) than the vaccine. This is also a bad argument to make to anyone who has mastered elementary school math, because unless you can show 600,000 deaths or medical issues caused among the population of the 200 million Americans who have had at least one shot (200 million x 0.003 = 600,000), the 99.7% survivability rate supporting your decision to take chances with the virus isn’t persuadable to opponents or the undecided - it just shows that you failed to master elementary school multiplication.

In addition to the obvious mathematical issues that “survivability rate” introduces, your opponents will retort that even if you don’t die from COVID (and become part of the 99.7%), you can still suffer additional complications (such as “long haul COVID” that we’re only beginning to understand). If they’re being especially cheeky, they’ll point out that we have an almost perfect 100% survivability rate for broken arms and legs, but that doesn’t prevent society from putting in places laws and safety features that minimize the number of Americans injuring a limb.

99.7% may look like a compelling number, but it’s really not in the context of even larger numbers, and in the obvious additional context that it leaves out. Leave 99.7% in the editing dustbin.

You do not have an implicit Constitutional right to opt out of vaccine mandates.

When bad math and reminding people why they are pro-vaccine doesn’t do your argument any favors, the final “but I have the right to not get the shot” isn’t final word like you think it is.

For well over a century, courts have held that State and local governments DO have the power to force residents to be vaccinated since 1905’s Jacobson v. Massachusetts, where the Supreme Court ruled that it was entirely Constitutional for the State of Massachusetts to fine folks who refused to get a smallpox vaccination. The idea that the state has power to compel vaccinations predates the American Constitution itself, when George Washington forced the Continental Army to be vaccinated to eliminate an immunity advantage that the British Redcoats enjoyed. (So toss out your lines about the Founding Fathers as well.)

To whatever extent you have a “right” to not get a shot, that’s entirely a function of your personal ability to protect yourself from a State that wants to see you vaccinated. This angle may be relevant if you’re also promoting secession along with your anti-vax philosophy, but will work against your case with folks who see no problem staying regular American citizens.

Omit The Cabal and the Underpants Gnomes.

Too many COVID arguments include conspiratorial elements along the lines that COVID is a plot by shadowy forces in a bid to gain power over the population. This typically manifests itself along the lines of “I’m not taking the shot because They want me to.” or “Can’t you recognize that complying with Them is the first step to surrendering all of your freedoms?” It sounds ominous and portentous. Certainly we do not want to be the unwitting pawns of The Cabal?

Here’s the problem, those arguments regurgitate the logic of South Park’s Underpants Gnomes:

In COVID/vaccine conversations, the conspiratorial logic takes the following form:

Phase 1: Convince citizens to comply with health recommendations.

Phase 2: ???

Phase 3: Ultimate Power!

The problem is that if your opponent or audience isn’t predisposed to believing in nebulous conspiracies, they will necessarily fixate on Phase 2. Now, unless you actually have a story or theory that satisfactorily bridges Phase 1 and Phase 3, you’re going to come off as a Nut who should be safely ignored. If you can’t finish telling what happens in Phase 2, leave it out of your argument.

Anti-Vax argument DOs

So far, I cited the elements that you should leave out of your argument about taking the shot, but criticizing the holes in the anti-vax argument isn’t the hard part of the Moot Court exercise. To complete the assignment completely, I need to provide the arguments that strengthen the anti-vax position. This is my attempt to sketch out where I would start.

“My doctor advised me against it.”

If you’re involved in an argument with someone who is insisting that you (personally) should get vaccinated, the head-shot against whatever they say is that your doctor told you otherwise. Unless they are a medical professional with intimate knowledge of your health history, there’s not really much that can be mustered against that line.

Of course, this assumes that you’ve spoken with your doctor and they have told you - in their professional opinion - that you don’t need the shot or that the shot will actively harm you more than catching COVID will. Ideally, this person is someone with a bona fide M.D. degree, and not a chiropractor/osteopath, an optometrist (sorry, not sorry, Rand Paul), or your astrologer / faith healer. Folks who have M.D.s who advised them to get the shot don’t find non-M.D.s telling patients to skip the shot to be all that persuasive.

Show examples of what’s happening in other highly-vaccinated countries.

There are quite a few countries with significantly higher vaccination rates than the United States. Israel, a country with a 78% vaccination rate, is having Delta problems, as the virus continues to spread, despite its mostly vaccinated population. Nota bene: This is not an argument AGAINST vaccinating the population (you still have to show that vaccines have made things worse than no vaccines at all - a bigger argumentative lift), but it is a solid argument that vaccines alone won’t get us out of the pandemic as long as there exists a sufficiently large pool of vulnerable human hosts where the virus has evolutionary room to continue evolving around our ability to immunize against it.

If you make this argument, be thorough in your research on other countries - where Israel’s experiencing Delta issues - likely owing to decreased immunity over time - the United Kingdom (> 90% vaccination rate) is not experiencing the same issues with the same vaccines that Israel is. Be prepared to argue why Israel is a more relevant example than the UK or any other high-vaccination countries that may be marshaled for or against your anti-vax position.

Clinical trials. Clinical Trials. CLINICAL TRIALS.

The vax/anti-vax argument is fundamentally a medical one, and the Gold Standard for supporting a medical argument is the clinical trial. Given that the anti-vax position is one of non-intervention (in a medical sense), you’re not going to find any dedicated clinical trials just leaving people alone, but every COVID trial will have a control arm where some research subjects did not receive the treatment. These are not likely to play out in your favor, so be prepared to play defense against clinical trials that show even weak effects against COVID.

However, clinical trials can become your ally in arguments around COVID treatments (once someone has already caught the virus). We’ve been awash in proposed treatments like hydroxychloroquine, ivermectin, remdesivir, and so forth. We’re also more than 18 months into the pandemic, so there should be plenty of clinical trials and studies that establish exactly how well each of these work in mitigating the effects of COVID. I’m not fully up on this literature myself, so I leave it as an exercise for the reader to determine which studies to cite and which don’t show any useful effect and should be discarded.

Now, there may be a temptation to cite clinical studies of these drugs in meta-analyses that predate the COVID pandemic as evidence that they’ll help with COVID. Avoid these. We are far enough into COVID that sufficient time has passed for each of these approaches to be evaluated sufficiently in the context of COVID itself that if you don’t find a COVID-specific clinical trial, and only have the speculative meta-analysis, that’s a pretty good signal that the proposed approach is not useful in our context. The incentive structure of the academic publishing system is such that no (peer-reviewed) paper from the trial probably indicates a null result - the proposed approach did nothing statistically relevant.

Related to the use of peer-reviewed papers, also be VERY careful citing medical professionals pushing an anti-vax approach. In conversations online, one cardiologist, Peter A. McCullough, was brought to my attention. McCullough used his impressive (but outdated) credentials to argue that our therapeutic regimes were sufficient that adults didn’t need a COVID vaccine. However, when pushed on the absence of clinical trials demonstrating the correctness of his statements, he continually made excuses that there hasn’t been enough time (there has) and we needed to move immediately to deploy these new drugs and techniques. Someone from the medical profession arguing that clinical trials are unnecessary is an immediate red flag. Don’t let the success of your argument rest on the reputation of someone who might be exposed as a grifter down the road.

Finally, if you are going to use clinical trials of therapeutic drugs as part of your argument, please be sure that those trials are as robust as the trials around the vaccines themselves, or else you risk your argument collapsing due to the internal contradiction of your own double standards.

Equal treatment under the law.

While I mention above that Americans DO NOT enjoy Constitutional protections against vaccine mandates from the State, vaccine laws have traditionally been crafted with room for religious exemptions. Now, I’m not going down the rabbit hole on what each religion’s supernatural entities tell them about getting shots - I’m just noting that there tend to be (but are not always) exceptions for a compulsory shot.

Since no one wants to be in the business of deciding what distinguishes valid and invalid religions, IF the State does carve out a vaccine exemption, it’s opened the door to make the argument that if members of the Leprechaun Cult don’t have to get the shot since King Brian forbade it, folks who don’t subscribe to beliefs in pots of gold at the end of rainbows shouldn’t be treated differently than those who do.

Making the argument one of equal treatment puts your opponent into one of two positions: either they have to argue for abolishing popular religious exemptions, or they have to argue for why it’s justified that you’re under more social obligations than the Leprechaun Pope. You trade the messiness of the vaccine debate for the messiness of the religious freedom food fights, which may be more solid ground to argue from than being against vaccines alone.

Note that the effectiveness of this argument is geographically variable - it will work in jurisdictions with religious exemptions, and fail completely outside these areas - and it also depends on your opponent’s (and audience’s) attitudes toward religious freedom and tolerance. If they think folks who believe in King Brian should be taken as seriously as the Bronies praying to My Little Pony, then you’re not going to score any points.

At this point, I’m pretty tapped out on ways to make a better anti-vax argument than the ones I’ve had thrown my way online. As someone who takes pride in his annoying contrarianism, I’m a bit disappointed that I didn’t have more suggestions for the “DOs” section (feel free to add some in the comments if you’re open to me grading them). That’s not entirely unexpected, given my staunch pro-vax position, which is why I would want more time (than the extra hours I’ve already spent on this) before I’d send it to Prof. George for a grade. (Right now, it would be fortunate to earn anything higher than a C-.)

In any case, it allowed me to get a couple of things out of my system, and I hope others find it useful, and if you’re an anti-vaxxer, it’s helpful in making better arguments in the future. I don’t actually mind strong arguments that contradict what I’m arguing or believe (that’s how I compiled a couple of items in the “DOs” section), but I abhor stupid arguments that just tax everyone’s time and patience.

Stay tuned - I’ll be returning to the regular format next week. I have some good books to review and news about rocket stocks to share.