Free choice relies on persuasion. It recognizes that you are an important participant with key information, problem-solving abilities and rights. Any solution that is adopted, therefore, must be designed to help you and others. Coercion is used when persuasion has failed or is teetering in that direction—or when you are raw material for someone else’s grand plans, however ill-conceived.
Authoritarian governmental approaches hamper problem-solving abilities. They typically involve one-size-fits-all solutions like travel bans and mask mandates. Once governments adopt coercive policies, power-hungry bureaucrats often spout an official party line and suppress dissent, no matter the evidence, and impose further sanctions to punish those who don’t fall in line. Once coercion is set in motion, it’s hard to backtrack.
Consider Australia, until recently a relatively free country. Its Northern Territory has a Covid quarantine camp in Howard Springs where law-abiding citizens can be forcibly sent if they have been exposed to a SARS-CoV-2-positive person or have traveled internationally or between states, even without evidence of exposure. A 26-year-old Australian citizen, Hayley Hodgson, was detained at the camp after she was exposed to someone later found to be positive. Despite three negative tests and no positive ones, she was held in a small enclosed area for 14 days and fed once a day. Even the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says quarantine can end after seven days with negative tests. Why didn’t the government let her quarantine at home? And why doesn’t it exempt or treat differently people who can prove prior vaccination or natural infection?
Economists understand how one person can impose a cost on another. But it takes two to tango, and it’s generally more efficient if the person who can change his behavior with the lower cost changes how he behaves. In other words, to perform a proper evaluation of policies to deal with externalities, we must consider the responses available to both parties. Many people, including economists, ignore this insight.
Reason‘s Matt Welch applauds the dawning realization among some high-level folk that being vaccinated does little to reduce the spread of the coronavirus, as well as that vaccine mandates can backfire. A slice:
New York City’s one-shot vaccination rate (of 92 percent for adults, 83 percent for kids between 13 and 17) “rivals any number in the free world,” Politico’s Jack Shafer observed last week, and yet somehow my vaccinated teen and boosted self spent Christmas under quarantine. The fact-checkers over at The Poynter Institute’s PolitiFact generously rated Biden’s “vaccinated…do not spread the disease” claim as only “mostly” false, despite epidemiologist quotes like “[the] statement is not accurate,” and “vaccinated individuals can definitely infect other people.”
But the problems with the “pandemic of the unvaccinated” message pre-date the variant that rendered it factually ludicrous. On September 16, one week after Biden reversed serial administration promises by announcing an employer vaccine mandate (while using language such as “We’ve been patient, but our patience is wearing thin. And your refusal has cost all of us”), science writer Yasmin Tayag penned an Atlantic piece headlined “Stop Calling It a ‘Pandemic of the Unvaccinated.’“
Americans should be able to rely on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for honest and accurate information about communicable illnesses and strategies for dealing with them. But time and again during the COVID-19 pandemic, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky has proven herself untrustworthy. The latest example is Walensky’s slippery response to criticism of a study that she has repeatedly cited to justify the CDC’s controversial recommendation that K–12 schools require students to wear face masks as a safeguard against COVID-19.
That study, which the CDC published on September 24, looked at “school-associated COVID-19 outbreaks”—defined as two or more confirmed cases among students or staff members within a 14-day period—in two Arizona counties from July 15 through August 31. “After adjusting for potential described confounders,” the researchers reported, “the odds of a school-associated COVID-19 outbreak in schools without a mask requirement were 3.5 times higher than those in schools with an early mask requirement.”
As I noted at the time, the study did not take into account local vaccination rates or COVID-19 safeguards that schools adopted in addition to mask mandates. The failure to consider those variables by itself makes it impossible to draw any firm conclusions about the explanation for the difference described by the researchers.
It is plausible that schools with “early mask requirements” tended to be located in neighborhoods with relatively high vaccination rates. It is also plausible that they were especially likely to take other precautions, such as improved ventilation and physical distancing. Those factors could help explain why the schools with mask mandates were less likely to report outbreaks. Since the researchers did not control for those variables, their study cannot tell us what role mask requirements played.
In a December 16 article published by The Atlantic, David Zweig noted those issues and several other potential problems with the study, including the choice of outbreaks rather than infection rates as the outcome variable, a bias in testing of “close contacts,” and the fact that some schools were open twice as long as others during the study period. More generally, the scientists Zweig interviewed said the magnitude of the purported effect was highly implausible and inconsistent with other research on the benefits of masking. Noah Haber, a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford University’s Meta-Research Innovation Center who co-authored a recent systematic review of research on COVID-19 mitigation measures, described the Arizona study as “so unreliable that it probably should not have been entered into the public discourse.”
Walensky nevertheless latched on to the study as validation of the CDC’s support for “universal masking” in K–12 schools.
Prestigious journals are fraught with office politics, citation circles, and a surprising amount of naval gazing. And consensus, while cozy and comfortable, is always and everywhere the wrong metric – sometimes it is flat out wrong, as it was on evolution, on relativity, on plate tectonics and on the 1980s AIDS epidemic.
Science is not established by a show of hands. Many fringe ideas may very well be wrong, but like Heather Heying and Bret Weinstein say in defense of the intellectual outcast, “It is exactly from the fringe that progress is made.” To quote the late Swedish economist Assar Lindbeck, “If you are never controversial, you have probably never said anything genuinely new or interesting.”
To overthrow an argument or evidence or a consensus we must still show that said argument is wrong, regardless of the motives that fueled its proponents.
By constantly invoking funding, or peddling money as a potential reason for scientific outcomes or political beliefs, we denigrate the intellectual capacity of one another. We pretend that, cheapily, everyone’s for sale and anyone’s morals – scientific or political – are available to the highest bidder. If that’s the case, we have much bigger problems than unbalanced funding for politically convenient topics.
We fool ourselves that our arguments follow ethnic, sex, or demographic lines in what amounts to a wholly unscientific collapse into untethered subjectivity. By concerning ourselves with financial or structural bias, we chip away at the idea of objective reality. There is no reality but the one that a payroll or demographically predetermined story demands.
Infectious disease epidemiology can be counter intuitive. If you trusted the media “experts” but now realize the devastating impact of ineffective Covid restrictions, we welcome you with open arms. Let’s make sure this ends and never happens again.