By Lambert Strether of Corrente.
A failure of Covid vaccine uptake threatens the United States with ruin. Therefore, Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s Precautionary Principle applies. Liberal Democrat election tactics have violated the Precautionary Principle by turning Trump into a demonic figure. In so doing, they may well have created “the horn effect” (the opposite of the halo effect) around the Administration’s vaccine development effort, Operation Warp Speed, thereby increasing vaccine hesitancy in the public, and risking vaccine uptake failure. That is the Abstract, now let us move on to the Discussion, starting with Taleb (and I hope I don’t cut myself juggling those sharp tools).
In Taleb, et al, “The Precautionary Principle (with Application to the Genetic Modification of Organisms)” (PDF) we find the following discussion of harm (i.e., the sort of thing that a policy maker might be thought to take into account):
Two kinds of potential harm must be considered when determining an appropriate approach to the role of risk in decision-making: 1) localized nonspreading impacts and 2) propagating impacts resulting in irreversible and widespread damage.
Traditional decision-making strategies focus on the case where harm is localized and risk is easy to calculate from past data. Under these circumstances, cost-benefit analyses and mitigation techniques are appropriate. The potential harm from miscalculation is bounded. On the other hand, the possibility of irreversible and widespread damage raises different questions about the nature of decision making and what risks can be reasonably taken. This is the domain of the [Precautionary Principle (PP)].
Vaccines do not themselves risk ruin:
Our position is that while one may argue that vaccination is risky, or risky under some circumstances, it does not fall under PP owing to the lack of systemic risk.
However, causing a vaccine to fail, thereby bringing us back to square one when fighting a pandemic, does. From Joseph Norman, Yaneer Bar-Yam, and Nassim Nicholas Taleb, “Systemic risk of pandemic via novel pathogens – Coronavirus: A note,” New England Complex Systems Institute (January 26, 2020)”
These are ruin problems where, over time, exposure to tail events leads to a certain eventual extinction. While there is a very high probability for humanity surviving a single such event, over time, there is eventually zero probability of surviving repeated exposures to such events. While repeated risks can be taken by individuals with a limited life expectancy, ruin exposures must never be taken at the systemic and collective level.
The Trump Administration’s vaccine plan is called Operation Warp Speed; I have written about it here. The program design is clever: The Federal governement pays vaccine makers to work in parallel, developing vaccines and taking them all the way to the manufacturing stage without knowing they’ll work, in the hopes that one or more will pan out; that’s wasteful, to be sure, but not nearly as wasteful as ruin. (Similarly, given the PP, “goo goo” pearl-clutching about contracts and contractors is not relevant. I wish we didn’t have to rely on Big Pharma to do all this, but that’s where we are as a society so there’s no point fussing.) Authority figures like Dr. Anthony Fauci have said that Operation Warp speed should deliver at least one safe and effective vaccine in a few months. Good news, right? Well, that’s not how the Democrats are acting.
To understand the oddities of the Democrat position, let’s look at the debates. First this exchange from Trump v. Biden:
BIDEN: In terms of the whole notion of a vaccine, we’re for a vaccine, but I don’t trust him at all. Nor do you. I know you don’t. What we trust is a scientist.
TRUMP: You don’t trust Johnson & Johnson, Pfizer?
Trump is correct, and a more disciplined debater would have pointed out — and more on-the-ball moderator followed up on — that Biden’s own platform “trust[s] Johnson & Johnson, Pfizer.” Here is the Biden platform on the technical aspects of vaccines:
- Invest $25 billion in a vaccine manufacturing and distribution plan that will guarantee it gets to every American, cost-free.
Remarkably, Biden’s platform says nothing about developing or testing vaccines, implying by omission that Johnson & Johnson will have done their jobs. In other words, he assumes Operation Warp speed will succeed in producing a safe and effective vaccine.
However, Biden is committed to different narrative: Turning Trump into a demon figure. From further on in the transcript we have this really rather astonishing exchange:
WALLACE: I want to pick up on this question though. You say the public can trust the scientists, but they can’t trust President Trump. In fact, you said that again tonight. Your running mate, Senator Harris, goes further, saying that public health experts quote, “Will be muzzled, will be suppressed.” Given the fact that polls already show that people are concerned about the vaccine and are reluctant to take it, are you and your running mate, Senator Harris, contributing to that fear?
BIDEN: No more than the question you just asked him. You pointed out he puts pressure and disagrees with his own scientists.
WALLACE: But you’re saying you can’t-
BIDEN: Everybody knows-
WALLACE: Or Senator Harris is saying you can’t trust the scientist.
BIDEN: Well, no, no. You can trust the scientist. She didn’t say that. You can trust the-
WALLACE: She said that public health experts quote, “Will be muzzled, will be suppressed.”
BIDEN: Yes. Well, that’s what he’s going to try to do, but there’s thousands of scientists out there, like here at this great hospital that don’t work for him. Their job doesn’t depend on him. They’re the people… And by the way-
TRUMP: We spoke to the scientists that are in charge-
BIDEN By the way-
TRUMP… they will have the vaccine very soon.
WALLACE: Let him finish.
BIDEN: Do you believe for a moment what he’s telling you in light of all the lies he’s told you about the whole issue relating to COVID?
Rereading this — and Trump really did allow Biden to beat up on him, here, amazingly, in a most un-Presidential manner — Biden silently accepts (see, again, his platform) that the scientists at Johnson & Johnson and Pfizer are trustworthy. Other scientists are trustworthy too, except the ones who have been muzzled by Trump (demonizing) who’s a liar anyhow (demonizing again). But what does Trump need to lie about, since Johnson & Johnson and Pfizer will have produced a successful vaccine?
Before going further, it might be best to address the “muzzling issue” with a real-life example. From (you guessed it) Jonathan Chait, New York Magazine, “Trump Determined to Get Vaccine Before Election, Reportedly Overrules FDA Guidelines.” Second paragraph:
Trump has spent weeks hinting that he would like a vaccine to be announced before the election, and that he also distrusts his scientific advisers. Now his administration has overruled the Food and Drug Administration’s proposed vaccine guidelines, according to a report from the New York Times. It is abundantly clear that Trump’s political team is overruling its scientists in order to rush through the approval of a vaccine before the election.
And now, at the end of the article, the Update:
Update: The administration has relented, and the FDA has now published the vaccine guidelines Trump tried to prevent.
In other words, all we had here was a normal power-move inside the Beltway. But that was a “muzzling” for the ages, wasn’t it?
Now let’s take a step back from the debate and try to put ourselves in the shoes of an ordinary voter who’s just tuning in. There’s an old adage in the advertising business that you don’t knock your competitors product. If you’re “Joe’s Ford Dealership,” you don’t run ads saying “Bob’s Chevrolet” is run by crooks, and Bob doesn’t run ads saying “Walt’s Honda” is run by thieves. Why? Because the general public concludes that they’re all crooks, and nobody goes to the Auto Mile to buy cars!
There’s evidence showing that something like this is happening with vaccines:
Drop in Americans’ willingness to get #COVID19 vaccine … as of late September, @Gallup survey showed only 50% willingness to receive FDA-approved vaccine at no cost, down from 66% in July pic.twitter.com/FPEFIXXse2
— Liz Ann Sonders (@LizAnnSonders) October 12, 2020
That’s quite a drop. This is ruin staring us in the face. From the New England Journal of Medicine, “Ensuring Uptake of Vaccines against SARS-CoV-2“:
Covid-19 continues to exact a heavy toll, development of a vaccine appears the most promising means of restoring normalcy to civil life. Perhaps no scientific breakthrough is more eagerly anticipated. But bringing a vaccine to market is only half the challenge; also critical is ensuring a high enough vaccination rate to achieve herd immunity. Concerningly, a recent poll found that only 49% of Americans planned to get vaccinated against SARS-CoV-2.
Since Operation Warp Speed received virtually no publicity until recently, the reality of vaccine development has nothing do with the drop. Here is the Harris poll:
Now, of course a Democrat loyalist could say “This is all because Trump was putting pressure on the scientists and lying!” But they don’t call it “the two-party system” for nothing. Trump is a free agent; but the Democrats are free agents, too. Instead of panicking, as Chait did, and painting Trump as an all-powerful demon figure, why could not the Democrat messaging have been “Our institutions are so strong that Trump can’t work his will on them?” Or simply “We trust the scientists at the pharmaceutical companies, no matter what Trump says”? Would the increase in vaccine hesitancy that Gallup found, and the decrease in trust that Harris found, have been avoided if the Democrats had taken that tack? I think it would have. (Instead, as with my Auto Mile parable, the voters may well have concluded that they’re all crooks and lost trust in the entire effort.)
But the Democrats — I grant, not without reason — are deeply committed to the narrative that you should not “believe for a moment what he’s telling you in light of all the lies he’s told you.” The difficulty with that could come from what’s called “the Horn Effect” (as in the horns of a Demon). From (sorry) WikiPedia:
The horn effect, closely related to the halo effect, is a form of cognitive bias that causes one’s perception of another to be unduly influenced by a single negative trait….
It is a phenomenon in which an observer’s judgment of a person is adversely affected by the presence of (for the observer) an unfavorable aspect of this person. The Guardian wrote of the devil effect in relation to Hugo Chavez: “Some leaders can become so demonized that it’s impossible to assess their achievements and failures in a balanced way.
And so with Trump, the Democrats having demonized him successfully for many, many voters: Whatever he says about the vaccine, and whatever he says about Operation Warp Speed, will get turned into a negative by the Horn Effect, creating vaccine hesitancy by a second path and worse, negatively impacting any institution or effect associated with Trump, even the ones Democrats nominally support.
In short, to avoid ruin by applying the Precautionary Principle to the poltiics of Covid vaccine development, the Democrats would have had to abandon two narratives that demonized Trump: The narrative that he is brutalizing helpless scientists, and the narrative that he is a liar. Understandably, from a nuts-and-bolts campaign perspective, they would have found this difficult to do. (Do note, however, that even if your opponent is a liar, that doesn’t mean you have to call them one; the object is to win, the larger object should be to avoid ruin, and neither is aided by moralizing.) Of course, the liberals could have avoided all this by running on a platform of providing universal concrete material benefits like #MedicareForAll, especially for the working class, but if not demonizing Trump was hard for them, that — as we now see, sadly — would have been impossible. So here we are!
 Caveat that this is not the post I thought I was going to write — it happens — and so I may assert claims more than usual, rather than backing them up and citing to evidence. Liberal Democrats have also employed at least two tactics that will make it harder for the body politic to dodge ruin as it approaches: Fetishizing “the science” (instead of encouraging critical thinking about science); and (deeply ironic for a party of their name) urging that vaccine decision-making be removed from the political realm (instead of appealing to “our better angels,” to appropriate Biden’s appropriation of Lincoln).
 It’s all the more remarkable that the Biden campaign didn’t do this, since they’re really raking in the bucks from pharma.
 Trump has, for example, pressured the EPA very successfully. That’s not because he’s demonic; it’s because he’s a normal Republican.