We Should Think Less About Viruses
Once more on pandemic data as infohazard.
I suspect that I buried the lede in my last piece, so I want to address some of the push-back.
First of all, on the vaccines and whether they work or not: The basic picture that emerges from all of the research to date, and that experience with coronavirus vaccines in animals more or less confirms, is this: The vaccines provide partial protection against infection for a few months. Surprisingly, this protection eventually fades into negative territory. Thereafter, they are still effective against severe outcomes, but here too their protection wanes, and it wanes fastest of all in the most vulnerable groups. We can only hope that here, at least, the decay stops at zero. Against all of that must be weighed an array of negative effects, the most obvious being that they increase transmission and that they injure and even kill a nontrivial number of people. While it seems the vaccines can reduce official Corona death numbers, their introduction has coincided with slightly elevated all-cause mortality almost everywhere. The numbers might swing in their favour over the winter, but in the longer term, it is hard to see how mass vaccination won’t turn out to have been a huge mistake.
But here I didn’t intend to re-litigate the problem of the vaccines and their failure. I am more interested in exploring how poorly conducted vaccination campaigns will produce confounded statistics that wildly overstate how fantastic the vaccines are. Those places where the vaccines seem to be working rather less well than advertised, like the United Kingdom, seem to be places where vaccinators have worked harder to ensure uptake in the most at-risk cohorts. I’m sure the UK data are still confounded, but the German statistics, which present a rosier picture, are even less reliable. This is what happens when the oldest and the sickest accumulate disproportionately among the unvaccinated. This gives rise to a small, pernicious paradox: Vaccine efficacy would look worse, had the vaccinators done a better job; but because of their hidden failure, the vaccines look better than they are, thus confirming and deepening faith in vaccination.
Information hazards are pieces of information that pose a risk, in and of themselves, to those who know them. The concept has been elaborated mostly in fiction, but I believe it has much real-world utility. I have been pondering for a long time, how our entire response to Corona every day grows more bizarre and detached from any conceivable, realisable goal or rational purpose. I understand why many detect behind this broken response the machinations of evil conspirators, and indeed it often seems that all of this is being managed for maximum chaos and destruction. I’ve tried to offer different explanations: Perverse bureaucratic incentives, managerial blindness and iterative institutional processes surely all play a role here, but a failure this profound will have many facets.