Critical Thinking and Anti-Vaxxers

David Brooks discovers then proceeds to overuse his new two-dollar word—epistemic—in his November 26 2020 New York Times op-ed piece. It’s a nice word and well-used in this context but merely using it reinforces the ‘knowledge gap’ the divides the country. “What the heck is epistemic” is a question 99% of the population might ask (I had to look it up). While his article raises a very interesting perspective on the partisan divide and is a worthwhile read, Brooks is also part of the epistemic regime that he calls out as the problem.

I have always favored the related ‘critical thinking’ hypothesis. I believe that that a large swath of Democrats and Republicans are separated by differences in critical thinking skills. College-educated knowledge workers typically, but not always, have better critical thinking skills. While it is certainly not the only attribute that contributes to our partisan divide, it seems to play an important role in trying to understand why a big segment of the MAGA contingent has gone down the QAnon conspiracy rabbit hole.

As we all know and Brooks calls out, you can’t argue people out of paranoia. Critical thinking skills and habits can mitigate some of the paranoia that arises from a failure to rationalize or understand the unknown. The essential open question remains is how do we teach people the skills to question and investigate the complex world they live in (or will be born into) without demanding a college education for everybody? Critical thinking is not a rigorous academic discipline. Rather, it’s a tool for dealing with life and a rather simple one at that. Everybody needs to be a critical thinker. Even three-year-olds asking “Why?” are developing critical thinking skills.

Sadly, critical thinking seems to escape even friends we usually consider to be reasonably intelligent and progressive. For example, a friend here in Santa Fe who works remotely with high-tech Silicon Valley firms dropped by a couple days ago. In the course of the socially-distanced, outdoor conversation it became clear she was an anti-vaxxer believing Covid-19 would resolve itself through natural herd immunity. She apparently decided not to do the basic 7th-grade arithmetic to understand the real cost of herd immunity.

Let’s do that simple math since the formula is really simple. First, we start with a few straightforward assumptions which factor into our equation. As a critical thinker, it’s fine for the reader to question these assumptions but, magical thinking aside, reasonable evidence needs to be presented to disregard the data outright.

  • Population: The U.S. population is about 331 million.
  • Herd Immunity Infection Level: Covid-19 herd immunity requires at least 50-70% of the population to have antibodies that would fight the virus. I completely ignore assertions that a 20% infection rate might constitute herd immunity since that hypothesis was thoroughly debunked months ago. There are several factors involved in achieving herd immunity protection at a low infection level. A critical one assumes we are following protocols that Americans hate (masks, social distancing, very limited indoor gatherings, bars and restaurants closed, etc). A reasonable baseline for any herd immunity is 50% which nicely correlates with the CDC requirement that any vaccine must achieve at least 50% efficacy.
  • Mortality Rate: The Covid-19 death rate ranges from 1-3%. The data here is clear and may actually be understated. In the early stages of the pandemic, the mortality rate reached 3% which is much higher than the vastly lower rate from the annual flu virus (usually well under 0.5%). During the recent Covid-19 spike in infections, we have seen a much lower death rate as the medical community refines its protocols to reduce mortality but it still exceeds 1% and will probably go higher over the winter months.
  • NB: We will assume contracting the virus offers the same immunity as a vaccination. Not proven, but it seems a reasonable assumption.

The equation to calculate deaths from non-vaccine herd immunity is simple:

Total Covid-19 Deaths = Population x Herd Immunity Infection Level (%) x Covid-19 Mortality Rate (%)

If we assume the most optimistic case for an “organic” (non-vaccine) approach with herd immunity achieved at a low level of infections (50%) and a low mortality rate (1%):

Total Covid-19 Deaths =  331,000,000 x 50% x 1% = 1,655,000

A more likely scenario assumes a 70% infection rate to achieve “organic” herd immunity but with a death rate closer to 2% as we let Covid-19 run rampant and overwhelm our hospitals:

Total Covid-19 Deaths =  331,000,000 x 70% x 2% = 4,634,000

These numbers may seem extraordinary but the basic evidence we have today suggests that a non-vaccine approach to herd immunity could kill as many as 4.6 million people over the next year if common-sense prevention protocols are disregarded or a vaccine is not widely accepted. The next time we hear Scott Atlas, that medical charlatan in the White House, or just a neighbor down the street spout anti-vaccine and herd immunity nonsense, ask them to do the simple math. And then ask them what share of those deaths they want to own since every person that repeats this nonsense adds to the death toll and must accept some level of accountability.

Perhaps my math is wrong. I’m not an epidemiologist and I do understand that the algorithm is actually complex and more dynamic since it changes as the infection level rises and with the demographics of the population. However, even if my math is off by a factor of 2, is it really acceptable to ask two million people to die to support the ant-vaccine, “personal freedom” rhetoric? It’s time to say ’NO!’ to such nonsense.