Political Overreach, Diminished Credibility

When I was asked back in June of 2021 about lessons for science from the pandemic, the gist of what I said was:

In a democracy, the community of science can be a uniquely valuable source of objective facts, but assertions by scientists will be trusted only if they are careful not to overreach by advocating on behalf of their preferred political outcomes.

(See below for my detailed response.) Three months later, in the wake of a debate about booster shots, we can see the risk associated with overreach. In the United States, no one making decisions about boosters is paying any attention to what the people who claim to be the scientific authorities are saying.

An Example of Overreach

The interview (see the video below) was recorded in June, long before the White House endorsed booster shots. The recent expert opposition to this decision provides a clear demonstration of risks to science that I had in mind when I warned against overreach.

To recap this particular episode, President Biden announced in mid-August a plan that called for the US government to provide third “booster” doses of vaccines in September. The plan called for everyone to have the option to get a booster shot but that priority be given to “nursing home residents and health care workers.” This policy is one of the few that has drawn support from both Democratic and Republican governors. Several other nations have already started giving third doses. Initial reports from Israel show that people who have a third dose of the Pfizer vaccine are significantly less likely to get infected and significantly less likely to have an infection that develops into what the Israeli officials define as severe disease.

For reasons that are still not clear, in the wake of the announcement by the White House, scientific experts in the United States decided to undermine its decision. After complaining throughout 2020 about a President who was not doing anything to fight the pandemic, they attacked when a new President decided to actually do something.

The optics of an unelected elite that trying to overturn the one policy measure on which Democratic and Republican elected officials agree are terrible. The only clearly articulated basis for this opposition comes from a political preference by most scientific expert for more spending by the US government to support vaccinations in the developing world. Personally, I support this policy, but I understand that I and my scientific colleagues would be massively outvoted by US citizens who think that the priority should be to stop the spread of the virus in this country.

What the experts have signaled is that they are willing to hold the health of US citizens hostage, denying boosters to people who want them, in a play for leverage they can use to get more support for vaccinations in the developing world. The letter that became the rallying point for the opposition – signed by senior scientists in the executive branch of the US government – closes by saying “Indeed, WHO has called for a moratorium on boosting until the benefits of primary vaccination have been made available to more people around the world.”

Holding booster doses hostage worked in the sense that the White House, desperate to do something to slow the current outbreak, agree to give away developing countries an additional 500 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine. Reuters was clear about what happened: “Under pressure, U.S. donates half billion more COVID-19 vaccine doses to world.”

The most troubling aspect of this guerrilla campaign is that the scientists who supported it, knowing that their position ran counter to what most voters wanted, supported their opposition to boosters with obfuscation. When pressed, they confessed to an astonishing indifference to the concerns of people who did not want to get a case of Covid-19. The experts acknowledged that although a third dose of a vaccine entailed very little risk and would indeed decrease the probability that someone gets sick with a frightening illness and exposes family and friends to the risk that they too will be infected. The experts replied that people should not be allowed to get a third dose just because it prevents infections.

The Effects of Overreach

The upshot is, as I warned, that at this point, no one listens to the experts. I know many well educated people who decided to get a third dose legally or if necessary, illegally. Not one of them has ever even mentioned the opposition of these scientific experts. Whilst claiming respect and deference lest the experts get petulant, the head of the CDC simply overruled the position taken by the CDC advisory panel that health care workers and others who face a higher occupational risk of infection should not be allowed to get boosters. In her decision, she said that:

Moreover, by recommending that people can qualify under these two recommendations on the basis of “self-attestation,” she has restored for all practical purposes the initial recommendation from the White House, that anyone who wants an additional dose of the Pfizer vaccine can get one.

The Pattern of Facts

This episode follows other instances where the scientific basis for decisions taken by “authorities” are now understood to have been deeply flawed, apparently because of concerns about political implications:

  1. Claiming that masks do not protect people from infection.

  2. Denial in the face of a growing body of evidence that the virus spreads via airborne transmission; and delay in recommending such policies as better indoor ventilation that could have reduced the rate of infection.

  3. Denial in the face of a growing body of evidence that people can spread the disease even if they do not have symptoms; delay in admitting that the officially endorsed measures such as temperature checks were far less effective at limiting the spread of the virus than other feasible ways to screen for infection.

In the domain of public health, the pattern now seems to be well established. So to are the consequences that I warned about. There are specific individuals who have protected their integrity as scientists, but there clear signs that such bodies as the WHO and the advisory committees to the FDA and the CDC are now seen to be untrustworthy, hence irrelevant.