Tag Archives: skeptic

Why You Should Be (Very) Skeptical About Russia’s COVID-19 Vaccine

There’s no way around it. This global pandemic has been a year-long gut punch to everyone on this planet. Some nations have taken those punches better than others, but even those who’ve handled it well still contend with its effects. It’s frustrating and agonizing. Nobody denies that at this point.

We also accept that there’s no way to definitely end this pandemic without a vaccine. That’s why many people, including myself, follow any news about potential vaccines closely. It’s easy to get excited when we hear about the progress some organizations have made. It’s even tempting to think that we’re close.

Avoid that temptation because, if you take the bigger picture into account, we’re not that close. It’s very likely that we’ll be without a proven vaccine for the rest of the year. It’s for that same reason that you should take Russia’s announcement of a successful vaccine, which it dubbed Sputnik V, with immense skepticism.

I’m not just saying that as an American or as someone who has mixed opinions about Russia and its autocratic government. Believe me, I’d love it if this vaccine were as effective as Russian claimed. I’d gladly celebrate it and commend Vladimir Putin’s knack for “motivating” development. That’s how much I want this pandemic to end.

However, there are some very good reasons to be cautious about this claim. Forget, for a second, that it’s coming from Russia, a country with an extensive history of large-scale disinformation campaigns. Just consider this simple scenario.

Imagine if someone walked up to you and claimed they had an app on their phone that could predict lotto numbers. You’re both intrigued and impressed. You ask for proof that it works. That person refuses to give it. They also ask for information about the program. They only give you the barest of basics, which you can’t verify.

Would you be willing to accept that this program works?

Moreover, would you be willing to accept it if doing so meant risking your life and that of your entire community?

Chances are most reasonable people would be skeptical and for good reason. That’s exactly why you should be skeptical of Russia’s claim. Russia has not released any scientific data on its vaccine testing and has not conducted the kind of large-scale test that most vaccines require to determine their safety and effectiveness. Without that kind of test, it’s impossible to tell whether the vaccine is effective.

That’s why practically every major health organization on the planet isn’t celebrating just yet. They’re not completely discounting it, though. There is a genuine interest in reviewing the data. That’s critical since this isn’t some fancy space probe. This is something we’re injecting into living human beings. We need to make sure it’s safe. Otherwise, we could end up causing more suffering than we prevent.

Beyond just causing a spike in cases, due largely to a false sense of security, an ineffective vaccine could undermine the public’s faith in public health. Vaccines have already been subject to all sorts of negative scrutiny in recent years. If this vaccine proves less-than-effective, it could set public health back years and lots of people will die because of that.

That’s what’s at stake here. There’s a time to rush something and a time to take bold risks. This isn’t one of them. Public health and medical science is not something we can rush. This isn’t like going to the moon or breaking the sound barrier. Those efforts required risks, but that risk was taken on by a few willing and brave individuals.

When it comes to medicine, the risks go beyond the test subjects. We cannot and should not take big risks when millions of lives are potentially at stake. This virus has already killed way too many people. Buying into a vaccine before we know for sure it’s effective could ultimately kill even more.

I’ll say it again. I want this pandemic to end as much as anyone. I want this vaccine to work as well as the Russian government claims. However, I’m not prepared to roll up my sleeve until those claims are verified. I encourage others to exercise similar caution.

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A Message (And A Challenge) To Anti-Vaxxers

There’s a time for discussing serious politics.

There’s a time for discussing the veracity of certain scientific principles.

There’s even a time to question the very assumptions we once held without reservation.

All that said, a global pandemic is not one of those times.

I bring this up because, like so many others who have been stuck at home for months on end, my ears perk up every time I hear news about a potential vaccine for COVID-19. There’s a good reason for that. Every legitimate doctor, who doesn’t have a TV show or infomercial, says the same thing. The best and quickest way to end any pandemic is with a vaccine.

That’s not news for most people. If you passed high school biology, you know what a vaccine is and why it works. However, in the years leading up to this pandemic, there was a concerted movement against vaccines, especially for young children. It was called the anti-vaxx movement and, like many social movements relating to science, it was driven by misguided goals and faulty data.

I won’t get into the history of the movement. John Oliver already did a very comprehensive breakdown on the issue back in 2017, long before the pandemic. Here’s the video in case you need a refresher.

Even if you don’t support all the points Mr. Oliver made, I do have a message for those still skeptical of vaccines. Whether you were anti-vaccine before the pandemic or have just come to distrust modern medicine in general, I have one critical question to ask.

What’s your alternative for ending this pandemic?

It’s a legitimate question. Nearly every doctor agrees. Vaccines work. A vaccine is what will end this pandemic. If all those doctors are wrong and your side is right, then this is the best possible time to prove it.

You, whether you identify as an anti-vaxxer or are just skeptical of western medicine, have a chance to both show up the entire medical establishment and save thousands of lives. People are dying. Economies are faltering. Societies are frozen in place. The medical establishment, no matter what you think of them, are working on a solution. Where’s yours?

Now, I’m not saying the medical establishment is staffed by angels. There are many shady dealings in the modern medical industry, especially among pharmaceutical companies. Corrupt her not, however greedy their motivations might be, they’re still doing the work. They’re researching, developing, and testing potential treatments for this deadly disease.

There’s still time for the movement to do the same. If there’s any legitimacy to the anti-vaxxer’s stance, this would be their chance to demonstrate it. If anyone in this crowd, be it some renegade doctor or Jenny McCarthy, can come up with a better treatment, then they won’t just be a hero for saving so many lives. They’ll have proven their point beyond any reasonable doubt.

The time to make that statement is now. At some point, they’re going to find a treatment. It probably won’t be this year, but with lives, money, and prestige at stake, someone is going to succeed. Then, as the pandemic subsides and cases decline, what will the anti-vaxxer crowd have to say?

They’ll watch with the rest of the world as a vaccine ended a pandemic. On top of that, they’ll have sat around and done absolutely nothing to have developed another treatment. They had a chance to both save lives and show up the medical establishment, but failed. What does that say about the movement and its credibility?

That’s just some food for thought.

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How The Internet Has Weakened (But Not Destroyed) Organized Religion

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The current state of organized religion is ripe with conflict and mixed messages. On one hand, religious affiliation has significantly declined over the past 30 years. According to a 2018 survey from Eastern Illinois University, around 23 percent of the US population identifies as having “no religion.” For comparison, that number was only 5 percent in 1972.

In other industrialized countries, the decline is even more pronounced. Throughout Europe, more and more people are drifting away from organized religion. That’s especially true of young people, who are one of the least religious demographics in modern history. In terms of the bigger picture, organized religion is facing a generational time bomb that’s just starting to go off.

At the same time, however, religion still exercises an absurd amount of political power. Religious groups, particularly those who align themselves with conservative politics, have enormous influence. Its platform is tightly woven with that of a major political party. Many people in positions of power identify as religious. Many more rely on a religious base to get elected.

It’s a strange trend that seems counter-intuitive. How can something be weakening due to declining adherents, but still wield so much power? In an age where the egregious crimes of religious institutions have been exposed and more people are educated on the many absurdities of various holy texts, it feels as though organized religion should be on its death bed.

While there are many factors behind this situation, I believe that one particular factor is more influential than most. It also happens to be the same factor that has done the most to weaken religion while helping to sustain its political and social influence. It’s a force that has already radically changed everyone’s life, regardless of their affiliation.

That force is the internet and its impact on religion cannot be overstated.

I’m old enough to remember what it was like to talk about religion in the pre-internet days. You listened to your parents, relatives, priests, mullahs, rabbis, and monks. They told you the history and tenants of their religion. You might ask questions. You might not understand the philosophy behind it. No matter how curious or skeptical you were, you could only do so much to question it.

Most of the time, you just had to trust your elders that they knew what they were talking about. You also had to trust that they wouldn’t lie to you, which is often a risky bet. If you were really motivated, you might go to a library and do some research. Even then, you’d have an uphill battle a head of you, given the many complexities behind religion and why people believe in it.

These days, it’s exceedingly simple to fact check an absurd religious claim. If someone were to claim that a 900-year-old man built a 300-foot wooden boat that housed two of every kind of animal for 40 days during a global flood, you wouldn’t have to spend years in college to learn why that’s absurd. You could just pull out your phone, do a few simple searches, and find out why this claim is completely wrong.

Even a kid who has only taken a basic science class can look up any of the stories their priest, mullah, rabbi, or monk tell them to find out whether they’re based on real history or embellished folklore. Religious institutions, parents, and schools can fight to control the information their young people receive. Many organizations do engage in activities that are outright indoctrination.

However, as demographic trends show, the effectiveness of those efforts only go so far. The information about the absurdities, inconsistencies, lies, and agendas is still out there. It’s widely available to anyone who can access a smartphone or a computer. There’s only so much anyone can do to prevent someone from accessing that information.

As a result, organized religion will never have the same sway it once did in centuries past. No matter how much conservative reactionaries complain, it’s impossible to go back. The combination of modern education and accessible information ensures that major religious institutions will never wield the power they once did.

Given the complexities of modern societies and the geopolitics surrounding it, it’s just not practical for a centralized religious institution to exist. The Vatican can still make statements about morality, ethics, and spiritual matters. It just has no means of enforcing them, as evidenced by how little typical Catholics follow their edicts.

Even without this power, the same internet that has permanently weakened religion is also the same thing that sustains some of its considerable influence. In fact, the internet might act as a catalyst that can turn certain individuals from nominal adherents to ardent zealots.

Think back to the young people sitting in churches, mosques, synagogues, or temples. While some might casually look up the religious claims out of curiosities, others might go out of their way to find information that confirms these claims. Even if they’re factually wrong, they’ll look for any bit of information that they can twist to make it seem true and cling to it.

This is why creationism still persists, despite extensive resources that thoroughly debunk it. If someone is really determined to find information that affirms their beliefs, they’ll find it on the internet the same way people find cat videos and knife-wielding crabs. There will even be unscrupulous people to exploit them, including those who are convicted felons.

Like it or not, there are people who sincerely want to believe their preferred religion and will cling to anything that strengthens that belief. Given the open nature of the internet, shaped by the whims of users rather than objective truth, it’s distressingly easy for someone to customize what kind of information they receive.

If someone only wants news and memes about how their religion is true while everyone else is doomed to eternal torture in Hell, then that’s what they’ll get. They can get their news and information from exceedingly bias sources while brushing off others as fake news. There’s nothing from stopping anyone from using the internet in such a manner.

We already see how this has divided people along political lines in recent years. I would argue that this has been going on with religion for even longer. The rise of the religious right and the prevalence of religious media has done plenty to tighten their grasp on ardent believers. While less people may identify as religious, those who do tend to be more dogmatic about it.

Since those kinds of believers can be mobilized and pandered to, they’re a more unified political force. As such, appealing to them means gaining power. That power may be tenuous and limited, but it’s still viable power that plenty of politicians exploit, sometimes to an egregious extent.

In a sense, the internet has made it easy for both the extreme zealots and the inherently skeptical. Those who might have identified as religious out of tradition in the past are more comfortable identifying themselves as non-religious today. It also helps there’s not as much stigma to being a non-believer as there used to be.

At the same time, those who were devout before can become outright zealots if they consume enough extreme content. In fact, their declining numbers in the general population might give them more reasons to become zealous. History has shown that small bands of religious zealots can do a lot of damage. The internet might hinder their ability to gain adherents, but it might also make them more desperate.

It’s a scary possibility, but one I tend to believe is remote. While I might not be a fan of organized religion, I still have many friends and family members who are religious and wonderful human beings. The internet hasn’t changed that. In the long run, I believe that basic humanity that binds us all will win out in the long run. The internet won’t always help, but it’s certainly a valuable tool.

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