Category Archives: Random Blogging

COVID Facts And Fictions

Okay–you are all probably as tired of discussing COVID and the insanity of anti-vaxxers as I am, but my cousin the cardiologist has written an important summary of the issues, and maybe–just maybe–sharing considered information from a medical professional might trigger productive discussion.

Yeah, I know. Dreaming…

As Mort says, as a member of the conventional medical/scientific community, he grieves at the number of needless deaths that have occurred, and he agrees with the Surgeon General about the need to understand and counter the large amounts of disinformation  flooding social media. He proceeds by offering facts about the vaccines–their efficacy, a history of their development, where they can be accessed, the fact that they’re free, and much more…He’s compiled a very useful, one-stop overview of most of the questions people have. You should click through to see the entire compilation.

Undoubtedly the most important part of his message, however, has to do with safety. With his permission, I am quoting that section at length.

Even before the vaccines were given emergency use authorization, the FDA reviewed months of safety data on tens of thousands of participants in vaccine trials. Since then, regulators have tracked people who received a vaccine in the real world, because it’s possible that very rare side effects might emerge once millions of people receive a shot.

In the U.S., more than half of adults are now fully vaccinated, and even more have received at least one dose. With more than 300 million doses of vaccine administered and an intense safety monitoring program that’s able to track even extremely rare side effects, researchers have been able to track vaccinated people for months, and are confident that the COVID-19 vaccines currently authorized for use by the FDA are safe.

For the vast majority of people, side effects have been similar to those from other vaccines, like the shingles vaccine, though they have been more common and severe than they are with the typical flu shot. These side effects include fever, headaches, feeling run-down, and soreness in the arm. These are more common after the second shot than the first, and generally go away within a few days. A few rare side effects have been detected, now that millions of vaccine doses have been administered.

After receiving the J&J vaccine, a very small number of people—primarily women younger than 50—have developed a type of rare but serious blood clot. In women between 18 and 49, there have been about 7 cases per million vaccinations, and the FDA and CDC still recommend this vaccine. Similar rare blood clots have been observed with the Astrazeneca vaccine in Europe. In July, the CDC also announced that the agency had detected preliminary reports of about 100 cases of Guillain-Barré syndrome, a neurological disorder, among 12.8 million people who received the J&J vaccine. Most were men, many of them 50 and older. Another concern is that early data suggest that this vaccine may not be quite as effective as the other vaccines against the delta variant of the virus.

After receiving either the Moderna or Pfizer vaccines, a small number of people have had a severe allergic reaction, called anaphylaxis, which can occur after any type of vaccination. These have occurred in about two to five people per million vaccinated, and while serious, they are treatable—this is why people are asked to stick around for 15 to 30 minutes after getting a shot.

The CDC is currently investigating higher than normal rates of suspected myocarditis (heart inflammation) in adolescents and young adults who have received the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines. These incidents are rare, and in 81 percent of suspected cases with a known outcome, patients have fully recovered. Any longer-term side effect is extremely unlikely, according to the CDC. Typically, any vaccine side effects would emerge during these first two months after immunization. Moreover, it’s difficult to clearly link any adverse health events that occur after two months with a vaccination. But regulators will continue to monitor vaccine trial participants for two years to see how long immunity lasts and note any adverse events.

Initial reports of several severe but treatable potentially life-threatening allergic reactions called anaphylaxis raised concern about whether the vaccines would be safe for people with severe allergies. There were 71 cases of anaphylaxis reported after the first 18 million vaccine doses were administered in the U.S. That works out to 2.8 cases of anaphylaxis per 1 million people vaccinated with the Moderna vaccine and 5 cases per 1 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine, with no reported deaths linked to anaphylaxis. The risks of dying from COVID-19 are much worse—about 16,500 people per 1 million diagnosed with COVID-19 will die. Now, the only people being told to avoid the vaccine are those allergic to vaccine ingredients such as polyethylene glycol or the related substance polysorbate.

Of course, the most dangerous allergy is the allergy to science and fact that apparently afflicts a significant percentage of the American population.

Share his post with any non-vaccinated folks for whom facts might still be persuasive…

The Disinformation Dozen

Well, we are beginning to understand how the Internet–and especially social media–supercharge disinformation, also known as propaganda.

The Guardian has recently reported on research issued by the Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH) a nonprofit operating in the United States and United Kingdom.The organization found that the vast majority of anti-vaccine misinformation and conspiracy theories began from just 12 people, dubbed the “disinformation dozen.”

When you think about it, that’s pretty stunning. Twelve people have been able to harness new technologies to feed America’s already simmering and irrational paranoia. Those twelve people have a combined following of 59 million people across multiple social media platforms.

The largest influence by far was Facebook.

CCDH analyzed 812,000 Facebook posts and tweets and found 65% came from the disinformation dozen. Vivek Murthy, US surgeon general, and Joe Biden focused on misinformation around vaccines this week as a driving force of the virus spreading.

On Facebook alone, the dozen are responsible for 73% of all anti-vaccine content, though the vaccines have been deemed safe and effective by the US government and its regulatory agencies. And 95% of the Covid misinformation reported on these platforms were not removed.

Among the dozen are physicians that have embraced pseudoscience, a bodybuilder, a wellness blogger, a religious zealot, and, most notably Robert F Kennedy Jr, the nephew of John F Kennedy who has also linked vaccines to autism and 5G broadband cellular networks to the coronavirus pandemic.

(As an aside, this isn’t Robert Kennedy’s first departure from reality; Kennedy –NO relation!– has long been on a voyage to la la land…He’s been removed from Instagram, which is owned by Facebook, but he’s still on Facebook.)

CCDH has called on Facebook and Instagram, Twitter and YouTube to completely deplatform the dozen, pointing out that they are instrumental in creating vaccine hesitancy at a crucial moment in the pandemic.

“Updated policies and statements hold little value unless they are strongly and consistently enforced,” the report said. “With the vast majority of harmful content being spread by a select number of accounts, removing those few most dangerous individuals and groups can significantly reduce the amount of disinformation being spread across platforms.”

Unfortunately, Facebook’s ability to generate profits is dependent upon its ability to “engage” users–and that militates against removing material that millions of those users are seeking, in order to justify otherwise insane behaviors.

I have posted before about my inability to understand those who refuse to get vaccinated–the willing audience for the “disinformation dozen.” With the exception of people with genuine medical issues, the justifications are mostly ludicrous (I particularly like the picture of a man eating chicken McNuggets and drinking an energy drink who says he wants to know what he’s putting in his body…) As a pretty hardcore civil libertarian, I can attest to the fact that the Bill of Rights does not protect our right to infect our neighbors.

These folks aren’t simply irrational–they’re dangerous and anti-social.

Reading this report made me feel helpless–a reaction I probably share with many. We clever humans have produced wondrous tools since those first stone axes. What we haven’t been able to do is improve our social maturity at an equal pace. We are at a juncture where our technologies have far outstripped our abilities to use them wisely.

One of the most stunning realizations of the past few years has been just how widespread  individual and social dysfunctions really are–and how powerless we seem to be in the face of fear and tribalism.

 

 

 

Labels

A few days ago, Peggy left a profound comment about the cause of America’s currently unproductive public discourse. She wrote “The problem is actually in the labelling. Take the Democratic legislative priorities in Congress. If you just poll on the issues, urban and rural both approve of the voting rights bill, the infrastructure bill, and even the immigration (almost) reform bill. Only when you add the label Dem or GOP do they disagree.”

Let me share a recent illustration.

This week, our family is at the beach in South Carolina. We drive from Indianapolis (a long haul!!) and come in through Georgetown, SC. We typically stop on Front Street at Georgetown for lunch, and because we were meeting a cousin and we were a bit early, I shopped a bit. In one shop, I asked the owner what had happened to a similar store that was no longer there. She explained how the pandemic had hurt local retailing (which was already suffering), and we commiserated over the reluctance of people to be vaccinated.

Then she said something to the effect that “at least we aren’t Cuba–I hope Americans aren’t dumb enough to become socialists.” It was abundantly clear that she would not have been able to define “socialism” if her life had depended upon it.

And that’s our problem–right AND left. We throw labels around–often as epithets–because that relieves us of the need to actually know what we’re talking about. It explains the often-noted conundrum Peggy referenced between public opinion on particular issues and the same public’s rejection of those advocating for those issues: large majorities of Americans support Medicare, for example, but oppose “socialized” medicine.

As I have repeatedly noted, all functioning societies have mixed economies in which they “socialize” certain services and leave others to the private sector. We socialize–that is, communally provide–things like police and fire protection, public education (currently under attack), infrastructure (currently crumbling) and municipal services like garbage collection. We do so because we’ve concluded that the service is important and communal delivery is more cost-effective. National health care wouldn’t turn us into Cuba (nor, unfortunately, Denmark.)

Similarly, if you deconstruct the online diatribes I encounter against “Capitalism,” they mostly fail to distinguish between market economies and the corrupted corporatism that dominates in America these days.

As I have argued previously, labeling is not analysis. Worse, it gets in the way of thoughtful or productive discussion. The media’s default description of pretty much all public policies is “Left” or “Right.” That’s easy–and almost always misleading. In an era of tribalism and partisanship, the mere labeling of a proposal as either right or left eclipses any effort to ask the pertinent questions: does this make sense? Does this solve a real problem? Can we enforce it? Instead, the argument gets reduced to: “Who wins? Is this something those people support? If so, I don’t.”

With respect to those hysterical GOP accusations that Democrats are all “socialists,” I still quote a 2019 Paul Krugman column addressing the misuse of economic terminology:

The Democratic Party has clearly moved left in recent years, but none of the presidential candidates are anything close to being actual socialists — no, not even Bernie Sanders, whose embrace of the label is really more about branding (“I’m anti-establishment!”) than substance.

Nobody in these debates wants government ownership of the means of production, which is what socialism used to mean. Most of the candidates are, instead, what Europeans would call “social democrats”: advocates of a private-sector-driven economy, but with a stronger social safety net, enhanced bargaining power for workers and tighter regulation of corporate malfeasance. They want America to be more like Denmark, not more like Venezuela.

The foundational policy questions are: what is government for? What sorts of things do rational people believe government must–or should–do, and what sorts of things should a free country leave to the private sector? What sorts of rules should government establish to ensure that private economic activity is conducted fairly, and what sorts of regulatory activity is over-reaching? 

Labels are the refuge of the intellectually lazy. Evidently, a lot of Americans fall into that category.

Correlation Isn’t Causation–But It’s Suggestive

Well, well. Speaking of “emerging data,” as I frequently do, there’s some pretty fascinating information coming out about corporate boards and diversity.

I get a daily business/markets newsletter from Axios .A recent one compared the earnings of companies with different board compositions–the percentages of non-whites and women, and the largest age ranges of those sitting on the governing boards of those companies. (Click through to see a nifty little chart.) And while the report was careful to point out that the results showed correlation, not causation, those results were certainly intriguing.

By the numbers: As a cohort, the companies with more women on their boards saw the smallest year-over-year drop in revenue growth in 2020.

And a group of companies with board members whose ages spanned over 30 years saw an improvement in revenue growth compared to the prior year. The rest saw growth slow.

The businesses with at least 30% of seats filled by non-white executives saw a bigger jump in revenue growth. However, those that had between 20% and 30% non-white board executives fared worse than those with fewer non-white members.

BoardReady cautions that this data might be skewed because so few companies have enough non-white executives on their boards to meet that threshold.

 BoardReady used revenue as a yardstick — rather than profits or other markers— in order to avoid distortions of the data due to various adjustments companies made during the pandemic.

So far, efforts by legislators and regulators to encourage more diverse representation on corporate boards have had a relatively limited impact, although the numbers are inching up. (According to the report, women made up 28% of all S&P 500 corporate board members last year, up from 16% in 2010.)

A 2019 Webforum article written by one corporate executive makes the business case for increased inclusion and a broad definition of diversity:

We live in a complex, interconnected world where diversity, shaped by globalization and technological advance, forms the fabric of modern society. Notwithstanding this interconnectedness, there is also growing polarization – both in the physical and digital worlds – fuelled by identity politics and the resurgence of nationalist ideals.

Not surprisingly, our workplaces tend to mirror the sociocultural dynamics at play in our lives outside work. Having built and scaled a multinational enterprise over nearly two decades, I’ve learned that diversity in the workplace is an asset for both businesses and their employees, in its capacity to foster innovation, creativity and empathy in ways that homogeneous environments seldom do. Yet it takes careful nurturing and conscious orchestration to unleash the true potential of this invaluable asset.

In this era of globalization, diversity in the business environment is about more than gender, race and ethnicity. It now includes employees with diverse religious and political beliefs, education, socioeconomic backgrounds, sexual orientation, cultures and even disabilities. Companies are discovering that, by supporting and promoting a diverse and inclusive workplace, they are gaining benefits that go beyond the optics.

The author argues that bringing together people of different ethnicities and different life experiences is a key driver of innovation, and he cites the increasingly varied foods we eat every day, the most  successful musical genres (jazz, rock’n’roll, hip-hop) and other innovative aspects of contemporary life as “products of cultural amalgamation.”

Of course–as data I’ve reported upon previously amply confirms–that’s the problem. Resistance to inclusion (not just in boardrooms but in venues of all kinds) is best understood as a visceral and very negative reaction to “cultural amalgamation.”

In fact, cultural amalgamation and the frantic resistance to it are at the root of most of the fault-lines that run through our politics, retard the diversification of boardrooms, and create and fuel social discord. Proponents of capitalism and market economies give lip service to their fidelity to the bottom line, but thus far most companies have turned out to be part of–or at least in thrall to– the cultural resistance.

Time will tell whether performance reports like these move the needle, and whether “It’s the economy, stupid” should really be “It’s the culture, stupid.”

 

Read This Book

Last week, I finished reading Jonathan Rauch’s The Constitution of Knowledge. I highly recommend it.

The book is an extraordinarily readable primer on epistemology –how we humans know what we know, and a defense of the proposition that knowledge is a product of collective and institutional effort–what we might call the scientific method writ large. (As Rauch points out, knowledge is “a conversation, not a destination,” and falsification is an essential element in the development of knowledge.)

He begins with the thesis that the open society is defined by three social systems: economic, political, and epistemic, and that each of those systems handles social decision-making about resources, power, and truth. The book goes on to compare and contrast those social systems, and to connect today’s challenges to the long history of philosophical and scientific inquiries about the nature of reality, the differences between faith and fact, and the social and governmental importance of occupying the same “reality-based” community.

The book is also a stirring defense of free speech against assaults from both the  right (censorship) and the left (cancel culture).

Rauch warns that the real danger in a culture where lying is ubiquitous isn’t simply misdirection; it is the undermining of our ability to distinguish between fact and falsehood. As others have noted, the methodology of censorship has changed; today, rather than efforts to simply suppress uncongenial ideas (virtually impossible in our digital age), the tactic is to “flood the information zone with shit”–to confuse, undermine and paralyze rather than brainwash.

In the digital age, Rauch shares a concern that regular readers of this blog will recognize as  a preoccupation of mine–a concern that  the marketplace of ideas is in danger of being supplanted by a marketplace of realities.

Perhaps the greatest virtue of the book is Rauch’s detailed explanation of why facts are–and must be– a social product.

Whether and where and how much of the time we think well thus depends not just on how biased we may be as individuals or even how we behave in unstructured groups; it also depends, crucially, on the design of the social environment in which we find ourselves. To phrase the point more bluntly: It’s the institutions, stupid.

As he says, our task is to create a” social environment which increases rightness and reduces wrongness.” Unlike our governmental constitution, the constitution of knowledge is unwritten, but no less important–it is a “social operating system” that aims to elicit co-operation and resolve differences on the “basis of rules rather than personal authority or tribal affiliation or brute force.” And he reminds us that information technology is very different from knowledge technology.

Information can be simply emitted, but knowledge, the product of a rich social interaction, must be achieved.

Rauch also reminds readers that all knowledge is necessarily provisional–that as we learn more, we revisit and refine what we “know” in light of new information and new knowledge, and that this inevitable impermanence can be very threatening to individuals who need bright lines and eternal truths.

Rauch concludes the discussion with advice on how the reality-based community can respond to and marginalize the trolls and virtue signalers and others who are using our new tools of communication to pollute the national discourse.

Speaking of that national discourse, I thought it was interesting to look at the ideological diversity of those who provided the inevitable jacket “blurbs” praising the book, because they represent a variety of (reality-based)political and social perspectives. Their range testifies to the objectivity of the content.

Bottom line, this is a truly important book, providing an essential overview of how humans know, how the “Constitution of Knowledge” overcomes individual errors and biases, allowing the collective “us” to distinguish between fact and fiction, and why that process is so essential to social construction and stability.

The foregoing description does a real disservice to the scope and richness of this book. You need to read it.