Tag Archives: vaccines

Loyalty Signaling

I’ve posted before about “virtue signaling”-a way of publicly expressing a moral viewpoint with the intent of communicating one’s connection to people of similar, virtuous sentiments. (When I first purchased a Prius, a colleague asked if the purchase was prompted by a desire to “signal” my concerns for the environment to those who would be sympathetic. I guiltily wondered if he was on to something..)

However, I had never heard of “loyalty signaling” until I read a recent column by Paul Krugman.Krugman was  referencing scholarship on the development of cults, and he was particularly impressed by a paper by a New Zealand-based researcher, Xavier Márquez.

“The Mechanisms of Cult Production” compares the behavior of political elites across a wide range of dictatorial regimes, from Caligula’s Rome to the Kim family’s North Korea, and finds striking similarities. Despite vast differences in culture and material circumstances, elites in all such regimes engage in pretty much the same behavior, especially what the paper dubs “loyalty signaling” and “flattery inflation.”

Krugman defines signaling as a concept originally drawn from economics; it describes costly, often pointless behaviors engaged in by people trying  to demonstrate that they have attributes that others value.

In the context of dictatorial regimes, signaling typically involves making absurd claims on behalf of the Leader and his agenda, often including “nauseating displays of loyalty.” If the claims are obvious nonsense and destructive in their effects, if making those claims humiliates the person who makes them, these are features, not bugs. I mean, how does the Leader know if you’re truly loyal unless you’re willing to demonstrate your loyalty by inflicting harm both on others and on your own reputation?

And once this kind of signaling becomes the norm, those trying to prove their loyalty have to go to ever greater extremes to differentiate themselves from the pack. Hence “flattery inflation”: The Leader isn’t just brave and wise, he’s a perfect physical specimen, a brilliant health expert, a Nobel-level economic analyst, and more. The fact that he’s obviously none of these things only enhances the effectiveness of the flattery as a demonstration of loyalty.

Does all of this sound familiar? Of course it does, at least to anyone who has been tracking Fox News or the utterances of political figures like Lindsey Graham or Kevin McCarthy.

Krugman repeats his often-communicated belief that the G.O.P. is no longer a normal political party. (As he says, it sure doesn’t look anything like the party of Dwight Eisenhower). But as he and a number of other observers have pointed out, it does bear a distinct and growing resemblance to the ruling parties of autocratic regimes.

In the U.S., of course, the Trump Party doesn’t (yet) exercise complete control– so Republican politicians suspected of insufficient loyalty to Donald Trump aren’t sent to the gulag. “At most, they stand to lose intraparty offices and, possibly, future primaries.” Yet–as Krugman says, these threats are seemingly sufficient to turn them into modern-day versions of Caligula’s courtiers.

Unfortunately, all this loyalty signaling is putting the whole nation at risk. In fact, it will almost surely kill large numbers of Americans in the next few months….

Republican politicians and Republican-oriented influencers have driven much of the opposition to Covid-19 vaccines, in some cases engaging in what amounts to outright sabotage. And there is a stunning negative correlation between Trump’s share of a county’s vote in 2020 and its current vaccination rate.

Krugman says that hostility to vaccines has become a form of loyalty signaling–which, if accurate, answers a question about vaccine refusal that has confounded most sane Americans. As he says, the G.O.P. has become something having no precedent in American history (although there have been many precedents abroad.)

Republicans have created for themselves a political realm in which costly demonstrations of loyalty transcend considerations of good policy or even basic logic. And all of us may pay the price.

When cult members “drink the Kool Aid,” they typically only kill themselves. Unfortunately, the cult that has replaced the once-Grand-Old-Party threatens to kill us all.

 

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.

 

 

 

The Inmates Running The Asylum

There really is no end to this. Every day, we are reminded that everyone in or around the White House is either a White Supremicist (like creepy Steven Miller) or a nutcase invested in conspiracy theories. Of course, the two categories are not mutually exclusive.

Case in point.

The wife of White House communications director Bill Shine went on an anti-vaccine tirade while spreading conspiracy theories about an outbreak of measles in the Pacific north-west.

In a series of tweets, Darla Shine lashed out against a CNN segment detailing the outbreak, which has seen more than 50 unvaccinated people contract measles in Washington state and Oregon.

“Here we go LOL #measlesoutbreak on #CNN #Fake #Hysteria,” Darla Shine tweeted. “The entire Baby Boom population alive today had the #Measles as kids. Bring back our #ChildhoodDiseases they keep you healthy & fight cancer.”

“I had the #Measles #Mumps #ChickenPox as a child and so did every kid I knew,” she went on to claim, adding: “Sadly my kids had #MMR so they will never have the life long natural immunity I have. Come breathe on me!”

Shine is a former TV producer. She’s married to Bill Shine, the former executive at–where else?– Fox News who is now Donald Trump’s deputy chief of staff for communications.

When she was criticized for her comments, Shine not only accused “the Left” of attempting to smear her, but suggested that measles can cure cancer (mischaracterizing a complex case from 2014 that did not reach that conclusion.)

This isn’t her first visit to whack-a-doodle land. She has “debunked” use of sunscreens and spread several conspiracy theories warning of the “dangers” of vaccines.

Other unearthed tweets found Darla Shine making profane remarks about race, questioning why white people were considered racist for using “the n’word” given its use by black people and defending the Confederate flag.

She has repeatedly struck a dismissive tone when discussing allegations of sexual assault, be it in the military or at Fox News.

Granted, this woman is the spouse of a White House staffer–not the staffer herself. (Her husband departed Fox News after he was found to have suppressed allegations of sexual impropriety against Roger Ailes and Bill O”Reilly.) Nevertheless, her looney-tunes tweets reflect upon the administration and are highly inappropriate.

Of course, so are Trump’s.

In fact, I can’t think of anyone who is still in the White House, from the President on down, who isn’t an embarrassment to humanity.

 

Rejecting Science

In my Law and Policy classes, I discuss the influence of Enlightenment philosophy, with its emphasis on empirical inquiry and scientific discovery, on those who drafted America’s founding documents.

If there is any doubt that Americans have left those Enlightenment precepts far behind, the Age of Trump should dispel them. As Dorothy said to Toto, we aren’t in Kansas anymore.

Luddites occupy both ends of the political spectrum.

Does the scientific consensus about the existence and cause of climate change threaten the bottom line of the fossil fuel companies that make significant campaign contributions? Well, then, those on the Right “reinterpret” the evidence to show that settled science is wrong and must be dismissed.

Meanwhile, the Left’s suspicion of anything emanating from corporate America drives rejection of the scientific consensus that GMOs are simply a newer method of making the hybrids we’ve been eating for centuries and that widespread vaccination has saved millions of lives.

Our incoming President, of course, has never met a conspiracy theory he didn’t love, and he certainly doesn’t seem to have much interest in the numerous, genuine problems facing America’s Chief Executive. So I wasn’t really surprised by the Washington Post headline about a meeting between Trump and Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.

Robert F. Kennedy Jr., a proponent of a widely discredited theory that vaccines cause autism, said Tuesday that President-elect Donald Trump asked him to chair a new commission on vaccines.

Hours later, however, a spokeswoman for Trump’s transition said that while Trump would like to create a commission on autism, no final decision had been made.

If Trump follows through, the stunning move would push up against established science, medicine and the government’s position on the issue. It comes after Trump — who has long been critical of vaccines — met at Trump Tower with Kennedy, who has spearheaded efforts to roll back child vaccination laws.

As the article points out, there is already a federal advisory committee on immunization composed of medical and public health experts — but as we have seen with his assertions that he knows more than “the Generals” and his contemptuous dismissal of uncongenial information from our national intelligence agencies, Trump believes he knows more than those “elitist” experts.

As an article in the New Yorker addressing Trump’s support for the “anti-vaxxer” movement  put it,

Asking Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., to chair a commission on scientific integrity is like asking Ted Kaczynski to run the United States Postal Service.

In his Rolling Stone article, Kennedy wrote that vaccines exposed infants to a hundred and eighty-seven times the daily limit of ethyl mercury, as determined by the Environmental Protection Agency. If that were true, they would all have died immediately. Rolling Stone soon printed a correction—and then later corrected that correction. The actual figure was a hundred and eighty-seven micrograms, which is forty per cent higher than the levels recommended by the E.P.A. for methyl mercury (not ethyl mercury), and a tiny fraction of the figure cited in Kennedy’s paper.

I am no fan of Charles Krauthammer’s politics (to put it mildly), but he was trained as a doctor and is familiar with scientific evidence. He was appalled.

In a week packed with confirmation hearings and Russian hacking allegations, what was he doing meeting with Robert Kennedy Jr., an anti-vaccine activist pushing the thoroughly discredited idea that vaccines cause autism?…

Kennedy says that Trump asked him to chair a commission about vaccine safety. While denying that, the transition team does say that the commission idea remains open. Either way, the damage is done. The anti-vaccine fanatics seek any validation. This indirect endorsement from Trump is immensely harmful. Vaccination has prevented more childhood suffering and death than any other measure in history. With so many issues pressing, why even go there?

Conspiracy theories are embraced when people lack the information needed to evaluate their credibility. Civic literacy doesn’t require that citizens all be scientists–but it does require knowing the difference between a scientific theory and a wild-ass guess. It does require familiarity with the scientific method, and with the concept of falsification.

I think it was Neil DeGrasse Tyson who said “Science is true whether or not you believe in it.”  Rejecting reality is a prescription for disaster.