Nicholas Agar explores the propensity to ditch or appropriate factoids whenever necessary in the debates around issues like climate change and vaccination. And why the proponents are so difficult to argue with. 

If you encounter a freedom march against Covid-19 vaccines, you’ll hear a potpourri of reasons for not getting vaccinated. The virus is a fiction promoted by Big Pharma; the virus is real but is asymptomatic in many and just a bad cold in others; the virus is real and can kill but vaccinating against it only increases your odds of death, and so on.

These reasons contradict each other. But the fact that they coexist harmoniously in a freedom rally tells us something about why today’s anti-vaxxers are impossible to convince.

Writing in the Guardian about anti-vax marches in New Zealand, Tess McClure is puzzled by their contradictory attitudes. “The signs and slogans proffered by the crowds presented an odd blend of factions and allegiances – tino rangatiratanga [Māori sovereignty] flags alongside Nazi imagery, anti-vaccine mottoes, evangelical preachers, those calling for the Prime Minister’s arrest and execution.”

If these people were to meet under other circumstances, they would be at each other’s throats. But they seem to be bonded by the commitment that they share – to reject vaccines and to accept any justification that will achieve this shared end.

* The problem with ‘individual rights’

Many commentators on vaccine hesitancy observe that many opponents of vaccination seem unexpectedly intelligent. They don’t seem to suffer from an innumeracy that would prevent them from understanding that the risk of death from an unvaccinated encounter with SARS-Cov-2 is greater than the risk of death from a vaccine mishap.

I propose the difficulty of convincing anti-vaxxers is not down to some cognitive incapacity on their part. They are impossible to convince because they encounter arguments for vaccination as members of a mob. This gives them the intellectual resources to defeat any attempt to convince them. Perhaps the anti-vax mob is online. They come equipped with the diversity of reasons for rejecting vaccines supplied by their online communities.

Perhaps the mob is a freedom rally marching against vaccines. The diverse reasons for rejecting vaccines are emblazoned on signs and T-shirts. Anti-vaxxers display an ingenuity about how to exploit the ideological resources of virtual and real-world mobs. They can chop and change reasons whenever doing so rationalises a shared commitment.

Suppose someone is attending an anti-vax march sporting a placard “the virus is a lie”. If a bystander were to single them out and offer conclusive proof of SARS-Cov-2’s existence then they can turn to a fellow marcher who offers convenient talking points for the suggestion that, though the virus is surely real, vaccines increase rather than decrease the risk of death from it. If that gets countered, why not switch back to previous skepticism about the virus’s very existence and then march on.

The opponents of reason often have a much keener sense of their real commitments – “we don’t like vaccines!” – than the forces of reason arrayed against them. They are ideally set up to exploit the ideological resources of a logically incoherent mob.

If you do want to debate a member of a mob, make sure you approach them when they have emerged from behind their irrationality forcefield – perhaps over a family lunch?

It may seem like I’m singling out anti-vaxxers. But we see the same propensity to ditch or appropriate factoids whenever necessary in the debate about climate change in Australia.

Climate change denial used to be the preferred way for politicians on the right of politics to defend inaction about emissions. Australia’s ruinous fires of its 2019/20 “Black Summer” have thankfully made climate change denial politically unviable. It’s getting harder to find those mavericks with Ivy league qualifications prepared – for a fee – to go on TV to announce that all the science behind climate change is rubbish.

But there is another option that rationalises doing as little as possible to curb emissions. Make the commitments that Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison took to the COP26 meeting in Glasgow.

Promise to curb and reverse warming in time for 2050 by developing future climate techs that will remove carbon from the atmosphere. Since technological development is powered by a strong economy it becomes essential do little to curb carbon emissions now. That way we get the fabulous future techs sooner.

It may seem odd that anti-scientific climate change deniers could find common cause with hyper-scientific enthusiasts about future tech. But the fact that many former climate change deniers in Australia have transitioned so easily to tech enthusiasts betting on future tech fixes suggests that what matters most is the shared resolution to avoid doing anything today about climate change.

It’s important that we find some effective response to the ideological nimbleness of anti-vaxxers. If we can’t accept straightforward evidence that vaccines offer protection against Covid-19 then we should be pessimistic about progress on the climate.

Justifications for the effectiveness and safety of vaccines against a killer virus are so much more straightforward than the more complex science of the climate. The effects of climate change currently hit the global poor much worse than on the affluent many of whom feel insulated from its effects. They are likely to long persist in offering any reason that justifies inaction.

Nicholas Agar is a Distinguished Visiting Professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Australia and Adjunct Professor of philosophy at Victoria University of Wellington.

Leave a comment