Vaccine and other Mandates – Sam Harris Q&A podcast

February 3, 2022

I agree with most of Sam’s answer, but while mandates may be unjustified across the board in areas where there is no danger of hospitals being overwhelmed, when that possibility starts to loom, it makes sense to impose appropriate mandates to get the rate of new infections which require hospitalizations down to a manageable level. – Ullrich Fischer

Sam Harris q&a podcast Jan 31, 2022 (Excerpt covering first question on opposition to Covid-19 lockdowns, etc. from a pro-vaccine standpoint.)

Welcome to the Making Sense podcast. This is Sam Harris.

Okay, jumping into an Ask Me Anything here. We got questions over Twitter and by email. I have audio for I believe most of those questions.

First question: “Hi Sam I’d rather remain anonymous. My question for you pertains to being pro-vaccine and anti-restrictions, a position unmoored from any political base in this interesting timeline. I listened intently to your last on disappointing my audience segment and I’m wondering if perhaps you’re allowing your understandable frustration with a backwards anti-vaccine minority to obscure your view of what these restrictions have really been like for much of America that does not have the luxury of remote work. My wife and I have been incredibly fortunate these past 2 years but we have many friends that have lost careers, businesses, and family without the ability to stay home and stay safe. That is increasingly classified as a virtuous position.

I consider myself deeply pro-vaccine and also vehemently anti-lockdown. A position born of a career managing risk in complex systems for the aerospace and defence industries. The absolute risk that children and vaccinated individuals have faced from Covid has been well below ordinary background hazards for nearly a year now and I believe our failure to grasp the harm we are inflicting on children, working women, and the poor risks further polarization if it is not immediately stopped. Do you feel that unrelenting mandates and restrictions from the left are justified and what do you feel they will do to our already splintered political and class structures if allowed to persist. Thanks so much for taking my question.”

Okay. Well, good question. Actually, I agree with most of that probably all of that and yet the question was asked as though I was expected not to. Which makes me think there’s something about the way I’ve spoken about Covid and vaccines and misinformation that has conveyed the sense that I’m completely in favor of the most draconian measures we’ve taken to achieve zero Covid. Which, apart from in the first month or so, was never in the cards. I take all those points.

I think it’s almost impossible to exaggerate the difference between good and bad luck with respect to what one was doing to earn a living in particular when the pandemic hit. And this interacts with the variable of class but not entirely. I mean there were people who were in fact very well off before the pandemic hit but happened to be in industries that just could not survive anything like a lockdown. So I’m going to think of people who owned movie theater chains or restaurants no matter how successful. Unless you had a restaurant that could pivot to delivery. There was some great restaurants that failed during the pandemic. And all of this was just luck. So I take the point that some people have been very lucky and have had it very easy comparatively. In fact some people’s businesses grew during the pandemic.

And of course this differed by country too, where there were some countries that locked down much harder and much more effectively than we did in the US. I think in the beginning locking down and locking down harder than we managed to do made eminent sense. Right. We didn’t know what we were dealing with and there was the possibility of achieving something like zero Covid, although our openness to immigration and travel would have always posed a problem there. Right, we would have had to close the borders.

But the rationale for locking down then was not so much achieving zero Covid, it was to avoid crashing our Healthcare system. It made perfect sense and people who were complaining about it at the time had no leg to stand on. We spent an enormous amount of money trying to ensure that no one was too badly damaged by our efforts there. But once we began to understand the scope of the disease and how it was transmitted and needless to say once we got effective vaccines, yeah then our thinking about what was sane public policy shifted and had to shift and perhaps it should have shifted more I think I think it’s pretty clear at this point that the degree of which we closed the schools and the length of those closures turned out to be a very significant mistake. Distance learning didn’t work all that well and once we got into a position where anyone who wanted to get vaccinated could get vaccinated then I think the rational for closing schools and frankly even forcing kids to wear masks in schools generally speaking, all that is at minimum quite debatable and my mind is not settled on some of these points but many things have changed.

Vaccines are ubiquitous. We have treatments for Covid now that we didn’t have even a few months ago and the latest variant (omicron, which I think has a 98% prevalence now) appears to be far more mild especially if you’ve been vaccinated and Covid as we know has always been comparatively mild in kids. So as for lockdowns and even mandates at this point I am skeptical right I think mandates are probably counterproductive across the board. My friend Peter Tia just wrote a nice article avidly supporting vaccines and just as avidly condemning mandates. You can look that up on his website and I think I agree with basically every point he makes and one thing I would emphasize though is that his argument only makes sense in the presence of a disease that is comparatively benign.

Much of my thinking in the last year or year and a half around Covid has been not so much worrying about Covid per se. Again,once we got good vaccines things changed a lot and now in the presence of good treatments things have changed again what is worried me most is that we seem completely unable to depoliticize a conversation about basic epidemiological facts. And this is terrifying if you imagine a much more lethal pandemic. Because while it is possible to imagine that as you turn The lethality dial up everyone’s politics will magically evaporate and all the conspiracy thinking will find nowhere to land just the sheer terror of mortality will clarify everyone’s epistemology no one will have any time for Alex Jones when they see a sufficient number of bodies stacked like cordwood in a park, but I’m not so sure.

I think the fragmentation of our media ecosystem — I think has happened on podcasts and in newsletters and in right wing media — I think the ways in which Republicans in particular try to leverage an anti-vaxx hysteria — something like this, I think is quite possible even in the presence of much more serious disease. If that’s the case, then we will fail to solve our problems of coordination and cooperation and basic trust of institutions and public health messaging in the presence of something 10 or 20 or 30 times more lethal. That’s what I’m worried about.

It has been a very long time since I was personally worried about catching Covid. I haven’t caught it I still do what I can to keep myself and my family safe. Much am I thinking here is still focused on the few members of our family who have significant co-morbidities — for whom even a vaccine doesn’t seem like a perfect insurance policy. But if you’ve gotten the idea that I think we should be responding to Covid itself as though it were terrifyingly lethal illness at this point that’s not what I meant to convey.

What I’ve meant to convey is my absolute astonishment and despair in the face of the fragmentation of our society — the total loss of trust in institutions — in fact the conviction among so many otherwise smart people that we don’t even need institutions. That’s the old way now we’re going to just run this thing by podcast and newsletter and Twitter feed. That’s how we’re going to deal with all the challenges we face in this century: cyber security, cyber terrorism, the remaining threat of nuclear war, climate change, pandemics natural and engineered, the threat of artificial intelligence run amok, the pressures exerted on our society from wealth inequality.

All we need to do is move fast and break things. We just need disruptors. We’re going to run this whole thing like it’s a new tech startup. That’s how we’re going to maintain cruising altitude into the 22nd century. That’s completely insane. It feels in some sense like the teenagers have taken over the place. There’s no expertise that matters. You can’t trust the experts anymore. No, we’re all going to get online and become epidemiologists and virologists and immunologists in a few short weeks by doing a lot of Google searching and YouTube. Douglas Murray told me recently that he saw a tweet where someone said on Twitter “oh look, all the people who knew everything about Covid last week now know everything about Afghanistan”. And that is the spirit of the time and it’s not good for us.

The truth is I have at no point in this pandemic had a strong opinion about Covid or public health measures. I have just had a strong opinion that it makes no sense for unqualified people to have strong opinions on these matters and that is dangerous when you have millions and millions of people deciding that they’re intuitions about a brand new pathogen in the first significant pandemic in anyone’s lifetime should supersede the product of rational scientific investigation but those were most qualified to perform it. And the difference between dispassionate scientific analysis of Covid or anything else and advocacy — right there’s a difference there that is very difficult to digest and we are clearly bad at doing this.

We have to get our act together because this will not be the last pandemic. In fact, given how disruptive Covid has been, I would bet that the spread of bio-terrorism has increased significantly. This is probably the easiest way possible to disrupt society and if you’re a nihilist or you’re insane or you’re a jihadist or a fanatic of some other stripe, well then bioterrorism just got its super bowl commercial. So getting better at responding to a pandemic, getting better at producing vaccines and getting people to actually take them – I consider that as one of our most important tasks as a society at this point.

Ullrich Fischer