The Rationality of a Flu Shot

flu shot, vaccine, doctor, reason, rational, epistemologyI don’t like shots, in fact, I avoid them. Ironically, I visited my doctor yesterday, and left with a band-aid on my arm. I didn’t plan to get a flu shot, in fact I’ve never had one and never wanted one, but he talked me into it. I thought the whole dialectic was interesting, so I’ll share it with you. I think it illustrates some valuable principles of rationality and good belief formation. (The doctor actually said some of these things, and some of them I said to myself during the conversation.)

The Conversation

“Have you considered getting a flu shot?”
“No, not really. I never get them.”
“Would you be open to the idea?”
“Isn’t the flu a whole range of viruses rather than only one virus?”
“Yes.”
“But aren’t flu vaccines just aimed at one strain of the flu? That means that it protects you (imperfectly) against one strain out of many, which doesn’t seem very helpful. It would be like having an air bag that only inflates when I hit a red car.”
“Actually, the vaccine is aimed at multiple flu viruses, based on the most common ones from last year.”
“Ok, that’s good to know. But still, I hardly ever get sick or get the flu.”
“Well, even if you have a very low risk of getting the flu, the shot will lower the risk even more.” (The CDC website says that, “flu vaccination reduces the risk of flu illness by between 40% and 60% among the overall population.”)
“Yeah, that seems right. But I’m still not sure it lowers the risk enough to make it worth it.”
“What’s the downside of getting one, especially if it’s free?”
flu shot, vaccine, doctor, reason, rational, epistemology“I don’t like shots. Yeah, that’s not a great argument, I suppose.”
“Consider this: Lowering your own risk also benefits family health and public health. If your chance is lower, that lowers the risk of your kids getting sick or anyone around you getting sick, like in your church. That’s just good for everyone in Columbia.”
“Ok, I’m starting to realize that I don’t have any good reason, or enough good reasons to justify not getting a shot.” (He did address the concerns many people have about the vaccine causing various side-effects or illness, though I wasn’t worried about it. The chances are negligible. He also explained that the vaccine they use is protein-based, which means it doesn’t contain the actual virus, so it can’t give you the flu.)

So, next thing I know, the nurse comes in with the syringe. I tried to relax and remember that this is a very fleeting pain. Happily, the nurse was quite skilled and I hardly felt it. The arm is a bit sore today, but that’s the only negative effect.

The Takeaway 

What’s the takeaway here? 1) Be open to dialogue. You might learn something. You also might discover that your reasons, once they are out on the table, turn out not to be very strong. 2) Irrational fears shouldn’t guide our actions. The fear of a shot, for us needlephobes, is generally way over-blown and not realistic. I.e., it isn’t as bad as you think. 3) Public health may not have occurred to you as a relevant factor, but it should. It isn’t just about *you*.

For the Flu Shot Skeptics

skeptic faith thinkingNow, I know people worry about certain dangers of vaccines or flu shots. But I researched it a little (perhaps inadequately), and I couldn’t find any documented sources citing scientific evidence about the dangers of today’s flu shots. Flu shots have been modified over the years to eliminate anything that was discovered to be harmful.

“But what about the dangers we have yet to discover?” True, we must always admit the possibility that we’ll discover a dangerous chemical  later, after the damage is done. But it simply isn’t reasonable or practical to live your life dodging mere possible dangers. There would be no way to avoid everything that could harm you. We should try to avoid probable harms — things that we have good evidence for. That’s the only feasible way to live. Right now, the research says that flu shots are safe. Also, if you avoid flu shots based on a few bad stories you’ve heard, you’re probably falling prey to the availability bias (I might be doing this as well) or the fallacy of probability neglect.

“But given that we’ve repeatedly found new dangers in some medicines and treatments, shouldn’t we expect that there are lots of undiscovered dangers lurking in these drugs?” That’s an inductive argument, and I think it’s weak. Here’s why: medicine isn’t progressing slowly, like repeatedly adding 1 to a number and watching it grow. It progresses more like multiplying. So not only do we detect and solve new problems every year, but our methods for detecting, solving and preventing problems gets better every year, multiplying the effectiveness of medicine. That’s my perception, but I could be wrong.

Feedback

Persuaded? Let me know what you think. I’m open to hearing the arguments on the other side, provided you have documented evidence from reliable sources.

The Secret Life of a Double Agent

van, vw, Ground Belief, hippieI was raised by hippes. They didn’t really stay hippies, though, except for the ageless Volkswagen van, a bookshelf full of Carlos Castenada novels, and a few other “hobbies.” But I imbibed much of the classic hippie ideology, including a healthy skepticism toward authority and a respect for good pot. So, it was a bit of a shock to my parents when I converted to Christianity in my junior year of college. I imagine they felt a bit like the parents of Alex P. Keaton in “Family Ties.”

Several years later, when I graduated from college and was living on my own, my father bought me a subscription to Mother Jones magazine. I walked almost exclusively in evangelical circles at that time, and I’m sure he wanted to provide some counterpoint and balance. Reading that magazine was fascinating, but the eye-opening experience came when I started receiving unsolicited mailings from various left-wing organizations. Since I was also on numerous mailing lists for right-wing, Christian groups, I would often receive two nearly identical letters, printed in the same fonts, with the same graphic design and same wording, one from the left and one from the right. Both letters would shout that the “other side” was ruining our country and would soon come for my children unless I sent money fast. The right and left seemed like mirror-images.

Double Agent

Missouri, doctor, academic, Chris GadsdenIt took another decade before I immersed myself into the world of a double agent. I enrolled in graduate school at the University of Missouri and assumed the mantle of a novice (secular) academic. Surrounded for eight years by mostly atheist philosophers, teaching freshman as a representative of the secular state, living most of my waking hours within the confines of the campus, and finally initiated as a Philosophiae Doctor by the academic elite, I became one of “them.”

I now live in a curious juxtaposition between two worlds. It is a sort of “no-man’s land.” My Christianity makes me suspect among the academics, and my academic status makes me suspect among the Christians.  Some, for sure, see me as their “agent,” infiltrating the “other side.” But for me, this has been a double-blessing. I have learned to respect, appreciate and love the “other.” And when you learn to love the “other” once, it becomes all the easier to wash, rinse and repeat with any other “other” you encounter. 

It’s All In My Head

Kant, dogmatic slumber, thinking, Ground BeliefI must confess, however, that what I prize most from this adventure is all in my head. I don’t mean that it is illusory. I mean that it is cognitive and intellectual. Like the philosopher Immanuel Kant, I was awakened from my dogmatic slumber. My core beliefs (e.g., the Apostle’s Creed) have remained solid, but I now hold quite loosely to everything that orbits around that core, and I reject completely the dogmatism that so often accompanies religion. More importantly, being a double agent trained my mind in ways I could not have achieved by any other means.

Being forced, not merely to read and understand, but to step into the shoes of my opponents, enabled me to see the strengths and weaknesses of both sides as with a microscope or X-ray vision. No system, no ideology, no institution has it “right.” The line between truth and error, between justice and injustice, as with the line between good and evil, “cuts through the heart of every human being,” as Solzhenitsyn wrote. Even if you believe that God’s Word is pure truth, the hard, human labor of interpretation inevitably works error into the dough like leaven.

The Point

So what is my point? Why the memoir? The point is this: if you want your mind (and maybe your heart) to be all it can be (sorry, Army), then become a double agent. Don’t just observe and read. Go and stand shoulder-to-shoulder with your opponent, sit knee-to-knee over coffee. Find their humanity, appreciate their genius, learn from them. Incarnate yourself into their community. It doesn’t have to be grad school — discover your own way. You’ll find your mind (and maybe your heart) performing new feats of thought (and maybe love) that you hadn’t even imagined before. The end result is not a different set of beliefs, it isn’t some kind of conversion; it is a sharper mind with better understanding. It is your best beliefs held more beautifully.

Got Thinking Skills?

cat funny critical thinkingIt’s hard to say whether the internet contains more good resources than bad, but anytime we highlight a good resource, we help nudge the inequality a little. So here’s a cat video. Just kidding! This website, “Critical Thinking Web,” stands out among many similar sites for it’s ease-of-use, rigor and interactive design. If you want to explore the world of logic and analytical thinking (and more!), this is a wonderful playground. I’ve used it as a supplement in my philosophy and logic courses.

critical thinking web, resource, logicFounded in 2004 by Dr. Joe Lau of Hong Kong University, the site offers help with:

The Past Is Irrelevant

beliefs, support, past, historyI frequently engage in conversations about beliefs. It’s kinda my thing. People often ask about the history of my beliefs or of someone else’s beliefs, especially religious beliefs. Everyone likes to construct a coherent story that will help them make sense of another person’s views. “That’s how they were raised,” or “they’re just reacting against such-and-such,” or “they went though some trauma that caused them to change their beliefs.” While I do find all this psychologically interesting, when it comes to evaluating a person’s beliefs, it is irrelevant.

In the video, I don’t explain why the past is irrelevant. The past doesn’t matter because of the nature of epistemic justification. Put simply, the quality of your beliefs depends on how well your reasons support them. And the only reasons that count now are the reasons you have now. You may have had different reasons in the past, and maybe you’ll change your reasons in the future, but none of that matters now.

An Analogy of Support

bridge, column, support, beliefs, reasons Imagine a bridge being supported by stone columns. The integrity and strength of that bridge depends on the quality of the support now. The columns may be crumbling now, even if they were strong in the past. Conversely, a bridge that was decrepit last year but has been completely rebuilt is strong now, even though it was weak in the recent past. When you drive over the bridge, all you care about is the condition of the supports now. So it is with beliefs and their supports. And we can evaluate this objectively with standards of logic.

Halloween, Christians, and Knowledge

Halloween knowledge ground beliefEvery October, I tread carefully on the subject of Halloween. Many people in conservative churches believe that Christians should not participate in a holiday with such unwholesome, pagan origins. Others see it as harmless fun. What should a reasonable, devout person think and do about Halloween? (This is an in-house debate for Christians, so caveat lector. If you’ve ever been baffled by the Christian fuss over the holiday, perhaps this will help.)

The Irony of Knowledge

The Apostle Paul, in his first letter to the church at Corinth, speaks rather directly to the problem of “indirect” participation in pagan rituals. (If some Halloween traditions originate in druidic rites, then dressing up and passing out candy seems like “indirect” participation, at worst, to me. As long as you don’t sacrifice any animals!) St. Paul says that as Christians, we know that there is pagan rituals knowledge ground beliefonly one, true God and that all other “gods” are powerless. So, indirect participation in their rituals, such as eating meat sacrificed to a “god,” is harmless. (1Corinthians 8-10) But not all people know this, and some still fear these “gods” and their rituals.

Ironically, those who pass judgment on fellow Christians for their Halloween involvement see themselves as possessing important knowledge — knowledge about the demonic dangers of Halloween. And they see their fellow Christians, dressed up and trick-or-treating, as tragically ignorant. This, according to St. Paul, is precisely the reverse of the true situation. It is the party-goers who have knowledge, and the protesters who lack it.

Reasons to Abstain?

So why does Paul still encourage some to abstain from these “indirect” pagan connections? Paul gives an interesting pair of moral principles:

1. If you believe something is wrong, and you choose to do it, then you are acting wrongly.

So if my friend believes (mistakenly) that it is wrong to trick-or-treat, and he does it, then he violates his conscience and does wrong.

2. Don’t do anything that leads your friend to violate their conscience.

conscience knowledge ground beliefSo, I certainly don’t want to pressure my friend into trick-or-treating, and thus violating his conscience. Thus, if my participation would encourage a friend to act against his conscience, then I would rather abstain.

This is not the same as worrying about my neighbor who sits in a dark house in protest all night. I have no Halloween-related moral obligations toward them. My dressing up and sugar-binging won’t tempt them in the slightest, so their “feeling offended” is no concern of mine.

To Judge or Not To Judge

Finally, be very careful about passing judgment on others. And this can go both ways! Those with knowledge find themselves judging others for their lack of knowledge. And those who believe Halloween participation is wrong will judge those who partake. Both should reflect on Paul’s words to the Romans:

As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions. One person believes he may eat anything, while the weak person eats only vegetables. Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him. Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand. (Rom. 14:1-4)