Legislative Report: Science, liberty, and nonsense

Dear Editor,

The Vermont Legislature has only a few actual scientists and constitutional scholars. But the discussion of public health, including the matter of Covid vaccinations, is a scientific discussion. And some folks invoke questions of liberty in response. Strange duty for citizen legislators.

But neither are we all farmers, ski area operators, or computer programmers. We legislate in all manner of issues in which we are not experts. But we are experts at listening to experts, at asking questions, and at making reasonable policy based on other people’s expertise. The Covid vaccination discussion benefits from very reliable expert council.

My father was a science teacher who began all his answers, “Well, the accepted theory is…” I’d say, “I don’t want a theory, Daddy, I want the truth.” He’d say, “Well people believe that if you’re good, when you die, you’ll go to Heaven and God will tell you the truth about everything. But as long as we’re mere human beings in the physical universe, our limited human reasoning is as close as we can get to the truth of the physical universe. The scientific method is the most rigorous way to reason about the physical universe.”

All science is theory. But, and this is important, not all scientific theories are equal. The scientific method is a rigorous way of testing a theory, resulting in some accepted theories enjoying so high a level of scientific confidence that we treat them as the truth. All such accepted theories are contingent on the rigors of the scientific method, of course, and as such subject to revision if refuted scientifically.

Stubborn loyalty to any accepted theory perverts that theory into dogma, and that is profoundly unscientific. There is always a philosophical doubt. But, that said, gravity is only a theory. Scientific contingency does not equal nihilism. Equating untested hypotheses with scientifically proven theory is pseudo-science.

Pseudo-science has been undermining our response to global warming for decades. For an even longer time, pseudo-science has undermined confidence in evolutionary science. This causes not only confusion about natural history; it causes confusion about present day evolution in the form of Covid variants. The most immediate problem with pseudo-science is the confusion about Covid vaccination. I get emails daily making a pseudo-scientific argument against the Covid vaccine. The argument is essentially that there is at least a theoretical doubt about the testing of the vaccines, and that some people with credentials have presented contrary hypotheses, and that these factors refute the accepted science on vaccination. Yes, there is a philosophical doubt – like the philosophical doubt about gravity – about our scientifically accepted understanding of Covid and vaccinations. Yes, there are untested alternative hypotheses that dispute the scientifically accepted theory. Neither refutes the validity of the scientifically accepted theory.

No medical procedure or pharmaceutical is 100% safe. There is always a remote possibility of a problem. I was warned of the remote possibility of death during a knee replacement. But to the extent that we can know anything scientifically, we know that the Covid vaccines are reasonably safe and safer than Covid. We know they greatly lessen the odds of contracting Covid and/or spreading it to others. We know that vaccination not only protects each individual patient, but lessens the spread of Covid among the population.

Some folks make a libertarian anti-vaccination argument. Bodily autonomy is a fundamental right, indeed a constitutional right. Real science or pseudo-science, each person has a right to make his or her own decisions about what does and doesn’t go into his or her own body. Real freedom includes the right to be stupid. But my freedom ends where it interferes with your freedom, and yours ends where it interferes with mine.

We’re weeks away from the end of the Covid nightmare. Everyone needs to work together, as responsible, patriotic adults. Not being vaccinated risks prolonging the pandemic, not only for the unvaccinated but for everyone, prolonging it long enough for the virus to evolve resistant variants.

Still, Vermont is unlikely to legally require vaccination. But we must not agree to the pseudo-libertarian argument that vaccination should not be a requirement for entering indoor public spaces, using mass transit, school, camp, work places, etc. The right to not be vaccinated does not translate to a right to infect others or to prolong a pandemic.


Sen. Dick McCormack

Windsor County

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