On not making up your mind

I’m finding it extremely difficult to remain open to a range of possibilities. On Covid in particular.

            I’ve read a large number of articles about Covid and talked with lots of people. There are articles about the urgent need for vaccinations and others about the risks of adverse reactions. There are articles about lockdowns and wearing masks, with different viewpoints. There are articles about the origin of Covid, some saying it came from wet markets and others saying it was from a lab leak.

When I read a well-documented and well-argued analysis, I think, “That’s persuasive.” Then I read another from a different perspective and think, “That sounds persuasive too.”

            Some time after the beginning of the pandemic, I decided to try to remain open to different views rather than reaching a firm conclusion. For example, there are claims for and against using ivermectin as a prophylactic, to reduce the risk of getting Covid. I don’t want to decide definitively one way or the other, at least not yet.

The trouble with reaching a firm conclusion is being trapped by confirmation bias. If I decide that mask rules are right or wrong, then I am likely to pay attention to material that supports my belief and to dismiss contrary information. I might find myself in an echo chamber.

This doesn’t mean I can’t make decisions. As soon as the AstraZeneca vaccine became available, I had my shots. That was a personal choice. But since then I’ve tried to remain open to information about the hazards of vaccines, for example from a rare blood clotting condition. Maybe it’s more common than official figures indicate.

            You see, I’m a social scientist, and I’ve studied numerous public scientific controversies, including ones over nuclear power, pesticides, fluoridation and the origin of AIDS. On some of these issues I have a strong personal view but on others I don’t. For social analysis, it sometimes can be helpful not to care strongly about the topic under investigation, as this enables looking at the dynamics of the controversy from a less emotional perspective.

A decade ago, I started studying the vaccination debate. For me, vaccination was not a personal issue, having no children and no particular problem with vaccines; I’ve had the flu vaccine for the past five years. My angle was to support free speech for vaccine critics, because I believe free and open discussion of contentious issues is better than trying to silence contrary views.

            Being open to different perspectives on vaccination was like a warm-up for being open to different Covid viewpoints. Dominant perspectives are presented by the World Health Organisation and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as well as by various governments and health authorities. The mainstream media mostly report the views of authorities. But then there are contrary views, some of them supported by a few doctors and researchers, readily available on social media. By subscribing to newsfeeds giving different perspectives, the volume of commentary soon becomes overwhelming. Even to try to understand the subtleties of a single issue, for example hydroxychloroquine, becomes a bottomless pit of claim and counter-claim.

Sometimes official recommendations change, for example on mask-wearing. That should encourage remaining open to different views, because you never know when a dissident view might suddenly become the orthodoxy. What I’ve learned through my studies of scientific controversies, though, is that many people, especially campaigners, adopt a view and stick with it regardless of new evidence.

            A neighbour told me that her young daughter was in hospital with a mysterious illness. It developed shortly after a routine childhood vaccination, but her doctors were adamant that the illness was not connected with vaccines. My neighbour wasn’t sure. I thought, how can the doctors be so sure? Why couldn’t they be open to the possibility, however slim, of an adverse reaction? Thankfully, her daughter recovered.

I’ve talked with colleagues who are passionately pro-vaccination and condemn anyone who is hesitant as misinformed or worse. These colleagues do not work in any field related to health, so I think, “How can they be so sure?” Are they confident because their view is the same as that of health authorities?

I’ve also talked with passionate critics of vaccination orthodoxy. Some of them have studied the issues extensively but others less so. How can they be so sure? Doesn’t anyone have doubts about what they believe?

            Trying to keep an open mind has been challenging, especially when talking with others who have strong views and think anyone who disagrees is foolish or even dangerous. It seems everyone has an opinion, even those who know little about the issues. Am I being foolish by trying to remain open to different ideas?

Some views seem so extreme or peculiar that I tend to dismiss them out of hand. Some of the claims in the “Plandemic” videos seem implausible to me. But I haven’t studied the topic in depth, so should I be confident about my judgement? Perhaps I can just ignore Plandemic claims, assigning them a tiny probability, at least until more people start taking them seriously.

            Ah, here’s a clue. When others take an idea seriously, it’s tempting to go along with them. This is influence via what is called social proof. Anyone trying to be a rigorous thinker presumably should be alert to this influence and attempt to counter it, or at least to examine the evidence used to support the idea. But this leads back to the beginning. It’s impossible to investigate all the evidence on all facets of Covid, or indeed any other controversial topic.

As I’ve persisted in trying to remain open about Covid issues, while still making decisions, I’ve noticed something else. On other issues, especially ones I haven’t studied in depth, I’m more likely to question my views. Will this lead to a state of precarious uncertainty? Or will it be a refreshing and invigorating alternative to the usual rush to judgement?

For helpful suggestions and thoughtful comments, thanks to Tonya Agostini, Paula Arvela, Kathy Flynn, Suzzanne Gray, Julia LeMonde, Monica O’Dwyer, Dalilah Shemia-Goeke, Jody Watts and Qinqing Xu.

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au