Veni, vidi, vaxi

As Thomas is making his usual round of introductions for this, the forty-ninth episode of the Small Data Forum podcast, he comments on Sam’s status as a published author. “Published author you too!” booms Sam, celebrating Thomas’ first-ever, peer-reviewed, academic article, written with his doctoral supervisor – and recent SDF interview guest – Darren Lilleker.

For at the very start of this month, the esteemed Journal of Public Affairs saw fit to publish “The challenges of providing certainty in the face of wicked problems: Analysing the UK government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic”, a very on-message, on-podcast, rather-more-academic-than-we-usually-are critical analysis of how the Johnson Junta has managed with the ‘wicked problem’ (technical term) of Covid.

Thomas summarises the arguments in the paper, of how Her Majesty’s Government’s response to the threat of the pandemic “has not been all that pretty”. After all the puffed-up, Cummings-laden rhetoric of the December 2019 election campaign which was supposed to be all about ‘getting Brexit done’ (“campaigning in poetry” to purloin Mario Cuomo’s phrase), Johnson’s cabinet of political pygmies has struggled to live up to the challenge of “governing in prose”.

Covid has made the landscape one of radical uncertainty, lurching from one set of Rumsfeldian unknown unknowns to the next. They got so much wrong – as we’ve pointed out repeatedly for the past 18 months – that Sam suggests the formula for getting it right would be to do the polar opposite of every approach they’ve taken.

He finds it surprising the one-time classicist Johnson – even at “such a crappy university as Oxford” – should not have studied Aristotle’s On the Art of Rhetoric, which sets out the three core components of a good speech: logos (words, argument – rationality), ethos (character), and pathos (emotion, suffering, humanity). Whip-smart, Thomas observes that flipper-flopper Johnson is more of an “arrogant hedgehog” sophist than any kind of philosopher king, citing the PM’s pro- and anti-Brexit articles which he allegedly decided between on a coin toss.

Outrage in the mainstream

Thomas is interested in the Twitter attacks made by Piers Morgan on gymnast Simone Biles – Moron twote how dare she “call herself the Greatest of All Time – but no GOAT would quit on their teammates like that, costing them an Olympic gold medal” – and Digby Jones on former footballer and BBC commentator, Alex Scott. With more than a hint of racism, sexism, and classism, the tweets attracted outrage on all sides. Thomas muses whether “arseholes have always existed” or if social media has brought more of them out of the woodwork.

Sam observes that he’s certain they’ve always been there, but posting thought crimes does two things. One, they leave a permanent trace – even if they’re deleted, they’re screenshotted. And two, their existence in Twitter feeds legitimises others to express the same, latent views, in person and online.

But it’s impossible to tell whether the opinions are felt and expressed more frequently than they were in – say – the 19th hole of many a golf club back last century. Or, indeed, the Bullingdon Club.

Neville notes that the original tweets receive relatively little – if splenetic – attention in their original social media environment. But that outrage lifts them from the Twittersphere into the mainstream media and amplifies their reach and significance, such that those who didn’t see them online do see them offline, with heavyweight then populist media becoming the vectors of transmission.

This has reached its nadir with the vitriol, hate, and death-threats directed at the Royal College of Midwives who recommended that pregnant women should take the Covid vaccine …

… which lifts the curtain, Wizard of Oz style, on the planning and forethought that goes into an episode of the Small Data Forum podcast, as we segue effortlessly to the topic that dominates episode 49: progress with the global Covid-19 vaccination programme.

Fueling anti vax

Sam is taken by a recent Channel 4 documentary, The Anti-Vax Conspiracy – still streaming on video-on-demand All-4. Among the confederacy of dunces on parade are former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s swivel-eyed brother, Piers, and disgraced-anti-academic-goat-serum-peddling fraud, Andrew Wakefield.

Wakefield will always be remembered for his fraudulent ‘n of 12’ Lancet paper that correlated MMR with autism and concluded causation. Before being struck off by the General Medical Council, Wakefield and his massively over-spun paper took UK vaccination levels of the MMR vaccine below the 85% herd immunity threshold among Britain’s children. It directly led to the first childhood deaths from measles in more than a generation.

For those who thought Wakefield’s being struck off by the GMC and effectively exiled to the USA meant the end of his nonsense, the Channel 4 documentary presents a rather different picture.

Floating around in white linen shirts and shacked up with anti-vaxxer Aussie former supermodel, Elle McPherson – I kid you not – Wakefield has attained godlike status Stateside. He is the crowned prince of the anti-vax movement and Covid has been the perfect (if tragic) accelerant for his toxic, fantasy views.

As the programme shows, he and his online and offline personal appearances and podcast and … and … and … are fuelling anti-vax sentiment and behaviour. This is particularly true in the US, but also in the UK and more broadly.

The US has a problem. Although 57% of the country’s adults have now received one shot and 49% two, take-up is slowing. Indeed, it’s grinding to a halt. Batches of vaccines are going out of date and being trashed. This threatens the ability for the country to achieve Covid herd immunity via vaccination in some and antibodies from infection in others (the sets overlap).

In low take-up areas, Covid is spreading quickly, and with 35,000-plus new infections a day in a country that’s radically scaled back its testing programme, lockdown measures are being reintroduced all across the States.

Jabs as an entry requirement in New York restaurants – with Manhattan one of the most pro-vax boroughs of any city – is just the tip of a very serious iceberg.

Resistance, anger, and influence

The SDF three discuss the reasons for vaccine resistance. On the one hand, we have ultra-right-wing libertarians-cum-conspiracy theorists, and on another we have a substantial body of the African-American community, many of whom understandably don’t trust the government when it comes to needles and state- or nation-led public health programmes. The shame and disgrace of the 40-year-long Tuskegee Syphilis Study lingers long in the memory.

Neville points to the justified anger of those who have been double-vaccinated but whose lives are suddenly being curtailed all over again – although nowhere near to the extent experienced in many other nations. It’s the land of the free, after all. This CNN piece makes the case well.

As reported in the FT recently, vaccines have made Covid considerably less lethal. As the chart from the paper below shows, a fully-vaccinated 80-year-old now has the same mortality risk as an unvaccinated 50-year-old. So surely – the rational argument goes – it’s a no-brainer to get vaccinated.

Neville goes on to focus on the approach taken by the Biden government in its attempts to persuade younger, sceptical vaccine resistors to do their bit for their community and nation and get vaccinated. The use of influencers and micro-influencers by the White House digital comms team is detailed in this interesting piece from the New York Times. Neville is convinced that this approach – recruiting and mobilising an eclectic army to target niche audiences with those they trust – is much more likely to work than the rational, mass-marketing approach taken so far.

Sam is on the fence and Thomas is more sceptical yet, but as the latter says, the proof will be in the pudding (or “in the pricking” as Sam suggests).

Where Sam does have some optimism is in the White House’s appreciation of the wisdom of Aristotle – there’s clear logos (rational argument) and pathos (use of emotion by the influencers in exhorting their followers to follow them and get vaccinated). What’s more, there’s also ethos – the appeal to the character of the speaker – because influencers are often trusted much more by their followers than mainstream media or political figures.

Thomas suggests something similar for Oprah’s recent video, designed to help overcome African-American vaccine scepticism. Few characters in media history have a stronger public ethos – more credibility of character – than Ms Winfrey.

After a more profound disagreement between Neville and Sam [on the likelihood of success, or originality; to Sam, it feels like Cameron’s Nudge Unit in action] than their relative positions probably merited, we end this episode by reflecting on the rhetoric of Digby Jones in his snobbish side-swipe against Alex Scott.

Thomas singles out the responses from football pundit Gary Neville and all-round polymath, Stephen Fry. Neville’s riposte was “Lord Digby Jones! Just say that name to yourself a few times! He has a say in how our country operates. I’m actually starting to see how revolutions occurred! Are you?”, while Fry came back with an equal moment of pure gold: “You are everything linguists and true lovers of language despise. Also, since we’re being picky, you are not “Lord Digby Jones”, you are  Digby, Lord Jones. There’s a world of difference. But however you’re titled, you disgrace the upper house with your misplaced snobbery.”

We kiss, make up, and gird our loins, ready for our first IRL podcast recording since 2019 for episode 50 – our very first half-century – in late September. Our regular ‘special’ haunt, Olivelli in the Cut in Waterloo, South London, beckons …

Listen to Episode 49:

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