Updated: Mar 8, 2022
"From My Cold, Dead, Unvaccinated Hands!"
(Paranoid Planet Podcast: Season 1, Episode 4.3, Chapter 1)
Charlton Heston: “From My Cold Dead Hands”
Have you counted how many different groups of people are angry these days? First there’s the anti-racist, anti-colonialist, gender-fluid cancel-culture brigades lined up on the left side of the political ring. Beside them stand the anti-corporate, anti-petroleum, anti-air-travel prophets of an impending climate apocalypse, seconded by every self-appointed victim of some intolerably intolerant micro-aggression.
If you turn your gaze to the right, you’ll find the anti-“woke”, anti-abortion, anti-assisted-dying crusade, who are sometimes hard to tell apart from the anti-deep state, anti-immigration, anti-liberal QAnon posse. And over there on the far right, you’ll see a small but very determined group of proto-fascist white nationalists, who pretty much set the gold standard of public outrage.
And don’t forget all those angry people at the fringes of the Western world----groups like the Islamic State and the Taliban----who have been angry for quite some time at all of us angry Westerners for constantly trying to turn their dysfunctional society into a mirror of our dysfunctional society. Remember them? Well, they’re back. And then of course there are these people:
Marjorie Taylor Greene on Dr. Tony Fauci:
“Trudeau hit by gravel”
“Coupe le cable!”
The first clip you just heard was American congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene invoking her right to bear arms to protest against vaccine mandates, followed by a recent Canadian news story about gravel-tossing libertarians doing something similar with some more primitive ammunition. That was followed by a crowd of Québécois protesters gathered outside their provincial legislature, railing against Covid-19 health restriction by inviting their hearers to “Coupe le cable!” (that is, to cut the cable of mainstream news media), proving once again that Americans do not hold a monopoly over anti-vaccine, anti-government, and anti-Big-Pharma sentiments.
We are now almost two years into this global health crisis, and it’s pretty clear that Covid-19 has made most of us go loopy, albeit for different reasons. While millions remain fearful of catching the virus—and of possibly dying of it—a sizeable minority has been far more afraid of the tactics used by government agencies to fight the spread of the virus, and of their ill effects on civil liberties, standards of living, job prospects, small businesses, personal nest eggs, mental health problems, and democracy in general. These real problems have further given rise to widespread fears that compulsory vaccine mandates and vaccine passports, the obligation to wear masks, and other ongoing health restrictions are in fact more dangerous than the virus from which they are meant to protect us. The growing influence and wealth of large media and pharmaceutical corporations has further eroded public trust in those who proclaim to be on the side of science and well-being.
As Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau hit the campaign trail in August 2021, for an election that ended up looking like an expensive and pointless sequel to the film Groundhog Day, he was met on several occasions by crowds of angry, unmasked, obscenity-shouting, middle-finger-waving activists—many of them women with small children and disgruntled health-care workers—who railed against social distancing rules, vaccine mandates and travel restrictions, calling for Trudeau to be arrested for treason. They also protested in front of schools, hospitals, and other public institutions across the country, feeding a brief spike of support for the otherwise invisible People’s Party of Canada, a small libertarian political party with no parliamentary representation.
Although angry protests have always been part of the Canadian political landscape, they rarely elicit violence and injury. But divisive populist politics are on the rise across the world, and Canada is no exception. A new low was reached when protesters pelted the Prime Minister with rocks at one event, forcing him to cancel subsequent rallies. While I in no way look kindly on this kind of behaviour, it probably didn’t help the Prime Minister’s cause when he publicly called these people “deplorable enemies of society”, ignoring many opinion polls that showed that a growing number of Canadians felt overwhelmed by unending restrictive health measures—and this in one of the most highly vaccinated countries in the world—and that nearly 40% of Canadian parents were uncomfortable with having to vaccinate their children and teenagers against a disease that, so far, had not significantly threatened this age group.
As Law and Psychology professor Richard Redding reports, the major reasons given by opponents of covid vaccines are “that  the vaccine is experimental and thus [too] risky to take, [2, that it] is making people sick or may have long-term health effects, [3, that it] is unnecessary because they won’t get seriously ill from COVID, or [4, that it] is ineffective because some people who got the jab are catching COVID anyway. […] Some [also] insist that they don’t need the vaccine because God will protect them, or that their health is assured so long as they avoid ‘unnatural’ substances (such as vaccines).” A few even claim that covid vaccines contain tracking microchips, or that vaccines are a money-making racket by Big Pharmaceutical companies who don’t want us to know that cheaper natural remedies exist and that they work just as well or better than vaccines.
Many of the arguments offered by vaccine resisters are based on cherry-picked evidence. Others are completely outlandish. But their determination to stick to their guns (no pun intended) is not surprising to those who have carefully studied this movement. Redding explains that:
“most COVID refuseniks [his word, not mine] were suspicious of the vaccines even before any data was available […] For many, flouting public-health advice became a point of pride—[a way to] invest their sense of self in their political beliefs. […] And so they were motivated to adopt an understanding of the pandemic’s risk level that didn’t require them to accede to policies inconsistent with their political preferences. […] When people refuse to change their minds, even in the face of overwhelming evidence, they usually are exhibiting what psychologists call ‘motivated reasoning,’ typically on an unconscious level. They begin with a preconceived view […] and are motivated to adopt forms of reasoning that reinforce their existing view and thereby pre-empt cognitive dissonance [—the realization that they hold inconsistent beliefs]. This is part of the well-observed psychological phenomenon by which we all exhibit bias toward any theory or information source that confirms our beliefs, while finding pretexts to discount […] evidence that challenge[s] those beliefs.”
This type of rationalization is common, especially among those who mistrust the government, the health care system or major media, and who are often drawn to conspiracy theories. But unlike most conspiracy-minded movements, which typically appeal to just one side of the political spectrum, this movement has supporters on both sides, including left-wing proponents of alternative medicine and eastern spirituality, and conservative libertarians and born-again Christians, voter constituencies who share little in common except for their feelings of being excluded by mainstream media, major political parties, and academia. Though the media often describes them as white, conservative, and anti-science, this movement is pretty heterogeneous, drawing supporters from both sexes and multiple age and race categories spread out across varying levels of income and education. But it’s hard to assess the exact size and consistency of this movement as its supporters tend to avoid mainstream news media and public opinion polls.
According to addiction specialist Dr. Gabor Maté, opposition to covid vaccines and other health restrictions is fueled by feelings of being ostracized by the dominant culture. Maté told the CBC: “I believe that the sources of that rage and fear and distrust is actual trauma […] We're looking at a lot of traumatized people who are finding a political outlet for their mistrust and anger. It's nothing to do with the issue itself, it has to do with the issue acting as a flash point for their own unresolved traumatic imprints.” According to sociologist Zeynep Tüfekçi, covid vaccine hesitancy has also been fueled by feelings of being overwhelmed by conflicting information, some of which is the fruit of malicious disinformation, but also of medical authorities producing inconsistent messages. All this leads to greater suspicion and complacency rather than strict denialism. Richard Redding adds that belonging to a like-minded group of resisters can give vulnerable people a sense of regaining power, a feeling that they are taking charge of their uncertain destiny by asserting themselves against those they perceive as enemies. He writes:
“In the United States, the most vaccine-skeptical demographics include the rural working class and evangelicals without a college degree. Many members of these groups have been left behind economically, and feel alienated culturally and politically. Resisting the vaccine can give them a sense of agency, control, and even dignity, as it’s one of the few things they can do to assert their autonomy in a way that the wider society will actively observe. The fact that their vaccine aversion is a source of anger and frustration among the rest of the country is actually a plus: These negative responses constitute evidence that they are being noticed by the elites; that what they do matters. [This is sometimes called] secondary gain—the benefit people derive when they act against self-interest in a way that satisfies some deeply felt psychological need.”
And so, if all this is true, how should vaccine promoters respond? First there is what I call the “hard-boiled approach” to vaccine hesitancy. Some of these authors argue that vaccine hesitancy is essentially a problem of misinformation, disinformation, and willful ignorance. Dr. Paul Offit, along with science writers like Seth Mnookin, Lee McIntyre, and my friend Michael Shermer, remind us that getting fully vaccinated is the best available protection against Covid-19 and other viruses like measles, pertussis, and polio. Such authors take a hard stance against those who highlight the occasional and often minimal adverse reactions caused by vaccines, putting themselves, their children, and countless others at risk by refusing to get inoculated. These authors’ main tactics are to clobber their readers with extensive statistics about the mathematical unlikelihood that they or their children would suffer a serious reaction from a vaccine—lower than their chances of dying in a car crash, a plane crash, or a tornado—and to shame them with dozens of examples of people who suffered and died—especially children—because of vaccine hesitancy. They vilify conspiracy entrepreneurs like Marjorie Taylor Greene, Judy Mikovitz, Robert Kennedy Jr., Jenny McCarthy, and Andrew Wakefield, who spread vaccine misinformation like the yeast of the Pharisees. And on all these counts they are usually right. But this approach doesn’t have much of an impact in winning the hearts and minds of vaccine resisters. Indeed, they often cause the vaccine hesitant to dig in their heels and dismiss such authors as propagandists for a deep state or greedy corporations. They also don’t offer practical solutions to allay the fears of vaccine refusers.
Dr. Offitt’s book Deadly Choices, for instance, calls on vaccine resisters to put aside their cynicism, to trust those who know best (in other words, scientists like him), and to see themselves as part of a unified effort to root out a common enemy—just as Americans did after 9/11. What Offitt misses is that it was this sort of blind trust in government and mainstream news media that made it easier for the George W. Bush administration to invade Iraq promoting false evidence about weapons of mass destruction. When one looks back on the high human and financial costs of that war, provoking the rise of ISIS and neglecting its obligations towards Afghanistan (where the Taliban have recently returned to power), one can be forgiven for being a tad skeptical of Dr. Offitt’s admonition.
Seth Mnookin’s The Panic Virus is highly critical of the media, chastising them for giving attention to pseudoscientific theories about the dangers of vaccines—namely that some of them cause autism—without careful investigation and criticism. He may be right on that point, but then, this is exactly what anti-vaccine protesters say of the media also, except that they blame the media for not being critical enough of mainstream values and of governmental health directives, and for stereotyping them as a caste of gullible luddites.
Lee McIntyre, author of The Scientific Attitude, accuses vaccine-resisters of being dangerous and irrational science denialists and ideologues. While that may be true of some vaccine resisters, much of the literature I surveyed shows many vaccine resisters having heartfelt and thoughtful misgivings about standard medical practices and technologies. It would be wiser for authors like this not to dismiss hundreds of thousands of people with condescending stereotypes, and to consider some of their complex and less sensationalistic concerns. McIntyre also conflates the scientific method—which is based on objective measurements and testable hypotheses—with the value judgments of a majority of scientists—judgments which are frequently shaped by subjective moral standards and the dominant worldview, not just empirical facts. Indeed, many philosophers of science would be quick to point out that the reigning consensus of scientists, though based on rigorous research standards, is rarely devoid of all cultural bias—especially when it comes to the question of how much individual freedom our society should sacrifice in the pursuit of pleasure and safety for the greatest number.
Then there is what I call the “soft-boiled approach” to vaccine hesitancy. The lack of success of hard-boiled pro-vaxxism to change the minds of vaccine resisters has led other pro-vaccine authors to be more conciliatory, for instance by suggesting that a campaign against vaccine hesitancy should take the form of a cross-cultural dialogue not a patronizing lecture, and should examine this movement’s feelings of victimhood and persecution, its mistrust of the political class and scientific elites, its disaffection towards impersonal and profit-driven systems of modern medicine, and the causes of its alienation from mainstream culture.
Such authors include academics and science authors like Bernice Hausmann, Gabor Maté, Conrad Brunk, and Paul Bramadat, who, judging that coercion reinforces resentment and resistance, highlight the complex social, cultural, and epistemic reasons that produce mistrust of vaccine science.
The solution, argues Dr. Maté, is “to be respectful, truthful and compassionate, and to give the person who feels victimized the chance to change their mind when they are ready to do so. As with smoking or drugs, […] the best path is to inform and to respect freedom of choice, even when that seems to run against our best intentions to fix the problem quickly through force.”
In her book Anti-Vax, Professor Bernice Hausman, reminds us that there is no single cause of vaccine hesitancy, and that many who are hesitant do so for reasons other than scientific denialism. Ironically, many of these reasons relate to issues of bodily autonomy, family autonomy, and freedom of choice, much like the ones given by sane and respected pro-choice advocates in matters of abortion, assisted suicide, natural birth, homeschooling, or genetically-modified organisms. There is also the unfortunate medical paradox that it is harder for the layperson to perceive the overwhelming success of vaccines—because there is nothing specific to see in a population that is not sick—against the small number of highly visible complications caused by those same vaccines, making them appear more dangerous than the illnesses they prevent us from catching. Hence, Hausman tells us, the crux of the problem boils down to the disparate levels of threat perception experienced by different persons and communities. “Everyone would do well to take vaccination controversy seriously,” she writes, “not necessarily as evidence of vaccine skeptics’ claims, but as evidence of deeper and wider disgruntlement with cultural assumptions about technoscientific advancement, triumph over infectious diseases, and other myriad accomplishments of biomedicine. […] Doubling down on the side of science does not address—or even acknowledge—the beliefs and concerns of those who question the triumphal vaccine narrative […]. Promoting science and its data in favor of vaccination does not create trusting vaccinators out of skeptics.” What we need to do, she concludes, is to reframe the vaccine debate not as a showdown between science and anti-science, but as an evolving exchange between differing perceptions, values, and worldviews.
As a teacher of critical thinking and now a novice vaccine researcher, I disagree with most of the reasons offered by vaccine resisters, either because they are based on poor logic, cherry-picked evidence, rhetorical questions, or emotional reasoning. But I have to admit that, having spent the last six months listening to them and reading about them, I have grown sympathetic with their frustrations. Not only have many suffered in unanticipated ways from government health restrictions—from losing jobs to feeling ignored, isolated, and coerced—there are also a number of psychological reasons that make their frustrations understandable.
First of all, the whole practice of vaccinations has always been counterintuitive. For thousands of years, the practice of medicine has entailed first getting sick and then seeking the help of a physician who prescribes a treatment to get better. Vaccines are among the only medical treatments that patients are urged to undergo when they are not sick and feeling fine. It is no wonder that vaccine hesitancy is as old as vaccination itself: it takes an act of will and of trust to follow a medical treatment when one feels fine.
Secondly, most legislators, health experts, and science journalists do not calculate risk the same way the average layperson does. When looking at samples of millions of people at once, it is true that, statistically speaking, the risks of suffering a vaccine complication are infinitely small, far smaller than those of catching covid and possibly dying from it. This is what we might call epistemic probability. But when we look at the finer details, we see that different persons and groups are at different levels of risk depending on multiple variables like age, body mass, lifestyle, gender, occupation, cultural practices, and the population density of where they live—variables that make calculations far too complex for legislators to consider when drawing up standardized health measures. Indeed, each of us have very different levels of risk of infection, as well as chances of making a quick and full recovery. Unsurprisingly, the way most of us calculate risk is not by comparing ourselves to the national average—which in many ways is meaningless—but by "guesstimating" our chances of safety and harm based on local and personal factors, our prior health history, and the experience of people we trust. Hence, we generally weigh risks not epistemically, but existentially, which is to say that for most of us there really are only two possible outcomes: either we win or we lose, and the probability of each being true largely depends on our level of confidence in one versus another choice, not on the overall probability that we won’t be the schmuck who is left holding the bag—or in this case, the adverse vaccine reaction. And this is the case every time we take a risk based in uncertainty, whether we get vaccinated, take a long drive down the highway, step foot in an airplane, go swim in the ocean, or pet a strange dog.
Finally, and this may not be a problem with vaccines per se but with the impersonal and anti-social nature of modern medical care, including public health measures that increase social isolation and de-personalize human interaction with masks, plexiglass barriers, online conferencing tools, voice-recognition software, and other antisocial filters that have metastasized to every part of our lives. Humans are made to interact through face-to-face encounters. It is how we learn, how we make real friends, how we feel valued, how we are nurtured and nurture others, and even how we make babies. If, as French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas argued, the eyes are the windows to the soul, then the rest of the face must surely be its front porch. Hiding our faces and interacting through screens, not because we choose to but because we are compelled to, robs us of the intimacy we desire and need as social animals. As Richard Redding argued:
“Unconscious motives and defenses are a tough nut to crack, even for trained psychologists. In the case of vaccine skeptics, the best we can do in the short term is to simply avoid exacerbating the anomie and sense of persecution that originally gave rise to the unmet psychological needs at play—needs that are so strong that they cause refuseniks to risk their own health. And we should remember, too, that we all hunger for dignity, self-respect, and a sense of control over our lives. Even as we acknowledge that vaccine refuseniks are making the wrong choice, we should try, in good faith, to understand why they’re making it.”
Michel J. Gagné, 2021.
 Chris Selley: “Anti-Trudeau protests are ugly, but hardly surprising or unprecedented,” The National Post, 2/9/21.  Richard Redding: “Understanding the Motivated Reasoning of Anti-Vax Refuseniks,” Quillette, 15 Sept. 2021  Redding: “Understanding…”  Mathieu Gobeil: “Les opposants aux mesures sanitaires influenceront-ils le résultat des élections?” Radio-Canada Info, September 13, 2021; Tyler Dawson and Sharon Kirkey: “Who are the anti-vaxxers? Here's what we know—and how they got there in the first place,” The National Post, March 27, 2019; Zeynep Tüfekçi: “The Unvaccinated May Not Be Who You Think,” The New York Times, Oct. 15, 2021.  Cathy Kearney: “Anti-vaccine protests are fueled by distrust, unresolved trauma, addictions expert says,” CBC News, September 11, 2021.  Tüfekçi: “The Unvaccinated May Not Be Who You Think”; “A Conversation With Zeynep Tüfekçi,” Brown School of Public Health, Sept. 22, 2021, YouTube.  Redding: “Understanding…”  Offit: Deadly Choices, 206, 214.  Mnookin: The Panic Virus, cited in Hauser, 58-66.  McIntyre: The Scientific Attitude, 149-50.  Kearney: “Anti-vaccine protests…”  Hausman: Anti/Vax, 9.  Hausman, 10.  Hausman, 15, 212, 217.  Emmanuel Levinas,cited in CBC Ideas, sept.6,2021:)  Redding: “Understanding…”
Readings and videos related to episode 4.3:
1. Chris Selley: “Anti-Trudeau protests are ugly, but hardly surprising or unprecedented,” The National Post, September 2, 2021.
2. “Trudeau hit by gravel at heated protest during Ontario campaign stop,” CBC News, September 7, 2021.
3. Simon Coutu, Daniel Martineau: Convictions podcast, Season 1 (six episodes), Radio-Canada, 2021. (in French)
4. Steeve L'Artiss Charland & ses Farfadaas : “Coupe le cable!” (music video).
5. Cathy Kearney: “Anti-vaccine protests are fueled by distrust, unresolved trauma, addictions expert says,” CBC News, September 11, 2021.
6. Mathieu Gobeil: “Les opposants aux mesures sanitaires influenceront-ils le résultat des élections?” Radio-Canada Info, September 13, 2021.
7. Matt Gurney: “We know who the PPC voters are. Here's what they believe,” The Line, September 15, 2021.
8. Richard Redding: “Understanding the Motivated Reasoning of Anti-Vax Refuseniks,” Quillette, September 15, 2021.
9. Lucy McBride: “Fear of COVID-19 in Kids Is Getting Ahead of the Data,” The Atlantic, August 13, 2021.
10. Tyler Dawson and Sharon Kirkey: “Who are the anti-vaxxers? Here's what we know — and how they got there in the first place,” The National Post, March 27, 2019.
11. Zeynep Tufekci: “The Unvaccinated May Not Be Who You Think,” The New York Times, Oct. 15, 2021.
12. Paul Offit: Deadly Choices: How the Anti-Vaccine Movement Threatens Us All. Basic Books, 2011.
13. Seth Mnookin: The Panic Virus: The True Story Behind the Vaccine-Autism Controversy. Simon & Schuster, 2012.
14. Michael Shermer: “Vexed by the Un-Vaxxed,” Quillette, August 14, 2021.
15. Lee McIntyre: The Scientific Attitude: Defending Science from Denial, Fraud, and Pseudoscience. MIT Press, 2019.
16. Bernice L. Hausman: Anti/Vax: Reframing the Vaccination Controversy. Cornell University Press, 2019.
17. Tish Davidson: The Vaccine Debate, Greenwood Press, 2019.
18. Paul Bramadat, et al.: Public Health in the Age of Anxiety: Religious and Cultural Roots of Vaccine Hesitancy in Canada. University of Toronto Press, 2017.
19. Paul Bramadat, Benjamin L. Berger, & Noni MacDonald: “COVID 19 Vaccine: Religion, Trust and Vaccine Acceptance,” Globe and Mail, Feb 5, 2021.
20. Joe Rogan: Interview with Dr. Sanjay Gupta, The Joe Rogan Experience (podcast), Episode #1718, October 13, 2021, Spotify.
21. David McRaney: “How to improve your chances of nudging the vaccine hesitant away from hesitancy and toward vaccination,” You Are Not So Smart (podcast), Episode #213, August 23, 2021.