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Why We Drive: Toward a Philosophy of the Open Road (Matthew B. Crawford)

Philosopher Matthew Crawford’s third book is ostensibly a book about driving, but as with all Crawford’s works, that is merely the jumping-off point. Crawford expands our minds by exploring a range of related ideas, usually through concretizing abstractions, tying them to work done by real people in the real world. Why We Drive uses this structure, as did his first two books, Shop Class as Soulcraft and The World Beyond Your Head. Such writing is not for everyone; the payoff can take some time to arrive. But it’s worth the modest effort required, and offers insights into critical modern problems, most of all the pernicious vice of safetyism.

Why We Drive revolves around what driving tells us about human capabilities and limitations. Crawford, as a philosopher, is very, very interested in human capacities, and how modernity affects such capacities, in particular how it often limits, or even cripples, them when appearing to enhance them. All of his published thought revolves ultimately around the creation of agency through learned skill, and of its erosion in modern life, “a creeping colonization of the space for skilled human activity.” This is not a discussion about economic efficiency or productivity, however. Rather, Crawford talks a great deal of man’s quest internally for meaning, and externally for status and honor, both earned through the works of his own hands. The focus is the individual—but through the individual, society as a whole. So why do we drive? The question implies we drive for reasons other than to get somewhere. We drive because driving, like other learned skills, satisfies crucial human needs. In doing so, it improves us in a wide range of ways, many not obvious. And taking driving away from us is therefore a problem.

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The backbone of this book is a view of driving machines as “a kind of prosthetic that amplifies our embodied capacities.” Crawford begins by explaining how we got to the present time, when self-driving cars, which we by definition do not drive, are imminent. (We can ignore that I, at least, am very certain self-driving cars will never actually arrive.) Crawford considers the history of cars in urban life, good and bad (citing Jane Jacobs’ plus/minus thoughts on cars), noting that the prevalence of cars was a deliberate choice by central authorities. Who are today’s central authorities for most purposes? Our tech overlords. What do they want? Self-driving cars. Why? So we can be more creative in our increased free time, as they say? No. “Self-driving cars must be understood as one more escalation in the war to claim and monetize every moment of life that might otherwise offer a bit of private head space.” Driverless cars are not driven by consumer demand; they are “a top-down project that has to be sold to the public.” Inevitability is asserted by the Narrative and all must bow; you will be required to use a driverless car, the infrastructure and technology of which will not be held in common, but owned by our tech overlords, walled off in secret vaults for their benefit, not ours. And this will come with many, and massive, hidden costs.

One of the charms of Crawford’s books is how he prevents reader fatigue at philosophy by frequently turning to stories that are concrete, interesting, and relevant. For example, he recounts a story of his broken-down Jeep failing in rural California, sometime in the 1980s. Later in the book we get a lengthy discussion of metalworking in the context of rebuilding a Volkswagen to be something more than a Volkswagen. Crawford warns this discussion is not for everyone (though with my interest in metalworking, I found it fascinating), but “To go deep into any technical field is to make progress in independence of mind, and feel a freedom to maneuver that grows in proportion with one’s powers.” This focus on “one’s powers” is perhaps the overriding theme of all Crawford’s work.

In the 1980s, he was young, and he was learning about physical things in the world, engaging with his Jeep, which was somewhat of a Frankenstein’s monster he had himself built, which he understood at a visceral level. Such engagement is rare in modern cars, where what the drivers sees and feels is a mediated representation, not (for the most part) the physical reality of the car. New cars today are largely disengaged, disintermediated—paradoxically, whereas in older cars, the car becomes an extension of the body, “a transparent two-way conduit of information and intention,” modern technology makes this impossible, making the car even more apparent to the driver, rather than less apparent, when it relieves the driver of tasks. But excessive disengagement not only reduces the ability to learn and improve; it also erodes psychological resilience, in cars and in anything else that can be a learned skill, and may in fact be responsible for increases in depression and anxiety, by breaking the connection between effort and consequence. No mental engagement means limited flourishing. Driverless cars are thus even worse than merely modern cars. They are billed as convenient and safe; maybe they are (and maybe not) but they have deleterious consequences.

The problem isn’t just the control on our lives exerted by Elon Musk’s machines, much more so it is the passivity created by any substantial automation. Specifically, Crawford talks about Audis; I drive an A7, and although I am not a “car guy,” and rarely if ever use the vehicle’s capabilities, I can see what he means. (I also learned that “Nardo Grey” is a paint, a matte non-metallic light grey, used by Audi on their high-end models. I need to get that paint on my next car to look cool.) All driving becomes analogous to the “created experiences” without agency that pass for most entertainment. “The pleasure of driving is the pleasure of doing something; of being actively and skillfully engaged with a reality that pushes back against us.” This is vanishing in today’s world, not just in cars, but everywhere. We are not becoming sexy, creative individuals writing poetry in our self-driving cars; we are becoming the fat people on floating automated scooters from the movie WALL-E.

Crawford then shifts somewhat, to the “spirit of play.” Here he talks a good deal about Johan Huizenga, who wrote a classic study of “the play element in culture,” Homo Ludens. Play is hostility mixed with friendship, part of the “human need to fight,” and this has been found in every human culture. But in ours, it is disfavored. “[I]t expresses a part of the soul that sits uncomfortably with the contemporary taste for order, and is therefore subject to censure as irresponsible (on safety grounds) or, because it is competitive, as a threat to the ethic of equal esteem.” Everyday driving is (except for road rage) not part of this type of play, for the most part, but driving machines are often used in this type of play, in various forms of racing and in other competitive activities that revolve around driving, such as car modification.

This introduces Crawford’s highly negative thoughts on safetyism. Safetyism has received a fair bit of ridicule as it has inexorably heightened over the past thirty years, but it has always seemed more silly than pernicious, a matter of removing the jungle gyms so little Johnny doesn’t cry when he scrapes his knee. That was a wrong judgment, as we have seen in the incredibly destructive, unhinged, hysterical reactions to the Wuhan Plague, the logical end result, or perhaps only intermediate result, of unbridled safetyism. Crawford wrote before the Plague, so it is absent here, but much of what he says is exemplified by what has happened in our country in the past six months.

Crawford points out that safetyism is primarily a symptom of declining societal trust. “Rules become more necessary as trust and solidarity decline in society. And reciprocally, the proliferation of rules, and the disposition of rule following that they encourage, further erode our readiness to extend to our fellow citizens a presumption of competence and good will.” Self-governance of a polity is rooted in activities that demand cooperation not mediated by government action. Driving is precisely such an activity, though only one of many. Automation is a response to lack of trust—if we cannot trust each other on the road, automation will fill the gap. Yet automation itself increases lack of trust in other drivers; each driver becomes “spiritless” and less capable (a problem also found in automated airplane cockpits), especially in an emergency, when trust in others needs to be at a maximum. We become incompetent as a result. Thus, we hand over our agency, our human capacities, to those who make the rules, the lords of tech or the state, which are increasingly the same thing. And they take action to keep us safe, since we are no longer capable of cooperating to balance safety with other needs. This process has no logical end.

Not just activity, but the rules themselves, are automated in the name of safety. “Left to its own internal logic, the regime of public safety must find ways to justify its own growing payroll, and its colonization of ever more domains of life. This can always be accomplished through further infantilization of its clients; under the banner of good democratic values.” The result is very bad. “Infrastructure predicted on too rigid an ideal of control fails to accommodate the exercise of our human capacities, or to exploit the social efficiencies they offer, leading instead to the atrophy of the human.” This is true for automated cars; it is also true for society as a whole, Crawford says, citing James C. Scott’s Seeing Like A State. Shared norms, on the other hand, such as those developed during driving, create trust and allow mutual prediction of others’ action (which is why diversity is not our strength, totally aside from driving, and Crawford cites Robert Putnam’s study proving this obvious truth). They are the solution; we should go back to them. Organic growth, whether of towns or driving, may look disordered, but it is resilient and far more efficient than it appears to outsiders. We give up the common law, which provided legitimacy, and we allow it to be replaced by rules issued by faceless men, or by computers, based on opaque Big Data, which we must not question, because the experts tell us this is the Right Thing To Do.

Pushing back against this is very difficult (particularly, though Crawford does not say so, in a social media-dominated environment filled with shrieking Karens), and safetyism is then used by people for their own purposes, large and small. “Those who invoke safety enjoy a nearly nonrebuttable presumption of public-spiritedness, so a stated concern for safety becomes a curtain behind which various entities can collect rents from perfectly reasonable behavior.” Crawford’s focus is on speed cameras and the like, but the preening self-regard earned by those demanding safety is a much broader phenomenon (yesterday, in my semi-rural area, a woman posted on Nextdoor congratulations to two small boys riding their bikes wearing masks, “for keeping us all safe,” causing me to vomit all over the screen). This is not only dumb, but “[T]he pursuit of risk reduction tends to create a society based on an unrealistically low view of human capacities,” which frequently exacerbates the very problems safetyism supposedly is meant to solve. With respect to cars, while some safety devices such as traction control no doubt save lives, drivers in modern cars lose embodied cognition, making driver incompetence, and thus ever-increasing reliance on semi-automated systems, a self-fulfilling prophecy—thereby decreasing safety. Thus, any driverless car that is only semi-automated may increase, rather than reduce, danger—especially with the herd mentality in favor of such cars, which has led to manipulation of data that understates their risks. Yet “the logic of automation is joined, in the public mind, to the moral logic of safety, which similarly admits no limit to its expansion.”

Crawford never comes out and says it exactly, but safetyism is tied to a society excessively skewed toward the feminine. With all of Crawford’s books, men are the focus, something he does not specifically advert to, but which is entirely obvious. Nearly all his discussion, both practical and philosophical, revolves around primarily male talents, traits, and interests: risk, justification through endeavor, competition, combat, the desire to feel fear and overcome it, the creation of things with one’s hands. As far as safetyism being the feminization of society, this comes through in Crawford’s talk about play, which in the sense Crawford discusses it means societally-organized and recognized competition. Crawford notes that for the player, almost always distinction is the goal, not domination. “[I]t is the aspect of the contest, the thirst for distinction, that Huizenga identifies as the crucial, civilizing element of play.” This thirst is an essential building block of society; Crawford cites Huizenga for the proposition that “The contest for honor gives rise to deference and trust among players,” in part because “[u]nlike the simple lust for power, [games] require that participants recognize the legitimacy of standards that aren’t simply emanations of their own will.”

But the quest for honor and distinction is far more a male instinct than a female instinct; thus men are the crucial players, and a society run wholly by women would entirely lack both this quest and its benefits. Why a particularly defective brand of feminine thought, of ways of feminine thinking, has come to dominate the ruling classes of the West is a topic for another time (soon!), but one symptom of this disease is that competitive play is today strongly discouraged by those who rule society. Sometimes this is demanded obliquely, under the guise of increased safety (for the children!), but now is often demanded openly, to end “toxic masculinity,” meaning all masculinity. The result of eliminating competitive play is therefore feminization, but not one where the feminine virtues are amplified—rather one where equal esteem is forced through eliminating the quest for honor, thereby harming society, and most of all eroding trust, without any benefit. Crawford says forbidding competitive games leads to infantilism, to a failure to understand reality and its limitations, which “guarantees arrested development on a mass scale.” Games, especially risky games, build societies and civilizations. Lack of games, the reverse. Moreover, when equal esteem is forced, people become easier to control—which is why those in charge of our schools hate and fear traditional competitive games. They want feminine-type compliance and agreeableness, little boys marching quietly in a line.

There are some places where this is still not true, and Crawford goes out to find them, going to a rural Virginia dirt bike race. It’s the essence of masculine competition. Yet there are several women dirt bike racers, who compete, unremarked and unheralded. These women aren’t trying to be men, the new feminine ideal seen in movies and media everywhere. They enjoy competing, although they are probably not getting the exact same thing out of it that men are—but the human need to for exercising skills is universal, and that’s what driving provides, to both men and women, even if it provides something additional for men. Strong women in reality neither need nor want weak men, nor are they simply carbon copies of men, nor does the lying propaganda about “fierce girls” benefit girls, or women, at all, because it denies reality. Crawford notes that these Virginia women expect their men to be men, and act like it. He contrasts sex relations in Virginia to those at an adult soapbox derby he attends in Portland, where emasculated men defer to women who signal an artificial and farcical fierceness, wearing “costumes of empowerment.” In Virginia, there is instead an “unforced ease of gender relations.” Crawford even, in a very un-politically correct manner, notes that the sex relations in Portland reminded him of pre-Revolutionary France, of a “society that was about to collapse.”

Outside the professional-managerial elite, whose nasty habits are too often viewed as normative, it may be that patriarchy is still the norm. “Yet such patriarchy, if that is what it is, appears quite compatible with cocksure women who seem to have no problem controlling their men—if necessary, by berating them to ‘man up.’ ” It’s a myth, one cherished by the elite, that in the lower classes women are subordinated. Rather, the lower classes still maintain what the elites have lost—the idea of men and women as partners, improving each other in part by demanding excellence of each other, that the other reach what he or she is capable of, in his or her talents and fitting the nature of each’s sex. In such a society, safetyism could never become dominant, and we could have taken a measured, non-destructive, sensible approach to mitigating the Wuhan Plague. Maybe we should replace Congress with a random sampling of Virginia dirt bike racers.

Still, this is not a political book, even if it’s evident that Crawford, firmly rooted in realism, leans right (anyone who cites Michael Oakeshott frequently is unlikely to be Left). But I think the very core of all Crawford’s work is seeking how to enhance each person as someone embedded in society. This is directly related to my main philosophical target, the destructive Enlightenment project of ever-greater atomized individualism. So under Foundationalism, I have decided, Crawford is going to be court philosopher, if he’ll take the job. It’ll be well-paid, and more importantly, have honors and distinction!

Finally, I note that Why We Drive, without intending to, evokes many of the resonant themes of the fermenting Right, as it supersedes the dying catamite pseudo-Right of Jonah Goldberg, Jeb Bush, National Review, and the Heritage Foundation. In fact, embedded in much of this book is a focus on what is lumped under the name vitalism, a common discussion point today among the vibrant Right. Tellingly, Crawford cites Nietzsche, that “joy is the feeling of one’s powers increasing,” the same sentiment that dominates Bronze Age Mindset. I doubt if Crawford has ever heard of Bronze Age Pervert, but this convergence on certain ideas by those with fresh, interesting thoughts means something. What, exactly, I do not know.

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23 Comments

  1. Carlos Danger says

    What a coincidence!

    We got a patent on one part of our car technology just two weeks ago, and another patent (on computer-driven cars) publishes in two weeks. By using abstractions and information hiding, our technology divorces the driver from the mechanics of the car to a large extent, and that’s a worry that Matthew Crawford’s two earlier books had alerted me to.

    With our patents finally issued, we want to push forward with our car technology. So I was re-reading just now some parts of The World Beyond Your Head to try to get a better handle on how, or even if, we could work around this problem.

    Then I saw your review of this new book by Matthew Crawford on exactly this topic. I had no idea he had even written a new book, let alone one that focuses on driving cars, by humans or computers. What luck! The book will be very useful.

    Many thanks for your (as always helpful) review.

  2. Eugene says

    Thanks for this review!

    I am glad you’ve evoked the role of safetyism in the misguided, irrational, and largely emotional response to COVID, and I am also glad you’ve mentioned the feminization of society as a factor in the rise of safety culture, the criticism of which is bound to trigger misplaced and unjust accusations of misogyny, sexism, and – sure enough – “toxic masculinity”.

  3. Carlos Danger says

    A delightful thing happened as I was finishing this book. The postscript of the book is called “The Road to La Honda”, and the last paragraph talks about an epiphany the author Matthew Crawford felt as he steered his motorcycle on “the road to La Honda from Alice’s Restaurant”.

    As I read those words at home today, my son was out driving his motorcycle over that same road (though possibly by then he was already on to San Gregorio or even from there on the way to Santa Cruz). It’s probably his favorite drive, and he goes there fairly often. Still, the timing was remarkably coincident.

    As I noted in my previous comment, the book was a godsend as I have been puzzling over an issue. Not one of the more philosophical issues. (I think the British subtitle of this book — “On freedom, risk and taking back control” — sets out those philosophical issues better than the amorphous subtitle in America — “Toward a philosophy of the open road”.) But a practical issue.

    One practical issue Matthew Crawford raises is that something is lost when you divorce a driver from both the workings of the car and input from the road. That’s very true.

    Trouble is, with the modular car architecture we are working on that’s exactly what we do. Input from the driver comes as abstractions, commands of speed and direction. Then we translate those abstract commands into specific commands to the brakes, steering and powertrain of the car.

    Our approach uses what we call a car operating system (just patented six weeks ago), which is like a computer operating system. The user of a computer doesn’t have any connection to the nuts and bolts of the computer. He or she just deals with abstract commands using a graphical user interface. We do the same thing with a car.

    Our approach will work well as (if?) computer drivers do more of the driving. In our architecture the computer driver is not built into the car. No “driverless cars” for us. The car and driver remain separate and distinct. That makes it easy to switch between human and computer drivers, as needed, even on the fly. (We got a patent on a car-driver interface just this last week.)

    I think we’ll be able to use our architecture and still avoid (for the most part, at least) the practical issue that Matthew Crawford warns of. But maybe not. It is a danger. I will have to think more about this. I am still puzzling.

    • Charles says

      Fascinating. Glad the book turned out helpful! Aside from the ability to switch between human and computer as driver, why is it useful to allow the human driver to “deal with abstract commands” using a GUI, rather than traditional driving?

  4. Carlos Danger says

    Charles, I misled you with my analogy. With our approach a human driver doesn’t use a graphical user interface to drive the car. He or she will (usually) use the same steering wheel and brake and accelerator pedals as now. What we do is transparent to the driver.

    (I can explain our car operating system and car-driver interface technology in more detail in another comment if you would like. It’s not hard to understand, but unless I’m careful, I tend to mislead people. And I am, unfortunately, not always careful.)

    So if a driver won’t even notice our technology, what good is it? There’s various pros and a few cons to it, but the main good is to change the car industry from a slowly-evolving vertical industry dominated by a few giants to a vibrant, fast-moving industry with low barriers to entry and lots of innovation. It’s technology that enables a different market structure and business models, rather than performance or efficiency gains.

    This topic too is hard to explain well, and any brief explanation will probably mislead as much as inform. But I’ll give it a go anyway.

    Our modular architecture divides a car into several functional modules loosely coupled together by narrow and well-defined interfaces. That architecture only works well for electric cars, so that’s what we focus on. One example is a car with the following 7 modules:

    — driver control unit
    — car operating system
    — motor controller(s)
    — wheel/motor module(s)
    — body
    — chassis
    — electrical power supply

    The interfaces between the modules are the key to the architecture. People who work in the computer industry now how important interfaces are. They lower barriers to entry. They allow low-cost experiments . They let failure be an option. They speed up innovation, leading to better performance and lower cost. Interfaces have made the computer industry as stunningly vibrant, innovative and productive as it has been over the last 5 decades.

    Some people just can’t understand this. Unfortunately, some of those people sit on the federal courts. The Federal Circuit in Oracle v. Google made two terrible rulings, holding that APIs — application programming interfaces — are protected by copyright and that there can be no “fair use” of them.

    The Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case just last week, and it was pathetic to hear some of the comments and questions by the justices. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but Sonia Sotomayor seems to be the only one who knows how interfaces work. She explained the heart of the matter better than the lawyer for Google! (Which lawyer, unfortunately, did an embarrassingly poor job.) Elena Kagan and Stephen Breyer were not as good, but at least seemed to be on the right track.

    Again, I can’t believe I’m saying this, but Brett Kavanaugh sounded like he doesn’t have a clue, and Neil Gorsuch and Samuel Alito were almost as bad. Clarence Thomas seemed doubtful also. John Roberts just seemed off in his own little world — I’m not sure what he thinks.

    The apparent liberal/conservative split in this case is coincidental, I think. Ruth Ginsburg would very probably have been on the copyright holder’s (Oracle) side with the conservatives. And it’s always risky to predict predict votes based just on oral argument. But if I were to bet on the outcome, I’d bet on Oracle winning and the whole rest of the world (other than big bullies like Oracle) losing.

    Our technology should not be affected by the Oracle v. Google case, but the principles are the same. I may be too hard on the supreme court justices — competition law principles can be devilishly hard to apply, particularly since competition in and of itself probably does as much (or more) harm as good.

    But innovation more often results in good, and interfaces enable innovation. We think our technology will make cars better faster. I guess time will tell.

  5. Carlos Danger says

    Matthew Crawford wrote an interesting article on “Science” (which is different than science) and how the Covid crisis has corrupted it. He draws on the ideas from Why We Drive and his other books. He says we should expect the same assertion of “science as authority” to happen with climate change as happened with Covid.

    Much of what Matthew Crawford says resonates with what Charles and others have said here.

    The article (fairly long) is here:

    — unherd.com/2021/05/how-science-has-been-corrupted/

    An interview (41 minutes long) on the subject of Covid and science is here:

    — unherd.com/thepost/philosopher-matthew-b-crawford-science-has-become-corrupted/

    [Matthew Crawford does the interview from his garage (a few miles from where I live) and you can see the Volkswagen he talks about in his book Why We Drive.]

    An earlier interview (35 minutes long) on the subject of Safetyism and Why We Drive is here:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XxONOUwOX80&ab_channel=UnHerd

    [An interesting point Matthew Crawford makes here is that computers cannot reason. They just can’t. So self-driving cars and human-driven cars can never work well on the roads. One or the other will have to take over.]

    I’d try to summarize what Matthew Crawford says, but I don’t think I could do him justice. If you have the time and interest to invest, though, I think the article and videos are well done and worth watching.

    • Jared says

      I just stumbled onto that UnHerd interview and thought of Charles’s review of Why We Drive. I thought it was an exceptional listen — highly recommended!

    • Charles Haywood says

      That is a great article (and interview). But of course irrationality on a mass scale contains within itself its own limitations. War is coming.

    • Carlos Danger says

      Eugene, indeed a very interesting article, as are the comments to it. “Behavioral economics” is just another way of saying “thought control”. The Covid epidemic has brought out the dangers of thought control in spades.

      But the danger is bigger than that. I recently read Steven Pinker’s book Rationality (Unherd has an interesting interview with him) and Noise by the triumvirate of Daniel Kahneman, Cass Sunstein and Olivier Sibony. These people seem to think the government should nudge, or even force, people to act “rationally”, even to the point of usurping human judgment with artificial intelligence.

      An algorithm making my health care decisions for me? No thanks.

      Matthew Crawford’s thoughts about masks seem right on to me. But he seems to favor vaccination. Though he doesn’t say that he is vaccinated, he does say his teenage daughter is, and she would have needed his permission to do it.

      As you know, I’m big on vaccination, and I would like to “nudge” others who hesitate to get it. Most other rich countries have passed our rather pathetic vaccination rate, and we all suffer for our laggardness. But to be a nudge is not my place, nor the government’s.

      • Eugene says

        Carlos Danger,

        I completely agree with everything you say (except the bit about vaccination — insofar as it concerns COVID vaccines, that is — but you already know where I stand on this). The pandemic seems to have given some scientists an opportunity to get too close to the levers of power.

        One of the most interesting parts of the interview for me is Crawford’s discussion of the conflation of liberalism and democracy — a problem that gets little attention.

        It doesn’t really matter much to me whether Crawford favours COVID vaccines — as long as his favouring the vaccines does not extend to haranguing the unvaccinated, I don’t mind. That said, I personally would not let a teenage daughter go anywhere near a COVID vaccine — the risk-benefit ratio seems to be completely out of whack here — and I can’t help but feel that children are being used as lab rats. Ultimately, though, it is Crawford’s daughter and the decision is his (if he really did get his daughter vaccinated).

        Hope you’re well!

        • Eugene says

          P.S. A slip-up: I meant “article” and not “interview” in my second paragraph.

        • Carlos Danger says

          Eugene, I’m well, and hope you are well as well. You point out how Matt Crawford discusses the conflation of liberalism and democracy. I had mostly missed that the first time around. I re-read the article, and this is indeed the heart of it. Thanks for the pointer.

          As to vaccines, it is interesting that Matthew Crawford did not talk about them in his article on Covid, other than to say his daughter got the vaccine. Though I can understand why — Covid vaccination is an issue that usually generates more heat than light. Where people focus more on beliefs than on science.

          And it’s an issue where people’s positions sometimes surprise. Donald Trump, for example, has always been very much in favor of the vaccines. Some Democrats can’t accept that. They blame him for some supporters who don’t want the vaccine, though that is not his doing.

          Part of the problem, I think, is that the vaccines have been oversold. I’ve been guilty of that myself. They aren’t the miracle they were once thought to be, one that would end the pandemic as soon as enough people were injected.

          The vaccines help, and help a lot, to keep people from getting seriously sick or dying from the disease. But they don’t stop the disease’s spread in its tracks. They don’t confer immunity.

          As a young attorney in Tokyo years ago, I worked on an international arbitration involving a drug that had a side effect in young males. I learned a lot about how drugs are tested and approved around the world, particularly for safety. That background has helped me follow what’s going on with the Covid vaccines. From a science point of view, it’s interesting stuff.

          There seem to be few places online where people discuss the Covid vaccines productively. Perhaps people may want to do that here.

  6. Eugene says

    Hello Carlos Danger!

    You mention you once worked worked on an international arbitration involving a drug, but you don’t say what it is that you learned from this unique experience!

    I am all for discussing vaccines — productively, as you say, and with the understanding that I am not a doctor and am just an armchair dilettante. But then the little science that I have in my command is not contaminated by ideology — a big problem these days.

    Your comments are sensible and measured. However, you write that vaccines may have been “oversold”. While I understand what you mean, the act of (over)selling involves the presence of a buyer. A buyer has a choice. If the buyer doesn’t like the product offered, he is usually free to move on. When a buyer is obligated to buy a product, that’s something else entirely. COVID vaccines have been, and continue to be, imposed on people through vaccine mandates and vaccine passports, so I am not sure we can really talk of a proper transaction involving an informed buyer and the goodwill of the seller. “Get the jab or else” is not really a sales pitch.

    Here in Canada, aside from the predictable spurt of vaccine mandates, the unvaccinated are now barred from aircraft and other methods of conveyance involving long-distance travel. Unvaccinated Canadians now have to contend with an iron curtain of sorts. As a native of Eastern Europe, I find this most amusing — except that it’s not. This legislation was adopted by the federal government of Justin Trudeau, a cynical, spineless, virtue-signalling mediocrity devoid of any intellectual substance who, amid his own dire warnings of the gravity of the pandemic and of a looming “fourth wave”, nevertheless called a snap federal election in August. A strange thing to do in a pandemic: the prime minister had another two years to go before the next scheduled election; the electoral campaigns of the candidates inevitably involved large gatherings as well as protests; and the election itself cost some $600 million, money that could have spent differently — on things like, I don’t know, health care, perhaps? What’s more, the election results achieved pretty much the same political configuration. All this, I repeat, amid warning of the gravity of the pandemic and a coming fourth wave.

    The prime minister had spent much of his electoral campaign deriding and demonizing “those people”, the people in question being those who refused the vaccine. It’s the same refrain that you hear everywhere: the unvaccinated are putting other people’s lives in danger. This is factually incorrect, and I am bewildered by the fact that this misinformation continues to be broadly disseminated by officials and accepted by the public at large. This is at variance from what “the science” has been telling us for a while. In fact, new research just published in The Lancet confirms that one’s vaccination status makes virtually no difference when it comes to the transmission of the Delta variant. Bloomberg has reported on this: https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2021-10-28/getting-vaccinated-doesn-t-stop-people-from-spreading-delta

    Yet the media continues to toe the line. If you read the Bloomberg article, you will see how the author still manages to shift the focus to the unvaccinated: “The results go some way toward explaining . . . why the unvaccinated can’t assume they are protected because others have had shots.” I have yet to meet a single unvaccinated person who has claimed to be protected because others have had shots, so this is a silly thing to write. A more obvious conclusion, methinks, is that the vaccinated should stop assuming that the unvaccinated are a danger to them, and that vaccine mandates and passports make no sense. But that gets in the way of the narrative, so “those people” have to keep their place of honour in the crosshairs of the government, mainstream media, and public opinion.

    If vaccines don’t prevent transmission (and it looks like they don’t), then the only reason for you to get vaccinated is to protect yourself. But that is your decision to make, it is a decision that is a function of your own health, and no one else should make it for you.

  7. Carlos Danger says

    Eugene,

    Well said. I agree. People should be persuaded, not forced, to take the vaccines. If they chose not to, they should not be penalized for their choice. Your comments about Eastern Europe and about a duplicitous Canadian prime minister flesh out your point in a way I had not known of.

    What I learned from my arbitration experience was how carefully drugs are tested around the world before they are approved. I worked for a Japanese law firm at the time, and our client was a multinational drug company who had licensed from a Japanese drug company the worldwide rights outside of Japan for a new drug.

    The drug had a possible safety problem that was discovered late in supplemental animal testing. The FDA had required our client to put a “black box warning” on its drug packaging in the US advising doctors not to prescribe the drug to adolescent males. No other countries followed suit, but our client wanted some of its money back given the damage the problem did to its sales and its reputation.

    It was not a particularly noteworthy case and the problem got sorted out to everyone’s satisfaction. But during the arbitration I got a crash course in how much testing goes on in vitro, in animals, and in Phase 1, 2 and 3 clinical trials in humans, and how careful regulators are around the world, to the point of overcaution. (And a crash course in the fascinating subject of spermiogenesis in juvenile rats.)

    That’s why I feel very confident in the safety of the vaccines. Even though clinical trials were quite compressed into last year, nothing was skipped and the safety profile of the vaccines is excellent. That has been borne out in real life, where billions of doses have been given and nothing troubling has been found.

    That’s also why I feel very confident in the efficacy of the vaccines. Though the vaccines have been oversold as being better than they are, they are still very good at preventing severe disease. That too was apparent in the clinical trials and has been borne out in real life. The vaccines (alone among all interventions to fight Covid-19) have been proven to reduce hospitalization and to save lives.

    Does that mean people should be forced to get the vaccines? No, not at all, for the reasons you so eloquently point out. People must have the freedom to make their own choices about the medical treatments they receive. Government has no business making that choice for us.

    But should people get the vaccines? Yes, we should. Even if the risk of a severe problem is small for your age group, the risk of you getting the disease is fairly high. Most of us will. Best to take out an insurance policy to protect against severe disease, especially since there is no downside of cost or safety.

    So do it for yourself and for your family. And for your community. When the hospitals fill up with Covid-19 sufferers, those patients take up a lot of medical resources that could go to other uses. The more people we can keep out of the hospital, the better for all of us.

    That’s my view, at least. I can understand why some people are frustrated with the government and want to show their frustration by refusing the vaccine. But I think that’s counterproductive.

    We’re almost two years into this epidemic, and we now know that many things don’t work against the virus (except in limited circumstances). Masks. Lockdowns. Social distancing. Contact tracing. Washing hands. Closing schools. None have shown any promise. Show your frustration by resisting those. I do.

    The vaccines, on the other hand, work. Solid science says so. The vaccines can help a lot. Let’s not refuse them to make a political point. Let’s take them.

    Or, I should qualify, most of us should take them. Right now the demand for vaccines exceed supply. As long as that is the case, we should wait and see on booster shots, on shots for those who know they have had the disease, and on shots for children. Let those shots go to those overseas who are literally dying to get them. We can wait.

    But my views are just preaching. Probably better to be like Matt Crawford and just avoid the topic of vaccines like a third rail. Our opinions on the topic tend to come more from our hearts than our heads, and thus rational discussion does little good.

    • Charles Haywood says

      I appreciate this very civil discussion on an important topic! I’d like to follow up with some questions/comments/responses for Carlos Danger, which basically revolve around what are popular perceptions about the vaccine and its dangers—in essence, whether these perceptions are real, in the sense they obviate some of the careful, detailed regime you describe as normal for drug approval (which I assume is similar to vaccine approval, but don’t actually know):

      1) Even if all standard safety protocols and reviews were followed, the time frame seems to have been very compressed. It seems to me this leaves open the very significant possibility of “unknown unknowns” that are only visible after some months or years. Most drugs seem to be reviewed for many years before going to market. Related, the allegation is made that the control groups for the (accelerated) testing were all promptly vaccinated very early in the process, preventing long-term detailed evaluation. Are there any large-scale studies, complete or ongoing, looking for problems? It seems to me those would not be allowed, and if allowed, those conducting them would know they would ruin their careers if they came to the wrong conclusion, just as if, say, they studied any other forbidden/controversial topic.

      Thus, I don’t think it is correct to say “Best to take out an insurance policy to protect against severe disease, especially since there is no downside of cost or safety.” We can’t know there is “no downside” at this point (and many make the allegation there are very significant downsides). For someone very old or fat, it seems likely the risk is worth taking. But that’s as far as it seems logical to go.

      2) Along similar lines, people rightly point out the government has completely absolved the vaccine developers and manufacturers of any liability whatsoever. That seems unprecedented. And suspicious, given the enormous profits being made.

      3) The VAERS database is often cited. Now, I know nothing about VAERS, though I do understand that it is just an accumulation of unfiltered reports. Nonetheless, the allegation is frequently made that vastly more VAERS reports of adverse reactions have been received for the Plague vaccines than any other drug (and that these are understated due to pressure to not report). As to the former, that may be because so many doses has been administered, so the statistics are not normalized for comparability. Or not. As to the latter, given that similar pressure is put on people for political reasons in many other areas, it seems entirely possible, if not likely. Rather than addressing this concern, the government ignores it.

      4) It seems entirely clear that vaccine efficacy wanes. But this, and everything else, such as the relative benefit of natural immunity vs. vaccines, we are not actually given any clear answers on. Or, for example, how many people have natural immunity (whatever its efficacy). India had some study where 70% of people had antibodies (pre-vaccination; after the wave). There is some indication that maybe five times as many people are asymptomatic as symptomatic. 50 million people in the US have tested positive (though, as always, we are never told how many were symptomatic). That would imply, potentially, a very high percentage of people have had the Plague (which might imply the Plague will wane on its own as everyone gets it).

      5) Finally, the steadfast refusal of the regime media and its enforcers to discuss any aspect of whatever the current line is on vaccines and the Plague (including natural immunity, the role of obesity, and many, many more such), the punishment of anyone who does even discuss these matters, and the insane push to mandate vaccines for everyone, including children, seems to me to be a wholly adequate reason to reject the vaccines. Or, put another way, the utterly irrational and totalitarian approach of our ruling class to the Plague seems clearly an example of either incompetence or malice; both are excellent reasons to avoid the vaccine.

      • Eugene says

        Charles has preempted me, so I will try to keep my own reply as short and succinct as possible.

        Carlos Danger, you do bring a fascinating perspective to this question, and it was interesting to read about it. But I must disagree with you when say there is “no downside of cost or safety.” We don’t actually know that. While the safety standards of the industry may be excellent, as your own experience suggests they are, it doesn’t mean all the actors within the industry are greatly excited by ethical considerations. Pfizer has paid out billions of dollars in fines and settlements to settle a litany of all sorts of accusations and allegations (including, among other things, conducting an unapproved clinical trial for an experimental anti-meningitis drug, fraudulent promotion of an epilepsy drug, fraudulent marketing of an anti-inflammatory drug, bribing health experts employed by foreign governments, and overcharging the UK’s National Health Service for an anti-epilepsy drug) — the list is long and damning. That the vaccine manufacturers have been absolved of responsibility for any adverse consequences of the vaccination rollout is not especially reassuring, to say the least. The vaccines might be a good insurance policy; the insurance companies involved don’t inspire much confidence.

        Simon Elmer, a British writer and a cofounder of Architects for Social Housing, has written a series of extraordinary articles about the pandemic. They are what we call “deep dives”. Now, Elmer is firmly on the left when it comes to economic issues, and so he views the pandemic through the lens of class struggle and things like that, but none of that makes his writings any less compelling or well researched. In one recent article (https://architectsforsocialhousing.co.uk/2021/09/15/the-uk-vaccination-programme-part-1-adverse-drug-reactions-and-deaths/), Elmer analyzes the UK’s vaccination program, focusing on adverse reactions following vaccination as well as on the UK’s reporting system. Elmer is not a medical professional, and I cannot properly “fact check” the information there. But it does look superbly researched, and it does not support your assertion that there is no downside.

        You make a very good point when you say that refusing to take a Covid vaccine for ideological reasons (basically, to give the government the finger) is counterproductive — and so it is. It should always be a health-based decision. However, insofar as the vaccine question is concerned, you divorce the epidemiological from the political. This splitting is at the heart of our disagreement. For me the two are indissoluble. I must insist on it: the pandemic is a political, economic, and societal crisis, and, as such, it cannot be split from its epidemiological component. This applies to all the measures taken, and mandates imposed, to deal with the virus, including vaccines. My own view on the soundness of my getting vaccinated is informed by this conflation of the medical with the political/social. The rates of hospitalization and morbidity for my age group is indeed very low, and no one has done a very convincing job explaining to me why I should get vaccinated. The fact that those pulling out all the stops to convince me happen to be smug, corrupt hypocrites (I am of course referring to our “authorities”) has only reinforced my stance on this.

        One last thing. There is a very interesting online publication called IM-1776, and it’s one of those places that, like Unherd, seek to challenge conventional thinking and the mainstream “narrative”. They have some interesting articles there, and I invite you to read this recent piece: https://im1776.com/2021/10/08/corporate-medicine/
        It was written by an anonymous doctor and is a searing critique of the US health industry. There is also a segment dealing with the question of Covid vaccines. If you want to get straight to it, just scroll down to “Vaccines: Jab or Job or Something Else.” Food for thought.

        So much for my reply being short and succinct, huh? Well, I tried.

        • Carlos Danger says

          Eugene, as always I found your comments perceptive, perspicacious and (often) persuasive. But I do disagree on some points. Let me mainly mention those.

          As to the chicanery of drug companies, you bring up some good examples of misconduct that I had glossed over. You are right, the drug companies have shown that they cannot be trusted. They have shaded efficacy data (for SSRI antidepressants, among others) and overcharged for their drugs. As you say, the malfeasance list is long and damning.

          But I have not heard of any drug company hiding safety problems. Have you? My sense, particularly from the arbitration I was involved in, is that drug companies have every incentive to find safety problems as early as possible, not to hide them. As do regulators.

          As to Simon Elmer’s article, I found it very interesting. As you say, he takes a deep dive and does an excellent job of research. But I don’t think he’s found anything to call the safety of the vaccines into question. Epidemiology relies on principles of causal inference—a scientific tool most people find difficult to use—and he doesn’t seem to know how to do that kind of analysis when looking at the safety data.

          As to the anonymous doctor, I found his or her thoughts interesting and his or her critique (as you say) searing. One of my relatives is in a pediatrics residency right now and she complains a lot about some of the same issues this anonymous doctor discusses. The US health industry does have big, big problems (made worse, not better, by the ill-named Affordable Care Act).

          But the safety of the Covid-19 vaccines is not one of them. The anonymous doctor says:

          “[The Pfizer, Moderna, J&J, and AstraZeneca vaccines] are new vaccine technology and totally experimental. Anyone who isn’t deaf, dumb, or blind then must know that these new experiments have unusual and serious side effects.”

          That’s bullshit. I’m not deaf, dumb or blind and I have seen no evidence of any unusual and serious side effects of the vaccines. The comment was clearly half joking, and while I like people who aren’t afraid to attack sacred cows, the anonymous doctor’s comments on vaccines have no support in science.

          As to why you should take the vaccine, that’s a difficult question since there are so many things to consider. It’s a little like the question of why anyone should vote. One vote doesn’t affect the outcome, so why bother? I think you should bother to vote, for a variety of reasons, but I think the argument can easily be made the other way. Same with vaccines.

          And I think whether you take the vaccine is up to you, for whatever reason you decide, or even if you have no reason. But the science says pretty clearly, reinforced by the result of billions of people safely and effectively vaccinated worldwide, that the vaccines are safe and effective.

          To me that’s pretty convincing, and so too to many others as well. Indeed, I’m not aware of any politician in any party in the US who opposes the vaccines except for a few fringe figures. Even Donald Trump is a vaccine booster. Same with any scientist—only fringe figures oppose the vaccines.

          • Eugene says

            Carlos Danger!

            I enjoyed your response — this is a great exchange, though I doubt we’ll come to an agreement!

            My own impression of Simon Elmer’s article is different to yours but, as I freely admit, I am unable to either corroborate his conclusions or refute them.

            I agree with you about the hyperbole in that anonymous doctor’s article. I might also add that his (her?) anonymity doesn’t sit well with me. I always want to see if not the face, then at least the name behind pieces like that. Then again, given the current environment, I understand why the doctor would want to preserve anonymity. Which, of course, is a problem in itself, and if you don’t mind my saying, it is something I feel you might be downplaying. The lack of transparency, the online censorship, the ostracism to which any dissenting opinion is subjected, the shaming/belittling of those who question the vaccines — all of this is real and does not give me the necessary confidence with respect to the vaccines. The “science” can be wrong, and so can the prevailing consensus.

            If we are to accept that the vaccines are safe and effective (and I am willing to accept that — no one among the vaccinated I personally has thus far presented any adverse reactions), this only holds true for the short term. We don’t know what will happen five or ten years down the road. No one does. Do you remember Vioxx? It was introduced by Merck in 1999 and pulled from the market five years later due to safety issues. The drug might have caused some 40,000 deaths in America. (Vioxx specifically comes to mind because I remember watching Merck’s share price crater in real time.)

            I certainly don’t know of any pharma companies hiding safety data. But the wider point I was trying to make is that if you clearly can’t trust the manufacturer of a new product that is being foisted on you, it is not unreasonable to have concerns and decline to take it if you determine that you personally don’t need the product.

            By the way, I am perfectly willing to believe that the vaccines will be proved safe and effective in the long run (and I certainly hope they will). The annual flu shots people get are also safe and effective. But it doesn’t necessarily mean that I need one.

            In the analogy that you make (the one about voting), casting a vote is an act of civic duty (though regrettably this is increasingly not the case here in Canada, but that’s a whole separate discussion). Getting a vaccine is not, although public officials are doing their best to make it look like it is. If you are in a high-risk category, a Covid vaccine might make sense to protect yourself from COVID-19, and it might also help the community in the sense that you won’t be a drain on its resources in the event of any complications. But for those in low-risk categories, the risk calculation is more complicated. I cannot agree with the statement that we all should take a Covid vaccine.

        • Carlos Danger says

          Eugene, thank you for your further thoughts, astute as always. I too have enjoyed this exchange.

          We agree that the mRNA vaccines have proven safe and effective by clinical trials and analysis by regulators around the world. Those results have been confirmed by billions of doses having been injected. You pointed out that there still may be safety issues, and you are right — there may.

          We disagree about whether even some of those at low risk of severe disease should get the vaccine. You look at it at the personal level, and I agree that the risk of severe disease for some age groups is so small that the vaccine barely affects it. I look at it from the population level, though, where personal risk means less and public health means more.

          This is a complex issue, and those issues defy simple solutions. Complex adaptive systems are my area of expertise, and epidemiology falls smack within it. So I continue to hammer away on these issues even after other people’s eyes start to glaze over and they look for a way to gracefully escape.

          So I’ll stop now, after again thanking you for your thoughts.

          • Carlos Danger says

            Eugene, I forgot the most important thing we agree on — vaccine mandates are wrong. The government has no business forcing people to undergo a medical procedure against their will. That makes all else I have said largely beside the point.

      • Carlos Danger says

        Charles, let me address each of the excellent points that you raise. I’ll keep my comments conclusory—feel free to challenge me for backup and detail for any point I make. Although there are several vaccines out there, my comments are mainly about the mRNA vaccines, an elegant new technology.

        1. Plenty of people are looking for problems with the vaccines, like hungry hawks scanning the landscape for rabbits. Both regulators and drug companies want to find any problems as soon as possible. No one benefits if problems are covered up. Any vaccine found to cause problems will be dropped like a hot potato.

        We’ve seen that happen. The J&J and AstraZeneca vaccines have been paused or passed over in some countries. Other countries have stopped using the Moderna vaccine. All out of an abundance of caution.

        The whole drug approval and monitoring process has been set up and refined over many decades to scientifically show the safety and efficacy of new drugs. It’s a proven process, and it works well. Not perfectly, but very well. When mistakes have been made, improvements to the process have been made.

        With the vaccines, no problems have been found. There are side effects—there always are, and some can be serious. But they are as expected, and even with the side effects, getting the vaccine is less risky than going unvaccinated.

        2. There is precedent for the government taking liability for vaccines to speed up their production and distribution. This chapter (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK216813/) lays out that history, particularly in the case of the 1976 swine flu “epidemic that never was”. Even without liability, drug companies have every incentive to disclose problems with their vaccines, not hide them.

        3. The VAERS database is just one of the tools regulators use to get data on vaccine side effects. There are comparable reporting systems around the world. All that data is pored over and analyzed. As noted above, some countries have taken actions, based on that data, to minimize risks. But no unexpected problems with the vaccines have been found.

        It’s good that people are sifting through the VAERS database and looking at other data to convince themselves that the vaccines are safe. The process should be transparent and data made available. But many of those not familiar with the process are fooling themselves into thinking they have found problems when they haven’t, or imagining that the data is being manipulated or hidden when it isn’t.

        4. As you note, the US government has done a terrible job on providing clear answers about the relative benefits of natural immunity versus vaccines. Just terrible. They have oversold vaccines like a used car salesman trying to foist a lemon on an unsuspecting old lady. That’s coercive and dishonest. More, it violates basic principles of public health and damages trust in authority. Tony Fauci and Rochelle Walensky, in particular, ought to be ashamed of themselves.

        You are right—the epidemic will wane on its own as everyone gets the disease. And most (including me) think that the epidemic will only end when most of us do. The advantage of the vaccines is that they will prevent a lot of sickness and death as that happens.

        5. Good points about the incompetence and totalitarianism of the ruling class response to the epidemic. But is refusing the vaccine a good way to respond to that? To me, it sends the wrong message by making the ruling class look right. They can say:

        “These people falsely claim that the vaccines are dangerous and refuse to get them. They put their own lives and health at risk for no good reason, selfishly filling up the hospitals so that health care resources must be spent on them instead of those who really need the care. All to make a political point.”

        And wouldn’t they be right?

        If it were a question of protesting the mask mandates, lockdowns and other non-pharmaceutical interventions that have been shown to be ineffective, I would support that. Even people like Monica Gandhi, a doctor here in San Francisco, have largely conceded that those measures don’t work. (https://www.msn.com/en-us/money/news/it-s-time-to-contemplate-the-end-of-the-crisis/ar-AAQgAP4?)

        But the vaccines have been shown by scientific evidence to be safe and effective. Those who doubt their safety have little more than the precautionary principle—that any risk at all is too much risk—to rely on. Billions of doses have been safely given. And those who doubt their efficacy in preventing severe disease face a mountain of data to disprove.

        Even Donald Trump, never hesitant to poke the ruling class in the eye, has never faltered in his support of the vaccines. To the contrary, he has been, and still is, a big vaccine booster.

        That said, I agree with you that vaccine mandates should be avoided like the plague. They are wrong. Especially when they force the vaccine on children, on those who have had the disease, and on people who have already had two doses. But also when they force the vaccine on those who choose to refuse it. Each person has the right to choose and control what risk he or she will take.

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