Discussions of Book of Mormon issues and evidences, plus other topics related to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Monday, September 20, 2021

Zeal Without Data: Blaming the Church for Utah's Allegedly Low Vaccination Rates

Romans 10:2 speaks of those who "have a zeal of God, but not according to knowledge." Psalm 19:2 in the NET (New English Translation) tells us that "It is dangerous to have zeal without knowledge, and the one who acts hastily makes poor choices." Hugh Nibley was fond of the phrase "zeal without knowledge" and once gave a talk at BYU with that title. Zeal without knowledge can refer to those who think they are valiantly following God but acting in ignorance of the truth, which can lead to atrocious results that hurt others and hinder Zion. Nibley urges us to do our own thinking, to use our minds, to constantly seek knowledge, so that we can mature, grow, and do what's right. "Zeal makes us loyal and unflinching, but God wants more than that." Nibley quotes Joseph Smith (Teaching of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 80) saying, "Many, having a zeal not according to knowledge," said the Prophet, " . . . have, no doubt, in the heat of enthusiasm, taught and said many things which are derogatory to the genuine character and principles of the Church." 

That problem continues to this day, in spite of he incredible growth of access to information. Highly educated people who think they know what they are talking about can easily act in zeal, driven by their passionate loyalty for misguided causes, sharing information and teachings that are based on ignorance and a lack of accurate data. Nibley warned that if we don't actively seek and obtain good information and use our minds to their full capacity, then "false information flourishes" and we are likely to believe all sorts of preposterous nonsense.

A case in point is the very unfortunate op-ed column by a Latter-day Saint professor, Benjamin Park, in the influential Washington Post explaining why the past conservative politics of the Church is to blame for Utah's allegedly very low vaccination level. The subhead (line below the headline) declares that "LDS leaders stoked a far-right culture for decades. Now it might undermine their authority." Yep, that's the problem, all right. Utah's got some Republicans and it's the Church that foolishly "stoked" that. Now I suppose Utahans are going to be devastated by COVID as a result since those ignorant right-wingers aren't getting vaccinated.

Park jumps in quickly with data showing how behind Utah is: "Less than half of eligible residents of Utah, where members constitute a majority of the population, are fully vaccinated, placing the state in the lower half of the nation." The link he gives is to a Utah vaccine dashboard where Park apparently has taken the percent vaccinated among all Utahans, not the smaller population of "eligible residents." Huh? 

It's well known that Utah has lots of children, and children under the age of 12 are not eligible for vaccination. So why isn't Park looking at the eligible population when he claims to be reporting that data? That dashboard page shows Utah's vaccination level is at 51.2% of all residents (might have been just below 50% when Park penned his article in August), but what's the level among the eligible? This isn't hard to find. In fact, the Utah dashboard page that Park linked provides relevant data right next to the number Park was using. The more relevant number is hard to miss: "Percent 12+ Received at Least One Dose" and the value reported is at 72%.  That's a lot better than "less than half." The number who are fully vaccinated is at 63% of the eligible population. You can also see how Utah compares to the rest of the nation -- not bad at all all  -- on the Mayo Clinic's Vaccine Tracker page under the section, "State COVID-19 vaccine rates by age."

If there was any kind of real fact checking going on at the Washington Post, this embarrassing blunder would have been rectified -- but then the story would not come close to fitting the desired narrative, for the real data directly contradict the basis of Park's rant.

Park's error is treated in more detail by A&R Skabelund in the post, "An Attack of Mormon Mania: Embarrassing blunder by WaPo and Benjamin Park on vaccine hesitancy among LDS Church members and what it reveals about our ruling class" at Worthless Thoughts, Sept 21, 2021. They use data from Aug. 18, the week before the Aug. 24 publication of Park's piece, and show just how painfully off this piece was, not just in the reported "less than half" level, but also in the comparison to other states:

The second part of Park’s claim, that Utah was in the “lower half of the nation,” also proves to be wrong. I consulted the Mayo Clinic’s vaccine tracker (also from August 18th) to compare fully vaccinated rates for each state in the three demographic categories provided: under 18, 18-64, and 65+. In the under 18 fully vaccinated rates, Utah is at 14.2% vaccinated, tied for 25th place. For the 18-64 demographic, Utah’s fully vaxxed percentage comes in at 62.3%, at 17th place. And for the 65+ demographic, Utah is at 90.4%, at 20th place.

The older group most likely to have been influenced by the conservative era that Park decries, are the most vaccinated and are in the top 20 states. 

Scholars make mistakes all the time, just like medical experts do. The appropriate scholarly thing is to own up to it and make a retraction.  The appropriate political thing, however, if your purpose is pure politics driven by data-free zeal, is to continue acting with zeal while ignoring the real data because the end justifies the means and "progress" is all that matters. I'm looking forward to seeing whether this particular professor will choose scholarship over politics, now that the blunder has been made known. Here's my wish that he and WaPo will issue a correction that gets at least as much visibility as the error did, though such a thing is rare in the increasingly politicized media. 

The Skabelunds go on to discuss reasons for the lack of scrutiny to facts and data in pieces that attack the Church, and also write much to point out that there are good reasons why intelligent people might be skeptical of the positions our government is taking in the fight against COVID. Some of what they write is similar to the points I made in my recent article, "How to Talk to Concerned Church Members Who Are 'COVID Policy Doubters,'" published Aug. 15 in Meridian Magazine. Please read their full article and consider some of the excellent point they make. It can help us be less divisive and more understanding of those among our ranks who don't yet want the vaccine. Again, I'm vaccinated and encourage people to get it, but I value freedom of choice on this issue.

Park is worried about fundamentalist, evangelical, and right-wing white Americans who seem to be the bogey man for COVID, failing to recognize that the data shows black Americans and some other minorities are among the most vaccine hesitant. And the reasons they have for not being super trustful of the US government should not be ridiculed. Ever heard of the Tuskegee experiment? Park may have accepted the call of the politicians to demonize the vaccine hesitant, but his response is an unfortunate illustration of how some of our own members can harm the cause of Zion by acting in zeal without knowledge, or in this case, zeal without sound data.


Friday, September 10, 2021

Medical Tyranny? When Your Government Tells You to Abandon Freedom and Personal Choice, It's Time to Speak Out

Victory Boyd

The mainstream media has largely ignored a chilling story about disrespecting the religious beliefs of a black woman, Grammy Award-winning singer and songwriter Victory Boyd. After being hired by the NFL to sing the national anthem at the season-opening football game on Sept. 9 in Tampa, Florida, she was fired when she stated that she wanted a personal religious exemption from the League's vaccination requirement. The requirement is surely not based on science, for she would be performing in Raymond James Stadium, an open-air venue, where she would not need to be in close contact with the fans and staff, just her entourage. But the NFL refused to honor her request for a religious exemption. Fired. And almost no media coverage (e.g., so sign of the story on CNN.com or CBS.com, though the latter has a story that mentions the release of her song "Open Your Eyes").  

To get a taste of what America missed on Sept. 9, please listen to her sing the most beautiful and touching rendition of the National Anthem that I've ever heard in her video post at Instagram.

But now it's not just the rights of one black woman that will trampled on. President Biden now seeks to protect us all by forcing people to be vaccinated. In his declaration on Thursday, he declared that private businesses now need to mandate vaccinations for their employees. “This is not about freedom or personal choice,” Biden said. “It’s about protecting yourself and those around you.” He's got that right: it's definitely not about freedom.

This comes after prior assurances from the White House and the head of the CDC that vaccine mandates were not within the scope of government plans nor authority. Now it suddenly is, though for some reason, the Administration still recognizes that it can't mandate masks. See "Biden Admits He Can't Mandate Masks. Why Does He Think He Can Mandate Vaccines?" at Reason.org.

Those who speak of personal choice and freedom these days are scorned (unless they are using that language to justify an act of violence against an unwanted prenatal human). I guess I need to come out and say I am willing to be in the scorned group.  If the potential for some minor public benefit trumps personal freedoms and Constitutional restraints on government authority, then freedom has no meaning (landlords, of course, already know this now that the CDC has "discovered" its authority to declare legal and voluntary contracts between renters and landlords essentially void "due to COVID"). When we think of the abuses of government in the past, there has almost always been a public welfare argument to be made:

  • Withholding syphilis medication from the victims of the Tuskegee experiment yielded important medical information that the Public Health Service and its daughter, the CDC, thought were important for medical progress for the good of society. 
  • Forced sterilization of "mentally feeble" citizens would supposedly help improve the overall mental ability of the race. This was not just one of the diabolical extremes of National Socialism in Germany, but the results of laws passed by many states in the US in the 1920s and supported by a ruling of the US Supreme Court in 1927, mentioned below.
  • Putting Japanese Americans into prison camps would allegedly reduce the danger to the rest of us when America was at war with Japan. 
  • Using force and terror to suppress the votes of freed black slaves in the South and rig elections would secure the rights of the white man and Christian society and "fortify" elections and democracy itself. On this, see the highly recommend work on the reign of terror in the South after the Civil War, Stephen Budiansky, The Bloody Shirt: Terror After Appomattox (New York: Viking, 2008), which I'll be reviewing here soon.

But vaccination requirements are not without precedent in the US, and even gained the support of the Supreme Court in the 1905 decision, Jacobson v. Massachusetts. The issue there was not exactly that of forced vaccination, but requiring a $5 fee to be paid if one did not get the smallpox vaccine. The Supreme Court ruled that there could be limits on individual freedoms when "reasonable regulations" were needed to secure public health.

Oliver Wendell Holmes, who was a Supreme Court justice who helped create the 1905 Jacobson opinion, built on the Jacobson decision in a later case related to eugenics, which had become politically popular in the 1920s. The following comes from History.com's 2021 article, "When the Supreme Court Ruled a Vaccine Could Be Mandatory":

In a far darker chapter, the Jacobson decision also provided judicial cover for a Virginia law that authorized the involuntary sterilization of “feeble-minded” individuals in state mental institutions. In the 1920s, eugenics enjoyed wide support in scientific and medical circles, and the Supreme Court justices were not immune.

In the infamous 1927 case Buck v. Bell, the Supreme Court accepted the questionable “facts” presented in the lower court cases that a young Virginia woman named Carrie Bell hailed from a long line of “mental defectives” whose offspring were a burden on public welfare.

“The principle that sustains compulsory vaccination is broad enough to cover cutting the Fallopian tubes (Jacobson v Massachusetts, 197 US 11). Three generations of imbeciles are enough,” wrote Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes in a chilling opinion.

The Buck decision opened the floodgates and by 1930, a total of 24 states had passed involuntary sterilization laws and around 60,000 women were ultimately sterilized under these statutes.

Buck v. Bell is the most extreme and barbaric example of the Supreme Court justifying a law in the name of public health,” says Sanders.  [emphasis added]

I think the ethics behind forced vaccination are questionable, especially for a disease far less dangerous than polio and in a climate where the science and ethics of those constantly seeking to expand government power leave huge question marks over the reasonableness of such a mandate. 

While I have been vaccinated, I support the rights and acknowledge the feelings of those who are hesitant about the COVID vaccines. As I have previously explained, they are not necessarily acting out of mere ignorance, but often have legitimate reasons for their positions. Ph.D.s, with whom I share some affinity, are among the most likely to resist the vaccine, and it's not out of pure ignorance.  Forcing them or people with any level of education to lose their jobs because of their choice relative to a new drug (for which it may yet take years to determine its long-term side effects) seems horrifically unfair and yes, contrary to the principles of freedom on which this nation was founded.

There are those who are at risk of adverse affects from the vaccine, and some have even been warned by their doctors that they should not get the vaccine for their own health. Will many of them now lose their jobs thanks to this sweeping, unjustified mandate?

There are those, perhaps particularly in the relatively less-vaccinated black community, who have sincere and thoughtful reasons for not wanting to take a vaccine that has not had the normal years of safety testing. Their reasons may be based on distrust of government, which was a legitimate reason for vaccine hesitancy expressed by many Democratic politicians when Trump was president, and may be a legitimate concern regardless of who is president, perhaps especially for those who recall the tragedy of the morally corrupt and vicious Tuskegee experiment that harmed many black Americans, an experiment that was supported by the CDC. 

Some, such as Victory Boyd, may have personal religious reasons for not wanting this particular vaccine, reasons which may be influenced by the rapidly developed nature of the vaccine and the sense that long-term safety testing has not had time to be fully completed. 

Some may have basic scientific objections such as the inadequacy of testing so far and the need for long-term evaluation of the effects of the vaccine relative to large control groups of unvaccinated people in order to properly assess long-term risks (if everyone is vaccinated, there will be no control group and no easy way to determine if the vaccine may be responsible for elevated cancer rates or other issues in years to come). The concern over safety is not a groundless concern. Indeed, if we are going to learn anything from the polio vaccinations of the past, it should be the very real risks of harm when a vaccine is rushed to market. The Cutter incident resulted in many unnecessary polio victims. Then, later batches of the polio vaccine were frequently contaminated with Simian Virus 40 (SV40), a virus from primates that has the characteristics of a cancer-causing virus, though it is still unclear if it has caused increased cancer in vaccinated humans (the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine has said that more detailed work is needed to determine if cancer did increase because of the vaccine). You can read about both the Cutter issue and the SV40 issue on the CDC's page that seeks to assure us that vaccines are usually safe (a proposition I generally agree with): see "Historical Vaccine Safety Concerns." 

There are also some who may have an irrational fear of vaccines, just as some may have an irrational fear of germs or, more commonly now, an irrational fear of the unvaccinated. But if we presume that we can override someone else's right to say "my body, my life" and decline the vaccine, can we also decide that they are too deplorable to have children and thus mandate sterilization? The Supreme Court once might have agreed, but that doesn't make it right. There is irrational anger being stirred up by our government and other governments (Australia comes to mind) against the dread threat of vaccinated people, even when over 70% of us have been vaccinated and many of the remainder may already have natural immunity. There is absolutely no recognition from the authorities in our government about the beneficial effect of natural immunity. To some, that makes it look like it's at least partly about political power, forcing people to get the government jab or else as a step toward expanding an avaricious governments' power over its subjects.

Given the actual data for the COVID virus, the risk that an unvaccinated person poses to the vaccinated seems quite small. Is it worth sweeping intrusions against liberty and choice? Why do we have leaders who wold shut down so much of our society for so long over a threat not vastly more dangerous than that of cancer, heart disease, and automobile accidents? We do we tolerate lockdowns that hinder the future our our children, vastly increase suicide and mental health harms, exacerbate heart disease and other health issues, without weighing the dramatic costs against the illusory gains? 

We need to recognize that everything comes with risk. Your alleged right to travel by driving your car down the road puts me at risk when I am a driver or a pedestrian. Your alleged right to drink alcohol puts me at risk when you drive or operate machinery. Your alleged right to eat lots of sugar, fat, or fast food puts me at risk because your future bad health may use up the hospital bed I need after I exercise my right to go skydiving. Your alleged right to live in a home made with wood puts me at risk because it could catch on fire and trigger a forest fire that threatens my well-being while living in my enlightened but rather dim and damp fireproof cave. As one of the few troglodytes willing to speak out, I'd like to say that freedom and personal choice are still vital for our society and for all mankind. We need to stand against medical tyranny and for the freedom of people to choose what they will allow to be injected into their bodies, even if we don't agree with their decision or their reasons. 

After being fired by the NFL for sticking to her religious values and declining an unwanted injection, Victory Boyd, according to Digital Music News, said “I’ve made peace with not being able to sing the National Anthem tomorrow for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. But I have not and will not make peace with the re-emergence of segregation and discrimination. This is not okay and it’s about time that we say so.” She further explained her position in what I understand was the first news site to report her story:

“The Bible admonishes Christians to appreciate their bodies as being sacred and a temple of the Holy Spirit and to not participate in things that can defile the body or render the body dysfunctional.

“I am in prayer to make sure that the Lord guides me into the right decision concerning receiving an unproven injection with artificial properties that can potentially have a long-term effect on my reproductive health.

“If I want to take the vaccine, the decision will be between myself, my doctor, and my God. At this point, the Spirit of God is leading me to take a stand for freedom of choice.”

Thank you, Victory Boyd, for thoughtfully expressing your desire to make a decision for yourself and about your body (not the body of anyone else) based on your religious values. Your decision may differ from mine, but I believe you should have that right and that the NFL was unreasonable, perhaps even discriminatory, in requiring you to be vaccinated in order to stand alone on an open field and sing a song to America that reminds us of the need to stand together for freedom and liberty.  May we stand for freedom and against medical tyranny.

Update, 9/12/2021: While standing for the right of people to choose their own medical treatment, let me reiterate the need for more of us to be vaccinated. I'm vaccinated and have considered the data carefully, leading me to believe it is safe and effective. President Nelson's encouragement in favor of vaccination is wise counsel for the general population and I hope you'll consider it. Vaccination may be especially critical for those of you in vulnerable groups, such those who are elderly, overweight, have impaired lungs or other serious health issues. COVID is a serious illness for many, and if you are in those groups, you could easily need to be hospitalized. 

Some less vaccinated regions like Alabama are facing a crisis now as ICU beds are at capacity (some counties in northern Idaho and many other places are also struggling). A man just died in Alabama when he was turned away from numerous overwhelmed hospitals, unable to get treatment for a heart condition. That could have been prevented if more people had been vaccinated. It also could have been prevented if more people reduced their weight, improved their diet, exercised more, quit drinking and smoking, got better nutrition, and stayed off skateboards -- all problem areas that, like inadequate vaccination, could be solved by the use of force in the name of saving our lives. Rather than override the principles of liberty that our nation was founded upon and turn our nation into a police/nanny state, I prefer that we maintain our republic and use wise counsel to encourage wise behavior. 

We obviously want this crisis to be over (nearly all of us, anyway) and get back to our lives, but this is not the time to be casual about the risk of infection. Consider vaccination, which is proving fairly effective. Vaccinated or not, maintain care in terms of hand washing, avoiding densely packed gatherings, etc., and respect requirements for masking, even if you understand that mask efficacy is very low. 

A problem, of course, is that the wisdom of our government's counsel to be vaccinated is obscured in the minds of many by actions that reflect bad faith. A few days ago a sincere journalist asked a reasonable question in a White House press conference, wondering why American citizens are subject to a vaccine mandate but the numerous undocumented migrants entering our nation are not. In response, Jen Psaki snapped, "That is correct" and immediately went to another journalist for the next question. This looks like bad faith. It does not reflect the attitude of people who feel they have been asked to represent and serve the American people, but rather seems to reflect the attitude that it's our duty to humbly serve and obey them and stop asking questions. 

I've seen test data suggesting that as many as 20% of the undocumented walking across our border are COVID positive. Many southern states like Florida and Alabama have been sent large numbers of the newcomers. If COVID is such an existential threat that American liberties must be suspended and companies must be forced to terminate the vaccine hesitant (even if they already have natural immunity!), how is it possible that our government doesn't seal the border to ensure that only the COVID-free are brought in, and that they are at least encouraged or incentivized to be vaccinated? Those who see this discrepancy can't help but question the motives of our leaders, even when they give what normally should be seen as wise and thoughtful counsel. But I hope we can look past these issues and recognize that, no matter what the failures of our politicians might be,  the vaccines themselves are safe and effective, and by being vaccinated, we might save our own life and perhaps the lives of others.