Repubs retreating from anti-vaxerism

A funny thing happened in the culture wars the other day. After taking steadily more extreme anti-vaccination positions over many months, leading rightwing commentators and Republican politicanss suddenly jumped ship, announcing that everyone should be vaccinated as soon as possible.

It would be encouraging to imagine that this shift was the result of a recognition of the surge in cases and deaths among the (predominantly Republican) unvaccinated population, and of the dangers posed by the Delta variant. But that explanation seems implausible, given that the same politicians and commentators watched half a million Americans die and opposed every conceivable measure that might reduce the death toll.

It seems even more unlikely that this shift is a response to the efforts of the Biden Administration to pressure organizations like Fox News into a more sensible position. The whole raison d’etre of the rightwing media is to ‘own the libs’. Rejecting such pressure and boasting about it would be par for the course.

A more plausible explanation is that Republicans have realised that, at least at the national level, this is a culture war that they can’t win, or even play out long enough to mobilise voters for an election win. The critical problem is that the vaccination debate no longer fits the standard culture war playbook in which an easily demonised outgroup is imposing their way of life on ordinary (that is, white, heterosexual and Christian) decent Americans.

Campaigns of this kind can naturally be presented in terms of the preservation of liberty not liberty in any abstract or universal sense, but the specific liberties of the dominant group to do things as they have always done them, whatever the effects on others.

As the proportion of American adults who have received at least one shot creeps towards 70 per cent, the proportion likely to join a fight against vaccine mandates declines.In particular, the old, who are normally the most reliable recruits for the culture war, are also the most vulnerable to Covid-19, with the result that their vaccination rates are close to 100 per cent

A final, but essential, factor is that Donald Trump has stayed on the sidelines. The development of vaccines was one of the few genuine success stories of his Administration, and he has shown himself unwilling to undermine it. As a result, Republicans who break ranks with the dominant anti-vax position are unlikely to suffer the consequences that would result from appearing on Trump’s list of enemies.


A new sandpit for long side discussions, conspiracy theories, idees fixes and so on.

To be clear, the sandpit is for regular commenters to pursue points that distract from regular discussion, including conspiracy-theoretic takes on the issues at hand. It’s not meant as a forum for visiting conspiracy theorists, or trolls posing as such.

Billionaires in space

With its unsubtle allusion to a 1980s cult classic, that’s the headline for my latest piece in Independent Australia. Key points

Nothing has changed in the basic physics that makes space travel, beyond the minimal scale achieved in the 1960s, essentially impossible. On the contrary, advances in physics have shut off every theoretical loophole that might have permitted us to exceed the limit imposed by the speed of light. Nor has there been any reduction in the massive amount of energy needed to propel even a single person into space.

The world is facing challenges that threaten our very existence, from pandemics to climate catastrophe to nuclear war. We can’t rely on fantasies of escaping into outer space. Nor we can afford a system that delivers a huge proportion of our collective income to a handful of irresponsible adventurers.

What to do when you’re wrong

We all get things wrong from time to time, particularly in relation to fast moving events like the pandemic. So, how can you respond when this happens. Here’s a list of possibilities, generally from best to worst in terms of intellectually responsibility and from least to most common in terms of frequency

  1. Admit error, look at why you were wrong, try and do better next time (let’s get real, we are talking about human beings here. this almost never happens
  2. Go quiet for a while, and don’t return to the topic until you have done some rethinking
  3. Argue that you were right, but that circumstances have changed
  4. Claim that, despite appearances, you’ll be proved right in the end
  5. Go quiet and scrub as much of your past track record as you can
  6. Claim you always held the opposite position to the one you previously supported
  7. Keep fighting, focusing on how being right has made your opponents even more discreditable
  8. Double down and claim a conspiracy against you

I’m planning to do a few posts soon looking at positions I’ve taken that appear to have been wrong, and trying to stay in the top half of this list

One failure too many

That’s the title of my latest piece in Inside Story , also printed in the Canberra Times under the headline Sydney’s coronavirus outbreak highlights hard choices“”

Key para

Poor understanding of uncertainty was evident in the rush to label New South Wales as the gold standard and assume that a handful of successes was evidence that there was nothing to worry about. This conclusion didn’t take account of the fact that the policy could not afford even one failure. All high-risk strategies share two key features: they work until they fail, and they are likely to be hailed as the product of genius until they are not.