Tu quoque, revisited

Slightly lost amid the furore over the alleged Trump dossier was the news that Trump had held a meeting with leading antivaxer Robert F. Kennedy Jr. As is usual, particularly with the Trump Administration, accounts of the meeting differed, with RFK claiming Trump had asked him to lead an inquiry into vaccine safety and Trump apparatchiks denying any firm decision had been made.

This interested me because, on the strength of sharing his father’s name, RFK Jr was, for many years the poster child for those on the right who wanted to claim that Democrats were just as anti-science as Republicans. (I’ve appended a post from 2014, discussing this.) Now he’s eager to work for Trump.

I pointed out the likely emergence of vaccination as a partisan issue in another post. Lots of commenters were unhappy about it, and it’s true that it’s unfortunate in the same way as is the partisan divide on global warming, evolution and just about any scientific issue that has political or cultural implications. But, whether we like it or not, it’s happening and likely to accelerate. The sudden reversal in Republican views on Putin, Wikileaks and so on illustrates the force of loyalty to Trump. We can only hope that, for once, his team’s denials turn out to be correct.

Tu quoque (repost from 2014)

I’ve written many posts and articles making the point that the political right, in most English speaking countries[^1] has been taken over by a tribalist post-truth politics in which all propositions, including the conclusions of scientific research, are assessed in terms of their consistency or otherwise with tribal prejudices and shibboleths.

Very occasionally, intellectuals affiliated with the political right (conservatives and libertarians) will seek to deny this, arguing that isolated instances are being blown out of proportion, and that the right as a whole is committed to reasoned, fact-based argument and acceptance of “inconvenient truths’ arising from the conclusions of scientific research[^2], [^3].

But, far more often their response takes the form of a tu quoque or, in the language of the schoolyard, “you’re another”. That is, they seek to argue that the left is just as tribalist and anti-science as the right. Favored examples of alleged left tribalism included any rhetoric directed at rightwing billionaires ( Murdoch, the Kochs and so on). The standard examples of alleged left anti-science are GMOs, nuclear power and anti-vaxerism, but it is also sometimes claimed that US Democrats are just as likely as Republicans to be creationists.

I’ll argue over the fold that these examples don’t work. What’s more important, though, is what the tu quoque argument says about those who deploy it, and their view of politics. The implied claim is that politics is inherently a matter of tribalism and emotion, and that there is no point in complaining about this. The only thing to do is to pick a side and stick to it. What passes for political argument is simply a matter of scoring debating points for your side and demolishing those of the others. So, anyone who uses tu quoque as a defence, rather than seeking to dissuade their own side from tribalist and anti-science rhetoric, deserves no more respect than the tribalists and science deniers themselves, who at least have the defence of ignorance.

Now let’s look at the tu quoque in a bit more detail. First, there’s the claim that the left is just as anti-science as the right. Of the three examples, anti-vaxerism can be dismissed most easily. US presentations of this argument (it’s rarely made in Oz) invariably focus on Robert F. Kennedy Jr, who is indeed an anti-science loon. But the most notable thing about RFK jr is that he happens to share his name with his famous father. He’s never held, or even stood for, elective office of any kind. By contrast, prominent Republican politicians included Michelle Bachmann and Dan Burton have pushed anti-vax rhetoric.

At one time, the generally leftish Huffington Post ran a lot of anti-vax stuff. But they came under sustained pressure from the pro-science left, and have now abandoned this almost entirely. The only recent anti-vax piece I could find came from Lawrence Solomon, a right wing Canadian climate denier (more on this later) And survey evidence suggests that anti-vaxerism, like other conspiracy theories, is more prevalent among Republicans. A PPP poll reports that 26 per cent of Republicans believe that vaccines cause autism, compared to 16 per cent of Democrats.

Next, there’s nuclear power. As we’ve discussed, policy choices regarding nuclear power raise a wide range of issues, few of which can be answered by referring to peer-reviewed scientific evidence. The right wing claim (usually implied rather than spelt out) is that the left is opposed to nuclear power because of unjustified fears about health risks and accidents. The standard straw person here, filling the role of RFK Jr in the antivax debate, is Helen Caldicott. The problems with the right wing claim are numerous

* First, the left as a whole does not take any unified view on this question. Most obviously, the Obama Administration in the US has promoted nuclear power as part of an “all of the above” approach to climate change, and has received little in the way of pushback from the broader US left (compare the intensity of the campaign against Keystone XL with the handful of desultory protests against nuclear plants currently under construction)

* Second, while some on the left may have opposed nuclear power for reasons that don’t stand up to scrutiny, they at least got closer to the correct answer on the broader question of whether nuclear power is a sensible solution to our energy problems. It is the political right who have proved immune to evidence on this question. No country in the world has, as yet, managed to sustain cheap and safe nuclear power over any lengthy period, and investors everywhere have abandoned the technology. Yet the belief that nuclear power is a solution to our problems, being blocked only by crazy greenies, remains a cornerstone of rightwing tribal identity.

* Finally, even on the narrow question of accident risks, it’s hard to reach a conclusive answer. Nuclear meltdowns are rare but extreme events. No one can say for sure that the worst accidents we’ve seen so far (TMI,Chernobyl and Fukushima) encompass the worst that can possibly happen. These are complex engineering questions on which science doesn’t have a lot to say. Alleged experts who claimed to know for sure (notably Barry Brook in relation to Fukushima and the pre-TMI Rasmussen report on nuclear safety in the US) ended up with egg on their faces. My own judgement is that accident risks alone aren’t enough to reject nuclear power, but the cost of the safety precautions required to prevent accidents is part of the reason nuclear power is inefficient.

Evolution and creationism provide an even more interesting case. Until relatively recently, beliefs about evolution were largely uncorrelated with political affiliation. But creationism is now a Republican political issue, and beliefs are lining up accordingly, with Republicans supporting biblical literalism and Democrats mostly supporting theistic evolution[^4]

Finally, there is the question of Genetic Modification (GM) technology. This is the strongest point of the rightwing tu quoque. Greenpeace, for example, is guilty as charged of being anti-science on this issue. But Greenpeace and likeminded groups are only a minority among Greens who are, in turn, only a minority of the Left.

There are a variety of reasons for being concerned about the assertion of corporate ownership over genetic resources of which GM is (a relatively small) part, and for allowing consumers to choose whether or not to consume GM foods (regardless of whether there are objective reasons to prefer non-GM to GM, or vice versa). But outright opposition to GM based on spurious claims about health risks is definitely a minority position.

Turning to tribalism, it is silly to point to criticism of figures like Murdoch and Rinehart as tribalist. They are powerful people who use their power (derived from wealth) to advocate bad policies, and do so in an aggressive and dishonest way. The fact that they then whine about being the subject of counter-attacks, is just further evidence of their dishonesty.

Similarly, there is nothing inherently tribalist in advocating policies that would redistribute income, wealth and power away from the rich for the benefit of society as a whole, any more than in advocating free market policies that would harm some groups and benefit others. Such policies should, be advocated on the basis that they will make society as a whole better off, and not on the basis that the winners are the right kinds of people and the losers the wrong kind,

Tribalism involves attacks designed to mobilise one group against another on the basis of perceived identity. It is easy to point to a long list of groups perceived as tribal enemies by the right: environmentalists, public sector workers, unionists, gays, scientists, cultural ‘elitists’, refugees, welfare recipients (except age pensioners), ethnic and indigenous ‘lobbies’ and so on: in fact, just about any group that is seen as supporting the left or centre-left, is attacked in these terms.

By contrast, most of the groups that form the base of the political right (for example: small business, farmers, the military, self-funded retirees, mainstream churches) are treated with solicitous respect by the centre-left parties. The most notable example of a group commonly treated as a tribal enemy is that of fundamentalist Christians, and even here, there have been plenty of attempts at engagement, for example, on the idea of environmental stewardship.

To sum up, even when true, the tu quoque argument is an implicit admission of error. When it isn’t true, as in the case of the claims that the left and right are equally guilty of tribalism and anti-scientific thinking, it amounts to an intellectual coverup.

[^1]: Almost entirely in the US, Canada and Australia. To a slightly lesser extent in UK and NZ.
[^2]: By contrast, this is the normal response when instances of racism or corruption are pointed out. The primary defence is that these instances are unrepresentative. A tu quoque if offered, is usually of the form “there are similar instances on the left”, but no one on that side would concede that they are unrepresentative.
[^3]: Here’s an attempt, which relies on the ludicrous claim that among Congressional Republicans ” the vast majority do not reject the underlying science of global warming” (There’s also a big load of tu quoque)
[^4]: Some have tried to argue that this position is just as inconsistent with science as is Young Earth Creationism. But in reality, anyone who believes both in God (in the usual senses of this term) and evolution must believe that God guided evolution, just as they must believe that God was responsible for the Big Bang and the evolution of the universe. More generally, they must believe that religion is consistent with the findings of science. Whether or not this is a logically defensible position, it isn’t anti-science.

45 thoughts on “Tu quoque, revisited

  1. There are loony elements of the left. Groups who’ll immediately believe any rubbish that fits their beliefs. But they are a small minority.

    I wonder if the broad right also thinks that its just a few loonies giving them a bad name? Actually, no, it is their spokespeople and icons who spout the stuff, so its pretty fair to tar them all with the same brush.

  2. I read this and had to laugh “Before you go cry-screaming that Donald Trump is also easily offended, just remember; he was originally a Democrat. One of yours.”

  3. There is certainly a huge anti-science movement abroad in the world today. This is in addition to those billions (literally) who have never understood science or have rejected it because (a) they never had the chance for a proper scientific (and humanist) education in the first place or (b) they were indoctrinated (brain-washed) by the blind, pro-faith, anti-science reasoning of the monotheistic religions and maybe many of the polytheistic religions too. Now, extreme right, alt-right, neoliberal and general capitalist ideology, quite frankly, have all turned against science except perhaps for some of the more “semi-enlightened” capitalists who are in favour of production science even if they are not in favour of impact science.

    This movement by late stage capitalist ideology (generally) towards anti-science and anti-truth positions is intrinsic to the set-up of capitalist ideology itself as it reaches its extremes in late stage capitalism. Capitalist ideology is always about denying truths (along with denying equal opportunities and rights to the masses) at some level. Denying truth becomes a habit and it spreads like a cancer through any thought-system which operates with any method of truth-denial. Fixating on a “tribalism” explanation, even on a neo-tribalism explanation to use a more sociological term, is fixating on only one aspect of the aetiology of truth-denial under our system (capitalism). Truth-denial is intrinsic to the ideology as I have said. It is no surprise it should reach epidemic proportions under late-stage, florid capitalism.

    We are possibly heading for new dark age of sorts: a kind of “Endarkenment” is in progress. Yet, paradoxically, those still doing science (both production and impact science) are still making great strides and people do still embrace highly useful advances. The one big concern is that the possibilities of unforeseen consequences (impacts) are being too heavily discounted (in all senses) and the precautionary principle is not being properly applied. It is hard for these things to happen under the ideology and rule of such appalling ignorance as that displayed by the right wing, in all its variations.

    In typical dialectical fashion, it is the synthesis outcome of these opposed trends and forces that we both await and must seek to influence in some fashion. Dialectics here, including dialectical materialism, should be no mystery to any tertiary educated person. It is only an old-fashioned term and a pre-cursor concept for system thinking, encapsulating contrary influences, trends and feedbacks along with synthesis outcomes, supervenience and emergence. Marx was an early systems thinker. Probably got there well before any other philosopher other than Hegel of course. But he demystified Hegel and took the unresolvable idealism and mysticism out of Hegelian thought. At least, that’s the way I see it. Though I admit if I searched Darwin and Hume I would most probably find clear precursor complex systems thinking there. Heck, someone more learned than me might even be able to tell us it is there in Heraclitus.

  4. @Ikonoclast

    This movement by late stage capitalist ideology (generally) towards anti-science and anti-truth positions is intrinsic to the set-up of capitalist ideology itself

    Hmmm. Now I never thought that Stalin’s USSR was a “late stage capitalist ideology” – but how otherwise to explain and justify Lysenkoism ? Or to explain what happened to Sergei Korolev.

    But Stalin was really a universalist and even included composers – eg Shostakovich’s “A Soviet Artist’s Response to Just Criticism”.

    Oh, capitalism just shows its ugly face everywhere, doesn’t it.

  5. @GrueBleen

    The statement I made does not preclude that the possibility that other systems of thought set up (or trend toward) anti-science and anti-truth positions. I would have thought this was made explicitly clear in my trenchant criticism of faith-based reasoning and religion.

    Notwithstanding glib dismissals, capitalism does in fact show its ugly side in many places, in many times. Again, this does not mean that other systems do not have or do not show ugly sides in many places and times. I suppose you are aware of the history of the East India Co. and the British Raj, or the history of the Belgian Congo, to name just a couple of egregious examples. I can also mention that Nazi Germany was a corporate capitalist nation since you broke Godwin’s Law first. A mention of Stalin’s USSR is functionally identical to a mention of Nazi Germany under Godwin’s Law.

  6. @Ikonoclast

    I would have thought this was made explicitly clear

    Isn’t it just terrible how people simply can’t home in on your precise meaning. I never have any problem with that, myself.

    But perhaps the point I’m trying to make is that “anti-science” (or whatever else you care to call it) isn’t a property of “complex systems” such as capitalism, pseudo-communism, feudalism, theocracy or whatever else you might want to include in your list, but of that “complex system” called homo sapiens sapiens.

  7. Had some more jabs last week a booster for a rather weak Hep B response, a Hep A jab and a combined pertussis and tetanus.

    I don’t need culture wars. I just need a immune system that will cope well, and to not be a spreader of infectious disease.

  8. I am not sure we are looking at “capitalist societies” anymore and I am equally unsure about the term “Post Capitalist” as if some dusty velvet curtain has been drawn. Left and Right have also lost their relevance. With the election of Trump the major economies are now oligarchies. The global economy has been for some time, bit players Murdoch, Rinehart, Koch Bros etc, as has the UK (The City) Russia, China and now the US. A seamless amalgam of total political and financial power is not capitalism. Debates on subjects like vaccination are just froth encouraged by the power base unless they should impinge on their position.

  9. One of the few things, probably the only thing, I admire about the Australian Greens is they are pretty good on vaccinations. Hopefully it is more than just the fact that the Christian parties in the upper houses of the states seek religious exemptions.

    Sadly, the New Zealand Greens is cannot reach a consensus on vaccinations so it has no policy, supports local choice on fluoridation, and their food safety spokesman believes homeopathic products were the answer to Ebola.

  10. Jim Rose :
    Sadly, the New Zealand Greens … food safety spokesman believes

    Steffan Browing believes just about any random bit of garbage that crosses his path, though. He’s more an example of the perils of democracy in the environment Ikonoclast describes above. I had a go at him over a now-deleted blog post where he was upset that there are chemicals in food.

  11. The Greens globally are becoming steadily more pro-science at the same time as the mainstream right has adopted a consistently anti-science position. That’s most obvious on vaccination, where the NZ party (if reported accurately) is among the last in the English-speaking world (don’t know much about Europe) not to take a clear pro-science view. Similarly, there’s a steady move away from support for homeopathy.

    Contrast this with the support of the mainstream conservative parties for nonsense claims about infrasound from wind turbines (not the most egregiously anti-science view they espouse, but the kind of spurious health risk claim that would once have been found mainly on the left).

  12. @John Quiggin

    The “greens” are a very mixed bunch, here, there, and everywhere.

    But I do wish that it was easy to determine just what it is that “science” says. I remember not so long ago, for instance, trying to check what was an acceptable quantity of sodium chloride to consume on a daily basis, so, of course, I asked the web. I found that at least five nations had published a ‘safe level of NaCl for daily consumption’ (Australia, NZ, Canada, the USA and one other I think), and you know, not one of them agreed with any other of them – all five had different quantities.

    And the reason for that ? Because there was no ‘science’ in the determination of the recommended maximums – some pretty useless “correlations” though, all returning different numbers. But nobody knows precisely what functions NaCl performs in the human biome (borrowing a term) and therefore they can’t determine how much is needed and how much is either too little or too much (especially if you eat a banana or two each day).

    Oh yes, one really has to believe in “science”, doesn’t one.

    But since you’re mentioning infrasound, I thought I might recall to consciousness the whole electrical powerline EMF scares of … oh, about a decade ago at least. Do we remember that ? Has it really gone away now ?

  13. @GrueBleen

    Some good points. Of course, anything like a “safe” level for a human activity involves a mixture of natural science, social science and value judgement, so there’s no correct answer.

    For example, since planes sometimes crash, the “safe” level of flying is zero. But people are going to travel and every other mode is more dangerous. And, if people didn’t travel all sorts of consequences, including changes in health risks would follow. I think you could make a similar case for salt.

    The characteristic feature of the anti-science position arises when the findings of natural science, combined with “average” value judgements imply conclusions that are unpalatable to people with non-average value judgements.

    On EMF, isn’t this the same as the “Wi-Fried” that Maryann Demasi made notorious a year or two ago?

  14. @John Quiggin

    Indeed, and a good old fashioned aeroplane crash is much more likely to be instantly fatal than several years of over-consuming NaCl (especially if you eat bananas)

    However, I find that often the “science” is neither as settled nor as deterministic as we might wish. And frequently hasn’t even been applied at all as witness a significant number of ‘conventional’ medical procedures that have never actually been subject to empirical testing. You can have a nice read of https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Evidence-based_medicine for some examples of subjectivity/non-science in clinical medicine.

    No, not Demasi’s WiFi (some “concerns” have been around about that for a while too) but the big scare about cancer from the very high voltage overhead power transmission lines, eg into suburban Melbourne from the Yallourn generating plants. It was a big deal – at least for some people – for quite a while and you can still find statements on the web such as:

    “According to research and publications put out by the World Health Organization (WHO), EMF such as those from power lines, can cause:

    Prickling and/or burning skin
    Muscle pain”
    which you can find at: https://www.safespaceprotection.com/emf-health-risks/emf-health-effects/power-lines/ Does it remind you of infrasound at all ?

    The whole topic got the usual big run from the mainstream media for a few months and then just seemed to fade away – and as far as I am aware nothing was ever done to shield nearby residents from the generated EMF – eg they were never buried underground (very expensive).

    PS: be careful of sleeping on electric blankets 🙂

  15. @John Quiggin
    I wouldn’t say the Green Party in the US is following that lead ProfQ. Jill Stein certainly did her best to walk the fine line between supporting vaccinations personally, while using weasel words to pander to the anti-vaxxers that make up a substantial sub-population of her party. Additionally their platform on transgenic organisms is straight out of the Greenpeace handbook: a complete ban of the release of any transgenic organisms for any reason. Further reading of their platforms leads to crazy stuff like banning “the production and release of synthetic chemicals”, the phasing out of “synthetic fertilizers and pesticides” and replacing it with organic farming. These are not the policies of a pro-science party. On the other hand many of their other policies (human rights, justice and education reforms for example) are admirable.

  16. @GrueBleen

    How humans “arrange themselves” physically, socially, politically, economically and even in their thoughts is influenced by social and environmental factors. In building a society we build and re-build our environment and milieu meaning to a large extent the above factors (as well as the natural environment which is also changed). The manners in which people think, act and make arrangements are in turn influenced by feedback mechanisms from the arrangements (the systematic arrangements, to tautologically emphasise the point) they make. In other words the systems people make in turn remake people at all levels. We change at all levels; physiologically, genetically, phenotypically and in our ideations.

    Physiologically, we have been changed (on average) by the industrial food system. In many ways for the better. Better nourished, healthier, stronger, taller and so on. Although there are also strong negative affects now on some aspects of public health such as the obesity epidemic, the diabetes epidemic and so on. Genetically, there is strong evidence now that the invention of farming and the rise of civilization and all their attendant changes have placed different selection pressures on us, lessening some pressures, increasing others and introducing new ones. We have indeed evolved since the advent of agriculture. Finally, all the systems we create (language being one example, capitalism being another of quite different type) feed back into our ideation and quite literally play a role in determining which thoughts we think, even which thoughts we can and cannot think.

    You seem to have a view of human agency where it acts but is never acted upon. But our human agency (individual or social) is also acted upon. The systems themselves, as well as other humans, influence the thoughts and desires of the individual and the expression of those in words and acts. If these system influences did not operate on individuals neither education systems nor advertising agencies would be of any effect (to give two obvious examples). And it is certainly the case that the extant system (in this case late stage capitalism with less mixed economy element via privatisations and smaller government) via all its structures, operations,demands and effects then “educates”, forms, influences and indoctrinates people; thus in turn influencing their thoughts, their desires and finally the expression of their agency.

  17. @Ikonoclast

    How humans “arrange themselves” physically, socially, politically, economically … and quite literally play a role in determining which thoughts we think, even which thoughts we can and cannot think.

    Well thank you for that fine tutorial, Ikono. Without it, I might have thought that instead of being an evolved species, homo sapiens sapiens was created just once in its current state (though I would have to wonder how that process has managed to keep just about 1/3rd of us only able to internally create lactase). And I might even have been fooled into thinking that there is some degree of individuality and even ‘free will’ that are properties of human existence.

    You seem to have a view of human agency where it acts but is never acted upon.

    Do I ? And is it society’s impact on your agency that drives you to espouse this ? You see, the impact of society on my agency drives me to think that what I really have a view of is that humans are not totally malleable, physically or mentally, and that some components of human existence are highly resistant – and with some more than others.

    So I can quite imagine that there are some human properties that occur regardless of society: criminality probably being one, but also dissent even to the point of revolution. Otherwise, however, your lecture on the forces of conformity is noted. How do you personally react to those forces ? With total surrender or with dissidence ?

  18. @GrueBleen

    I agree with your last paragraph, in general. I don’t argue that we have no inherent nature and I don’t argue that the forces of conformity always induce compliance. It was simply that your earlier reply seemed to imply (to me) a position of rejection of the point of view that a system, a particular socio-economic system, with its systemic effects (obviously), can predispose or induce general patterns of behavior in sectors of the populace. The extant system (any extant system) sets up controlling material conditions and persuasive ideological conditions which channel people physically and ideationally in certain directions. Of course people can climb out of these channels (sometimes) and break barriers and barricades, physical and ideational.

    But you basically seem (to me) to summarily dismiss the ideas that (a) capitalism is a really existing system with clearly definable system characteristics and (b) these characteristics predispose or prime both the system itself and people in it to act or develop in certain ways and not act or develop in certain other ways. I mean point (b) in the probabilistic sense. Certain emergent system behaviours and certain human behaviors, emergent or “agency-like” are more probable under capitalism than under any other system. The same applies to other systems, say the feudal system. Certain emergent system behaviours and certain human behaviors are more probable under that system than under at least some other systems.

    To use the example of criminality, while no system will abolish or absolutely prevent criminality, some systems generate more criminality than others. Of course, this will partly depend on how the system defines criminality and how it enforces or attempts to force its laws. But beyond that, if it is accepted within a moral or ethical system, that certain behaviours are never tolerable in a modern, generally affluent, scientific-humanist and secular society, with religious tolerance also included, then it will still be seen that some systems generate more morally wrong actions (criminal when criminalised by law) than others. A system which is affluent (on average) but has high levels of inequality (with a proportionally significant immiserated class) will generate more criminality as defined by the publicly accepted moral system (and the legal system if it reflects that) than a system which is the same in other respects but has much lower levels of inequality and exclusion from opportunity.

    Late stage capitalism (usually called neoliberalism) is just such a system which is increasing inequality (as an axiomatic consequence of its internal, systemic operations while the rate of return of capital is greater than the rate of growth – as Piketty demonstrated) and thus as a direct effect it is increasing criminal problems. The slums of the USA are a prime example. The system itself (late stage capitalism) operates in this manner, with an immanent logic, unless moderated by other factors like democratic government intervention and welfarism.

    Some people say we don’t have “capitalism” because it is not pure and unadulterated, IE it is not pure, laissez-faire capitalism. This is like saying the sea does not have water because it is not pure water, it has salt in it. Such propositions are highly illogical and untenable in my very firm, very considered and heavily researched opinion; for a lay person on matters of ideology, political economy and general socio-economics. If I can’t take people with me in that argument that is not necessarily a fault in my logic, though it might be a fault with my presentational rhetoric.

    The above is my very firm opinion. I place approaching-zero credence in the argument, the specious argument I hold, that capitalism does not exist and that it is not of central importance in determining contemporary people’s lives (some effects are good too), the shape of our societies and global civilization’s (generally deleterious) effects on the natural environment or biosphere.

  19. @Ikonoclast

    Hmm, well that is a fairly long (for this media anyway) response, Ikono, and perhaps with due consideration on various points there may even be some convergence. But before I try to adequately respond, I’d like to take my turn at the “You seem to have a view … ” prologue.

    To me, you seem to have a view based on a quite rigidly reified thing called “capitalism” which you then seem to regard as monolithic.

    I look around, and even in a relatively confined space such as Australia, I see the simultaneous existence of many different “versions” of capitalism. For instance, I see ‘feudal capitalism’ (with the nobles as capital (asset) owners instead of land/property rentiers), and I see ‘robber Baron’ capitalism where certain agents corner significant amounts of capital(assets) and then acquire indentured labour, and i see ‘entrepreneurial capitalism’ where there is some ‘creative destruction’ and/or new venture startups where older capitalists may be dispossessed.

    As to Piketty, well he may, or may not be right: very few capitalist ‘noble families’ have actually lasted all that long before being displaced or turned over. After all, we do all recall that wise folk saying: “clogs to clogs in three generations”. And apart from that, most of us don’t actually care if others have a lot, provided we have enough.

    And if you’d like a bit more of an idea of what I mean by ‘feudal capitalism’, I’ll quote a couple of paragraphs below which expands on that. Then I’ll go do a few other things and come back a little later for a longer, slower read of your post so I can decide if there’s anything worthwhile I can say bout it:

    Feudal Capitalism (with just a hint of ‘robber Baron’ too):

    In November 1998, Yeung and Morck collaborated with David Strangeland (University of Manitoba) and showed in their paper, “Inherited Wealth, Corporate Control and Economic Growth: The Canadian Disease,” how the Canadian economy was partly controlled by families with inherited wealth using pyramidal holding structures.

    In August 2004 the pair co-authored with Daniel Wolfenzon an even wider analysis, covering more countries. Their paper, “Corporate Governance, Economic Entrenchment and Growth,” showed how pyramidal structures, cross shareholding, and super voting rights are common and used to control corporations and, in some cases, even whole industries.

  20. Vioxx

    “Good” science, jumped through all the hoops (after the hoops had been rigged and set at the desired levels). Made Merck BILLIONS of dollars. Maybe killed about 100,000 people.


    Similar stories for many other pharmaceuticals – i.e. dodgy science, billions in profits, people die.

    So maybe it would be a much better idea to address the concerns of “anti-vaxxers” that stem from that – very real and scientifically proven history – than to simply abuse them.

    Of course, like any bunch of “true believers”, some will be beyond honest discussion but most would at least be open to a civil discourse.

  21. @D
    Dear D,
    can you write a few short clear sentences stating what you are trying to claim. It seems hard to work out what you are trying to get at, I’m not even completely clear you are anti vax. Make your sentences self standing, don’t assume we know your core argument let alone who Merck is, or who these 100,000 killed are.
    Would also be good if you could tell us what proof you have seen. Not necessarily prove it to us, just show us why you are so convinced. And it would be good (ie it would help your argument) if you could point out where the science wasn’t done and where it was done and again why you believe this to be the case.

  22. @Ikonoclast

    Hmm, well to quote somebody above: “I agree with your last paragraph, in general.”

    But then, to quote the punchline of a very Trumpian joke: We know what you are (capitalism), what we’re doing is arguing over the price But I would suggest that one of your statements be slightly amended as: “…can predispose or induce or just ‘lubricate’ or basically enable general patterns of behavior…”

    Yes, our ‘total environment’ basically forms much of our existence, but let me point out to you a quote from Catch 22:

    The God [capitalism] I don’t believe in is a good God [capitalism], a just God [capitalism], a merciful God [capitalism]. He’s not the mean and stupid God [capitalism] you make him out to be.” (Lieutenant Scheisskopf’s wife P.180)

    So, definitely some commonality and convergence here, Ikono, but not nearly enough to declare ourselves a duprass just yet. A karass, maybe, later on.

  23. MartinK,

    If one’s goal is to abuse “anti-vaxxers” then abusing them would be an obvious way to go about it. On the other hand, if one’s goal is to inform and educate “anti-vaxxers” then understanding what bases they may have for their views and – in the case of those open to civil discourse – using evidence and reasoned argument might be useful.

    On the V i o x x issue, you may find this article informative: pharmaceutical-journal.com/news-and-analysis/features/still-feeling-the-v i o x x-pain/20066485.article (you’ll have to rebuild the link or simply search the title: “Still feeling the v i o x x pain”).

    Short points: The drug caused heart attacks in many thousands of users, that adverse effect would/should have been detected at least by 2001, after 2001 prescriptions roughly doubled until the manufacturer withdrew it in 2004, they made over $US11Billion dollars from its sale.

    That is just one example of one product (T h a l id o m y d e etc…, there are many examples in just pharmaceuticals and many more if one looks further into consumer safety vs corporate profit and proper regulation.

  24. According to the Government’s data, 93.41% of all Australian children now are “fully immunised”.

    So the anti-“anti-vaxxers” are probably being misdirected in the expenditure of their emotional effort and energy.

  25. @D

    if one’s goal is to inform and educate “anti-vaxxers” then understanding what bases they may have for their views and – in the case of those open to civil discourse – using evidence and reasoned argument might be useful.

    No it won’t, you’ll just get the same backfire effect you always get from irrational people who prefer to believe ‘alternative facts‘.

  26. @GrueBleen

    You are spot on in the bold print. Maybe D left a caveat that gives him an escape clause, namely; “in the case of those (anti-vaxxers) open to civil discourse”.

    Since zero is probably the number of anti-vaxxers open to civil discourse that pretty much settles it.

    Of course he could have wrapped it right up with; “in the case of those (anti-vaxxers) open to civil and rational discourse”.

  27. It’s striking that D attacks vaccines, which yield almost zero profit to corporations, by reference to the alleged evils of Big Pharma. To adopt a “tu quoque”, the most egregious case of profiteering in relation to vaccination is the appalling Andrew Wakefield, who lined his own pockets while contributing to the spread of disease and death.

  28. “It’s striking that D attacks vaccines…”


    I don’t believe I do, and certainly didn’t intend to.

    My points are clearly about “anti-vaxxers”, not vaccines.

  29. Merci, Ikono.

    Some years ago I had this thought: “Suffficient stupidity is indistinguishable from evil”(apparently quite a few others also had that thought, or something like it – totally independently so they claim).

    Anyway, more recently, my thinking has been along the line that: yes, but what if someone is both evil and stupid ? (Do we have any examples of that ?).

    There’s quite a few in public life that score bigin that respect. So, maybe it’s a ‘blessing’ as in “too stupid to effect much actual evil” and that seems to be mostly so. Even in the most egregious example – the original Godwin’s jar man – if he hadn’t been quite as stupid as he was, Germany might really have conquered the world (and maybe, in a reduced fashion, the ‘Man of Steel’ too).

    Not that I think D is actually stupid, or evil, whatever the sex or gender applicable (is that from personal knowledge, Tim ?), but what I do think is that if human beings could really think and readily separate the “alternative facts” from the iintersubjective “truth”, then the human race would have had colonies on other planets thousands of years ago and would probably have reached the Centauri system long ago.

    So it goes.

  30. @D
    I still can’t work out what your point is, and I’m not sure you actually know yourself.
    How can you not be against anti-vaxers if you are not against vaccination?
    How can you say we shouldn’t speak out against anti-vaxers if we believe they are doing something extremely harmful?
    Or have I misunderstood even that sentence?

    I’ll ask again, what is your point you are trying to make and your reasoning behind it?
    (Or do you just want post some general comment that you are upset at what John said about anti-vaxers without being too clear because it mightn’t hold up to scrutiny?)

  31. @D
    (Or do you just want post some general comment that you are upset at what John said about anti-vaxers without being too clear because it mightn’t hold up to scrutiny?)

    That came out a bit harsh, not what I was trying to do. I really meant to say that is what it looks like. I suspect that is not what you are trying to achieve, but in reality I don’t of course know.

  32. MartinK,

    We seem to have a communication problem.

    Firstly: I don’t think anyone self-identifies as an “anti-vaxxer”. It is a label applied subjectively by the observer. For the sake of the argument, let’s go with what is probably an easy definition – someone who opposes getting vaccinated for themselves or their children.

    Secondly: What do you mean by being “against” that person?

    I’ll try to make my point again: You consider that person is doing something extremely harmful. So, what would you like that person to do instead (it seems obvious that the answer would be: “I want them and their children to get vaccinated” – but correct me if that’s not the answer)?

    So, how would you try to get that person to do that? Force? Compulsion by threat of punishment? Seizure of property? Removal of children? Education, information, respectful dialogue starting from a genuine attempt to understand why they hold the views that make them an “anti-vaxxer”?

    The most prevalent method appears to be to abuse them. I posit that perhaps there is a better (and more decent) way to go about it.

  33. “I posit that perhaps there is a better (and more decent) way to go about it.”

    Maybe you could spell that out a bit, as I did above. To summarize very briefly, I advocate a respectful approach to parents who are genuinely confused, explaining why vaccination is important to their children and others, while being ruthless in the exposure of criminals like Wakefield and propagandists like Meryl Dorey, not to mention Trump and the US Republican Party (the subject of the OP)

    What is your approach?

  34. @Jim Rose

    And yet, in Sydney, the inner west and inner east, aka Greens Central, have among the lowest rates of MMR vaccInaction, noticeably lower than the Liberal voting Morth Shore and Labor voting south west. Go figure.

  35. Much the same – but being very careful to differentiate the misinformed (and understandably distrusting/cautious) from the frauds and charlatans so as not to heap abuse on the former ‘by association’.

    But, unless the definition of “anti-vaxxer” I used above is narrowed very substantially to only include the likes of Wakefield etc.., (and it hasn’t been used that way here in the comments, and the broader definition is used most frequently in general), then experience shows abusing the “anti-vaxxer” is the prevalent approach.

    Just re-read the tone of some comments (and questioning of my gender??), on the mere suspicion without evidence that I was an “anti-vaxxer”, for suggesting – as it now turns out – the same approach.

  36. @Smith

    This kind of reasoning has proved misleading in the US context, and not only wrt vaccination.


    Yes, speculation on gender is inappropriate (Tim Macknay please note). OTOH, I don’t see any basis for your claim that criticism of anti-vaccine views in the OP and comments is directed at those who merely misinformed, rather than active misinformers like Wakefield and (in the OP), Trump and RFK Jr. among other leading Republicans.

    In any case, we seem to be in agreement on the general approach.

  37. @John Quiggin
    My apologies – that comment was made on the basis that D is the commenter formerly known as Megan, and was not intended as speculative. Sometimes people take offense at misapplication of gender pronouns. However, it doesn’t appear that D is offended at being described as male, so perhaps my comment was unwarranted. It’s also possible, of course, that the moniker ‘Megan’ did not accurately reflect that commenter’s gender (although it seems to me that it would be reasonable to assume that it did). Anyway, point taken – I will make no more comments about D’s gender.

  38. I’m not “Megan”.

    You say I am.

    Put up your evidence or retract.

    Ironic that this is happening on a thread about “reason” and “truth” vs “conspiracy theories”.

  39. @D
    Thanks for your reply D,
    that does a lot to clear things up. I’m glad I pushed you to clarify, as that is not what I thought you were trying to say in your first post. I very much hope you keep posting, it doesn’t look like I’ve discouraged you for which I’m glad, but I may again push to pin down what you mean – should it be a topic of interest to me and should I have the time.
    John Quiggin’s 2 replies to you pretty much cover how I feel. Of course the charlatan’s are the types like Wakefield, not everyone who believe it is dangerous to vaccinate their kids.

  40. @D

    to differentiate the misinformed (and understandably distrusting/cautious) from the frauds and charlatans

    Well I guess we do have to convince every new generation that the Earth is really spherical, and some – doubtless experiencing distrust/caution – simply don’t believe it and that is why we still have Flat Earth Societies.

    But how do people get to be “misinformed” and/or harbour distrust/caution ? Is it just because they are so ignorant that they’ve never heard of the medical profession or been treated by a doctor ? Who and what do they “believe” and why ?

  41. @D
    Ok, sure. The reason I assumed that you’re Megan is that you have a very similar discourse style, the same turn of phrase, the same choice of subject matter and appear to have the same opinions. Megan, a long-time commenter on this blog, stopped commenting here around a year or so ago for reasons known only to her(?)self. You started commenting quite recently, AFAICT, in the last two or three months.

    Specifically, both you and Megan call Obama ‘Mr Hopey-Changey’ (I’ve never come across anyone else who calls him that), are scathing critics of Australian refugee policy, advocates of free public transport, exhibit a generally pro-Russia geopolitical perspective, are scathing critics of both the LNP and ALP but particularly the ALP, and have distinctly ambiguous views on vaccines. Given those similarities, I just assumed you were the same person. The likelihood of two unconnected people commenting on this blog having those factors in common seemed to me infinitesimally small. I assumed (mistakenly, it appears) that this was quite obvious.

    However, since you say you’re not Megan, I’m happy to take your word for it. It’s doesn’t particularly matter. 🙂

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