Binary Thinking

In reading “news” stories lately, not to mention various comments in social media about topics ranging from politics to COVID vaccines, I was struck again by the power of binary thinking, as well as how perceptions are manipulated by asking (and answering) the wrong question. Another frequent related problem is making assertions that are perhaps true, but presented out of context in such a way as to create a false perception. This usually results in the two “sides” talking past one another and a shouting match ensues; there is no shared worldview to even begin a discussion.

Here’s a concrete example regarding vaccines: In skimming a discussion about mRNA vaccines it was said by one advocate that there is no evidence or “mechanism” they cause birth defects. The problem is, that’s “true” as far as it goes but also misleading. Pregnancy was a specifically excluded condition during the trails reported so far, and all of the documentation submitted to the FDA said it was not assessed. As for mechanism, there are in fact several potential mechanisms where something could go wrong, given the rapid and complex cell division that occurs during the early stages. Is it rare? Possible or impossible? Probable? Likely? We just don’t know – there is no evidence. Last time I looked at least 18 people had become pregnant during the trials and are being closely monitored, but that’s a very small sample size, and until the children are several years old, it can’t be said for sure that there were not problems. It was also said no long term side effects have been reported. That is true but highly misleading: the vaccines were only developed less than a year ago, so there hasn’t been enough time for any long term effects to develop or reach a statistical threshold. So therein lies the problem – saying “there is no evidence” when there have been very limited (or no) studies is absolutely not the same thing as saying “there have been detailed studies an no problem was found.” That’s a distinction that is lost on many people.

For the record on this subject, here is what CDC says as of 7 January 2021: Based on how mRNA vaccines work, experts believe they are unlikely to pose a specific risk for people who are pregnant. However, the actual risks of mRNA vaccines to the pregnant person and her fetus are unknown because these vaccines have not been studied in pregnant women. We know COVID19 presents risks to pregnant women, so if in a high risk group (like a health care provider) it might make sense to be vaccinated with an mRNA vaccine despite the unknowns. Work from home and sensible about social distancing, etc? Maybe best to wait. It’s not an easy call, based on an objective view of the available data.

Again, this isn’t to be anti-vaccine. There are rational risk-benefit arguments for some, and over time as more data is collected and if the early results hold up, increasingly large segments of the population to take these vaccines. What bothers me is that people present it as a binary, “no brainier” choice. It’s just not that straightforward and it is hubris to assert that it is.

Unfortunately there is no shortage of hubris, exaggeration, and binary thinking in order to sway opinions in our public dialogue these days. I could cite many examples, from election fraud (it probably didn’t impact the results, but that’s not the point: the US election system is broken, with deep structural flaws such that it doesn’t meet standards it imposes on other countries), to social debates like LGBTQ issues or abortion or climate change or …

In short, it takes objectivity and careful analysis to reach good conclusions. This is especially hard given the political parties benefit from a sharply divided electorate, advocates for various issues minimize or are even blind to potentially adverse consequences, and demand you “take a stand”, and of course the media industry profits from the noise and drama all that creates. Please don’t feed that process, and try to understand that many situations are not sound-byte simple.

In short, life is complex. Don’t fall into the trap of absolutes.

Not a big Star Wars fan, but it has its moments.

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