What is Nostr?
A Scientist /
2023-04-16 10:31:15

A Scientist on Nostr: This short essay was originally published on Substack on October 16, 2021. Copying ...

This short essay was originally published on Substack on October 16, 2021. Copying here.

# epistemRNA

I am a scientist. In particular I hold an advanced degree in cell and molecular biology from the University of California and I have co-authored published research in an established, peer-reviewed scientific journal (Journal of Neurophysiology). I include these credentials for the sake of people who believe credentials confer credibility. Having met and worked with many people with and without credentials, I do not hold that belief and I assert that the credibility of what follows is self-evident.

## 1.
Here’s my scientific *opinion*: If you have *faith in science* but do not actually understand how science works, what the scientific method can and can’t tell you, *what science is*, then that (your faith, your “scientific beliefs”) is exactly **NOT** science. That is religion. Following others, I call that religion “scientism”. It is a scourge on the practice of actual science and its ubiquity is a symptom of a widespread, catastrophic estrangement from the fundamental responsibilities of knowing how to think and thinking for oneself.

If, on the other hand, you *don’t believe in science* because you do not understand how science works, what the scientific method can and can’t tell you, *what science is*, and because scientific results seem to be in conflict with your religious beliefs, something you read or something someone told you, then you are afflicted with a similar, if sociopolitically distinct, mental pathology.

For whatever it’s worth, my seat of the pants estimate is that the above two characterizations cover approximately 97% of human thought about “science” in our time. To quote a modern media clown: *sad!*

Anyone who believes that science tells you anything definitive about what the world is, is not a scientist. Even if they have scientific “credentials”. If you think you are a scientist and that science tells you anything definitive about what is, you have an anti-scientific premise, an *a priori*, faith-based assumption that an experimental result specifies the world it must happen in when in fact any given experimental result is compatible with an infinity of potential worlds (some of which you can partially imagine, a literal infinity of which you cannot), and you are practicing *scientism*. In my experience, this criticism applies to well over 90% of working “scientists” and 100% of “science” bureaucrats (e.g. Anthony Fauci) and entertainers (e.g. Neil deGrasse Tyson).

**We are each and all of us born into a perfect mystery.** Science, the scientific method, can never tell you what *is*. Science, true science, is an iterative methodology for finding ways that work in the mystery. Newton formulated his physics within a context that was entirely naive of an encompassing quantum formulation that came later. Newtonian physics is both perfectly “true” in the sense that it makes perfect predictions about everyday objects in the human realm of perception, and at the same time perfectly “false” as a description of reality since it was later found not to explain all manner of phenomena that were unknown to Newton. Newton’s physics is now thought of as an approximation — a special case of a more encompassing physics — that is “true enough” under certain conditions. And because it is and will be forever inescapably the case that we can’t know what we don’t know, we are also and forever Newton and our most sophisticated current theories have exactly the same truth-status as Newton’s. No really; *exactly* the same. This is unavoidable. We have no place to stand outside the bubble of what we can know to perceive that bubble’s limits with respect to what is altogether. We can never know what we don’t know. We will always be Newton, doing the best we can in an always bigger mystery than we can imagine.

A true scientist lives and dies as a perfect skeptic, questioning everything (**everything!**), humbly *understanding* that they never really *know* anything. And, by the way, having enough spine to live in the world without the comforting fantasy of certainty.

## 2.
mRNA vaccines are an extremely promising experimental technology that may revolutionize immunization (itself originally one of the great practical achievements of the scientific method). I believe that for a certain sub-population (the elderly and those with certain comorbidities), their heightened risk of severe complications and death from the COVID virus justifies their use of experimental COVID vaccine(s). I make medical decisions for my elderly mother who has many respiratory and other comorbidities and I have chosen for her to be vaccinated.

For myself, fit and healthy at 60 years of age with no known comorbidities, the vaccines currently feel more risky to me than the virus. Can I tell you this is definitively true? No I cannot, *because I am a scientist* and that means that I DO NOT KNOW FOR SURE. What I do feel confidence in saying is that nobody else knows for sure either. Anyone calling themselves a scientist who is definitively telling you that the virus is more risky to you and to society than the vaccine cannot know this is actually true; thus their posturing of certainty means that they have an agenda of some kind which has nothing to do with science, or that they are an idiot (or both).

The word *immunity* has understandably been in significant use in human discourse during the course of the COVID pandemic. It’s one of those interesting words that has different meanings in different contexts and the differences for this particular word have suddenly become material for people in a new way.

When used colloquially, at least in American English, the word *immunity* often connotes something like total insusceptibility to one or another kind of threat. As a technical term in biology, the word *immunity* (by itself) means that an organism has some unspecified (statistical) *degree* of resistance to infection by an immunogenic pathogen (bacteria, virus, etc. ). That degree of resistance could be a little or a lot, depending on many factors.

A lack of appreciation for the difference between these two connotations of the word *immunity* — the colloquial and the technical — seems to me to be leading to a lot of misunderstanding, stress, and conflict in human society at the present time.

Do the COVID vaccines confer *immunity* to those that take them; in other words, do the vaccines work? The answer totally depends on your definition of the word *immunity*. Do they confer total insusceptibility to infection (the colloquial meaning of *immunity*)? No, they do not. Do they confer some meaningful degree of increased resistance to infection and serious illness (the technical meaning of *immunity*)? Yes, they clearly seem to.

Do COVID vaccines confer some kind of “superior” immunity vs. the natural immunity one develops by becoming infected with COVID and subsequently becoming well again? This would be the only possible rational justification for a vaccine mandate that did not exempt those with natural immunity. This is an interesting question and I do not believe we currently have enough empirical information to give a satisfactory answer to it. Anything is possible (the first rule of real science), but on the surface it seems highly improbable that mRNA vaccines are likely to confer *superior* immunity over natural immunity for at least two reasons.

1 - mRNA vaccines provoke a focused and comparatively one-dimensional immune response to a single viral protein antigen. An immune response to a systemic, whole-virus bodily infection is a very multi-faceted affair with all kinds of different cells in the body participating in the marshaling of a wide-ranging defense to many different aspects of the replicating viruses, both structurally and functionally. We have learned a lot about immune responses. We still have a lot to learn about them. We will never know all there is to know (another flavor of the first rule of real science). The natural immune response to a viral infection is an extremely complex and robust cognitive phenomenon in which the body’s immune system literally learns how to recognize and defeat a viral incursion. To use a bad and woefully oversimplified [American] football analogy, the difference between an mRNA vaccine immune response and a natural one is that the response to the vaccine is something like ignoring most of your defensive team and telling just your linebackers to look for a specific shoe on the opposing team and then tackle whoever is wearing that shoe. Whereas a natural immune response is like giving your entire defensive team a profound and thorough understanding of the whole opposing offensive team, all the different positions and the relations among them, all the historically known offensive plays and the whole gestalt of the offensive strategy, and then teaching them to work together as a coordinated unit to stop the opposing offense from moving the ball forward.

2 - Statistically speaking, we know that the vaccines are not 100% effective. Some vaccinated people under some conditions become infected with COVID. However, every unvaccinated person who is infected with COVID and survives the infection and gets better is 100% immune to at least the strain of COVID that infected them, for at least some period of time. Getting well from an infection is perfect *immunity* (for some period of time, the colloquial and the technical meanings of the term are the same) to whatever infected you. The viral infection doesn’t just go away or “peter out” on its own. Getting well means your immune system has *defeated* the infection. That is immunity. To my knowledge, there is not sufficient empirical evidence at the present time to indicate whether natural immunity or vaccine-induced immunity is either (a) longer-lasting or (b) more effective against a wider range of COVID variants. If I were a betting man, I would bet on the more wholistic, natural immune response to be superior in both regards.

Are mRNA COVID vaccines safe over the long term? I don’t know *and nobody else knows either.* No representative sample of humans has been vaccinated with an mRNA COVID vaccine for a period that constitutes anything close to “long term.” There are a lot of people with a strongly held **belief** in a specific theory of how mRNA vaccines work. There is no room in that theory for an infinity of possibilities which no experimentation that has been done to date rules out. The fact is that though many people who call themselves “scientists” are very professionally staring into lenses and assuring the public that mRNA COVID vaccines are 100% long-term safe, if pressed they would absolutely have to admit that the most they can possibly say in truth is, “if my extremely specific and limited theory of what the vaccines do is correct, and if they don’t do anything else that I do not know about and haven’t imagined, then they *should* be safe.”

From my *scientific* point of view, the idea of injecting *everyone on earth* with an experimental vaccine with *unknown long-term risk* against a pathogen that has serious or life-threatening consequences for less than 5% of those infected (on average, and far, far less for most age and cofactor cohorts) is literally insane. We certainly are living in interesting times.

Because humans in general have somehow become absurdly convinced that everything is either black or white (and that everyone *must* be on either team black or team white), I feel like I have to add here that none of the preceding should be taken to mean that I currently believe COVID vaccines are long-term dangerous. The vaccines could very well be among the safest and most effective medical interventions ever invented. I am a scientist, *so I don’t know.* I’m saying we don’t (can’t yet) know if the vaccines are long-term safe or not. The uncertainty is what matters here.

I’m sorry, but the apparent desire among many people for reality to fit into neat little packages of tweet-length text does not make it so. We exist in an unfathomable complexity where simple yes or no answers are appropriate in the tiniest fraction of an overwhelmingly few instances of super-constrained, usually artificially constructed circumstances. In the real world, it’s all shades of all colors all the time. The attempt to squash what is into binary pixels is a conceptual abomination that humans will have to transcend if humans are to persist.

mRNA vaccines have never been widely used before now. They have a risk and the amount of that risk is *currently unknown*. So if you are talking about injecting them into *everyone on earth*, multiple times, with an *unknown risk*, that, to me, is a *dangerous decision*. Even if you think you have a reason to believe the risk is low, the consequences of being wrong are potential ruin. For the Entire. Human. Race. That doesn’t mean I think the vaccines are definitely dangerous; it means that *given what we currently know* it seems unacceptably risky (because of the potential for ruin) to vaccinate everyone.

In my scientific career, I conducted many experiments on laboratory animals. I always had a theory going into those experiments and I have often been surprised by the results. At the present time, under the present circumstances, I choose not to be a laboratory animal myself. Under other circumstances, or in the future, I might make a different decision for myself. Under other circumstances that I can easily imagine, I might also be in favor of vaccine mandates. At the present time, under the present circumstances, as a scientist and as a human, I am completely opposed to any kind of COVID vaccine mandates.
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