Safety and risk, and why politicians talk absolutes and bullshit

I read people complaining that politicians are lying when they say that vaccines are safe and effective. They point to vaccinated people contracting Covid-19. (This, despite the written documentation pointing out that no vaccine is 100% effective).
Politicians say absolute-sounding statements about risk and safety nearly all of the time. This is because they learned a long time ago that not talking in absolutes when the word safety is involved simply gets them into trouble.

This is because most humans cannot properly evaluate risk, partly because they often lack information, partly because most of them are statistically illiterate, and partly because they are way too influenced by the last news story that they read, saw or heard. Mathematics curricula in schools and colleges either contain no statistics modules, or cover the subject in insufficient depth.

In a situation where information is lacking, talking about levels of safety makes a politician sound negligent compared to people who bluster in absolutes. Let’s try this out.

“The Covid-19 vaccine is safe”.

“The Covid-19 vaccine is not 100% effective, but if enough people are vaccinated, a lot fewer people will be sick and dead after its passage”.

The communications consultants will give the second sentence a massive thumbs down, because as soon as the word “but” appears, the audience will tune out the rest of the statement. The message “not 100% effective” will be processed, and that will be bad. Changing the first part of the sentence to something like “no vaccine is 100% effective” really doesn’t help, because as you depart from the mantra of 100%, the cynics and doomsayers’ emotions are triggered.

Quite simply, conditional statements about perils are seen as insufficiently comforting. So politicians retreat to saying things like “of course X is safe”, even though, statistically, they should know they are talking bullshit. Nothing is 100% safe. We all know this. But we, homo sapiens, don’t want to hear that. We prefer the unrealistic bullshit to the realistic facts.

When enough humans know how to properly evaluate safety and risk, the climate might change. That is not happening now. We are in the middle of a pandemic that has a lot of people frightened. Frightened people want total reassurance, even if deep down they might not believe it.

Total reassurance allows for accountability-shifting (“They said it was safe to go out. So I went out. Then I caught Covid. They lied to me!”). It allows for more sleep at nights. There are any number of logical-sounding, if bullshit, reasons why the current level of BS being promulgated about vaccines and other safety precautions is preferable to realistically embracing facts.

In the meantime, bad-faith actors continue to capitalize on the statistical and mathematical illiteracy of the majority of the population, promoting all manner of dishonest analyses of Covid, vaccines and societal measures. They cannot be run out of town, because not enough people can see the BS for what it is. This is going to be a problem, for decades. Realistically, it will continue to be a problem until enough of the electorate is statistically somewhat literate, and is capable of assessing risk. I’m not expecting that improvement any time soon.


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