Skepticism

Naomi Wolf’s Anti-Vax Potluck & Why Requiring Vaccines May Backfire

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A few months ago, I talked about how feminist icon Naomi Wolf had gone completely off the deep end concerning COVID and shelter-in-place and mask guidelines meant to reduce the spread of the deadly pandemic. Back then, it was sort of standard “weird uncle on Facebook” stuff, like “hardly anyone dies of COVID” and “this is killing small businesses” and “if I don’t go out to a restaurant for dinner how can I possibly get Vitamin D”. But since that video, she got way, way worse. Here are some of her greatest hits:

Terrifying,” Wolf wrote. “Also confirms/explains the conversation I overheard in a restaurant in Manhattan 2 yrs ago in which an Apple employee was boasting about attending a top secret demo: they had a new tech to deliver vaccines w nanopatticles (sic) that let you travel back in time.”

And in case you think she’s kidding, she helpfully added “Not kidding.”

Ken Klippenstein tricked her into posting this quote from a “doctor” saying “if a vaccine is effective, then why do you need to pressure people to take it? Informed consent means letting patients make their own choices.” The “doctor” is actually a porn star named Johnny Sins. Informed consent. Nice.

One of her last tweets before Twitter finally banned her last week was this gem:

It seems urgent for public health to separate vaccinated people’s urine/feces from general sewage supplies/waterways til studies are done of how mrna in sewage, drinking water will affect all. The ad campaign tried to make unvaccinated “toxic” to others but may be reverse is true.”

Like…at some point I just stopped mocking her because it seems like there’s more going on here than just “this person is wrong,” and I just don’t have the psychology training to be able to know exactly when it turns into “this person needs to seek professional help and making fun of them just isn’t going to help anyone.” But also Wolf had a huge audience, and while I’m glad that Twitter banned her (because deplatforming works), I’m afraid she STILL has a big audience that believes the bonkers things she says. As evidence, check out this announcement for the “Liberate Our Five Freedoms” Event, an anti-vaccination rally and, um, potluck headlined by Naomi Wolf and taking place on Juneteenth. Fucking Juneteenth.

For those outside the United States and those who were failed by the US educational system’s  lack of interest in nonwhite narratives, Juneteenth is a holiday that has been celebrated since 1865 marking the abolition of slavery, starting in Texas due to emancipation taking an extra long time to “catch on” there due to how remote and, well, racist they are.

In case you were hoping that maybe this anti-vaccine potluck was just coincidentally scheduled on Juneteenth, the organizer says very clearly “The 19th is a day of emancipation, and it’s a day when we claim our freedom. It’s when we see that we are not slaves to mandate. It’s when we take our power back.”

Writer Eoin Higgins writes that they “asked Levin how she analogized American chattel slavery—where slaves were whipped, beaten, raped, and murdered by their white masters for centuries—to the temporary restrictions over the last 15 months due to the pandemic. 

“We have been enslaved by our government,” she replied.”

Well, all the best to them and their potluck, I suppose, by which I mean I hope no one starts a rumor that Bill Gates spiked the potato salad with life-saving vaccines, by which I mean I hope someone starts that rumor, because anti-vaxx dipshits don’t deserve to feel safe around potato salad.

But some of these statements, like “we have been enslaved by our government” and Wolf’s retweeting of a porn star saying “if a vaccine is effective, then why do you need to pressure people to take it” call to mind a study published this week in my favorite scientific journal PNAS. In “Overcoming COVID-19 vaccination resistance when alternative policies affect the dynamics of conformism, social norms, and crowding out,” two researchers looked at attitudes Germans had toward government-mandated vaccines throughout two waves of COVID infections, and they found that as the pandemic got worse in Germany, support for mandatory vaccines dropped while at the same time people became more supportive of voluntary vaccines.

They found that the biggest driver for those who were opposed to mandatory vaccines was distrust of the government, writing that “those who distrust public institutions are more likely to believe that the vaccine is not effective and that if mandated, it restricts their freedom.”

Obviously this jibes with the common complaints we hear from anti-vaxxers like Naomi Wolf. They’re skeptical of the government (sometimes to the point of conspiracy paranoia) and view their own personal freedom to do as they please as more important than saving the lives of those around them. If these people are *less* likely to want to get vaccinated if it’s mandated, that presents us with a few problems. First, enforcement — do we really have the resources to track down and fine or imprison everyone who refuses a vaccine? Probably not, so that means we may end up with more unvaccinated people wandering around. Also, even if the mandate does force people to get vaccinated unwillingly, that will only increase the politicization of science and health, further driving people to the Naomi Wolf end of the spectrum and possibly creating more anti-science extremists who think the government is injecting them with dangerous chemicals against their will.

One of the study authors warned that “Costly errors may be avoided if policymakers reflect carefully on the costs of enforcement. These could not only increase opposition to vaccination, but also heighten social conflict by further alienating citizens from the government or scientific and medical elites.”

So that leaves us in a tricky situation! If we manage to give out vaccines to everyone who wants one but are still left far behind when it comes to herd immunity, would it be good or counterproductive to create a government mandate?

Honestly, this study can’t really tell us that. It can only give us hints, because it was just a survey, more or less, of people who were asked a hypothetical question about a government mandate that didn’t exist for a vaccine that didn’t yet exist. The authors suggest that this counterproductive result might not just come from a mandate, but also from incentives, as both rewards and punishments might crowd out any moral or ethical consideration a person might want to make, and so the person receiving the vaccine never gets the strong sense of community and love compared to someone who gets the vaccine out of pure social responsibility.

But here’s the thing — we know incentives work. Several US states including my own are now holding vaccine lotteries, paying out millions of dollars in prizes to people who get vaccinated. The trend started in Ohio, where they started handing out a million dollars per week and immediately saw the number of appointments jump 73%. And I could be wrong here, but I don’t think Ohio has seen any equal and opposite drop in social cohesion.

So personally I don’t really buy the argument that a lack of intrinsic decision-making is the issue here, but I do buy the argument that for a certain subset of people, most of whom exist on a spectrum very nearby to paranoid anti-government kookballs, a government mandate runs the risk of further radicalizing them and pushing them into their extremist echo chambers.

The answer isn’t necessarily “no government mandate,” but it may be something like “let’s reach out to these people to work to increase trust in the government and in scientists,” or “let’s try using incentives” or even “let’s introduce easier-to-enforce restrictions like barring unvaccinated people from public schools and spaces” before we institute a hard-line government mandate.

Anyway, I’ll be interested to see how many people show up to Naomi Wolf’s potluck. If you go, please report back. And avoid the potato salad.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor.

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5 Comments

  1. Damn, I want some of that 5G potato salad but I’m not going anywhere near the USA in the foreseeable future, or maybe ever again. RIP those tourist dollars.

  2. The Ohio Legislature is now considering a bill that would prohibit any vaccine mandates and prohibit any business or government unit from “discriminating” against unvaccinated people.

    1. Ever since Sarah Palin it seems the default Republican position is always the most unhelpful, provocative, counterproductive and dumbest imaginable.

    2. Fucking Ohio. I’m glad I left when I was three.

      The principle of charity says we should give ignorant people the benefit of the doubt and teach them rather than chastise or punish them. It’s been a year and a half. This isn’t ignorance. It is willful, homicidal stupidity.

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