Where science meets philosophy

By Jeremy Vargo March 30, 2021

Last week I sat down to record a podcast with Professor Graham Le Gros, the Director of the Malaghan Institute for Health Research and Programme Director for the Vaccine Alliance of Aotearoa New Zealand. It was not the conversation I expected. For a man who is at the forefront of vaccine science in New Zealand, he’s refreshingly honest about what he doesn’t know.

For example, while these vaccines have gone through huge 60,000 person trials over a number of months last year, how do we know that the vaccines won’t produce side effects that crop up in years from now? “We don’t know that,” Graham says. “We don’t know that.”

However, he is quick to point out what many have been happy to ignore: we also don’t know what long-term effects the COVID-19 virus will have in our bodies. There are many things we don’t know about the way that COVID-19 will continue to affect people who have had it, like the well-documented continuing effects of “long-tail COVID” on people of varying ages.  

For a man who is at the forefront of vaccine science in New Zealand, he’s refreshingly honest about what he doesn’t know.

Of course, in a public health battle against a virus, it would be far more helpful for scientists to be able to come forward and say “there is no danger, and you can all take this vaccine with total peace of mind that there will never be any negative outcomes for you or your family.” But that’s not how science works, and Graham points out that it is important for scientists not to blur the boundaries between scientific, political, and philosophical questions.

For example, there are reports of a unique blood clotting issue that has cropped up 5 times among the 11 million British people who have received the AstraZeneca vaccine so far. One of those people has since died. Because only 60,000 people participated in the trial, scientists wouldn’t have necessarily known about a side effect that might affect 1 in 2 million people. More tests will be done to work out if this is coincidence or causation.

When we compare these figures with the more than 127,000 British deaths after COVID-19 infection it is clear that vaccines are a crucial tool in the public health response to save the lives of many, many people. However, this public health good cannot override the need for scientists to investigate and be transparent about evidence that suggests the AstraZeneca vaccine may harm a very small number of people.

Each of us also have the responsibility to answer this new philosophical question: is the “greater good” of a vaccinated public worth it for us to take any sort of personal risk, regardless how small?  A 1 in 2 million chance of something going wrong, or a 1 in 11 million chance of dying wouldn’t stop many of us from doing anything.

As time-poor people with a lifestyle of consuming information and entertainment, we want immediate, black and white, incontrovertible answers to the philosophical questions we face. This leads us to look for authoritative science whizzes who have the expertise to convert vast, intimidating problems down to bite-sized, knowable, and controllable steps forward.

It is important for scientists not to blur the boundaries between scientific, political, and philosophical questions

However, science isn’t dogma. Baked into the scientific method is the idea that all scientific claims should be based on evidence that emerges from experiments and these claims are open to challenge from other scientists or new evidence that emerges over time.

In times where we need a unified public response it can seem unhelpful for scientists to publicly admit what they don’t yet know, to discuss grey areas, or even for experts with differing opinions to openly debate the best path forward. Some have taken these differing opinions and changing details as evidence there is a great conspiracy to force us to take a vaccine that will be bad for us.

But we need scientists to remain transparent about what they don’t yet know in order for us to continue to have confidence in the evidence they do present. And each of us needs to be willing to go beyond the soundbites, the politics, and our own fears to engage with the questions, the risks, and crucially, the way our individual actions will affect others.

Science can give us evidence, but we must decide how to live. 

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