Category Archives: Models

Examples we can productively study

Another Vaccine Story

The sense that help is on the way also spread through American households in the mid-1950s.

The current effort to vaccinate citizens against the COVID-19 virus rings bells for people my age, some of whom became the first to receive the Salk polio vaccine in 1954. Recent stories celebrating the apparent success of the new drugs are a reminder of the maelstrom of parental dread about polio that few children probably understood. To be sure, my eight-year-old self was particularly clueless to the risks of being around other kids, or going to parties or swimming pools where the paralyzing disease could attack. Back then, the habit of many parents was to worry alone about the risk of a paralysis that could immobilize their children. Those conversations were mostly saved for other parents. Anyway, kids have a natural habit of living in their own world. Then it was music, radio and bicycles. If we were skating on thin ice as potential victims of a disease, we were only dimly aware of it.

What a contrast with the current pendemic. Our more invasive media mean that there is no such shielding of children from the worries and disruptions of the virus.  COVID-19 is their crisis as well.  As is often true with kids, many are handling it better than the rest of us.

The current sense that help is on the way similarly spread through American households in the 1950s. Jonas Salk at the University of Pittsburgh in the Oakland section of the city led a team that found a workable vaccine. All that was left was to manufacture and distribute it, but in reverse order of today’s vaccine roll out. Kids went first because they were most at risk.

Like many others, my third-grade class at Ashley Elementary School would be among the first “polio pioneers,” having volunteered in true Ashley fashion by doing what we were told. It was not that big a deal to get the shot. And there is no doubt the Salk and later Sabin vaccines saved millions from paralysis, withered limbs and leg braces.

The subject didn’t surface in my still unfocused brain until junior high, when I could no long make my legs flexible enough to run. I was stiff most of the time, choosing activities that did not require speed or agility. I warmed the bench in little league, put on weight from too many visits to the Dairy Queen, and preferred to roam surrounding neighborhoods on my bicycle. Only after a checkup, did our family doctor begin to wonder about my stiffness. The most probable cause: the dose of vaccine given to me may have contained some of the virus that had not been fully neutralized. Some minimal physical therapy took place in Denver’s children’s hospital. But the best recommendation was to have me join the track team at my tiny high school when my family moved to the nearby mountains. I was on the team not to compete, but to get back to level of mobility comparable to my peers. It was a chore, since my speed was only slightly better than an enormous shot putter who joined the group for fun. The two of us inadvertently reenacted “The Little Engine that Could” on every slope.

I would not say I had polio. Even while it may have been the cause of my symptoms, the vaccine surely spared me the full effects of the disease. If anything, over the years the Salk Vaccine made me a stronger believer in the power of childhood vaccination. Watching a recreation of F.D.R.’s struggle with polio was the tipping point for a degree of self-awareness. His legs were so sapped of energy that he was carried like a child when he had to be moved to places that were beyond the reach of his wheelchair. Viewing the film as a high school senior, I began to realize that I had perhaps skated closer to the edge than I knew.

                                           UPMC Oakland

Sixteen years later I began a graduate program at the University of Pittsburgh, trekking daily from my apartment on Craft Avenue up to the University about five blocks north. In my daily walks to the center of campus, I never failed to be in awe of the sprawling medical and public health campuses of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, their massive structures made even taller as they marched up the steep hillside above Fifth Avenue. UMPC is how God would want a vast medical complex to look like. It was enough to always remember that this is the spot where my childhood was given both a medical challenge and reprieve. To this day the geography of Pittsburgh is still my reference point for thinking about how dedicated researchers can suddenly tame a terrible disease.

We Need to Remember What an Argument Looks Like

Having lived through another multi-year deluge of dubious ideas badly argued, its good to pause and remember what rational discussion should look like. I’m not talking about “arguing” here, but about the unit of discourse known as an “argument.” There are established and widely accepted rules that apply.  

In the courts, news interviews, and even simpler discussions with acquaintances, any assertion about “the way things are” deserves a good defense. In a debate we would expect assertions to be supported by evidence.  In a less formal conversation it is not unreasonable to also assume that at least some compelling evidence will be offered, especially if a conversational partner expresses doubt. A judge would expect evidence that is more than just hearsay, also rejecting truth claims from those not in a position to make them. If a more informal exchange happens over a holiday gathering, you owe it to everyone in the room to do more than make an unsubstantiated claim and call it a day.

An argument considered in isolation can take many forms. But its basic structure is simple and contains at least two parts: (1) An assertion or claim and (2) supporting evidence or good reasons. In schematic terms it is laid out like this:

That’s it. In its most basic form it is an assertion of fact supported with statements of proof to back it up: perhaps expert testimony, representative examples, solid research, statistical summaries, and so on.  The asserted claim is not enough, unless it is so obvious that no one would disagree. But we are focusing here on consequential assertions that others have doubted or denied. Somehow, we must relearn a basic tenet of civil affairs that a claim by itself is insufficient.

For example, consider the claim that “the 2020 presidential election was free of fraud.” If I stop there in the presence of a MAGA true-believer, I’m uttering a statement that—in formal terms—lacks “force.” To be sure, we are only too happy to display our opinions like flags. They signal our attitudes and beliefs. But they have no power to bind others to seriously consider them.

How can I meaningfully assert that the election was fair and accurate? Where is my evidence?  I ought to be able to supply it, and not—as the President does with its counter-argument—by offer a rewording of the claim to make it seem like a reason. So, if I am making a claim, I ought to be able to put “because” after it and find that the reasons that follow will make sense: will sound right.  Our example might unfold in the following sequence.

“The Election was free of fraud.”
                                    Because. . .
I. The Attorney General in the Trump Administration said so.
II. The administration’s cyber-security head said so.
III. No state government found evidence of significant instances of fraud.
IV. Virtually all respected journalists covering the election found no significant evidence of a corrupted vote.
V. A vast array of American courts couldn’t even find enough evidence to proceed to a trial.

To be sure, each of these assertions may need their own specifics or testimony. An example for the first claim could include Attorney General William Barr’s own words: “to date, we have not seen fraud on a scale that could have effected a different outcome in the election.” As testimony, Barr’s words are especially credible because he is (1) in a position to know, and (2) he is a “reluctant” source, meaning that Barr’s natural bias would be to support the views of the president who appointed him.

Arguments work best with truth claims. What can you do with your Uncle Fred’s assertion that he “believes” many dead Democrats “voted?” You can ask him for evidence. But Fred may use the intellectual slight-of-hand of converting what he “believes” into what he “knows.” That’s dishonest, but telling him so probably will not keep him up at nights. People uttering belief statements are best left to their magical thinking. You cannot usually do much about fantasies that individuals need to believe.