Predicting Anti-Vaccine Explanations for the Eventual End of the Pandemic

Audio version read by Karl Hunter

When this pandemic eventually ends, the anti-vaccine movement will claim that it wasn’t because of vaccines. If the anti-vaccine movement is anything, they are consistent. Historically, they have always tried to point to some other variable besides vaccines to explain away a disease’s decline. The favorite explanation is that many communicable diseases declined precipitously because of widespread access to better sanitation, nutrition, access to clean water–not the introduction of vaccines. Let’s see how well this claim holds up before gazing into our crystal ball for their upcoming claims.

Of course, historically, these variables did contribute to the decline of vaccine preventable diseases (VPDs) but not to the degree that the anti-vaccine movement supposes. This line of argument does not explain why the decline of specific diseases correlates so closely to the widespread introduction of the relevant vaccine. If sanitation, nutrition, and access to clean water were the only relevant variables, then we should have seen the decline of all vaccine preventable communicable diseases at the same time–but of course we didn’t. Each particular disease’s prevalence declined precipitously only after the introduction of the corresponding vaccine. Small pox, varicella, measles, polio, etc… did not all decline at the same time as the hygiene hypothesis would predict.

The “sanitation, clean water, nutrition” line of argument fails for other reasons. Suppose it’s true that the worst of the VPDs declined exclusively with the introduction sanitation, clean water, and nutrition and not because of vaccines. In parts of the world that still lack adequate sanitation, clean water, and nutrition, the introduction of vaccines should have no effect on the prevalence of VPDs.

But we observe exactly the opposite.

Where communities lack access to adequate sanitation, clean water, and nutrition but have been vaccinated, the corresponding VPDs have essentially been eradicated. In other words, communicable diseases are virtually eradicated when the corresponding vaccine is introduced into a population–regardless of hygiene conditions.

Finally, if we supposed the sanitation, clean water, and nutrition hypothesis were true we would not expect to find a return of VPD in wealthy, hygienic, and well-fed communities. Yet, once again we observe exactly the opposite. In wealthy communities where access to the best sanitation, clean water, and nutrition is held constant but vaccination rates fall below those required for herd immunity, we see the return of VPDs. Recent measles outbreaks have occurred in wealthy US and European neighborhoods with low vaccination rates.

Now What?

Anyhow, I’m wondering what the anti-vaccine movement will attribute the decline of Covid-19 to this time. It can’t be the lockdowns because many of them already claimed that those don’t work. It can’t be masks, because many of them also claimed that those don’t work. It can’t be 5G because 5G will not have been turned off (despite some anti-vaxxers’ best attempts).

Natural herd immunity? The proportion of the infected population is currently too low for that to explain the decline. As of early Feb, about 20% of the US population has been estimated to have been infected with Covid-19. Depending on what study you read, herd immunity for Covid-19 will require 60-90% of the population to have been infected. And even then, herd immunity doesn’t seem to apply to covid. Despite almost everyone having the cold or flu, there is no herd immunity in the sense that people no longer get infected with it or that it isn’t prevalent in the community. Herd immunity doesn’t seem to apply to Covid-19. By now, most of us know people who have had it more than once.

My guess is that they will use a combination of strategies. The most prevalent will be to contradict their previous positions. They will say that the lockdowns started to work and that more and more people were wearing masks.

They will also definitely claim (without evidence) that the virus petered out on its own just like a seasonal flu.

You heard it here first.

3 thoughts on “Predicting Anti-Vaccine Explanations for the Eventual End of the Pandemic

  1. Hi Ami! I recently listened to your interview on Embrace the Void “Wrestling with Conspiracy Theories with Dr. Ami Palmer.” Great discussion. But I was a little taken aback by your story. I would be shocked if we hadn’t met each other at some point. First, because I love philosophy and because I took so many courses in it I taught philosophy at Mesa Community College for three years (my undergraduate degree is in psychology). I was also part of the same skeptic community that you were part of. I studied at ASU, and now teach history at ASU polytechnic campus. I graduated in 2007 before you arrived there, but I was in my 30s when I began my PhD studies. I was also big time into salsa! I was dancing at Paragon every Sunday night and part of Shawn’s team. I was also part of ASU’s Devil DanceSport team. I now do Latin ballroom, but if you were out and about dancing salsa when you were here in the PHX metro area we must have run into each other at some point. And to bring it back to this post and your work I remain very much interesting in questions of epistemology and trying to understand why people believe crazy things. I do my best trying to educate my students and make them critical thinkers, but in the scheme of things that’s not enough, as you very well know. Thanks so much for trying to solve this difficult, but essential, problem.


    1. Hi,
      We probably didn’t cross paths because I took a break from salsa while I was doing my MA. I didn’t go to many skeptical events–I did go to TAM in Vegas though. Were/are you an SGU listener? After all these years, I still listen to them. Great stuff!
      Regarding social epistemology/conspiracism–yup! It’s a massive problem that isn’t going away any time soon. Each of us can do our part to help move things in the right direction but it’s against massive forces. I have some ideas for system level improvements but I haven’t had time to write them out. One day I will and will post them here!
      Btw, what area of history do you teach?


      1. I was at TAM every year from 2010 to 2015 in Vegas. The best one was definitely in 2011 (I think that was the year) when both Neil de Grasse Tyson and Bill Nye were there. Too bad that no one carried Randi’s legacy forward. I haven’t listened to SGU in a long time. Those guys are great but there’s only so much time in the day, so unfortunately, I have to be picky about which podcasts I listen to.

        I teach the introductory European history courses (formerly Western Civ), History of Engineering, Exploration and Empire, Totalitarianism: Hitler and Stalin, and my newest course is Heresy and Witchcraft. Fun stuff! My main research area is the study of religious/ethnic conflict, but I’ve recently taken a detour to deal with all of the bad history done by legal scholars to justify really bad interpretations of the Religion Clauses of the First Amendment. It’s related to my work on the history of religious toleration from the Reformation through the mid-nineteenth century U.S history, but it has meant focusing on the American context first. But it will be worth it if I can expose the BS.


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