Learning = Playing Devil’s Advocate

We all know teenagers and youngsters who answer every statement with “I know”.  Be careful in the street “I know”.  Algebra is good for you.  Don’t eat too much.  Let’s get up extra early to tackle this job tomorrow, “I know”.

And as we get older and wiser and find that there are things we don’t know.  Well, no.  That doesn’t happen.  We learn a little and incorporate that little we have learned into the things we already know.  Vaccines are good.  Electric cars will save the environment.  Guns kill people.  Healthcare is expensive.  Trump is an asshole.  Chemtrails only exist as a false example of a conspiracy theory.

There are two or more sides to every issue.  Although we all know, to take the first example, vaccines have saved an estimated millions of people, wiped out an entire deadly disease from the planet, saved countless people from pain and suffering…  But what is the other side?

If we are fair we have to consider there is another side.  There are people who do not take vaccines.  And if we read about these people it is generally to scorn or ridicule them with the straw arguments, telling ourselves that they say there is a correlation of vaccines to autism or mercury poisoning….  We don’t even allow ourselves to investigate because it is just stupid.  Every doctor and every newspaper tells us vaccines are good, so take every vaccine your doctor says to take without investigating.

So what happens now, if I say something bad about vaccines?  Will you stop reading?  Will you investigate?  Have I already lost you. you already think you know what I am going to say?  All of the above?

I will say each vaccine is different, with different risks and you should study and understand for yourself every medicine you take.  That statement was uncontroversial and every doctor in the world would agree.  That said, let’s investigate a vaccine or two.

My favorite to investigate is  Zostavax, recommended for adults age 60 and older, whether they’ve already had shingles or not. Read the labeling and it is 51% effective in preventing shingles.  Well, I am sold.  I may as well take it, insurance pays for it ($200 or more, but nothing out of pocket).  And in three or four months I get shingles.

That is when I investigated.  Yes shingles is a serious side effect of the shingles vaccine.  I did not know that.  Only happens, according to the literature, in 1% of cases.  So I look into the numbers again.  51% effective, it says.  Several very large studies have confirmed a 51 to 55% drop in the incidence of shingles in the control group versus the vaccinated group.

But consider the fact that you have a 33% chance of getting shingles in your lifetime, and the drop in incidence is a drop of approximately 2.5% chance of getting shingles to a 1.3% chance of getting shingles, which is the 51% effective ratio.  And remember, you have a well established 1% change of serious side effects, including getting shingles and blindness.

So the whole truth is not the simple truth. Vaccines can be good, but read the fine print.  If you do the math, the shingles vaccines has a 1 in 174 chance of actually helping you by stopping you from getting shingles, and a 1 in 100 chance of giving you serious problems.

Shall I talk about another vaccine, say the Lyme Disease vaccine?  Or shall I move on to another controversial issue?

The point is that in place of making straw arguments to pat yourself on the back for how you found the other side to be sooooo stupid, look for real arguments.  Play the devil’s advocate.  It is the only way to learn.

One thought on “Learning = Playing Devil’s Advocate”

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