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Tucker Carlson’s highly illogical case for questioning vaccine effectiveness

A scene from the mass vaccination site at Montgomery College Germantown Campus last week. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)
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Fox News host Tucker Carlson is forever propping himself up as The Guy Who Is Just Asking Questions — questions others, in his telling, are too afraid to ask. The shtick usually provides cover for delving into conspiracy theories. His leading questions often have logical explanations, like his theory on pneumonia deaths. But Carlson suggests his conspiratorial conclusion is an inescapable one.

That has been the case with Carlson’s commentary on the coronavirus and, more recently, his loose talk about vaccines. He did it again Tuesday night. Carlson floated that idea that vaccines might not actually work nearly as well as scientists say. His reasoning? Because scientists say people shouldn’t just go completely back to normal once they’re vaccinated — that they should still wear masks and social distance, among other things.

“At some point — no one is asking this, but everyone should be — what is this about?” Carlson said. “If vaccines work, why are vaccinated people still banned from living normal lives? Honestly, what’s the answer to that? It doesn’t make any sense at all. If the vaccine is effective, there is no reason for people who have received the vaccine to wear masks or avoid physical contact.”

Carlson added: “So maybe it doesn’t work, and they’re simply not telling you that. Well, you hate to think that, especially if you’ve gotten two shots. But what’s the other potential explanation? We can’t think of one.”

He apparently wasn’t trying very hard to think of another explanation.

This is actually a question, contrary to Carlson’s premise, which lots of people are asking right now — particularly with regard to the idea that vaccinated people should still wear masks. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) clashed with Anthony S. Fauci on the topic at a recent hearing. Carlson just takes it to a much more conspiratorial conclusion: that we’re being lied to about vaccine efficacy.

But while that portion of this remarks is rightly getting plenty of attention, given the overwhelming evidence that vaccines work very well and the danger of so cavalierly fomenting vaccine hesitancy, it’s worth focusing on the logic that leads him to that conclusion, given how much it has penetrated.

For weeks, critics of the federal government’s guidance on post-vaccine activity have criticized the calls for plenty of continued caution. And there are valid questions about whether that’s the right message. Large portions of the population are skeptical of the efficacy and the need for the vaccines — particularly on the right — and they will undoubtedly be less likely to get one if they don’t think it will suddenly free them up. Giving people something amounting to a finish line, or at least something they recognize as a significant enough incentive, is important.

But the idea that the guidance makes no sense whatsoever is also overwrought. Vaccines do work very well; there is overwhelming evidence of that. But none of that evidence indicates they will 100 percent prevent you from getting the coronavirus and potentially transmitting it to others. The virus is also mutating in ways that suggest the vaccine, while still very effective, might be less so moving forward as new strains take hold. There is a premium on getting ahead of the virus before it gets ahead of us, and scientists are racing to keep up. Put plainly: It’s the best tool we have in mitigating the spread (and a very good one) but it’s still mitigation rather than a panacea.

There are questions from there about just how much we should be able to go back to normal upon getting the vaccine, for both reasons mentioned above as well as quality of life ones. But to pretend that if people aren’t suddenly bulletproof that this is all a sham is a huge stretch.

Carlson has sought to qualify his skeptical comments on vaccines by arguing he isn’t some kind of “anti-vaxxer.” He said Tuesday of the vaccine: “We are not against it on principle. Like every American, we are grateful.” But those disclaimers are often surrounded by plenty of skepticism of the vaccines and the health officials promoting them.

The idea that mitigation is somehow suspect if it doesn’t allow us to completely go back to normal is one that has been around for a while. Former Trump White House chief of staff Mark Meadows at one point last year even said he didn’t wear a mask because it wasn’t 100 percent protective.

I wrote at the time how nonsensical that standard was — as well as how counterproductive it was for a White House that so badly wanted to reopen the country:

There is literally no panacea for the coronavirus — nor will there be even when we have a vaccine. [Then-CDC Director Robert] Redfield acknowledged as much in testimony Wednesday, noting that the vaccine won’t work for everyone. He said “the immunogenicity may be 70 percent, and if I don’t get an immune response, the vaccine’s not going to protect me.”
By Meadows’s standard, would taking the vaccine not necessarily be worth it either, if you have only a 70 percent shot at immunity?

We’ve since got multiple vaccines with efficacy higher than that, with some over 90 percent effective in preventing infection, in both clinical and real-world studies. Even the less-effective ones are overwhelmingly effective at preventing severe cases and hospitalization.

Trump administration health officials at the time acknowledged the vaccines wouldn’t be the end of the pandemic and a ticket to complete freedom. We can have a discussion about how much of a ticket they should be now and just how wise it is to tell people that they will still need to be so cautious. But to pretend that it’s completely inexplicable that we would proceed with other forms of mitigation — that there should be “no reason” for them, even when we have this really good one — isn’t logical.

And to pretend that the only explanation is that health officials are lying to us about the efficacy of the vaccines is taking things into even more dangerous territory. It’s not just asking questions; it’s using a logical fallacy to inject unwarranted and completely baseless doubt, in ways that will make it more difficult to truly get back to normal.