One of the narratives that antivaxxers love to promote about themselves is that they see things about vaccines that the average person—including scientists—do not and cannot. Because, like all science denial, antivaccine beliefs are thoroughly rooted in conspiracy theory, it’s important understand that a key element of conspiratorial thinking is the belief that one is not a “sheeple,” that one has knowledge not appreciated or understood by the rest of the “sheeple,” that one is—dare I say it?—intelligent than average person. That’s why the antivaxxer supposedly “sees” all the “harms” caused by vaccines when everyone else, including top scientists, do not, which brings us to the “midwit effect.
Apparently there is study published last month (Cognitive ability, health policy, and the dynamics of COVID-19 vaccination) that is really irritating antivaxxers. I learned of it from an antivaxxer whom I don’t recall having encountered before going by the ‘nym eugyppius, who—of course—has a Substack, eugyppius: a plague chronicle, where he he/she/it ranted about the study in a post entitled Vaccines and the Midwit Effect, or: Why smart people seem to believe all manner of crazy things, and smarter people seem to believe them even harder. Given that some antivaxxers are no doubt quite intelligent, one can’t help but suspect that a bit of projection is going on here, but, still, I found this antivax take on the study to be amusing and not unexpected given the self-description of the blogger doing the Substack:
Welcome to my plague chronicle. Here I post primarily on current affairs in Germany, as well as broader political and historical matters, various conspiracy theories, and the absurdities of modern academia. This blog was born as running commentary on the Corona pandemic, and that remains an important focus, but increasingly one among many. My guiding thesis is that the excesses of the response – from unending lockdowns to mask mandates and mass vaccination – reflect the deeper social, cultural and political pathologies that arise from late-stage postwar liberalism.
“Political pathologies that arise from late-stage postwar liberalism”? Yeah, that tracks with typical rhetoric from COVID-19 pandemic minimizers, antimaskers, and antivaxxers. It could have come straight out of the Brownstone Institute. As for the ‘nym Eugyppius, it turns out that Eugyppius (c.460-535 AD and also spelled Eugippius) was a disciple and the biographer of Saint Severinus of Noricum who also compiled a 1000-page anthology of the works of St. Augustine. I often say that you can tell a lot about a blogger by the ‘nym he chooses. (I’ve been fairly open about why I chose the ‘nym Orac and keep using it even though it was long ago linked with my meatspace identity. Make of that what you will about me.) Clearly, this blogger views himself as some sort of scholar. Be that as it may, the results are rather predictable in how eugyppius—who seems to like to do a little e.e. cummings style—frames the study:
Some weeks ago, this Swedish study on the correlation between cognitive ability and readiness to accept Covid vaccination made the rounds. It irritated a lot of people, particularly in these circles, for appearing to support the observation that getting vaccinated is just something that more intelligent people do – and, by implication, that vaccination is more objectively rational.
Again, it amuses me how eugyppius interprets the study, namely that it implies that supporting vaccination and seeking out vaccines for oneself are “more objectively rational.” As you might imagine, the study is a bit more complex than that, but let’s see the antivax spin. But first, let’s describe what the study found.
In brief, investigators at Uppsala University in Sweden examined individual-level data of 750,000 individuals to look for correlations between vaccination-seeking behavior and cognitive tests and found a strong correlation between cognitive ability and swift vaccination. In other words, those who scored high on cognitive tests tended to seek out COVID-19 vaccines as soon as they were made available. The subjects were overwhelmingly male, because the the source of the cognitive test results used by the investigators was tests taken at age 18 by enlistees in the Swedish military which were then correlated with how many of these individuals were vaccinated, as well as how soon after the vaccines were made available, or, as the investigators phrased it:
In this paper, we analyze how cognitive ability is related to if and when individuals get vaccinated against COVID-19 and whether simplifying the vaccination decision by providing pre-booked vaccination appointments (opt-out policy) may alleviate heterogeneity in vaccination behavior. For this purpose, we use individual-level administrative data from Sweden covering 750,381 men and 2703 women aged 42–59, in 2021. We match information on their COVID-19 vaccinations with scores on a cognitive ability test, capturing general intelligence (Mårdberg and Carlstedt 1998), that was taken at about 18 years of age as part of the Swedish military enlistment procedure, which was mandatory for men and voluntary for women. The test scores are reported on a stanine scale (min=1, max=9, mean=5, standard deviation=2).
We find that cognitive ability is positively associated with swift COVID-19 vaccination. At each point in time, during a 360 days period following the vaccine rollout, there is a positive monotonic relationship between cognitive ability and the rate of first dose vaccinations. For example, a vaccination rate of 80% is reached after approximately 50 days in the group with the highest cognitive ability score and after 180 days in the group with the lowest score. Moreover, we show that the relationship is remarkably robust; it remains strong when using a twin design (3375 twin-pairs) to control for confounders (e.g. social background) and it is not mediated away by socioeconomic characteristics (i.e. education, income, marital status, parenthood).
Relevant to what eugyppius calls the “midwit effect” the results are a bit more complicated than that. I will note that the authors did the appropriate controls to verify that potentially predictable confounding factors did not account for this difference, as listed above and including education, income, marital status, and parenthood. The authors then examined the effect of a regional policy on the difference in vaccine-seeking behavior that prebooked vaccine appointments as the vaccine became available. Basically, the authors found:
…that such a simple policy increases vaccination uptake disproportionately more among those with lower cognitive abilities, leaving them with a vaccination rate comparable to that of high cognitive ability individuals in the absence of the policy. Given that individuals with lower cognitive abilities are relatively more susceptible to many health risks, including COVID-19 infection, such a policy is likely to be associated with large welfare gains for this group. Our findings also imply that if everyone got vaccinated as quickly as individuals with a high cognitive ability, the pandemic would likely have ended earlier, with fewer lives lost and with lower costs for society.
You can see why antivaxxers would be unhappy with this study. But how to explain it, if you’re an antivaxxer? One obvious set of potential explanations include that more intelligent people were (1) more motivated to get vaccinated, (2) more able to navigate the system to get an early appointment; or (3) some combination of (1) and (2). Unsurprisingly, eugyppius focuses almost entirely on (1) in order to attribute the observation to the “midwit effect.” According to eugyppius:
Those who are of merely average intelligence don’t have much social influence at all. They find their intellectual superiors far more persuasive than their peers, at least to a point. Those who are very intelligent suffer from much the same disadvantage, because they are comprehensible only to a fairly small pool of slightly less intelligent people at the extreme right end of the curve.
Ours is therefore an IQ 120 midwit society; it could not be any other way. Those with the most influence have an upper comprehensive range extending to about IQ 140. They are still capable of internalising and mostly comprehending the criticism of the smartest professors. In the other direction, they look on the vast population of the unintelligent with a muted frustration, because their powers to persuade those with an IQ much below 100 are as weak as the power of their IQ 145 superiors is to persuade them. Since our midwit rulers are cognitively better endowed than probably 90% of the whole population, it’s easy for them to overlook the rare 10% of people who are smarter than they are. Accordingly, they throw all of their opponents into the same basket of intellectual deplorables, and commit themselves to unceasing wars against “disinformation,” to devising various social manipulation schemes and to banning the political opposition.
As might be typical for antivaxxers, eugyppius employs memes, because of course he does. First, he claims that the “midwit effect” is misunderstood as this:
Note how this meme places antivaxxers like eugyppius, who presumably believes himself to be superior at data analysis, at the very highest level of cognitive ability, differentiating him and his “peers” from the presumably knuckle dragging conspiracy theorists who rant about 5G magnets in the vaccines. That’s not eugyppius! Oh, no! Antivaxxers like eugyppius know that the conspiracy theories about 5G and magnets in vaccines are ridiculous, but they also “know” that vaccines are dangerous and don’t work because the “data just doesn’t add up.”
This leads to eugyppius “correcting” the meme:
When considering what this meme tells us about eugyppius’ view of his apparently intelligence, I cannot help but be reminded of an old Looney Tunes cartoon:
Consistent with this view of himself and his fellow antivax conspiracy theorists, eugyppius decides to dump on those who are merely “more intelligent than average” but not a super genius like him:
It follows that the ideas which dominate our world are not necessarily the best or the most rational approaches to things. They are rather those ideas which appeal to people whose intelligence is above average if less-than-phenomenal, and whose other personality traits optimise their institutional influence. They have the brains of upper middle-class professionals, and they’re also much more extroverted, conscientious and conformist than the broader population.
That’s right, you people with merely a 120-ish IQ! You’re not only not as smart as you think you are, but you’re highly conformist! Basically, here eugyppius is calling these people “sheeple” without using the actual word. Because the word “sheeple” is associated with with the most bonkers conspiracy theorists like Alex Jones, it would not do to use it here, although you know that that’s exactly the word that eugyppius is signaling to his readers by using terms like “brains of upper middle-class professionals” and “conformist.” Also, there’s a good bit of anti-intellectual, anti-elite characterization, because eugyppius immediately pivots to academics:
In academia, where they dominate like nowhere else, we see a range of learned pathologies – not only a deep faith in irrational hygiene procedures like perpetual vaccination and masking, but a whole world of bizarre ideologies pertaining to human gender and biology, the environment and society. Something has obviously gone very wrong with these kinds of people, but – and this is the crucial point – those things which have gone wrong with them are calibrated precisely to that midwit peak. However irrational the ideas current in this sphere, their appeal will increase with intelligence up to a point that is very nearly out of sight from us, because people of outlier high intelligence are extremely rare and their influence is negligible.
Gee, I wonder who these people of “outlier intelligence” who are “extremely rare” and therefore have “negligible” influence are? No doubt eugyppius considers himself one of these outstandingly intelligent people. Also note how eugyppius ties this supposedly super intelligence with the ability to see through “bizarre ideologies” that don’t just include “perpetual vaccination and masking”—never mind that almost no one is calling for perpetual masking and that we already have “perpetual vaccination” for influenza and a good case can be made for adding COVID-19 to that category given how the virus evolves—but also the bête noir of right wing science deniers, “gender ideology,” a.k.a. anti-trans bigotry, which is also based on conspiracy theories very similar to pre pandemic antivax conspiracy theories that “they” are coming for your children and want to do something to them that will permanently alter them. Before the pandemic, it was public health, doctors, and pharmaceutical companies making children autistic. Now it’s trans influencers, doctors, and the pharmaceutical companies wanting to persuade children that they are trans and need to medically—and even surgically—transition.
You might wonder why this particular Substack post caught my attention. The reason is simple. I’ve long pointed out how antivaxxers believe themselves to be more intelligent, more knowledgeable, less easily fooled than the average person who supports vaccination, as evidenced, for example, by some of the ‘gyms (e.g., The Professor) that some of them like to take on. eugyppius’ take, in which antivaxxers are not just more intelligent than average but in essence geniuses who are so much more intelligent than provaccine influencers, who are portrayed as being above average in intelligence but not enormously so, is just antivax self-image conspiratorial thinking on steroids. By pushing the “midwit” effect from being centered on the “average” IQ of 100 to being centered on an IQ of 120, eugyppius goes beyond portraying himself and his fellow antivax conspiracy theorists as just more intelligent than the average population, but more intelligent than the thought leaders of the population; i.e., as geniuses. (Remember, that only around 2-3% of the population has an IQ of 130 or greater, and eugyppius places the “rational” antivax conspiracy theorist element at 140 or higher.)
eugyppius also rationalizes why people of such supposedly high intelligence have negligible influence in society with respect to vaccines and gender. Surprise! It’s because very intelligent people who are not “geniuses” are the most persuasive to the dull masses and are also
conformist sheeple. Even as eugyppius is arguing that it’s not about intelligence, he’s really saying that it’s about intelligence and that those with an IQ of around 120 who dominate the “upper middle class” and academia don’t “see” what he and his fellow antivaxxers who aren’t gullible enough to fall for 5G conspiracy theories about vaccines can “see” in the data. Again, conspiracy theories are all about believing that you see something that nearly no one else sees, that you understand connections that only you and your fellow conspiracy theorists can see, and that you are somehow, if not more intelligent, more able to see incongruities that prove that “something is wrong” than the sheeple—excuse me, conformists—who accept current science do. Even if you accept the likely retort that what is being claimed is not so much that “elite” antivaxxers have much higher IQs than vaccine advocates but that they are better at critical thinking (which is nonsense), the end result is still the claim that antivax conspiracy theorists are much smarter than vaccine advocates, again a key component of conspiratorial thinking.
The more that I think about it, eugyppius should change his ‘nym to Wile E. Coyote, Super Genius.