A Shot in the Dark

A couple of science-related articles caught my eye today.  
First off, this interesting report about scientific data being lost.  No, this is not some conspiracy theory issue.  It just points out the fact that data, like every other kind of information in our life, can get lost in the shuffle of life.  Data used to produce research reports and journal articles and the like has to be stored somewhere, and data storage methods evolve, just as the people who compiled the data age and change focii in their lives.  
The result is that even for data that’s only 20 years old or so, the odds of that data being recoverable (the researchers knowing where it is, it being on a data storage format that is easily accessible, etc.) are only 20%.  On top of this, the odds of even being able to find some scientists and researchers from years ago decline markedly year by year.  The results (which themselves will probably get lost some day) are that data and researchers are being lost.  The results may remain, in the forms of published papers and journal articles, but all of the actual data used to create those summaries is being lost.  
I sorta figured that scientists were a little more obsessive-compulsive about this sort of thing.  In some ways, it’s reassuring to know they aren’t.  In other ways, it’s kind of scary.
Almost as scary as mandatory vaccination programs (how’s that for an awkward segue?).

I thought that this informal essay from Scientific American was interesting.  The article argues, if somewhat passively, for the mandatory vaccination of healthcare workers.  

The I would diagram the argument this way:  
  • Implied Premise: Vaccinated employees reduce the transmission of illnesses & diseases to patients in hospitals.
  • Premise #1: Not all healthcare institutions have mandatory vaccination policies for employees
  • Premise #2: At some of these hospitals (two, specifically) patients have gotten sick or died at institutions where a high percentage of staff were not vaccinated
  • Premise #3: Many institutions are beginning to require mandatory vaccination
  • Premise #4: Such institutions are not experiencing significant backlash against such policies
  • Conclusion: All healthcare institutions should mandate vaccination for their employees
I have my concerns about our obsessions about vaccinations in terms of long-term side-effects as well as spotty efficacy rates.  But that’s not my objection to this essay.
My objection is that the way the argument is framed doesn’t lead to the conclusion, primarily because there is absolutely no evidence given (in the article) that mandating vaccinations statistically reduces the number of infections passed on to patients.  Even in the cases cited where unvaccinated staff might have contributed to patient illness, there is no hard corroborating data.  Rather it is an assumption that the lack of vaccinations was the problem.  Without corroborating data about institutions who have implemented mandatory vaccinations (which would be difficult, to say the least, to get), we can only assume that mandating vaccines would reduce patient infection rates.  
The essayist also completely ignores the fact that with flu vaccinations, there is no guarantee that the particular strain(s) you are vaccinated against will be the strains floating around during the flu season.  The flu vaccine is not a vaccine against any and all flus – it is very specific to the flus that researchers believe will be most active in a particular season.  If their guesses are off, you can still get the flu.  You might even get a flu you’ve been vaccinated against.  But you certainly could get a flu that wasn’t part of your vaccination.  
Vaccinations might be good.  My contention is we don’t know nearly as much about them as we think we do, and that until we know more about them, we ought to use them cautiously.  Mandating that people receive vaccines that may in fact not have any actual effect seems unwise.  I far more agree with the idea that employees in healthcare institutions who are sick should go home and be paid sick leave until they get better.  That is a FAR better policy to my way of thinking.  

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