“Free-floating credibility” is underrated

The presence of a minuscule risk for some of the adenovirus platform Covid vaccines means that the FDA has put a hold on J&J and still won’t approve AstraZeneca.

In response to critics, the FDA says that their credibility is on the line.  If they allow vaccine use to proceed, and a modest number of people die as a result (with a big increase in net lives saved), the FDA and its defenders claim that people will lose faith in the FDA.  Yet that is exactly the wrong thing to say, it is self-serving, and it exacerbates the problem at hand.

When the FDA announces that they have to ban a vaccine because its credibility is on the line, that very announcement puts their credibility on the line.  It is a simple two-line proof.  Either they are lying about whether their credibility is on the line, in which case they have wrecked their credibility with the lie.  Or they are telling the truth, in which case by definition their credibility is indeed on the line.

One lesson is that you should not try to extend your credibility too far, because you will end up unduly constrained.

For purposes of contrast, consider alcoholic beverages.  At the federal level they are regulated by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (who are they again?), and also various state and local authorities.

As a result of this unusual, Prohibition-rooted distribution of authority, alcohol does not come with nutritional labeling.

Now, in that setting, if a bunch of kids die from binge drinking, the credibility of the Bureau is not much damaged.  The Bureau does not have to ban alcohol on the grounds that if it does not, the credibility of the Bureau will be ruined.  The Bureau simply never put its credibility on the line in this manner.

Now you might favor a tighter regulation of alcohol for some reason, but you could achieve such regulation without tying up the credibility of the ATTT Bureau in knots.  Similarly, the Department of Transportation regulates road safety (again with state and local authorities as well), but it has not put its credibility on the line when 40,000 or so Americans die each year on the roads.  Again, maybe they should enforce tougher safety standards, but they shouldn’t tie their credibility to getting road deaths down to one hundred, and indeed they do not.  They end up with more degrees of regulatory freedom.

Let’s say I were to announce that my credibility as a public intellectual were to depend at how I would fare at darts on British pub night.  That would be a big mistake, for multiple reasons.  It is like with the FDA.  If I am lying about that credibility tie, I hurt my credibility as a public intellectual.  If somehow I am telling the truth, well let’s just hope everyone else stays home that evening because my credibility is going to take a beating.

What I call “free-floating credibility” is underrated.

And that is precisely what defenders of the FDA destroy when they…defend the FDA.  They make the FDA worse.

NB: You are “out of your lane” commenting on this analysis unless you have studied game theory with Thomas Schelling.


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