The fact that late-night comedy hosts are making fun of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for halting the use of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine over rare cases of blood clots feels like a turning point in the public discussion of the pandemic and risks. For the most part, Trevor Noah, Jimmy Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel and the rest have happily repeated and emphasized the official pandemic guidance and celebrated the likes of Dr. Fauci. These hosts are not going to go out of their way to mock the Biden administration or make the new administration look foolish.
But when Stephen Colbert jokes that the odds of getting blood clots from the Johnson & Johnson vaccine are “slightly better odds than you have of getting to visit Willy Wonka’s Fantabulous Chocolate Factory” and Noah scoffs, “you’re more likely to get struck by lightning 10 times,” it is a sign that these hosts believe their audiences will see the FDA decision as self-evidently ridiculous and something to laugh at, instead of dutifully echoing to their audiences.
And there’s another indicator that this particular FDA decision is going to cause the administration a lot more trouble than usual, in former Biden pandemic advisor Dr. Celine Gounder dismissing the public worries of Nate Silver: “He is not an expert on the psychology of vaccine confidence. He is a poll aggregator and political pundit.”
Okay, but even if that’s true, Nate Silver is not a knee-jerk skeptic of the FDA or critic of the Biden administration. If he’s saying a particular decision doesn’t make sense to him, he’s not doing it because he’s got an axe to grind. If a decision seems bafflingly wrongheaded to Silver, it’s probably going to look that way to a lot of other people, too. Sure, Silver probably doesn’t know as much about vaccines as Gounder does. But the overwhelming majority of Americans aren’t experts on the psychology of vaccine confidence, either. They’re going to see the FDA flipping back and forth on the safety of the J&J vaccine and some people will conclude that vaccine isn’t worth the risk.