The “it’s banned in Europe” fallacy

banned in europe

The title of this post is written somewhat in jest because this is not a formally recognized fallacy; nevertheless, it is a very common line of reasoning that is logically flawed and very closely aligned with multiple fallacies. The argument, in a nutshell, asserts that something is dangerous or likely dangerous simply because it is banned in some (usually European) countries. It often takes forms such as, “if X is so safe, then why is it banned in so many countries in Europe? All of those countries can’t be wrong.” Most commonly, I see this flawed reasoning applied to GMOs, certain pesticides (e.g., glyphosate), and some pharmaceuticals, but the flaws are inherent to the argument structure, regardless of the topic.

Recently (and why I’m writing this now), I have been seeing it applied to the AstraZeneca COVID 19 vaccine, with the claim that the vaccine was banned in Europe due to concerns about blood clots, therefore, according to the argument, the vaccine must be dangerous. Before I go any further and talk about the general problems with this line of reasoning, let me be 100% clear that the vaccine was not “banned.” Rather, it was only temporarily halted while scientists investigated the reports of blood clots. Those investigations found that the rates of blood clots following vaccination were below or only slightly above background rates (Østergaard et al. 2021; Pottegård et al. 2021), and the European Medicines Agency (EMA 2021) concluded that while there are potential side effects that are being monitored (as is true of all medicines), any serious side effects are extremely rare, and the benefits outweigh the risks. As a result, the vaccine has been resumed in almost all countries that had temporarily halted it.

Moving on, let’s look at the more general problems with this line of reasoning. First, it is inherently an appeal to authority fallacy. It is asserting that something must be dangerous simply because of the people (governments) who say that it is dangerous. This is problematic for multiple reasons. First, government decisions are often influenced by political motivations and lobbyists, and in many cases, the people making decisions are politicians, not scientists. Indeed, this argument is very similar to the flawed tactic of citing court cases as scientific evidence, as if judges, lawyers, and jurors are somehow scientific experts who are qualified to evaluate scientific evidence and make scientific decisions. Non-scientists (and sometimes scientists) make bad calls about science all the time. Do I really need to explain that governments often get the science wrong? Isn’t that something that everyone intuitively knows? After all, Saudi Arabia bans the teaching of evolution in public schools, does that mean evolution is wrong? Obviously not. We have to look at facts and evidence, not just whether or not a government has banned something.

Nevertheless, you may be wondering about the subset of cases where the ban actually was the result of a scientific assessment by an agency such as the FDA, CDC, EMA, etc. Shouldn’t we listen to those organizations? That is a totally fair question, and in that subset of cases, the argument should be treated more seriously. However, it still ultimately has to be about the evidence. Even scientists on government agencies can make bad calls. So, ideally, we should base our views on the evidence, not the source of the evidence. Having said that, for most people who don’t have the time or training to wade through a mountain of scientific literature, it does often make sense to default to the relevant scientific agencies agencies. I would not, as a general rule, encourage you to challenge professional scientific organizations unless you have a considerable amount of scientific training and expertise yourself.

So, what do we do when a group like the EMA recommends halting a vaccine? There are two important considerations here. First, we need to look at precisely what they said, and why they said it, because usually, the situation is far more nuanced than simply, “they banned it.” The AstraZeneca situation illustrates this wonderfully. The vaccine was not initially “banned.” Rather, it was temporarily halted while the evidence was reviewed. This was done out of an abundance of caution, and once the possible harms had been evaluated, it was resumed in nearly all countries (as a side note, this actually shows just how seriously vaccine safety is taken; if anti-vaccers were right that governments/Big Pharma push vaccines with little regard for safety, then such halts wouldn’t take place).

The second consideration is the extent of the consensus on the topic. Was the ban recommended by a handful of organizations or was it recommended by the vast majority of scientific organizations? This is where we get to another one of the underlying flaws in the argument. Namely, it has a tendency to cherry pick experts. What I see happen over and over again is someone insisting that something must be dangerous because some countries banned it while totally ignoring the fact that just as many (often more) countries have approved it! In other words, if you can appeal to authority and claim that something is dangerous because some countries ban it, then it is equally logically valid* for me to claim that it is safe because some countries approve it (*both lines of reasoning are invalid, my point is simply that they are equivalent).

See how that works? If we are going to go down this road of blindly trusting authority, why should we blindly assume that the countries that ban something are right rather than blindly assuming that the countries that approve it are right, especially when (in a great many cases) the countries that approve it are more numerous than the countries that ban it?

Indeed, the AstraZeneca situation illustrates this well. While a handful of countries continue not to use it, most have resumed using it, and the EMA now recommends it. So why should we cherry pick the handful that don’t use it and hold them up as proof while totally ignoring the ones that do use it? What makes the countries that don’t use it right and the far more numerous countries that do use it wrong?

The answer is simple, there is no logical reason to blindly assume that something is dangerous just because a country banned it. We need to look at the actual evidence and the reasoning behind why it was banned. We shouldn’t determine whether something is safe by flipping a coin between lists of countries that do and do not use it, and we certainly shouldn’t decide by cherry picking the list that fits our biases and preconceptions. Rather, we need to look at the actual evidence and the logic of why it is banned or approved.

Related posts

Literature cited

  • EMA 2021. COVID-19 Vaccine AstraZeneca: benefits still outweigh the risks despite possible link to rare blood clots with low blood platelets. 18-March-21.
  • Pottegård et al. 2021. Arterial events, venous thromboembolism, thrombocytopenia, and bleeding after vaccination with Oxford-AstraZeneca ChAdOx1-S in Denmark and Norway: population based cohort study. BMJ 373:n1114
  • Østergaard et al. 2021. Thromboembolism and the Oxford–AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine: side-effect or coincidence? The Lancet 397: 1441–1443.

First posted on 14-June-2021

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16 Responses to The “it’s banned in Europe” fallacy

  1. Nonetheless, “banned in Europe” is face evidence for a *possible* concern. It does not settle the matter, but it does suggest that there is a matter that needs to be settled

    Liked by 1 person

    • Fallacy Man says:

      Sometimes (particularly if the ban was actually recommended by a scientific organization). Other times, it is just politically motivated decisions that have nothing to do with science. I do not, for example, consider Saudi Arabia’s ban on teaching evolution evidence that there is a matter that needs to be settled regarding the veracity of evolution, nor do I consider the attempts of many US politicians to block action on climate change evidence that there is scientific debate on the topic.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Fallacy Man says:

    fixed, thanks. No way to make off list comments to my knowledge, but I can delete your comment if you prefer now that it has been addressed?

    Liked by 1 person

  3. my2cents says:

    Astra Zeneca could be safely “banned” (halted) in some countries in EU because they had a choice of other vaccines. So they decided to halt it temporarily and use in the meantime. It was political move – the governments could show, how they were cautious. Europe (in fact not Europe but European Union) had so many doses contracted, that they could easily resign of one or two of the producers.

    And one more thing: it was not Europe, but some countries in EU (not all).

    The second thing: there were problems with Astra Zeneca logistics in some EU countries, so it was good reason to resign of this vaccine.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Mark Jones says:

    Another trivial aside: I think glyphosate is an herbicide.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Fallacy Man says:

      Pesticide is a general term for chemicals used to kill pests. There are multiple different types of pesticides. Herbicides are pesticides that kill plants, insecticides are pesticides that kill insects, fungicides are pesticides that kill fungi, etc. So all herbicides are pesticides, but not all pesticides are herbicides.

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  5. fosywaxted says:

    I think this “It’s banned in Europe…” is the *is/ought fallacy.*

    Liked by 1 person

    • Fallacy Man says:

      Yes, it is within a cherry-picked context. In other words, you are correct that it is arguing, “it is banned in Europe, therefore it ought to be banned” (the is/ought fallacy) but the other key thing it ignores is that it is not banned in other countries, so if we used the reasoning consistently, then it would be equally valid to say, “it is not banned in other countries, therefore it ought not be banned.” Fallacies often come in groups, and this is a good example of that. Thanks for adding this point to the discussion.

      Liked by 1 person

      • fosywaxted says:

        Thank you. Yes, it’s true fallacies tend to come in clusters. With the cherry-picking and the is/ought, we’d end up with a very good example of why cognitive relativism doesn’t work!

        Btw if you could shed any light on the naming of cognitive relativism Is be grateful. I think it would be better described as metaphysical relativism. The cognitive bit seems like a fallacy in itself…

        Liked by 1 person

  6. There’s a concept I recently ran into about “the dangers of being half right,” and this post reminded me of it, because there are things banned/regulated in Europe that I wish were looked at in a similar fashion in the states (the two examples I can think of are gun control and declawing bans, but in the same vein they also have breed specific legislature on certain dog breeds, so the idea already falls apart). However, as you’ve stated, it’s a fallacy to ONLY look at the fact it’s banned in Europe without interrogating why. It’s not so simple to just use that as a reason to do/not do something. One of the biggest antivaxxer arguments has to do with the corruption and greed of pharmaceutical companies. They’re not wrong about that, but the problem is they stop there. They don’t examine the mounds of peer reviewed evidence about why vaccines work. Things are much more nuanced.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Jerry says:

    Can I reverse this question? In February 2021, prior to it being “banned” and I suspect even since then, well known, highly regarded economists like Tyler Cowen were saying that because the UK approved the AZ vaccine as well as the EU equivalent of the FDA as well as the WHO, the FDA should approve it immediately without any further review.

    (for example: https://twitter.com/tylercowen/status/1357454934548086784)

    I am curious as to your thoughts on that, and if you thought about that in February, or if the temporary ban should have changed anyone’s views of that

    (sigh, apologies, I had to give you a fake email because gravatar, which I signed up for decades ago but cannot delete creates a huge privacy leak (see https://meta.stackexchange.com/questions/44717/is-gravatar-a-privacy-risk))

    Liked by 1 person

    • Fallacy Man says:

      I think it makes good sense for health agencies to conduct their own risk/safety assessments rather than relying on the decisions of other health agencies. For non-experts, it is usually best to defer to experts, but actual experts have a responsibility to evaluate the evidence for themselves, particularly if they are in a position to make health recommendations for others.

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