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Something Something Post-Truth Society Etc., OR: Sen. Scott Jensen's Shameful Slander
A good friend of mine sent me an article this morning asking for my opinion on it. The article, from DeplorableHouseWives.news, is called "Walz Relies on Students to Determine Minnesota Lock Down Model and Wrecks the Economy." Feel free to read it yourself, but I'll post a lengthy excerpt here to give you the gist:
Minnesota State Senator Scott Jensen (R-Chaska) revealed recently that University of Minnesota grad students with absolutely no experience in epidemiology developed the models that were used by Minnesota Governor Tim Walz (D) to determine his endless lockdown of the state, putting millions of Minnesotans on house arrest and destroying the state’s economy.
"Marina Kirkeide, a recent graduate and part-time research assistant at the University of Minnesota’s School of Public Health, was tasked by associate professor Shalini Kulasingam, along with two other research assistants, to work “through the day and night” over a weekend to get a COVID-19 model to Governor Walz.
According to a press release from the University of Minnesota, Kirkeide is on a gap year before starting medical school at the University of Minnesota and also works as a lab technician at Region’s Hospital in St. Paul. She is a 2019 graduate of the University’s College of Science and Engineering.
You would think that during something as important as an “pandemic”, Walz would use the top expert epidemiologists with years of extensive experience to develop comprehensive models and metrics to determine the lives of over 5 million Minnesotans.
Walz used students with no apparent expertise in modeling for pandemics, specialized medicine or public health to whip up a model over a weekend to determine his oppressive policies... Think of all that time Kirkeide and Mehta put into this effort! A whole weekend! I’ve seen frat parties last longer than this project!
Was there a peer review for this study? Was there any kind of testing to determine if the data that was slapped together would have any validity? Did the professors who enlisted these students check any of the models?...
Speaking on the floor of the Minnesota senate on May 15, Jensen said sarcastically, “Congratulations, Marina. We have over 650,000 Minnesotans unemployed. We have absolutely imploded our economy. But, I’m really glad you got to participate, especially with your broad breadth of experience in healthcare. I know you’re going to medical school this Fall, but when I looked high and low on the internet for what experience you had in healthcare, I saw that you marched in a May Day Parade dressed up as a cow puppet. And I saw that you made some denigrating remarks about the University of Minnesota research program in regards to how they treated animals, after the University of Minnesota found itself under the spotlight using animals for human research to try to find the answers to diseases so that we can help 5-year-olds to grow up to be 10-year-olds…”
The article then continues in the typical vein of self-styled pandemic "contrarians": mostly-wrongly accusing models of being "way off" while refusing to account for their own grave errors, assailing professional disease modelers for lack of expertise while citing some random dissenting "medical doctor" (with literally zero modeling expertise) as the be-all end-all of truth, all while making lots of sarcastic asides about "dEsTrOyInG oUr EcOnOmY!" I'm used to that by now.
But the central claim of this article -- the central claim of Sen. Scott Jensen (R-Chaska) -- is the notion that two unsupervised grad students without expertise plunged our state into lockdown based on code they (no doubt sloppily!) slapped together in a couple of days.
This is breathtakingly disingenuous. I long since stopped being surprised by the eagerness of self-identified "deplorables" to deliberately misinterpret facts to support their predetermined unreality, but I'm stunned and furious that Sen. Jensen stooped to mocking a public-spirited graduate student on the senate floor for transparently manufactured reasons. (He was actually worse than the Deplorables' article.)
The editor's note added to the original press release addresses most of the questions raised by these self-styled "skeptics." (They are not skeptics, for reasons I'll come to.) I'll quote the note in full, in case anyone missed it:
Editor's note: The University of Minnesota was contracted by the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) to help build the COVID-19 Minnesota mathematical model. The model development was led by U of M School of Public Health Associate Professors Dr. Eva Enns and Dr. Shalini Kulasingam. Enns and Kulasingam are nationally recognized modeling experts and have previously partnered on several modeling projects including studies on pertussis (in collaboration with MDH) and chlamydia in Minnesota.
The initial Minnesota COVID-19 models were created by Enns and Kulasingam. The project team includes faculty colleagues at the School of Public Health who are experts in mathematical modeling, infectious disease epidemiology, and systematic literature reviews. As part of the project team, students and research assistants support literature reviews, and help to check, confirm and expand the R programming code, which is available publicly for researchers and others to review. All work performed by students and research assistants is done under the direction and thorough review of Enns and Kulasingam. (Visit the School of Public Health website to access the R code.)
But only someone who has never had any contact with the model or anything related to its production could think that the whole thing was "developed by a couple of inexperienced grad students." Here are the credited authors on the model:
Eva A. Enns (PhD, professor of public health),
Marina Kirkeide (grad research assistant),
Abhinav Mehta (grad research assistant),
Richard MacLehose (PhD, professor of epidemiology),
Gregory S. Knowlton (MS, PhD candidate, biostatistics),
M. Kumi Smith (PhD, professor of epidemiology),
Kelly M. Searle (PhD, professor of epidemiology),
Ran Zhao (Masters of Public Health, current position unclear),
Stefan Gildemeister (M.A., Director, Health Economics Program, Minnesota Department of Health),
Alisha Simon (M.S., Minnesota Department of Health Access and Cost Containment unit director),
Erinn Sanstead (PhD, Minnesota Department of Health, data center staff),
Shalini Kulasingam (PhD, professor of epidemiology).
Plenty of these people have published, well-cited, peer-reviewed papers on epidemic modeling, by the by. (Enns and Kulasingham aren't the only ones. Heck, they're not even the only ones involved in that pertussis model the editor's not mentioned!) This is all obvious to anyone who bothers to google their names.
The GitHub commit came from Dr. Enns' account. (I know this because I tried to contribute some code to the Git repo over the past few days. I can't imagine Sen. Jensen has ever heard of GitHub, much less spared this repo so much as a glance.) Dr. Enns wasn't just snagging first-author rights; she handled final deployment of the code. She was also on the press-briefing calls, where she handled the technical questions that were too deep for Mr. Gildemeister. It was clear that she both knew her team's code and staked her reputation on it.
Of course, grad students were involved, because grad students are involved in anything that happens in a research grad school; their literal function in the research university caste system is to serve professors as a highly-trained but low-paid labor force in hopes of one day becoming professors themselves. But to accuse Marina Kirkeide of single-handedly plunging the state into lockdown and recession, as Sen. Jensen contends, is not merely ignorant, but, I would contend, slanderous.
It's also frankly astounding that these Deplorable House Wives could whine about a lack of peer review when their side spent the entire week of May 3rd complaining that version 3 of the model had not been released on time. Why hadn't it been released? Because it was undergoing peer review! This was in the newspapers! Google would reveal it!
Do I blame my friend, who shared the article with me, for not digging into the model's history before writing about it? No, my friend was a news consumer with no direct stake in the matter, who tagged me specifically to get a second pair of eyes on it. Do I blame the author of the UMN press release? No, whoever wrote the release is a university scut used to writing puff pieces read only by people who have some idea how the research system works, and didn't anticipate the need to immunize the piece against bad-faith political actors who are not only ignorant, but proud of it.
Do I blame the authors of this article? Do I blame Sen. Jensen? Absolutely. I would not dare publish something directly accusing someone of grave professional malpractice without bothering to do some cursory Google searches about my own alleged evidence! (Longtime readers remember how hard I worked to be sure of my allegations when Wisconsin Right-To-Life and James Bopp lied about Personhood's potential legal consequences.) It is self-evident that I just did more research fact-checking this news article for a Facebook friend, in order to demonstrate something I already knew -- that this was nonsense -- than Sen. Jensen did before attempting to character-assassinate a grad student on the floor of the Minnesota Senate.
But who's going to get more shares? Who's going to convince more people? Jensen and the genuinely deplorable humans who wrote this article, that's who. It doesn't matter that I've copied my reply to my friend into a blog post to spread it around, and it wouldn't matter if William F. Buckley himself came back from the dead and put this correction on the front page of the National Review. All that matters is that people WANT to believe their stupid contrarian narrative, and so they will find some way to believe it -- and they will find dishonest scum of the Internet like Deplorable House Wives to manufacture some vaguely plausible but utterly untrue story based on deliberately misinterpreted "sources" to back it up.
This does more than simply deceive news consumers and damage the reputations of people who have done nothing wrong (and much very right!). These absurd accusations also suck the oxygen out of the room for legitimate critiques of and questions about the Minesota model -- of which there are several.
(It goes without saying, of course, that the Left does this, too. In fact, the Left routinely does this through the organs of mainstream media outlets, which is even more damaging! But it makes me so much angrier when the Right does it, because we are supposed to have learned something from the sins of the Left. We are supposed to be better than them. And what the age of the Internet has taught me is that we're not. We are every inch as bad as Sarah "Local Crime Story" Kliff and JournoList; we're just less empowered.)
It goes without saying that there will be no apology for any of this.I am finding it increasingly difficult to countenance a vote for any Republican in the state legislature this fall. Obviously, I won't vote for the pro-death Democrats, but I never imagined the Republicans would be so mendacious about matters of life and death as well.