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The Treason of the Epidemiologists
I did not come up with this title. Jonah Goldberg did:
We spent the last couple of months being hectored by public health experts and earnestly righteous media personalities who insisted that easing lockdown policies was immoral, that refusing to social distance or wear masks was nigh upon murderous. They even suggested that protests were somehow profane. But now that the George Floyd protests are serving as some kind of Great Awokening, many of the same are saying “never mind” about all of that. Protests aren’t profane, they’re glorious and essential—if they agree with what you’re protesting about.
...if we have a huge spike in cases because of these protests, will they say, “Well, it was worth it to end racism”? Maybe, except they won’t have ended racism. Sure, some will plausibly argue that any COVID-19 comeback was the result of evil Republicans reopening the churches and the barber shops. But that will be dismissed for the partisan hogwash and special pleading it will be.
And, if we don’t see a huge spike in COVID-19 cases after all of this, no one will believe the experts when we head into the fall (when it’s supposed to come back) and they say now we really mean it. So we’ll still have an intolerable amount of racism—at least according to the people who say we have an intolerable amount of racism today—and we’ll have another economy-crushing outbreak on our hands.
And, if—God willing—it doesn’t come back strong in the fall, well, no one will ever take these people seriously again, and for understandable reasons.
Mr. Goldberg is, of course, referring to something that has shut me up cold for the past week and a bit: a very large fraction of the public health "experts" whom I have trusted and defended for the past few months -- and to whom I have entrusted you, dear reader -- suddenly turned out to be acting in bad faith.
After public health "experts" spent months advocating tough, almost exceptionless lockdowns, openly attacking protesters, George Floyd was killed. (I support the murder charge in his death.) Suddenly, the script flipped. Now protest was not killing people; it was a necessity to show that killing people is bad! Get out there and #SayTheirNames! Very loudly! In a large crowd!
Of course, left unstated in all this is that, if these (predominantly white) public health experts have been right about practically anything, then these protests will, in fact, kill (predominantly black) people. So great job, guys. Black Lives Matter to you so much you're sending them out into the street to die!
Some of my friends are not as abjectly furious about this as I am. After all, these public health "experts" are "both 'scientists' and 'citizens'," so they're entitled to say (as scientists) that protest is dangerous while also saying (as citizens) that protest is worthwhile. They are desperately spinning their special-pleading wheels this week to try and make this case, but their arguments consistently boil down to, "We think that marching for George Floyd is more important than whatever dumb crap you, plebian, think is important." Maybe they're right, maybe they're wrong, but they're making a judgment that has nothing to do with science.
"Even so, James! Even so! You're dodging the question! Don't public health experts have the right, as individual citizens, to make individual judgments about which causes are worth the risk and which ones aren't?"
No. Public health experts gave up their right to individual judgment the day they took that right away from the rest of us.
The lockdowns these very epidemiologists supported were not jokes. They weren't optional. If you violated lockdown in a serious way, men with guns came to deal with you -- and the people who are now scolding us for insufficient wokery cheered the law on. We didn't get a "citizen's exception" to this. We didn't get to "balance risks." Epidemiologists I respected were clear about this: lockdowns should continue until test-trace-isolate was possible. Epidemiologists varied on how to respond to people who broke lockdown, but were unified on the main point: unless you needed to leave the house to not die, you should stay home.
Want to see your loved one dying in the hospital? "Too bad." Want to receive the Blessed Sacrament, the Source and Summit of Christian Life to which we are guaranteed access via the First Amendment? "We sympathize, but it's a pandemic." Want to get married after years of planning? "Nope, better put the formation of your family on hold for a few weeks, or months, or years." Want to go to the funeral of a beloved community leader... or, I dunno, the funeral of your own dad? Your own mom? "We'll throw you in actual jail!"
Our public health "experts" didn't bat an eye at any of these policies. After all, these policies were the natural consequence of what these "experts" had been saying all along. When they deigned to offer comments, they applauded these policies. So did I! Quite frankly, given the seriousness of the epidemic, I still do!
But policies have to treat everyone fairly. Instead, we've established one standard for Hasidic Jewish funerals and a different standard for woke protesters.
Look, you're free to say that the George Floyd protests are more important than any of the other concerns I listed. You may even be right! What you're not free to say is that the thing you care about should be tolerated but everything else punishable by law. The religion of anti-racism does not have greater rights under our law than the religion of Judaism. If you get a citizen's exception, everyone does.
And what you especially, especially can't do is suddenly invent a "citizen's exception," after months of unwavering loyalty to the party line, on the very day that you need it. Because then everyone knows you were lying the whole time. Even when you try to point to evidence that you supported a more generous approach all along, everybody knows you didn't. I said a few words vaguely to the effect that, "Since we've already surrendered to covid, we may as well reopen everything, including the bars and the streets and the churches," but I know the rest of you epidemiologists were grousing about reopening right up to the instant it challenged your politics, because I was watching. And some of you have now gone back to grousing!
Everybody knows that those articles from early May don't say, "We should reopen the churches," like you're claiming now, Dr. Marcus, but actually just say, "We should think about maybe someday reopening the churches if we can figure out how." Everybody knows you still think that, actually, because you still haven't come out and said, "Yep, it's time to reopen the churches." Everybody knows you don't give a good goddamn about the churches. Or the collapsing businesses. Or the funerals. Or the lost jobs. Or orderly in-person elections. Or anything at all -- except your devotions.
This was a betrayal of our entire society. The people who set the rules suddenly violated them. It was like the great disappointment of Neil Ferguson (who orchestrated the UK lockdown) breaking lockdown to have a tryst with a married woman, but on a completely massive scale. Well over half the "experts" turned out to be writing rules for us that they had no intention of following themselves.
But it was a special betrayal of us, the people who supported (and continue to support!) a robust, consistent public health response to covid-19. All of society was betrayed, but we are the ones with the knives buried in our backs... and we are going to pay the price. Minnesota doesn't need to be in lockdown right now, the end of May proved that, but there's a reasonable chance (maybe 50-50?) that, at some point in the next six months, we're going to need to head back into lockdown to protect lives and the economy. We're not going to be able to. No one will believe us, because these "experts" have destroyed the credibility of their entire profession, and ours as well. After all, as Obi-Wan Kenobi once asked, "Who is more foolish? The fool, or the fool who follows him?" I literally followed most of these experts, and I recommended that you do the same.
Even if most people did believe us, it would be impossible to draw a hard line against those who stubbornly held out. Mass gatherings of any kind would simply designate themselves a "protest against injustice" -- like this racetrack did for a racing day featuring 2000 people in the stands -- and good fornicating luck getting a court to enforce an order against them after you let the protests grow to hundreds of thousands.
Screw these people. In almost a decade blogging, I've never said that about anyone, but screw 'em and the horse they came in on. Any epidemiologist or public health "expert" who encouraged people to protest is untrustworthy and should be totally disregarded going forward -- as should anyone who cites them as authorities to impose new policies. To be clear: there's nothing wrong with angrily denouncing George Floyd's unjust death (and several other recent unjust police killings), nothing wrong from a public health perspective with saying "Black Lives Matter." I don't have any beef with the protesters themselves, who did have the right to make a judgment for themselves because they never campaigned against that right for everyone else.
But if you were a lockdown supporter who suddenly started saying that you support the protests, you should vanish from public life, because you're a worse hypocrite than Newt Gingrich prosecuting a President for adultery.
So... what are we, on De Civitate, going to do about it?
We can't do anything here without trustworthy data. I'm just some guy with a blog, not an expert in much of anything, and my function here is to distill large amounts of information down to something you can use. If my information is untrustworthy, then my blog is gonna be untrustworthy, too. I've relied on many of these faux-experts to inform me throughout this crisis: Dr. Angela Rasmussen, Obama CDC head Dr. Tom Frieden, Dr. Jennifer Nuzzo, Dr. Eric Feigl-Ding, Dr. Carl T. Bergstrom, and quite a few others. But I can't anymore.
So what I've done is purged my source list. I am no longer getting information from any of these people, and I am discounting it when I see it in other media. For example, I have a public Twitter list which follows the accounts of just about every expert with useful insights into the pandemic. At the start of the week, there were around 40 accounts on this list. It's down to 19. I'm not sure the purge is over, either. But the ones who are left have, so far, been solid. Trevor Bedford has been honest about the consequences of the protests without advocating one way or another for policies, as has been his practice throughout. Scott Gottlieb and Natalie Dean have done a great job condemning racism without endorsing protests that destroy the distancing measures they worked so hard to flesh out. Nick Christakis (whom you may remember as the guy that deranged Yale mob screamed at) has even politely but effectively critiqued the sudden about-face of so many epidemiologists.
So, while I'm getting much less information now, the information I get comes from people who appear to be honest brokers. They may be wrong, and probably will be, but they won't lie to themselves -- or to me.
Equipped once again with reliable facts, we may return to examining the pandemic. We still need to figure out what to do next. As society-wide social distancing comes to an end, why aren't cases spiking? And how can we who have faithfully sheltered for months take advantage of that without danger? Those of us who are left will be lonely, with the covid-skeptics on the Right mocking us and the hypocrite-experts on the Left actively undermining us... but we'll have a much better chance of being correct than we would in either of the Tribes. It's always good to be correct. It's especially good to be correct in the face of the deadliest infectious disease the world has seen in most of our lifetimes.
I'll see you in a few days.