I’ve commented multiple times on how much COVID-19 pandemic denialists, those who deny the efficacy of masks and other public health matters to slow the spread of coronavirus, who try to downplay or deny the harm caused by the pandemic (particularly by claiming that the virus is not that deadly), and in general engage in conspiracy theories about this being a “plandemic” or an excuse to impose “forced vaccination,” resemble the antivaccine movement. Indeed, it’s no surprise that one of the very earliest conspiracy theories about COVID-19 dates back to January, when the pandemic was still mostly confined to China and had not yet made its presence known in the US (although it was already here), was the claim that China had purchased more influenza vaccine than usual and the flu vaccine had made the people of Wuhan more susceptible to the novel coronavirus. By May antivaxxers were prominent attendees at antimask and anti-lockdown protests, having already launched a preemptive disinformation campaign against any coronavirus vaccine that might be developed, and now they routinely show up at such events, along with QAnon believers. The reason, of course, is that, at its heart, antivaccine beliefs are rooted in conspiracy theories, producing a natural affinity between COVID-19 cranks and antivaxxers. There are many other characteristics antivaxxers share with COVID-19 cranks, one of which is a persecution complex. This brings me to today’s topic, this doozy of an article by Stacey Rudin of the American Institute for Economic Research (AIER) likening “resistance” to public health measures to slow the spread of COVID-19 to abolitionists before the Civil War:
AIER, of course, is the right wing, climate science-denying, free market fundamentalist propaganda house disguised as a “think tank” behind the Great Barrington Declaration, a “declaration” that it spearheaded urging, in essence, letting COVID-19 spread through the population in order to achieve “herd immunity” with “focused protection” of those most vulnerable to severe disease and death from COVID-19, such as nursing home residents, the elderly, and the like. The long version of why it’s nonsense is here. The Cliffs Note version follows. Basically, as epidemiologists pointed out, it’s impossible to protect the “vulnerable” if COVID-19 is spreading unchecked through the rest of the population. Moreover, for there to be herd immunity, there must be immunity after infection. Although there does appear to be immunity as a result of COVID-19 infection in most people, we don’t know how long it lasts. It could well be fairly brief, as in months, as opposed to many years. That would mean that waning immunity would make those who recovered from COVID-19 susceptible again. It would particularly make one suggestion in the Great Barrington Declaration, that nursing homes be staffed only with those who’ve recovered from COVID-19, utterly ridiculous, given that many of them could well become vulnerable again within months. Again, we just don’t know yet. Finally, the whole “Great Barrington Declaration” was obviously propaganda more than science, given that, as a tactic, it closely resembled previous “petitions,” open letters, and “declarations” from science denialists as varied as creationists, HIV/AIDS deniers, and climate science deniers, who particularly love this technique of “magnified minority” to give the false appearance of scientific legitimacy to their views by posting a statement and having lots of scientists sign it, regardless of whether they actually have relevant expertise in the science being opined on or not.
Of course, antivaxxers like to view themselves in similar terms. Of course, Rudin and AIER, by likening themselves to abolitionists, are also likening those who support science-based public health interventions against COVID-19 to pro-slavery advocates and, by extension, those same interventions to slavery. In this AIER and other COVID-19 deniers are following a path well trod by the antivaccine movement, which has, as long as I’ve been able to remember, likened “forced vaccination” to all manner of evils, including slavery (including its modern variant, human trafficking), the Holocaust, rape, pedophilia (don’t ask), Nazi-ism, and…oh, I can’t keep listing them, at least not here.
I’ll give you a brief taste, before I go into Rudin and AIER’s propaganda. Back in 2015, after SB 277, the California bill that eliminated nonmedical exemptions to school vaccine requirements, had passed the legislature, I took note when antivaxxer Kent Heckenlively likened SB 277 to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, with antivaccine parents as the slaves and SB 277 the Fugitive Slave Act. I kid you not:
Consider the slave-owning South prior to the American Civil War. A trickle of slaves, perhaps 1,000-5,000 were escaping each year (out of an estimated population of 3,000,000 slaves), beginning their lives in the North, and speaking freely of what they endured under the lash of their slave-masters.
The escaped slaves presented no existential threat to slavery. For those in the North who didn’t quite know what to think about slavery, they were allowed to continue to exist in their state of uncertainty. Maybe slavery was good, maybe it was bad, but it was something that happened someplace else. They were not a part of it.
But that wasn’t enough for the South. The escaped slaves drove them crazy. Just like the 1.5% of California schoolchildren who have a philosophical or religious exemption. You see, most doctors claim that even if you believe in the mythical concept of “herd immunity”, it’s somewhere around 90-93%. I’m not a math teacher, but even if you take 1.5% away from 100%, I calculate it at 98.5%. Check my math to see if I’ve got it right.
The fact is, those parents with philosophical or religious exemptions drive people like Senator Richard Pan and his pharmaceutical cronies absolutely nuts, just like escaped slaves drove their Southern masters crazy. Many people credit the Fugitive Slave laws as hastening the start of the Civil War and the end of slavery. By the very act by with which they attempted to gain complete control, they created a destabilizing force which wiped then from the face of the earth.
With that background of antivaxxers likening vaccine mandates to slavery and measures to decrease exemptions from vaccine mandates to the Fugitive Slave Act in mind, now let’s look at Rudin’s take at AIER, in which she argues that AIER and other “antilockdown” advocates deserve your trust because, like abolitionists before the Civil War, they are taking an unpopular stand. (No, her argument really is that simple—and ridiculous.) After pretentiously quoting stoic philosopher Epictetus regarding the importance of character, specifically how we can’t control how others perceive us and therefore should concentrate on character, not reputation and dismissing many “affluent Americans” as prioritizing reputation over character, she opines:
In the COVID debate, there is a mainstream, “popular” narrative, and a competing, “unpopular” narrative — a “fringe.” The former exploits the common, mediocre desire to be “popular.” Joining the movement is easy. It results in back-pats, validation, and requires no uncomfortable confrontations. This narrative states that it is impossible for humanity to survive the COVID19 pandemic without a vaccine, lockdowns, and masks, some combination of which will be required into the indefinite future. The narrative supports blaming others for “infecting you” with diseases, rather than encouraging personal responsibility for immune and general health.
Proponents of the competing narrative, on the other hand, must stand up to massive social forces simply to make their arguments, which are not radical: they support a return to classic pandemic management tools, the same ones used by Sweden and other states and countries which did not lock down for COVID19, which resulted in average mortality for 2020. They do not believe this pandemic warrants a complete overhaul of the economic, social, and educational systems. They believe that every human being should be empowered with truthful information about risk and how to best care for personal health, and to make his or her own choices.
Of course, this is the classic false dichotomy that pandemic public health science denialists love to use: Lockdowns versus everything else. They also love to cite the example of Sweden, which didn’t actually pursue an open policy to achieve herd immunity and, more importantly, did do pretty poorly with respect to COVID-19 while not doing any better economically as a result of its more open policies. Moreover, no one—I repeat, no one—wants to lock down indefinitely or continue these policies indefinitely. In fact, here in my state we haven’t been on any sort of lockdown since June. As for “empowering” people about risk and “encouraging personal responsibility,” that doesn’t help if the information being given is questionable, as much of AIER’s information is. In any case, notice the similarity to antivaccine rhetoric. AIER is painting itself as a defender of freedom against those supporting conventional science and medicine, who are painted as dogmatic fascists who want to shut everything down and control you—yes, you!—with public health interventions, who want you to “conform”:
Faced with these competing narratives, we must consider motives and costs. The force of social pressure to conform with the mainstream narrative is large, so we know from the outset that the people willing to argue against it are either insane, or extremely driven, courageous, and strong. It is easy to eliminate the possibility that they are crazy — many of them, such as Elon Musk and the scientists who drafted the Great Barrington Declaration — are giants in their fields. They risk everything, weathering exhausting personal attacks from all sides, in order to battle the crowd.
Ah, yes! The “brave maverick” narrative, the “great man” (or “great woman”) narrative, in which the iconoclast triumphs, despite going against conventional thinking and weathering all manner of attacks. This is, of course a variant of what I like to refer to as the “Galileo gambit,” in which cranks paint themselves as “scientific heretics” who are being persecuted because they buck the consensus. The problem, of course, is that to be Galileo you have to turn out to have been right, or, as Michael Shermer once put it:
For every Galileo shown the instruments of torture for advocating scientific truth, there are a thousand (or ten thousand) unknowns whose ‘truths’ never pass scientific muster with other scientists.
And, as I’ve put it in the past:
For every Galileo, Ignaz Semmelweis, Nicolaus Copernicus, Charles Darwin, Louis Pasteur, etc., whose scientific ideas were either ignored, rejected, or vigorously attacked by the scientific community of his time and then later accepted, there are untold numbers of others whose ideas were either ignored or rejected initially and then were never accepted–and never will be accepted. Why? Because they were wrong! The reason the ideas of Galileo, Semmelweis, Copernicus, Darwin, Pasteur, et al, were ultimately accepted as correct by the scientific community is because they turned out to be correct! Their observations and ideas stood up to repeated observation and scientific experimentation by many scientists in many places over many years. The weight of data supporting their ideas was so overwhelming that eventually even the biggest skeptics could no longer stand.
This brings us to back to AIER and Rudin’s “slavery gambit.” Rudin quotes Princeton professor Robert P. George, a specialist in moral and political philosophy and the theory of conscience in which he describes an exercise he does in his classes in which he asks the students what their position on slavery would have been if they had been white and living in the South before the Civil War. Naturally, they all say they’d be abolitionists and would have spoken out against it, to which Prof. George responds:
Of course, this is nonsense. Only the tiniest fraction of them, or of any of us, would have spoken up against slavery or lifted a finger to free the slaves. Most of them — and us — would have gone along. Many would have supported the slave system and happily benefited from it.
So I respond by saying that I will credit their claims if they can show evidence of the following: that in leading their lives today they have stood up for the rights of unpopular victims of injustice whose very humanity is denied, and where they have done so knowing: (1) that it would make them unpopular with their peers, (2) that they would be loathed and ridiculed by powerful, influential individuals and institutions in our society; (3) that they would be abandoned by many of their friends, (4) that they would be called nasty names, and (5) that they would risk being denied valuable professional opportunities as a result of their moral witness. In short, my challenge is to show where they have at risk to themselves and their futures stood up for a cause that is unpopular in elite sectors of our culture today.
This is certainly true and a good cautionary tale for those of us who would imagine ourselves as more moral than people living at any one time. Another good example would be Nazi Germany. We like to tell ourselves that, had we been adults living in Germany when Hitler came to power in the early 1933, we would have spoken out. We would have resisted. Maybe, but far more likely the vast majority of us who were not direct targets of Nazi persecution (such as Jews and Communists) would have gone along. After all, by the time Hitler had been in power only a few months, speaking out against the regime could result in your becoming a political prisoner in a concentration camp like Dachau. At best you would probably have been ostracized socially and possibly risked losing your job and other societal privileges. Considering that Hitler was actually quite popular early in his regime, going against Nazi policies had real costs associated with it, even right after he became Chancellor. Worse, the cost of opposing the Nazi regime only became more steep as its time in power progressed. Indeed, just before the end of the war, speaking out against the regime could easily result in summary execution by local Nazi authorities, as Nazis, taking their cue from Hitler, instituted a “burn it all down” policy and treated any dissent or recognition that the war was lost as “defeatism” and treason.
But back to slavery and abolitionists. You can see where this is going, right? I know my longtime regular readers can. AIER and Rudin want to portray themselves in general and, in particular, the scientists behind their Great Barrington Declaration, to be the abolitionists, suffering the slings and arrows of rejection and persecution from the pro-slavery public health establishment:
While this path leads to wisdom and self-respect, Epictetus recognizes that it carries a tremendous social cost — which is why only a minority choose it. “You may be ridiculed and even end up with the worst of everything in all parts of your public life, including your career, your social standing, and your legal position in the courts.” This happened to the abolitionists for decades, and it is happening to COVID dissenters now: Dr. Scott Atlas was smeared by 100 of his colleagues at Stanford, who then refused to debate the substance of their claims against him; one Google search will reveal dozens of smears against the Great Barrington Declaration and its authors.
Ah, yes, the “all truth comes from public debate” gambit so beloved of cranks, or, as I like to call this gambit “Debate me, bro!” or “Come at me, bro!” There are a whole lot of memes to describe this gambit:
Of course, cranks love “debates,” for reasons that I’ve explained time and time again. Many are the example I’ve discussed, such as, for example., when antivaccine guru Andrew Wakefield challenged Dr. David Salisbury to a “live public debate” about whether the MMR vaccine causes autism or not. (Hint: It doesn’t.) Then there was the time when all-purpose quack Julian Whitaker debated Steve Novella at FreedomFest in 2012. Sometimes cranks have tried to trick me, such as when an HIV-AIDS denialist tried to lure me into a “debate” with HIV-AIDS denialist Christine Maggiore back in 2007. Then there were Michael Shermer’s “debate” with Deepak Chopra; antivaccine propagandist David Kirby debating author Arthur Allen; and, of course, antivaccine activist Nick Haas’ challenge to have a blogger from Science-Based Medicine do a live public debate about vaccines. As I’ve pointed out before, time and time again, I don’t “debate” cranks, at least not live on stage in such artificial events, because such events (1) make it appear that there is an actual scientific debate when there is not and (2) give the crank the freedom to Gish gallop to his or her heart’s content. Apparently, the Stanford faculty who pointed out how wrong Scott Atlas was understand this. Dr. Atlas is a neuroradiologist with no particular expertise in infectious disease, epidemiology, pandemics, or public health, but somehow he’s become the “expert” to whom the Trump administration listens over Anthony Fauci and Deborah Birx when it comes to the pandemic. Unsurprisingly, crank that he is, Dr. Atlas also sees himself (falsely) as Galileo:
I remembered Shermer’s retort to the Galileo gambit and laughed out loud when I saw that Tweet by Dr. Atlas. He certainly has a high opinion of himself! I suppose it’s not that surprising, given that he is basically Dunning-Kruger incarnate and has worshipful minions like Stacey Rudin at AIER telling him how great he is and how he’s a modern day Galileo. More and more, he’s reminding me of Andrew Wakefield and Del Bigtree. If Trump is defeated, even though he’ll lose any influence with the new administration come January 20, he won’t go away. Unfortunately, a hell of a lot of damage has already been done, thanks to Dr. Atlas, as pursuing “herd immunity” à la the Great Barrington Declaration has clearly become the de facto policy of the Trump administration.
Now here’s the hilarious part. AIER and Rudin claim that the antilockdown crowd is fighting for the little person:
Anti-lockdowners get to stand up for the least powerful in our society. For those who have no voice. For the people who are desperate for their industries to survive. For the small business owners who make just enough to feed their children. For the “essential workers” who stand in the supermarket checkout day in and day out, while their children stay home playing video games in place of school. For the kids in developing countries who walk for miles through fields just for a WiFi signal. For the frightened elderly people who haven’t hugged a family member in eight months. For the hospital patients who will die alone and afraid. For the religious congregations prevented from doing outreach.
For the families foregoing holidays, birthdays, and travel. For the socially isolated. For the babies who are growing up without seeing smiles. For the special needs kids deprived of their therapies, for the women and children locked home with abusers. For the new patrons of the food bank, for the formerly proud career men newly sunk to the unemployment line. For those driven to drugs or drink, for those whose rehab was suspended. For those considering suicide. For those whose vaccinations and medical treatments have been delayed or cancelled. For those wondering if life will ever again be worth living. For those who feel there is nothing left to rely on, now that lives, livelihoods, and educations can be decimated at government whim.
That’s really rich coming from AIER, which is a right wing free market fundamentalist think tank funded by the Koch brothers dedicated to denying anthropogenic global climate change because any mitigation attempts would represent a threat to the profits of the billionaires and fossil fuel companies behind AIER. AIER’s “declaration” is far more about conservative economics than it is about public health or even herd immunity. Indeed, there’s a reason why the Great Barrington Declaration has been likened to eugenics. If the virus spreads unchecked, it will be the poor and minorities who suffer the most from it, not the well-off, self-satisfied “scholars” at AIER likening themselves to abolitionists. As was reported in the NY Times, the signatories themselves don’t even have a clue how “focused protection” would work:
Scientists who have signed the declaration did not offer many details for putting its ideas in place. “I don’t know exactly how it would work,” said Gabriela Gomes, a mathematical modeler at the University of Strathclyde in Britain and one of 42 co-signers. Another supporter, Paul McKeigue, a genetic epidemiologist at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, said, “Specific control measures for preventing coronavirus transmission are not my area of expertise.”
To which this is the best response:
So, according to AIER and Rudin, COVID-19 denialists get to feel good about themselves for supposedly standing up for science, right, and the underdog, even though they do none of these and are only deluding themselves that they are. So what do those who support science-based public health measures, including masks, social distancing, contact tracing, and, if absolutely necessary (but never as a first measure), targeted lockdowns get out of this? Take a guess:
What do the lockdowners gain? To answer this question, we need only consider who the the acceptance of their program benefits. Tech interests, billionaires, pharmaceutical companies, certain political parties. The 1% — the same people who can easily work from home, who are not harmed by lockdowns, who consider themselves so smart that their decision as to “what should be scary” must hold for every single person on the planet. No votes are needed, because their judgment is so good. Whatever businesses and educational systems and social structures need to die, must die, because they say so. All they need to do to push this system is gain the cooperation of the media, which can be done with dollars alone.
This is basically the “pharma shill gambit” in a modified form. I’m surprised Rudin was able to restrain herself from mentioning Bill Gates in there somewhere. It’s also risible that AIER would invoke the “1%” given that it exists to promote the interests of the “1%,” who basically want to be able to force all those “essential workers” back to work, whether adequate safety and mitigation measures are in place or not, all to get their profits flowing again and forestall demands that the government provide more aid to workers unemployed due to the pandemic. The conspiracy mongering would be right at home on an antivax blog or social media feed.
AIER and Rudin conclude with a statement so utterly daft and risible, so off the wall, so absolutely wrong that I feel the need to warn you before I quote it. You have been warned:
Ask yourself, who deserves your trust? I would argue that anti-lockdowners are today’s abolitionists — people willing to take up an unpopular cause at incredible risk. Lockdowners may currently be “popular,” but they are on the wrong side of history.
Here’s the thing. The popularity or lack of popularity of an idea has little or nothing to do with whether that idea is scientifically valid. New Age quackery is incredibly popular, but it is pseudoscience and quackery, for example. The popularity of Dr. Oz’s show is also evidence of this. Astrology is also very popular and even more wrong. Belief in psychics is so popular that a number of television shows about “psychics” get good ratings and even Dr. Oz features them on his show from time to time. AIER and Rudin want to portray COVID-19 cranks and grifters like Dr. Atlas and the useful idiots who put together the Great Barrington Declaration at its behest as abolitionists saving you—yes, you!—from the “slavery” of public health measures to slow the spread COVID-19. In reality all they are doing is deluding themselves while at the same time showing how much like antivaxxers they are.