The Brownstone Institute has been one of the more vocal and, unfortunately, persistent and prolific spreaders of COVID-19 misinformation and disinformation during the pandemic, starting with misrepresenting science to oppose any public health interventions designed to slow the spread of the virus and then going full-on antivaccine. A particularly pernicious relatively new right wing “think thank,” Brownstone was founded in 2021 by Jeffrey Tucker, previously of the American Institute for Economic Research (AIER). Tucker is a far right wing neo-Confederate who in his previous role at AIER had also been instrumental in bringing together the public health-“skeptical” scientists in October 2020 to issue the statement known as the Great Barrington Declaration, which famously advocated a “let ‘er rip” approach to the pandemic in order to achieve “natural herd immunity” within six months. A eugenicist manifesto for the pandemic through and through, the GBD also advocated an ill-defined and ineffective strategy of “focused protection” for all those pesky (to the GBD signatories) elderly and people with chronic diseases who were at high risk for severe disease and death that never would have worked and that Brownstone flacks don’t even appear to be seriously defending anymore.
Basically, according to Tucker himself, the Brownstone Institute was founded explicitly as the “spiritual child” of the GBD and has likened public health interventions to slow the spread of COVID-19 to slavery, religion, or a Communist dictatorship while just plain spreading pure, unadulterated antivax misinformation and advocating “Nuremberg 2.0“-like trials of public health officials to punish them for their perceived misdeeds, an old antivax trope. So it should be no surprise that the flacks who write for the Brownstone Institute very much do not like being called out for spreading misinformation and disinformation. What caught my attention in particular a couple of days ago was an article by Daniel Klein entitled Misinformation Is a Word We Use to Shut You Up. It is as predictable as you might expect but nonetheless worth examining because it is merely a manifestation of a general phenomenon in the pandemic misinformation- and disinformation-promoting ecosystem. Basically, the article is a modified version of an article published as a preprint that rants about—you guessed it!—pandemic contrarians being called out for spreading disinformation. Unsurprisingly, Klein starts right out with comparisons to Nazi-ism and other totalitarian political systems, claiming that efforts to slow the spread of disinformation are merely a tool or pretext to “crush dissent”:
The policing of “information” is the stuff of Naziism, Stalinism, Maoism, and similar anti-liberal regimes. To repress criticism of their dicta and diktats, anti-liberals label criticism “misinformation” or “disinformation.” Those labels are instruments to crush dissent.
This paper offers an understanding of knowledge as involving three chief facets: information, interpretation, and judgment. Usually, what people argue fervently over is not information, but interpretation and judgment.
What is being labeled and attacked as “misinformation” is not a matter of true or false information, but of true or false knowledge—meaning that disagreement more commonly arises over interpretations and judgments as to which interpretations to take stock in or believe. We make judgments, “good” and “bad,” “wise” and “foolish,” about interpretations, “true” and “false.”
On that understanding, the paper explains that the projects and policies now afoot styled “anti-misinformation” and “anti-disinformation” are dishonest, as it should be obvious to all that those projects and policies would, if advanced honestly, be called something like “anti-falsehood” campaigns.
This argument is one that uses a grain of truth to paint a false picture, although it also has a falsehood at its core. It is certainly true that a lot of misinformation and disinformation are narratives and claims based on misleading or false interpretations of existing data. However, it is also true that a lot of misinformation and disinformation are also based on demonstrably false claims and narratives (e.g., vaccines cause autism or COVID-19 vaccines are causing huge numbers of young people to “die suddenly”) undergirded by demonstrably bad science—or no science at all. Klein then uses that blending of a grain of truth with a whole lot of misrepresentation and fiction to paint all efforts to combat misinformation and disinformation as inherently dishonest attacks on free speech.
Ironically, Klein is not entirely wrong when he suggests a name like “anti-falsehood” campaigns; that is, if you take the word “falsehood” literally and don’t actually call the falsehoods lies, even though arguably many of those promoting falsehoods about COVID-19 know that those falsehoods are, in fact, false, which is the very distinction between a falsehood (which might be innocently spread) and a lie. Actually, knowledge and intent are also the difference between misinformation and disinformation, the former being simply wrong—or at least highly misleading—claims or narratives and the latter being intentionally misleading and/or wrong claims and narratives. Like a falsehood, which is simply an untrue statement, misinformation can be innocently believed and spread by people who don’t know better. Like a lie, disinformation is spread maliciously, with intent to mislead.
Of course, Klein is going for this narrative himself, which is highly misleading and thus arguably disinformation itself:
But to prosecute an “anti-falsehood” campaign would make obvious the true nature of what is afoot—an Orwellian boot to stomp on Wrongthink. To support governmental policing of “information” is to confess one’s anti-liberalism and illiberality. The essay offers a spiral diagram to show the three chief facets of knowledge (information, interpretation, and judgment) plus a fourth facet, fact, which also deserves distinct conceptualization, even though the spiral reminds us: Facts are theory-laden.
That’s right. No claims are so wrong or so maliciously spread that they should ever be labeled misinformation or disinformation. To Klein it’s all just free speech based on intellectual disagreements over how to interpret facts, science, and data! Klein even admits that not all usage of the terms “misinformation” and “disinformation” are Orwellian assaults on free speech. (How generous.) Instead, he opines:
Writing at Discourse, published by the Mercatus Center, Martin Gurri describes “disinformation” as follows:The word means, ‘Shut up, peasant.’ It’s a bullet aimed at killing the conversation. It’s loaded with hostility to reason, evidence, debate and all the stuff that makes our democracy great. (Gurri 2023)
That is from Gurri’s excellent piece, “Disinformation Is the Word I Use When I Want You to Shut Up.” The piece prompted the present essay, the title of which is a variation on his.
With such titles, Gurri and I are being polemical, of course. Not all usages of “disinformation” and “misinformation” come from people intent on shutting someone up. But a lot are. The “anti-misinformation” and “anti-disinformation” projects now afoot or in effect are about shutting up opponents.
In fairness, it must be conceded that sometimes the terms “misinformation” and “disinformation” are thrown around a bit too freely and that there can sometimes be intent behind such efforts to shut up opponents. However, conceding that that can happen does not mean that one has to accept Klein and Gurri’s “polemical” take that most efforts to combat misinformation and disinformation derive from an authoritarian impulse to put an “Orwellian boot on Wrongthink”:
The policing of ‘information’ is the stuff of Naziism, Stalinism, Maoism, and similar anti-liberal regimes. In my title “Misinformation Is a Word We Use to Shut You Up,” anti-liberals are the “We.” To repress criticism of their dicta and diktats, they stamp criticism as “misinformation” or “disinformation.” Those stamps are Orwellian tools that anti-liberals wield in the hope of stamping out Wrongthink—for example, on climate, election integrity, the origins of the Covid virus, therapeutics such as Ivermectin and Hydroxychloroquine, the effectiveness of masking, the effectiveness of the Covid injections, the safety of the Covid injections, and the effectiveness of lock-downs. “Anti-misinformation” could be deployed in keeping with whatever the next THE CURRENT THING might be, with associated slogans against, say, China, Putin, Nord Stream, racists, white supremacists, MAGA Republicans, “deniers,” et cetera. And then, of course, there’s all that “misinformation” disseminated by “conspiracy theorists”.
Klein elaborates later in the article:
When despots label opposition “misinformation” or “disinformation” they abuse language. They invoke presuppositions built into the word information, presuppositions that are false. When despots label opposition “mis-” or “disinformation, they are, at best, objecting in the interpretation and judgment dimensions of knowledge, or, at worst, they are speaking in a way that has abandoned civil engagement altogether, instead using words as instruments of wickedness.
Usually, what people argue fervently over is not information, but interpretations and judgments as to which interpretations to act on. What is being labeled and attacked as “misinformation” is not a matter of true or false information, but of true or false knowledge. The projects and policies now afoot styled “anti-misinformation” and “anti-disinformation” are dishonest, as it should be obvious to all that those projects and policies would, if advanced honestly, be called “anti-falsehood” or “anti-falseness” or “anti-foolishness” or “anti-untruth” campaigns. But to prosecute an “anti-falsehood” campaign would make obvious the true nature of what is afoot: The persecution and silencing of Wrongthink. In misrepresenting matters of interpretation and judgment as one of “misinformation,” they misrepresent the nature of their projects and dodge the responsibility to account for how they judge among vying interpretations.
Klein then invoked a facepalm-worthy interpretation that what is being labeled “misinformation” and “disinformation” are nothing more than different opinions or interpretations of facts, evidence, science, and data, invoking a truly risible example:
If interpretative effort is called for, the matter is no longer within the information dimension—is Citizen Kane a better movie than Roman Holiday? Only to be ironic would someone say: Dad misinforms you when he says that Citizen Kane is better than Roman Holiday. The irony there would be in the implied high self-estimation, as the speaker sets up his own aesthetic sensibilities in judging movies as a standard so precise and accurate as to warrant “misinform” when Dad disagrees with that standard.
The despots are without irony. They dodge interpretive engagement by labeling dissenting statements “mis-” or “disinformation.” They are simply bullying and intimidating their opponents.Note the highly slanted language. After a (sort-of) concession in the article that not all uses of “misinformation” and “disinformation” to describe, well, misinformation and disinformation are dishonest and authoritarian, Klein is constantly using words like “despots,” “repression,” “diktats,” “Orwellian,” and “Wrongthink.” There’s no nuance whatsoever. I could take Klein more seriously if he toned down the language, but he can’t and won’t. The Brownstone Institute demands that its message portray any attempt to control misinformation and disinformation as ideologically motivated despotism putting the boot on the throat of truth tellers like its flacks.
One can hardly avoid chuckling at the irony. Usually it is right wingers like the Brownstone Institute flacks who argue that there is such a thing as verifiable truth or knowledge, which is different from mere opinion about, for example, art. It is often they who complain about “postmodernism” that, in their straw man characterization of it, portrays all knowledge as depending upon one’s point of view and culture. Unfortunately, in science there is such a thing as a scientific consensus, which is generally held as the best explanation of a phenomenon or, in the case of medicine, assessment of whether a treatment is effective or ineffective. Sure, such consensuses are always considered approximations and can later be demonstrated to have been incorrect. However, that’s different from what people like Brownstone flacks have promoted, namely facts and claims that are demonstrably false and interpretations of existing facts and data that are demonstrably misleading or even outright false.
For example, Klein neglects to mention is how misinformation about COVID-19 “therapeutics” like ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine arguably harmed many people who chose these ineffective drugs as either preventatives or treatments for COVID-19. A considerable proportion of that misinformation was arguably spread by doctors with severe conflicts of interest due to the profits they raked in selling these drugs and others and groups with ideological aims opposed to collective action to slow the spread of COVID-19 for whom the existence of a cheap and effective treatment for COVID-19 would imply no need for “lockdowns,” vaccines and vaccine mandates, or any other collective actions they don’t like. (FLCCC is a great example of the former, having been busted for running an ivermectin prescription mill, and the Brownstone Institute is a great example of the latter, having spread since its founding all manner of misinformation designed to present a false picture of COVID-19 as not dangerous, mask mandates and lockdowns as ineffective tyranny and carnage, and COVID-19 vaccines as ineffective and dangerous.)
Particularly disingenuous is Klein’s attempt to liken misinformation to mere mistakes in information using the example of a clerk who gives him incorrect information in a store:
I enter a supermarket and ask a clerk where the peanut butter is, and he responds, “Aisle 6.” I go there but don’t find it. I wander about and find it in Aisle 9.
The clerk was mistaken. He gave me false or bad information. The idea Peanut butter is in Aisle 6 is a matter of information, an idea sitting within a set of working interpretations. The working interpretations include those of ordinary human purpose and of ordinary trust and common decency. The clerk and I were notplaying a game, nor was it April Fools’ Day. Importantly, the working interpretations include those of plain English—the semantic conventions of “peanut butter,” “6,” the syntactical conventions of English, and so on.
I take my peanut butter to the check-out line where the same clerk is working, and say, “I found it—but in Aisle 9!,” trying to be humorous as though a joke had been played on me. Being a mere matter of information, the mistake is readily accepted. The clerk responds, “Ah?! Sorry about that!”
Of course, Brownstone never, ever readily accepts correction, which makes this passage by Klein particularly rich:
When one person, Bob, misinforms another, Jim, without realizing that the information is false, the mistake is amendable to ready corrected, without fuss, assuming the falseness is realized by Jim or Bob. Such misinformation events are trifling; we don’t debate them or dwell on them. Misinformation is rather like a typo, corrected by a proof-reader.
Scarcely ever do we speak of the mistake with the five-syllable Latinate word misinformation. Heavy usage of the word misinformation so often occurs in reference to “anti-misinformation” projects, usage either by the perpetrators and cheerleaders of those projects or by those who fend off threats from the perps.
Klein can’t be so dense as not to see the obvious difference between his example of a clerk making an honest mistake of telling him the wrong aisle for peanut butter in a store or of Bob “misinforming” Jim about something and the sorts of misinformation about COVID-19 being promulgated on social media. In fact, I suspect that he is not and is indeed putting forth a disingenuous argument. Indeed, Klein paints a picture of misinformation as being easily corrected, a simple matter of correct information (“peanut butter is in Aisle 9”) driving out incorrect information (“peanut butter is in Aisle 6”). Again, this example is so much different than a false claim that, for instance, COVID-19 vaccines are causing athletes like Damar Hamlin to have sudden cardiac arrests, for which no amount of simple “correction” appears to change minds, at least of true believers.
In fact, this passage, above all, led me to a massive facepalm:
The sincere human wants to be corrected. He welcomes correction. Sincerity is evident in the human’s openness to engagement. The sincere human welcomes deep-dive conversation, debate, and challenge. He is eager to learn.
If the sincere human rejects a purported correction, he is eager to explain the interpretations and judgments that motivate his rejection of the purported correction. He explains why he rejects it. And he welcomes a response to his explanation. He is agreeable to continuing the engagement.
The sincere human wants to sit down, human-to-human, and hash things out. He wants to enter into the mind of his intellectual adversary and see why the adversary says what he says. The sincere human wants to hear about the adversary’s portfolio of possible interpretations. The sincere human is eager to compare the adversary’s portfolio to his own portfolio of interpretations.
No, many humans, sincere or not, do not welcome correction. Indeed, I like to point out that the difference between a true skeptic and most other people (and especially pseudoskeptics) is that a true skeptic does indeed welcome correction when he is wrong, while most people (especially pseudoskeptics) interpret correction or criticism as a personal attack, at least for deeply held beliefs that have become part of their core identity, such as resistance to “lockdowns” or mask and vaccine mandates—or that vaccines cause autism or sudden death.
Klein builds up a straw man of misinformation as being like a collegial debating club, where back and forth between “sincere” individuals will eventually get to the “truth”—or at least allow for reasoned disagreement and debate to continue. That is not what we are talking about when we talk about misinformation and disinformation. Moreover, in science there are assertions that are, quite simply, demonstrably wrong from a scientific standpoint; e.g., the claim that vaccines cause autism. Before the pandemic, I used to point out that this sort of model of “debate” over misinformation served one purpose primarily: To give the appearance that the misinformation was a legitimate alternative conclusion or interpretation of existing information and scientific data and that the person promoting the misinformation and disinformation is at least close to the same plane as legitimate experts pointing out how wrong the misinformation and disinformation are from the standpoint of their discipline.
To that end, he gives an example of how refusal to accept correction is supposedly not evidence of spreading “misinformation”:
I wrote above of “quite decisive proof that presuppositions of the information dimension do not apply,” in noting that Peter McCullough does not readily accept the supposed correction. But what if McCullough is a liar? Then it would be no surprise that he does not readily accept the purported correction. What, in other words, about the possibility of disinformation? An insincere disinformationist would stand by his informational statements and persist in misinforming his listeners.
So do “misinformationists.”
If you really want to see how disingenuous Klein is being, just look at his primary example of the “sincere human”:
The sincere human looks like—from what I can tell—Peter McCullough.
I single out Peter McCullough as exemplar simply to single out someone. All of those who are eager to engage adversaries illustrate the most salient feature of the sincere human, and the more that that eagerness fits the rest of my description above, the more sincere that human likely is.
There is only one reaction. I’ve mentioned it, but I haven’t pulled out my usual image for it:
You might recall that Dr. Peter McCullough has been a serial spreader of COVID-19 misinformation (I’m being generous and assuming that he believes the BS that he peddles) since fairly early in the pandemic. Most recently, I described his advocacy of yet more COVID-19 quackery, specifically a claim that nattokinase can be used to “detox” yourself from spike protein from COVID-19 vaccines and thus treat “vaccine injury.” However, this was far from the first example of Dr. McCullough’s antivax stylings and quackery. Although Dr. McCullough had jumped on the antivax quack train far before, about two years ago I noted that he had been promoting the false claim based on the usual antivax misrepresentation of the Vaccine Adverse Events Reporting System (VAERS) database that COVID-19 vaccines were causing mass death and destruction and that Mike Adams (yes, Mike Adams) and Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. (yes, RFK Jr.) were using his statements to support the conspiracy theory that these vaccines were part of a “depopulation agenda.” (When your statements are enthusiastically embraced by the likes of Mike Adams, I find it hard to call you a “sincere human.”) Dr. McCullough has also been a regular fixture at conferences and rallies opposing vaccines, masks, “lockdowns,” and basically every other public health intervention against the pandemic, while promoting disinformation about vaccines by writing bad review articles (e.g., with longtime antivaxxer Stephanie Seneff), and promoting the false “died suddenly” conspiracy theory.
There’s even more in this article that I could address, but I think I will conclude with a few observations. First, the straw man characterization of misinformation as nothing more than false information that is “easily corrected”—or at least easily discussed and debated—leaves out the role of ideological players who promote misinformation and align it with ideological beliefs that are like (or even are) religion in that they are part of a person’s conception of self so that attacking these beliefs is viewed as an attack on the person. Second, it leaves out the role of social media algorithms and ecosystems that were (mostly) unintentionally designed so that they amplify the sort of misinformation that is most divisive and harmful. Again, misinformation is not just a clerk telling a customer the wrong aisle to find an item in, nor is disinformation as simple as a clerk lying to a customer about in which aisle the peanut butter can be found. It’s not just a matter of easily correctable erroneous information. Klein likely knows damned well that his analogies are simplistic and inappropriate.
Third and finally, Klein’s invocation of “despotism” is hilariously at odds with the actual reality that we saw during the COVID-19 pandemic. Where Klein sees the iron boot of Big Brother stomping on the throat of “dissidents” who disagree, what I saw at every turn were government officials and regulatory bodies who were utterly oblivious to the problem of misinformation, such as recently retired NIH director Dr. Francis Collins and White House COVID-19 Response Coordinator Dr. Ashish Jha. Collins, for instance, repeatedly expressed regrets during his retirement media blitz at how huge a problem COVID-19 misinformation had become, how much harm it was causing, and how the NIH under his leadership had “underinvested” in studying such behavior, leading those of us who had been warning about it to collectively facepalm. More recently, Jha seemed to be blaming physicians as individuals for not doing enough to combat COVID-19 misinformation and dumping the primary responsibility for it on us without even trying to provide the tools or resources to be effective at it. Another facepalm, for sure.
Meanwhile, as I like to point out, state medical boards have with few exceptions been largely too timid to discipline physicians—like, for example, Dr. McCullough—who spread disinformation or misinformation as a simple matter of judging them not to have lived up to the professional responsibilities required of them when they were licensed. What should be viewed as quality control and professional accountability is portrayed by people like Klein as “censorship” and tyranny. It’s also vastly exaggerated, because in fact government has been extremely timid about combatting misinformation. So have social media, for the most part, because their entire advertising model is based on engagement, and, let’s face it, misinformation and disinformation promote engagement. They are good for business.
Klein’s attack on “misinformation” and “disinformation” as words used as nothing more than tools of despots to crush dissent is, in the end, nothing more than the standard technique of cranks who try to portray criticism and attempts to slow the spread misinformation—even just refutation of the ideas behind the misinformation and disinformation—as “censorship” and an affront to free speech and cozy academic debate between “sincere humans.” You know that that’s not what’s going on, and so do I. So, too, I suspect, does Klein. In attacking the very concept of “disinformation” and “misinformation” as nothing more than tools of despotism, he is promoting the Brownstone brand of disinformation. It’s no surprise that I learned that he is an economist at George Mason University and the JIN Chair at the Mercatus Center, which prepandemic had long been a key group for recruiting, training and connecting people to attack climate science. The work continues, this time attacking public health.