25 Dec Your Trauma and Mine: A Retrospective on 2020
Lockdown shell shocked me like nothing else in my lifetime. The very notion that governments would push the off button on half the economy, throwing out all concerns for freedom and human rights, was beyond any dystopia I had ever imagined. And that was when it was supposed to last two weeks.
Then the weeks stretched into months. Governments that had enacted the lockdowns made the classic error of war generals: they had failed to map out an exit path. In time, the rationale for persisting in the unworkable became absurd. Whether infections were up or down, and hospitalizations were up or down, there was no pathway that led out. If the lockdowns worked to suppress the virus, unlocking would surely unleash it again.
Even after all this time, there is a dearth of evidence of any verified relationship between lockdowns and reducing severe outcomes of the virus. All this destruction of life, liberty, and property and to what end? It wasn’t clear in March and it still is not clear at the end of the year. It was a wild experiment that should never have taken place, and it has failed miserably.
The hubris of the disease planners has been appalling to behold. They could not bring themselves to admit failure. So they kept doubling down. No amount of social and economic carnage seemed to shake them. Cancer screenings and vaccinations collapsed, dentistry services fell 70%, suicide ideation and drug overdoses soared as predicted, the arts fell apart, 100,000 businesses are dead, and even the murder rate reversed its decades-old declining trajectory and shot up. That’s right: when you destroy the basis of civilization, you become uncivilized.
It was a year in which we were all invited to experience the dismantlement of the good and free society in real time and by force of government power. Folly is too weak a term. Calamity and catastrophe – these terms are more suitable. And yet it was all caused by the institution that so many for so long claimed was a machinery of compassion, justice, equality, fairness, and high regard for human dignity, the essential bulwark that keeps civilization afloat. These values were tossed out this year. And let’s eschew the passive voice here and speak more pointedly: governments tossed them out.
The psychological toll this has taken on people’s lives is incalculable. Many people I know are done with lockdowns, fed up with being told one thing and then another, and now fundamentally doubt the wisdom of the health planners but are at a loss to know what to do about it other than move to Florida or South Dakota.
Other people I know are still believers. Surely this was necessary. Surely there was something achieved with all this sacrifice. Unable to imagine that the officials in charge undertook nearly a full year of cruelty for no good outcomes, they invent them as a mechanism of defense. And then these people turn on others who fail to mask up and stand too close to others, very similar to how the Flagellates of the Middle Ages blamed revelry and sin for the Plague.
Is there anything of value that can be taken from this experience? For my part, it’s been a year of learning. I’ve read many books on cell biology, the history of infectious disease, and thrown myself into understanding the trajectory of 20th century public health policies. (Many others have been improvising immunology via mass media and Twitter.) I’ve learned so much, not only about these subjects but also about human nature. I’ve learned that people are more willing to put up with despotism than I ever imagined, and I’ve seen how primal fears can disable rational thought, and how political forces can use that fear to increase their power.
Above all else, I’ve come to understand the intellectual interrelationship between economics and public health – and how fallacy and policy error spread so easily within both disciplines.
It was September and I was involved in a casual conversation with a man whom I would not likely have met had this not been the strangest year of my life, the year that our governments decided that all our freedoms and rights can be abolished by edict. This man is Martin Kulldorff, a Harvard epidemiologist and public-health expert who had decided that enough was enough. He would speak out. Indeed, he would step up, risk everything, in order to help end the madness. Our first contact was through Twitter, as one might expect these days.
This scientist with training in a wide variety of medical and statistical fields spoke plainly about how and why lockdowns contradict public health. The core of public health is to consider not only what is good for one group or controlling one pathogen but to think about all groups and all potential health problems, and not only in the short term but the long term.
He surely did not know this but his statement is nearly a perfect rendering of the first lesson of economics that I learned from Henry Hazlitt. Economics consists in thinking not only about the good of one group but all groups, not only in the short run but in the long run too. That’s the “one lesson” that Hazlitt preached his entire life.
Economics and Public Health
There we have it: the link between public health and economics. Reflecting on the intellectual errors this year, so many of them have parallels in economics.
- Over Reliance on Modeling. We have observed the overreliance on predictive modeling that cannot possibly account for the multiplicity of variables and the heterogeneity of individual human experience, both in terms of biology and also in terms of human action. Just as choice theory in economics must account for subjective value and open-endedness of volition and innovation, so too must epidemiology account for the radical diversity of the biological response to a pathogen. Too much “formalism” in public health creates an illusion of control that is belied by real experience. Central planning works neither in economics nor public health.
- Correlation/Causation. As with all science, epidemiology this year was tripped up by poor research techniques and the classic error of presuming that correlation somehow mutates into causation even in the presence of a thousand other variables.
My favorite example (among thousands) is the restaurant study pushed by the CDC that found a small overlap of people who tested positive and those who said in a survey that they went to a restaurant – but the study even failed to ask if people dined in or out. Moreover the same study found no relationship between infection and mask wearing but you had to dig deep within the study to discover this.
How many ridiculous “studies” have correlated disease mitigation with mandatory masks and lockdowns only to see the trends reversed in the subsequent months? Bad science has defined our age.
- Mix Up of Cause and Effect. In late summer, the goal to “flatten the curve” turned into “stop the spread,” which took the lockdowners into the murky area of discovering the elusive rate of infection, the R naught. Why were they doing this? It gradually dawned on me that some people imagine that if they can drive the rate below 1, the virus will burn out.
Problem: if the infection rate is discoverable in real time at all, it is clearly a statistical rendering of the virus trajectory within a population, not a cause of that trajectory. Trying to control the infection by driving down the R naught is as fallacious as using price controls to suppress inflation. It deals with the symptoms not the cause. It embodies the confusion between cause and effect.
- Fooled by Data. We had so much confidence in the spring and summer watching all these charts being pumped out by countless trackers. We could watch cases, death rates, hospitalizations, infection rates, spread, new infections, total infections, severe outcomes, stringency indexes, and you name it. It was tragic but watching it all made us feel informed.
As the year went on, we ran into the inevitable: the data was not nearly as decisive as it looks. False positives were vexing the whole PCR testing industry (by as much as 90%), misclassifications made deaths suspicious, and hospitalizations were exaggerated by the media and institutions seeking to make up for lost revenue in the spring and summer. In time, what seemed scientific and clear became highly suspect, even to the point that it was no longer believable.
Meanwhile, as incredible as it seems, basic information on the severe outcome risk by demographics is still hard to come by. How many residents of Massachusetts, who are still dressing in crazy get ups and treating fellow citizens as pathogenic disease vectors, know that the average age of death attributed in part to Covid is 81, while 98% had additional comorbidities? This is extremely relevant information but hardly even known by the general public.
We are in the odd position of knowing less at the end of the year than we thought we knew in the spring. Economics has dealt with this problem for hundreds of years. Having data and having operational knowledge are not the same.
- Absence of Humility. Hayek said that the mark of a good economist is to recognize that authentic social and economic order is a product of action not design. That means it is essential that the economist learns to defer to forces outside political control and even full intellectual understanding.
Some things manage themselves better than they can be managed: that’s the bitter lesson that economists had to learn in the course of the 20th century. It is similarly so in the realm of epidemiology and public health. From the onset of this mess, experts imagined that they could control the virus via the most blunt instrument: state power. They only ended up controlling people and ruining lives but without controlling the virus in its impact on society.
Ignorance and Passivity
Those are the main overlaps between the two disciplines. There are others surely, with important implications for methodology, theory, and policy. We are nowhere near discerning and discovering them all. Indeed, it is a major task of both disciplines to learn more about the other, so that economists can dare to learn things about biological science they otherwise might avoid and public health specialists can gain great sophistication in and appreciation of economic forces. No, economies cannot be shut down with a switch without causing huge if unintended consequences.
From March onward, there were too many people in the social sciences (including many economists and far too many libertarian economists) who decided not to speak. Part of the problem traced to intellectual intimidation: “I don’t know anything about viruses! I believe in economic forces in normal times but these are not normal times. Probably all my principles should be put on hold until this emergency goes away, same as we might do in wartime.”
No one wrote those words exactly but many people thought them. Therefore, from March all the way through summer, there was a strange silence among people who should have been fighting the lockdowns from day one. They knew better and said nothing. Even worse, they invented ridiculous rationales for lockdowns (I will decline to name names but they know who they are). AIER worked hard to make up the difference – and there are others out there too who deserve congratulations – but there were too few of us.
Combined with the media megaphone and the censorious social media platforms, the lockdowners nearly had the entire field of public opinion formation to themselves. It’s a miracle we broke through at all. Still, somehow, the word got out. And the anti-lockdown movement started growing. It is today more mighty than we know. Still, I’m almost certain that had we more allies, things might have turned out differently. The silence was deadly.
This year has indeed been a year of learning. At the American Institute for Economic Research, we have published four books of our research and writing, in addition to my own book Liberty or Lockdown. I’m thinking of working on another collection. But in addition to that, the pandemic and lockdowns have impressed upon us the need for a serious and deep research program on economics and public health.
More broadly, AIER will need to back research and writing on the critical topic of the credibility of science itself. This credibility has taken a gigantic hit this year, and it will be a very long time before it is restored to regain public trust. Every scientist I know worries deeply about this problem.
An attempt to save science and help educate journalists ended up being a crucial turning point this year: The Great Barrington Declaration. It was signed at the American Institute for Economic Research but the real credit belongs to the scientists who dared to speak up. Their statement was rather plain, a reiteration of the basics of cell biology and public health. Over the coming weeks and months, it was viewed tens of millions of times and signed by three quarters a million people. Yes, the science behind the statement is impeccable – despite all the preposterous attempts to smear the document and its authors – but the real influence of the document, in my view, was the display of moral courage behind the effort.
The many layers of trauma we’ve all experienced this year are awesome to contemplate. But if you are reading this, you are like me, a survivor. We are wounded but in other ways stronger than before, more dedicated to truth, more committed to the ideals of freedom, less naive and ready to go forth in battle not to let civilization be dismantled. Rather we must defend it with everything we have to offer.
The good society and the free society are synonymous. Lockdownism, under any pretext, represents a fundamental attack on everything we are and aspire to be. It cannot and will not happen again, provided we recommit ourselves to our highest ideals.
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