The Latest 'McCarthyism?' 'COVID Denier'

Wednesday, May 06, 2020

I'd barely opened a browser window this morning when a new, yet somehow familiar-sounding term met my eye: COVID denier (also spelled "COVIDenier" and, equally predictably, sometimes replaced by another catchy term: COVIDiot). Aside from a user attempting to build himself up by tearing others down, we should ask ourselves what such a term is supposed to accomplish. Predictably, revealingly, and somewhat amusingly, a top search result for the term led me to an article at the left-wing DeSmog Blog website, which also employs the sister term, climate science denier.

A related post, titled "The Reason COVID-19 and Climate Seem So Similar: Disinformation," is ostensibly out to set us straight about the latest political debate that is both disguised as a scientific one in some ways and dependent on science in others.

And it helps, for anyone who can read between the lines. I'll do some of this here -- after first noting that I have not found an actual definition for "COVID denier" anywhere. And we'll also consider what Ayn Rand wrote about a very similar term, McCarthyism, many years ago in her essay, "'Extremism,' or the Art of Smearing:"

Where they want you, apparently forever, whether you agree or not. (Image by Logan Liu, via Unsplash, license.)
In the late 1940's, another newly coined term was shot into our cultural arteries: "McCarthyism." Again, it was a derogatory term, suggesting some insidious evil, and without any clear definition. Its alleged meaning was: "Unjust accusations, persecutions, and character assassinations of innocent victims." Its real meaning was: "Anti-communism."

Senator McCarthy was never proved guilty of those allegations, but the effect of that term was to intimidate and silence public discussions. Any uncompromising denunciation of communism or communists was -- and still is -- smeared as "McCarthyism." As a consequence, opposition to and exposés of communist penetration have all but vanished from our intellectual scene. (I must mention that I am not an admirer of Senator McCarthy, but not for the reasons implied in that smear.)
You can almost do a plug-and-play here: The alleged meaning of "X (science) denier" is "ignorant or dismissive of science," and its real meaning is "opposed to central planning." This is why "green" anti-capitalist activists lump together everyone from sloppy thinkers like Donald Trump (who means well, but can't muster anything better than "hoax" as a counterargument) to revolutionary thinkers, like Alex Epstein, as "climate deniers."

Is it any wonder that fans of such oppressive measures as indefinite, universal isolation would do the same?

And now, just for a few notes of dissent on the piece, whose host deserves to be nicknamed "Deh Smaug Blog." (It's not just that these evil entities have similar names: I also picture the beast sitting at home on a pile of loot, refusing to work, forever. It's fantasy, either way.)

I'll offer my take after quoting from each of its three numbered sections.

From Point 1 (He who controls the language controls the narrative.):
In the COVID-19 context, we've seen this too. It's gone from a "flu" to "a really bad flu" to "a pandemic" in a relatively condensed amount of time. But you'll see those trading in disinformation continue to refer to it as "just a bad flu" or point out how many people the flu kills every year.
First, the author draws a bad parallel between the terminology of the climate crusade which has been dictated by thought leaders of that movement from the beginning and the current pandemic of a new disease we are still learning about.

And, while I agree that anyone who equates this with the flu is wrong, that does not mean that we can't learn from past experience dealing with flu pandemics, which have relevant similarities. As far as the changes happening quickly, they are in two directions at once: Deprecation of "flu" and adoption of "pandemic." These both reflect natural changes due to rapidly evolving knowledge and, unfortunately, the rapid spread of the virus. It is disingenuous to liken shopping around for a term that will cause a political stampede with the natural evolution of terms used in a changing situation.

I'd even go so far as to say that the appropriateness of calling this a "really bad flu" depends on context. For example: by comparison to, say, Black Death, the coronavirus epidemic is much more like a flu in terms of the precautions individuals and governments ought to take. Pointing this out is not the same thing as poo-pooing the disease.

From Point 2 (Leverage science illiteracy to create doubt.):
Of course models, like science in general, have a bit of uncertainty baked in; they represent both the most extreme outcomes and the most likely scenarios, they encapsulate multiple variables. And if you know enough about them, it's quite easy to cherry pick data and flaws and argue, as Fumento does, that modeling in general is bunk that ought to be thrown out.
I have already stated my disagreement with Michael Fumento about the absurd idea of throwing out models. That doesn't mean, though, that commenting on the unreliability of the models of this pandemic so far is off-limits. You needn't trust me on this point: Nate Silver -- not a man of the right -- and his group didn't even try to model the epidemic for lack of data. Indeed, statistician-epidemiologist John Ioannidis has called this epidemic a "once in a century evidence fiasco."

Yes, it's wrong to call models (in general) bunk. But it's ridiculous to imply that questioning models is to prey on scientific illiteracy, especially regarding this pandemic. The models are being used to justify some heavy-handed policies with major consequences. Assuming a worst-case forecast is as ridiculous as not trying to make a forecast at all.

From Part 3 (Astroturfing):
Someone on Reddit figured out all the "re-open the economy" websites were made by one guy in Florida. [link omitted]
Astroturfing is fake activism meant to give the illusion of grassroots opposition to policy. My favorite example is the Save the Plastic Bag Coalition, a petrochemical and plastic manufacturers-backed group that protests bag bans and bag taxes.
Aside from my relief that Florida Man seems to have found a hobby that is not illegal or physically dangerous, I find it supremely ironic that this author seems convinced of the following: That it took him and some nefarious cabal to cause so many people to get sick of being confined to their homes and wondering how they'd make ends meet without any definite end point.

Oh, and speaking again of scientific illiteracy, the author seems unaware of (or in denial about) the science behind why several locales rolled back their plastic bag bans.

Back on the subject of livelihoods and corporations, it is worth noting that many "green" activists are threatening the livelihoods of millions of people in the business of providing cheap, plentiful, and reliable energy to people who need it. I don't blame them for fighting back in any way they can, and the merit of a position is not up for popular vote, anyway. Ditto for anyone fighting for their livelihoods in this new, very similar confrontation with the Leviathan state and its leftist lackeys.

But, yes, the policy preferences and tactics of the left are remarkably the same regarding the pandemic and fossil fuels. And everything else.

We already know what they want, so let's re-cap how they intend to fight for it: Smear opponents as manipulative, anti-science, and (most revealingly of all) unpopular.

-- CAV


Steve D said...

Great post Gus. Your first paragraph reminded me of that famous quote from Ellsworth Toohey in The Fountainhead about not examining a folly and asking only what it accomplishes.
For the record, my position on the lockdowns are that they are immoral. It is immoral to restrict the movement or rights of people who aren’t sick and for whom there is no evidence they present a threat to anyone else. That would be kind of like arresting someone whose personality fit a criminal profile because he might commit a crime in the future. Quarantining the sick and perhaps even asymptomatic positives is sometimes (but not always) justified.
With respect to comparing Covid19 to seasonal influenza, I agree with you. Covid-19 is more like the pandemic Hong Kong Flu of 1968 which killed about 100,000 people (= 160,000 in today’s terms). That said I’m not sure I trust all the numbers – they keep adding more and they could be underestimated or overestimated or perhaps both errors are cancelling each other out. In terms of the number killed, both diseases pale in comparison to the Spanish Flu of 2019 which in turn pales in comparison to the Small Pox epidemic of 1520, which in turn pales in comparison to the Black Death in the 1300s.
Interestingly, I asked several older people about the Hong Kong Flu and none of them could remember that the even knew it was happening, though it killed twice as many Americans as the Vietnam War.
Also, kudos to you for using the correct term Black Death rather than Black Plague which so many people are incorrectly calling it. It is properly, The Plague or Black Death because it stands far and above any pandemic in human history.
WRT the models, my main issue is that the early models were bunk and yet they were the ones used to set polices which were not corrected when better models came available. It’s interesting that in this pandemic as well as earlier pandemics the initial estimates were universally overestimated (never underestimated) which suggests confirmation bias as well as proving that there simply was not enough data to make a reliable statistical model at the time. Because without enough data, modelers have no choice but to substitute assumptions which are chock full of confirmation bias. The early models were unreliable and should not have been used or even published. Yet they were and they panicked people into making bad decisions.
I recently received a text from a liberal member of our writers’ group with a graphic showing how closely the IHME model predicted the death rate curve. However, I pointed out that the first model the graph shows was made on March 27, at least two weeks after most of the nation was in lockdown mode. Endpoint data available several weeks earlier from several natural experiments (which I was keeping a close eye on, to estimate my personal risk) gave a much better picture much sooner than the statistical models. Why is it that the same people who pooh-poohed real end-point data, were so quick to tout unreliable models?

Dinwar said...

As a scientist this sort of thing sickens me.

The great achievement of science was removing the observer from the debate. What I mean is, the focus shifted from who said it (the Medieval method of argument) and how it was said (the Roman/Ancient method of argument) to the data. I can say "Sea levels rose 10 cm/year during OIS-11" and anyone who doubts me can look at the data and see for themselves whether my statement is true or not. Whether I'm the world's leading authority on interglacial sea levels, or some random hack, doesn't matter--the data are supreme. I once saw a Creationist give a talk at GSA on post-dam removal sediment loads, and while most of us rejected his views on the age of the Earth and evolution, we all admitted that his data on sediment loads was solid.

Under the guise of science the Left is now reverting back to the Medieval mindset, where the validity of an argument is based not on the quality of the data but upon who said it. Attacks against ideas are based, not on the data as they are among scientists, but on attacking the person. Okay, that's always been going on; but the Left has made such rhetorical methods standard. And this under the guise of science! This has led to vicious personal attacks against anyone who questions the dogma of the day, and to the rise of celebrity scientists of dubious quality who none the less cannot be questioned, even speaking in areas where they have no legitimate expertise (Dawkins and Tyson, for example).

This undermines the entire grand experiment that is scientific inquiry. It is an attack against the greatest human achievement, disguised as an attempt to assist it.

We've already seen the affects of this policy in physics, which has gone from the greatest scientific field to stagnation. Climatology barely qualifies as science anymore (for my part I refuse to discuss climatology to the extent possible). We're seeing this in biology as well. If this continues, science has another generation, maybe two, before it's completely gone.

Gus Van Horn said...



I can think of two big reasons people cling to overconservative models, even after they are debunked, and both would go away under actual capitalism: (1) bureaucrats with inappropriate powers are afraid of looking bad, and (2) people who want more government power see them as a convenient excuse.


That's something that really stands out in any wading through the muck at Deh Smaug Blog: If you get any amount of funding from the Koch brothers, they call it out and act as if there is no need to say anything more. I thought of Lysenko, but I prefer to think of this as a neo-Medieval mindset, now that you bring this up.