When histories of the coronavirus pandemic [2019-20??] are eventually written, the role of one libertarian scholar, Richard A. Epstein of the Hoover Institution, will deserve at least a footnote, if not a full paragraph. Epstein wrote a couple of articles, published on Hoover's website, in which he suggested that all the public health projections on what needs to be done about COVID-19 exaggerated the severity and danger of the outbreak. According to the Washington Post, the first of those pieces, a March 16 epic titled "Coronavirus Perspective," was a real big hit in the Trumpy circles, where everyone thought it was brilliant and, we presume, staffers read the best parts excitedly to each other, possibly calling in Jared Kushner to help them pronounce the bigger words.

The piece included a slightly optimistic projection for how bad the outbreak would be: no more than 500 deaths nationwide, maybe, which Epstein later revised upward to 5,000, tops, depending on the breaks. As the New Yorker's Isaac Chotiner notes in the preface to his interview with Epstein, published today, "So far, there have been more than two thousand coronavirus-related fatalities in America," and although epidemiologists' projections of possible totals vary, almost all are a lot higher. Chotiner also notes Dr. Anthony Fauci's estimate yesterday that the total deaths in the US could be between 100,000 and 200,000.

We can see why Epstein's work would be popular with Team Trump:

In a follow-up article, published on March 23rd and titled "Coronavirus Overreaction," Epstein wrote, "Progressives think they can run everyone's lives through central planning, but the state of the economy suggests otherwise. Looking at the costs, the public commands have led to a crash in the stock market, and may only save a small fraction of the lives that are at risk."

Despite how popular that rosy scenario might be, Trump nonetheless looked at the shadow of death and announced yesterday we'd have at least four more weeks of staying indoors and out of large groups, at least until the next dumbshit thing he sees on Fox News.

Epstein, who is a lawyer, not a biologist, agreed last Wednesday to a phone interview with Chotiner, and wow, you should go read the whole thing. (The magazine's coronavirus coverage won't even subtract from your five monthly New Yorker clicks. Even if it did, OH BOY.) Turns out that however well-respected in conservative law circles Epstein is, he has a whole bunch of flatly wrong assumptions about how viruses and epidemics work, which would be merely sad if his nonsense weren't also helping to set policy. Chotiner lets readers know up front that bullshit will be flung and disinfected:

During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, Epstein made a number of comments about viruses that have been strongly disputed by medical professionals. We have included factual corrections alongside those statements.

Hoo boy. Talk about putting it mildly.


Epstein's appeal is in being a "contrarian," which is another way of saying "completely fucking wrong, but insisting it's actually everyone else who's wrong, and here's why!" It will no doubt astonish you that Epstein, who is an attorney and not a climate scientist, has also explained that "The professional skeptics are right: there is today no compelling evidence of an impending climate emergency." Which is quite convenient for free marketeers.

He explains to Chotiner that he is not a politician, and that he simply wants to make it clear that some of the stuff being said about coronavirus by infectious disease specialists is just flat out wrong. As an example, he cites a New York Times op-ed that projected that if we did nothing to inhibit the spread of COVID-19, there could be a million deaths in the US, with infections peaking in July. Well, says Epstein, "in relationship to all other things I know about evolutionary theory, that this just has to be wrong."

Epstein apologized for the "simple stupid error" that led to his saying there'd only be 500 deaths (the day of the interview, it was already 800), and that he regards it "as the single worst public-relations gaffe I've made in my entire life." But the real point isn't his numbers, it's the experts' numbers which he believes are actually wrong because the infectious diseases experts have never heard of evolution.

We exaggerate only slightly here. Chotiner's piece is devastating to Epstein's claims, largely because all Chotiner has to do is read a bit from Epstein's Hoover stuff, let him expound on it, and then contrast it to what actual virologists say. Here's Epstein on why all those people at the nursing home near Seattle got sick and died, with the corrections from a real scientist:

And so you take a population like in Kirkland, which is fragile and old, you get somebody in who has a strong version of the virus, and the thing will just absolutely rip through the population and kill everybody in it within a very short period of time. [Daniel Kuritzkes, the chief of the infectious-diseases division at Brigham and Women's Hospital, in Boston, said, after being read this passage, "There's no evidence that there are strong and weak variations of the coronavirus circulating. There may be minor variations person to person or location to location in the actual genetic sequence, but there is no evidence that they have different virulence or that a less virulent version is overtaking a more virulent version."]

As to why Epstein thinks there must be "strong" and "weak" versions of the virus (there are not), well, there just have to be, he insists, because he really thinks there's an evolutionary rule of infectious diseases that viruses get weaker over time (there is no such rule). Another example, this time with the rebuttal coming from two experts, Kurizkes and Yale School of Public Health epidemiology and medicine professor Albert Ko:

You wrote, "The adaptive responses should reduce the exposures in the high-risk groups, given the tendency for the coronavirus to weaken over time." What tendency are you talking about, and how do we know it will weaken over time?

Well, what happens is it's an evolutionary tendency. ["There is absolutely no evidence for that," Ko told me. According to Kuritzkes, "There is no proof that this is the case. To the extent we see that evolution taking place it is usually over a much vaster timescale."] So the mechanism is you start with people, some of whom have a very strong version of the virus, and some of whom have a very weak version of the virus.

Based on that faulty assumption about the coronavirus, Epstein spins out a fantasia where you really only need to worry about isolation early on in the pandemic, when the virus is strong, before it "evolves" to a weaker form, after which it won't be as much of a threat to people who are infected later with that purely imaginary weak virus, which may only be as dangerous as the flu, maybe.

Chotiner returns to the point several times, and Epstein keeps wrapping more rope around his precious wrong idea's neck. I may only be a doktor of rhetoric, but I'm fairly certain microbes only evolve this fast in movies like Outbreak:

But you stated as fact that the coronavirus has a tendency to weaken over time.

Isaac, let me just explain it. This tendency takes time. It could be a week. It could be a month. It could be longer. But, in the end, you should expect something of this particular sort to take place.

And again:

You keep talking about your "sense." I think that's the word you're using. But you're stating as a fact that the virus is going to weaken over time. It seems like we do not know that. We can turn to other viruses and how they've—

No, that is not what I said. I said there's a long-term tendency in these ways. Over time, yes. And is this a hundred-per-cent tendency? No. Is there any known exception to it? No. ["We did not see SARS or Ebola weaken over time," Kuritzkes said. "It is only appropriate public-health measures or vaccines that have helped to control those epidemics."]

Hell, Epstein even extends his wrongness about "strong" and "weak" versions of a virus back into the past, claiming incorrectly — the epidemiologists are very clear about how wrong this is — that the AIDS virus is now no longer much of a threat because it got "weaker" since the outbreak in the '80s. Not at all, say the real doctors; good public health practices, safe sex campaigns, prevention, and treatment are what brought the pandemic under control. The virus itself is just as nasty as ever, as demonstrated in subsequent outbreaks.

When Chotiner suggests maybe Epstein should have been a lot more sure of the science before publishing, we're treated not to a discussion of the science, but some bog standard Free Speech posturing, because Epstein thinks the experts are wrong and if they aren't, they need to prove it to him. The economic stakes, Epstein says, are too high to just shut the country down for a long period of time. Besides, Epstein points out, the very last sentence of his article said "Perhaps my analysis is all wrong, even deeply flawed," so he covered that possibility. (See this Twitter thread for more on how bad Epstein gets the science.)

When Chotiner presses that point further, asking whether the medical stakes are "too high to publish articles with basic errors," Epstein becomes indignant. How dare you seek to silence him!

This is not a mistake. It's an open challenge. I've spent my entire life as a lawyer taking on established wisdom. My view about it is what you're asking me to do is, when I think everybody is wrong, to remain silent, and the stakes are too high. So my view is there's all these experts on the other side. Somebody come up and explain why it is that they think the results are going to be different. Looking at the data thus far, both theories tend to predict a sharp rise at the beginning, mine less sharp than the one that's coming out.

In the next week or so, we'll see. I will be, shall we say, much more compromised if we start to see a continuing explosion of deaths going on for two or three weeks. But, if the numbers start to level off, the curves will start to go downward.

Heck of a prediction there: If a lot more people die, OK, maybe I was wrong. Doesn't mean I shouldn't have published an article suggesting the risks are overblown.

Then Epstein turns downright nasty, because damn it, he's an expert who knows things! More than some pipsqueak New Yorker writer, at least:

I know, but these are scientific issues here.

You know nothing about the subject but are so confident that you're going to say that I'm a crackpot.

No. Richard—

That's what you're saying, isn't it? That's what you're saying?

I'm not saying anything of the sort.

Admit to it. You're saying I'm a crackpot.

I'm not saying anything of the—

Well, what am I then? I'm an amateur? You're the great scholar on this?

No, no. I'm not a great scholar on this.

Tell me what you think about the quality of the work!

O.K. I'm going to tell you. I think the fact that I am not a great scholar on this and I'm able to find these flaws or these holes in what you wrote is a sign that maybe you should've thought harder before writing it.

What it shows is that you are a complete intellectual amateur. Period.

O.K. Can I ask you one more question?

You just don't know anything about anything. You're a journalist. Would you like to compare your résumé to mine?

No, actually, I would not.

Then Epstein lectures Chotiner on the need to be a little more sure of his own facts before tangling with a pro, OK, child? We can only imagine how eagerly Donald Trump must have fapped over the bit where Epstein stops just short of challenging Chotiner to fight: "But, you want to come at me hard, I am going to come back harder at you. And then if I can't jam my fingers down your throat, then I am not worth it."

That next question, not incidentally, involves Chotiner catching Epstein in what appears to be a huge contradiction, suggesting that the US death toll from coronavirus will be far smaller than Italy's because Americans began social distancing earlier in our outbreak than Italians did. But ... didn't you say all that social distancing was an overreaction? Epstein's answer is something about Italy rationing respirators for old people because socialized medicine, and the point is that we really are overreacting when we don't need to be.

Then Epstein adds, "By the way, Bill Gates agrees with me, I'm happy to say."

Chotiner then quotes Gates extensively to show that nah, Gates says it's "very irresponsible" to base public health response to a pandemic on possible economic downsides — especially since insisting on getting back to work could make the pandemic, and the economic crash, far worse.

Epstein replies "I misread him then," and insists, again, that the epidemiologists are all wrong, which obviously negates the contention that the disease would rebound and wreck the economy.

Perhaps someday we'll know more about just how much damage Epstein's calls for a less aggressive prevention strategy actually had, if such a thing can be measured. Even while Fox News and Trump were calling for the nation to get back to work, most Americans looked at them like they were suggesting we all paint ourselves blue and howl at that moon, and maybe only a very few idiots actually did paint themselves blue and head out to the back yard. But as that New York Times piece argued, every bit of delay can have deadly consequences, and there's still no telling whether Trump's single day of newfound support for social distancing will last.

Perhaps we should wait a few more weeks and see if the deaths spike, and what Mr. Epstein has to say then.

[New Yorker / NYT / WaPo]

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Doktor Zoom's real name is Marty Kelley, and he lives in the wilds of Boise, Idaho. He is not a medical doctor, but does have a real PhD in Rhetoric. You should definitely donate some money to this little mommyblog where he has finally found acceptance and cat pictures. He is on maternity leave until 2033. Here is his Twitter, also. His quest to avoid prolixity is not going so great.

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