How did we get here?
I can’t stop thinking about a recent analysis that found over 300,000 Americans might be alive today had all adults been vaccinated. Even though I predicted “a deluge of misinformation about the Covid vaccines”, I never thought things would be this bad.
How did we get here?
While much of the blame lies at the feet of the Disinformation Dozen and other traditional anti-vaxxers, many people have been falsely pacified about COVID by credentialed academics who have claimed since the start of the pandemic that the virus was never that big of a deal. My previous articles have examined several techniques these COVID minimizers use to mislead their readers. These include:
- A salesman’s trick: Using a number that is larger than the COVID death toll to minimize that death toll.
- Ignoring R0: Focusing on the infection fatality rate of COVID while ignoring how contagious it is.
- Shaming: Shaming people who try not to get COVID or who are bothered by its death toll.
- Conspiracy: Claiming the COVID death toll can’t be trusted.
- Premature declaration: Acting as if the pandemic is over.
- Strategic omission: Omitting key facts that are needed to understand some aspect of the pandemic.
- Fanciful fiction: Just making stuff up.
I recently discovered a fascinating paragraph from an article that managed the difficult task of weaving all of these together in a few sentences, though it’s got an even bigger problem I’ll discuss at the end. I think it provides a clue for how things got this bad.
A failed prediction?
With this in mind, let’s meet Dr. Richard M. Salsman an Assistant Research Professor of Political Science at Duke University and a senior fellow at the American Institute for Economic Research (AIER), which funded the Great Barrington Declaration, a movement dedicated to infecting unvaccinated children with COVID. He’s also a Senior Scholar at The Atlas Society, an organization that amplifies influential dishonest anti-vaxxers while shunning vaccine advocates.
On December 20th, 2020, Dr. Salsman posted an article titled “Yes, Follow the Science – in Every Field“. To bolster his premise COVID was overblown and lockdowns were unnecessary, he wrote the following:
Last March, prior to the imposition of harsh lockdowns, the same New York Times reported that public health policy on Covid-19 was being driven by the work of British epidemiologist Neil Ferguson at Imperial College of London – thereafter to be exposed as a quack. Even assuming masks and social distancing, his team of fifty epidemiologists projected that in 2020 the U.K. would see 510,000 deaths from Covid-19 while the U.S. would suffer 2.2. million.
The facts? The science? How good was the Ferguson prediction? Let us see. So far, deaths have totaled only 65,520 in the U.K. (14% of Ferguson’s projection) and 307,642 in the U.S. (13% of his projection). Not even the global total of Covid-19 deaths has reached 2 million (it is now only 1.65 million, a mere 0.021% of the global population). For those less than 70 years old who get Covid-19, the survival rate is quite high (99.94%). For this, dozens of the world’s major economies have been shuttered…
Yikes. Based on this, Dr. Ferguson certainly does look like a quack, especially considering many governments based their initial pandemic response, including harsh lockdowns, on his dire predictions. Dr. Salsman was unsparing in his criticism of those who he felt overreacted to COVID saying,
The art of deception is practiced by control freaks, charlatans, and groupthinkers.
He concluded that “For such people, crises are to be welcomed, if necessary, even concocted”.
There’s a lot to unpack in these few sentences
It might not seem so at first glance, but there’s a lot to unpack in these few sentences. It’s all there – a salesman’s trick, ignoring R0, shaming, a conspiracy, a premature declaration, a strategic omission, and fanciful fiction – and it’s all designed to make you think COVID is no big deal.
Let start with the salesman’s trick. A savvy salesman who aims to sell you a $40,000 car will first show you one that costs $80,000. He hopes that by comparison, $40,000 won’t sound like a lot of money. Dr. Salsman would make a good car salesman. Notice how he is careful to first introduce you to the possibility of 2.2 million deaths. Only after this horrific number is anchored in your mind does he reveal the actual number. He wants you to look at 307,642 deaths and think, “That’s not so bad. It’s only 13% of 2.2 million. I can’t believe they made such a fuss about nothing.” Dr. Salsman turned Dr. Ferguson’s prediction into a unit of measurement, which is pretty ridiculous when you think about it. He could have easily introduced you to a prediction that only 10,000 people would die. He could have informed you that the real death toll was 3,000% higher than this. But this would make the death toll seem large, and a COVID minimizer wants to avoid this at all costs.
Dr. Salsman is also careful to present only the high survival rate for people under age 70. While I agree this is a vital statistic to understand how a virus impacts a society, we also need know how contagious it is, the R0. Rabies, a deadly virus with a low R0, killed 5 Americans in 2021. In contrast, hundreds of millions of Americans contracted COVID. By ignoring the R0, Dr. Salsman is obscuring that a small percentage of a big number is still a big number. As things stand now, COVID has killed 212,000 people under age 65, including 1,500 children.
Of course, rational people know 307,642 deaths is 307,642 deaths, no matter who predicted what at the pandemic’s start. They also know that 212,000 deaths are 212,000 deaths, no matter the percentage of infected people who die. Normal people think it’s sad that so many people died in such a short time. In contrast, Dr. Salsman thinks that only “control freaks, charlatans, and groupthinkers” would feel such sorrow. If you are bothered by hundreds of thousands of deaths, Dr. Salsman feels there is something wrong with you. You are the type of person who trusts quacks and welcomes COVID. There’s the shaming.
He also suggests that perhaps you “even concocted” the pandemic. There’s the conspiracy. What in the world does he mean that the pandemic was “concocted”? It’s not clear, but he’s obviously winking at the QAnon folks who enjoy movies such as Plandemic: The Hidden Agenda Behind Covid-19. People who believe the pandemic was “concocted” have remained unvaccinated and attacked doctors when the virus inevitably sickened them. They’ve predictably died in droves, some denying the virus’s danger with their last breath. Dr. Salsman didn’t treat any of them.
The premature declaration is obvious. After enumerating the COVID death toll, Dr. Salsman said, “For this, dozens of the world’s major economies have been shuttered.” Dr. Salsman didn’t consider that people would continue to die after his article was published. It also didn’t occur to him that the death toll might have been much worse had no measures been taken against the virus. Homer Simpson displayed a similar lack of imagination when he scolded Marge by saying, “Well, you bought all those smoke alarms, and we haven’t had a single fire.”
Sadly however, the pandemic didn’t end on December 20th, 2020. Many more people died after Dr. Salsman wrote his article than before it, even though it was published as vaccination campaigns were starting. Since then, an unsurprising pattern has emerged. People in some countries are able to visit their elderly relatives in their homes, not at their graves. They realize they took strenuous precautions “for this”.
Next, let’s discuss the strategic omission and fanciful fiction. It turns out there’s something very important Dr. Salsman didn’t tell us. To find out what he left out, we must read Dr. Ferguson’s actual paper, not just the New York Times account. The results section of that paper say:
In the (unlikely) absence of any control measures or spontaneous changes in individual behaviour… we would predict approximately 510,000 deaths in GB and 2.2 million in the US, not accounting for the potential negative effects of health systems being overwhelmed on mortality.
There’s the strategic omission, and it changes everything. Dr. Ferguson’s grave projection was based on the (unlikely) possibility that no one did anything at all, and it didn’t even take into account the possibility that hospitals would be overwhelmed, which of course they would have been. Either Dr. Salsman didn’t know this or he didn’t want you to know this, revealing either the ignorance or deceitfulness that unifies those who’ve found it fun and profitable to minimize COVID.
Given that it was based “unmitigated epidemic”, Dr. Ferguson’s projection didn’t assume “masks and social distancing” as Dr. Salsman claimed. His paper didn’t even mention masks, and it assumed no social distancing. Dr. Salsman just made that stuff up to trick you. There’s the fanciful fiction.
The last problem
I agree with Dr. Salsman that the art of deception is practiced by control freaks, charlatans, and groupthinkers, and his article proves this point well. The distortions it contains are impossible for the average reader to detect. I read the above excerpt from Dr. Salsman’s article many times before I put it all together, and every article I read by sheltered minimizers is riddled with such sophistry. This is what happens when writers start with a conclusion and work backwards to retrofit the “evidence”.
Our pandemic experience would have unfolded the same had Dr. Salsman not penned this particular unscientific homage to science. It was just another drop in the ocean of COVID misinformation. But it explains why millions of people thought COVID was a joke and failed to protect themselves. Smart people with fancy titles told them that scientists who warned of its dangers were quacks.
300,000 people would still be alive had all Americans adults been vaccinated, or as Dr. Salsman would put it, just 13% of Dr. Ferguson’s projection. 700,000 Americans have died since Dr. Salsman wrote his article, or as he would put it, just 32% of Dr. Ferguson’s projection. A million Americans have now died of COVID, and the global death toll now stands officially at 6.3 million, though the real number may be more than double this. Like all such utterances by COVID minimizers, just think how poorly Dr. Salsman’s article aged.
If he disagrees with me, I invite him to write a rebuttal to my essay arguing that a million dead Americans don’t matter because it is still less than 50% of what Dr. Ferguson projected. He can write a companion piece arguing that 12 million global COVID deaths don’t matter because it’s such a small fraction of the global population. I’d honestly love to read these articles.
And this brings us to the last and biggest problem – Dr. Salsman might take me up on my offer. Not everyone agrees that individuals matter. He might actually believe that millions of souls lost to COVID don’t matter because hey, the world’s got a lot of people in it. He’s never seen anyone die of COVID, and he doesn’t seem to care that so many did. This problem is unrelated to facts and science. It’s a problem of values. Even in the (unlikely) scenario that Dr. Salsman’s article had not been riddled with basic factual errors, there’s something jarring about how he speaks of those who died of COVID. Read this again.
So far, deaths have totaled only 65,520 in the U.K. (14% of Ferguson’s projection) and 307,642 in the U.S. (13% of his projection).
Imagine sitting at a laptop, typing that sentence, and attaching your name to it. Who uses the word “only” to describe hundreds of thousands of dead Americans in less than a year’s time?
Someone who is an answer to my question, how did we get here?