For any policy of the measure of the magnitude of an economic lockdown, there are legitimate debates to be had. All policies have benefits and costs both to the individual and society. The “cure is worse than the disease” appeals to an ethical argument against lockdown contrasting the negatives for the economy and civil liberties with public health benefits. Even if some restrictions have been agreed to, there needs to be an evaluation of the extent, form and duration of the measures.
It is rare in modern political discourse to find this type of debate on the key central issues. Far more common are extreme views which are set in opposition to each other. From observing the debates on Brexit and Climate change, the mainstream media likes to have “balance” in their debates (for example impartiality is part of BBC charters). This creates the impression that debate is evenly balanced, with equal numbers of experts and valid arguments on both sides, and that there is no common ground for agreement or of understanding of differences.
Outside mainstream media, we are free to consume news largely by choice seeking out news which confirms our prejudices. Many of us want to find good news that the virus is not so bad, and we can end the lockdown. When we search on the internet, we can find what we are looking for.
I have noted a small number of people releasing videos and interviews explaining why the virus is not dangerous which are widely watched and repeated. The vast majority of expert opinion which are in line with the view that the virus is dangerous is not so popular. If you want to go “viral”, have a piece which says it is safe to end the lockdown.
Tips for making a popular video
- Find an expert.
It does not matter if the person is retired and not actually in the relevant field. They should have the title Dr or Professor.
- Use data selectively.
Find outliers, small samples and anything that can be used to support the hypothesis.
- Rubbish or ignore most data and research.
Misrepresent mainstream expert opinion and then explain why this theory is bogus. Make it personal and include ad hominem attacks or hint at a conspiracy which all the experts are in on.
- Change the debate.
When one argument is no longer tenable due to mounting evidence find a new argument to support the same view.
Here are some common arguments around Covid:
- The virus is not very dangerous
- Don’t trust modelling
- Liberties matter more than unproven measures
- The virus will go away by itself
- Lockdown doesn’t work
- There will not be a second wave
Below is a summary of all the articles written by Dr John Lee in the Spectator, who as of today the author of the most popular article in this small yet highly influential conservative magazine. This is not a fringe blog, but a publication read by reasonable and well-informed people and he is their main columnist on this topic. I didn’t want to take an extreme example, but instead show how the mainstream argument against lockdown has developed.
He is a perfect pseudo-expert as a retired pathologist and starts every article with an appeal to his “expert” status e.g. “After a career as a scientist and clinical academic”. Later he does admit that he is not a virologist, but a cellular pathologist who spent his career in a lab looking at the cells from biopsies.
Mar 28th How deadly is the virus? It is still far from Clear
Official Death count 1,161
The death rate may be “in the range associated with infections like flu”. In addition, death rates may be overstated as doctors are claiming it as the cause of death when it often is not. A better method is excess deaths but “we have yet to see any statistical evidence for excess deaths, in any part of the world”.
Mar 29th How to understand ‘Covid Deaths’
Official Death count 1,455
Covid-19 deaths “are a substantial over-estimate” because people die “with the virus, not due to the virus”. He says we should wait for excess deaths data as “the severity of the epidemic would be indicated by how many extra deaths (above normal) there were overall.”
He suggests that the actual number of excess deaths may be only 340 and therefore that the infection mortality rate maybe only 0.13%
Note: This argument is never made again, no mention of excess deaths once it is known they are much higher or any updated estimates of the mortality rate. He moves on to find other reasons to argue against lockdown.
Apr 12th Where is the vigorous debate?
Official Death count 12,285
I find this article hard to summarise. I think he is just saying do not trust modelling. Apparently, we should do something else to base policy on. He does not mention what. I do not think he is saying gut-feel and so I think he is suggesting we should do nothing at all until we are sure. Over 12 thousand deaths to date are not seen as enough information on which to act and predictions of the future are uncertain and so we should not act on them.
Apr 19th Do face masks work?
Official Death count 18,492
He does not see “a watertight case for compelling people to wear masks in public”.
I think this is a decent summary gets to the heart of his belief that people should not be compelled to change behaviour even in a public health crisis.
Apr 30th Could lockdown have side-effects no-one has considered?
Official Death count 26,771
He argues that herd immunity is a better approach and that if we did this then the virus might mutate and become less deadly. However, he acknowledges that “most studies so far suggest this virus is not mutating in any way that meaningfully changes its nature” but he spends some time discussing a study of 11 patients in China which he thinks suggests it is possible.
May 8th 10 reasons to end lockdown now
Official Death count 32,285
Lots of different arguments rubbishing modelling. Apparently “we don’t know if lockdown is working” implying there may be some other reason that countries with lockdowns see a peak in infections about a week later and a peak in deaths a week or so after that.
May 27th What the Cummings saga tells us about lockdown
Official Death count 37,542
Apparently, we now know that “as epidemics go it’s not that bad”. Later he explains that it is nowhere near as bad as The Black Death. Two days after Cummings’ news conference, he supports him as having made a personal risk assessment and that we should all be allowed to make our own choices. He tells readers that Cummings’ behaviour had no risk, despite us knowing by then of his return to work after knowing his wife had symptoms, the potential for stopping on the way on a 5-hour drive with a sick wife and 4-year-old son, their trip (without masks) to hospital, and of course a day trip for a nice walk around Barnard Castle.
May 28th The way Covid deaths are being counted is a national scandal
Official Death count 37,919
He notes technical issues with autopsy classification of deaths and thus concludes that “we have no idea how many lives have really been lost to the disease”. He ignores his posts from March when he said we should use excess death data, perhaps because this gives a death count 50% higher than the official count.
June 6th Science, doubt and the ‘second wave’ of Covid
Official Death count 40,548
He claims that he has retained an open mind, while the mainstream has rushed to judgement. He claims that the evidence in favour of lockdown being effective is not strong and so we should not expect to have a second wave as we exit ours.
I have tried to fairly summarize his arguments, but I am sure it is clear that I think they are poor, each time one becomes untenable he moves on to another one.
I think that his underlying rationale is that civil liberties and individual choice are more important than public health when dealing with a disease which is so much less dangerous than the Black Death. But rather than argue this point he writes at length generating misleading pseudo-science.
I think it is possible to make honest and coherent arguments against lockdown and I will explore some in the next piece