Ideology is genre

Britain’s Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, is set to reward many of those who helped advance Brexit with seats in the House of Lords (https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/aug/01/truly-the-lords-becomes-ever-more-a-house-of-ill-repute ). It’s move that could be described as cynical if it wasn’t for the fact that this dual feature of political ennoblement (a reward and helping cement legislative power) is exactly how the House of Lords is supposed to work. I’m not going to spend time looking at all the ways that the UK’s upper chamber is a broken awful thing because the arguments are obvious. Rather, what has caught my interest in one name in particular: Claire Fox.

At one level Fox being made into a Baroness by Johnson is unremarkable: she was a self-styled libertarian who stood for Nigel Farage’s Brexit party. The remarkable aspect is that Fox was once a member of the Revolutionary Communist Party. That incongruous fact in turn looks less incongruous to anybody who has followed the very strange ideological path that the alumni of the RCP have taken over the years.

The current iteration of the RCP is the online contrarian magazine Sp!ked — a website that 80% of the time reads exactly like other ‘intellectual dark web’ outlets like Quillette but which every so often frames things in terms of Marxism. Reading it is both dull and dizzying: dull because the arguments it uses are the usual cliches about SJWs and cancel culture and dizzying because you would think the whole enterprise would explode from cognitive dissonance. It doesn’t of course because that’s not the ways ideologies work.

Here is Sp!ked reacting to the recent House of Lords appointments:

“Yet now, following the publication of the government’s list of new peers, these same Lords-lovers have decided that the second chamber is a foul, rotten institution, after all. Why? Because the newly ennobled include Tory pals of Boris Johnson, including his brother, former minister Jo Johnson, and, even worse, some Brexiteers. Three of the new peers in particular have rattled the one-time cheerleaders of the second chamber’s plots against democracy – former Labour MPs and Brexit stalwarts Kate Hoey and Gisela Stuart, and former Brexit Party MEP, and friend of spiked, Claire Fox. That’s it, the Remainer elites cry: get rid of the Lords!”

https://www.spiked-online.com/2020/08/03/abolish-the-house-of-lords/

It’s an almost quintessential Sp!ked piece, an overt left-styled radicalism (abolish the Lords!) but actually geared towards defending the actions of a Conservative Prime Minister and supporters of radical-right coup in British politics. The piece opens with the line “The liberal elite in this country has no shame” but shows no embarrassment that one of the new lords is a long time associate of the group.

The journey from cookie-cutter clone of other 1970’s Trotskyist groups (bold slogans and selling newspapers) to ally of the far right and member of the House of Lords is a long one. In the 1980s the RCP used their media-savvy to put better production values into their publications and shifted to a glossier magazine format with “Living Marxism”. The magazine re-christened as LM continued even as the RCP itself atrophied and the ideological stance shifted away from Trotskyist to something else. In the late 1980’s journalist George Monbiot wrote a long analysis of the shift of the group from the left to the right:

“As you wade through back issues of Living Marxism, you can’t help but conclude that the magazine’s title is a poor guide to its contents. LM contains little that would be recognised by other Marxists or, for that matter, by leftists of any description. On one issue after another, there’s a staggering congruence between LM’s agenda and that of the far-right Libertarian Alliance. The two organisations take identical positions, for example, on gun control (it is a misconceived attack on human liberty), child pornography (legal restraint is simply a Trojan horse for the wider censorship of the Internet), alcohol (its dangers have been exaggerated by a new breed of “puritan”), the British National Party (it’s unfair to associate it with the murder of Stephen Lawrence; its activities and publications should not be restricted), the Anti-Nazi League (it is undemocratic and irrelevant), tribal people (celebrating their lives offends humanity’s potential to better itself; the Yanomami Indians are not to be envied but pitied) animal rights (they don’t have any), and global warming (it’s a good thing).”

https://www.monbiot.com/1998/11/01/far-left-or-far-right/

The evolution of LM to Sp!ked was precipitated by a major defamation case in which the British news network ITN sued LM after LM had pushed a conspiracy theory that ITN had fabricated evidence of Serbian war crimes in Bosnia. Ironically one of the longest recent analysis of this trial was published last year in Quillette (I say ironically because arguably Sp!ked and Clair Fox’s “Institute of Ideas” created the template for outlets like Quillette, even if Quillette plays the same trick but claiming moderate liberalism as the framing for advancing far-right ideas). The Quillette piece is a two party essay looking at the trial and its ramifications. Part one is here https://quillette.com/2019/11/01/denial-and-defamation-the-itn-lm-libel-trial-revisited-ii/ and here is a relevant quote from part two:

“Hume, and LM’s publishers, Claire Fox and Helene Guldberg, were unrepentant. “We apologise for nothing,” Hume told the press assembled outside the High Court in London immediately after the verdict. “But we will not be appealing. Life is too short, and other issues too important, to waste any more time in the bizarre world of the libel courts.” Facing bankruptcy, Hume and Guldberg shuttered their magazine and immediately relaunched it as Spiked-Online, while Fox became founding co-director of the Academy of Ideas, an LM-associated think-tank initiated before the magazine folded, which continues to operate under Fox’s sole directorship today.”

https://quillette.com/2019/11/01/denial-and-defamation-the-itn-lm-libel-trial-revisited-i/

This is all really just background to a wider point. There is one view of ideology that would find this all as inexplicable. It is the view that imagines ideology as distinct categories but also if it admits any fuzzy edges then they would between close neighbours. In this view ideologies are systems of thought with rationally connected ideas — the ideas maybe wrong headed but only because they arise about false assumptions about the world. In this view, ideologies are of a piece. It’s a peculiar view because really it is taking Marxism as the template for ideologies should be like even thought it is a view of ideology that isn’t particularly Marxist.

For example, Marxism in all its forms is very theory heavy. Marx himself had not just a detailed model of economics but also a view of history and a deep philosophical model. However, this is a very unusual example of an ideology. Beyond Marxism (and even within Marxism if we include all the movements that have called themselves Marxist) it is unusual for ideologies to have all these components. Marxism itself would repudiate the idea that ideologies are defined by combing an economic theory with a philosophical stance. Where we see this template-for-ideologies come take root is really with Ayn Rand’s Objectivism, where she attempts to match those aspects of Marxism with her opposed positions (naive free market capitalism as an economic theory and a confused logic-essentialism for a philosophical stance).

I would contend that ideologies function more like fictional genres. They acquire elements over time and those elements may be in active conflict with each other. They also have cultural and aesthetic components that shape everything from patterns of speech, colour choices and even typography. That idea of ideology as aesthetic is most pronounced within fascism but there are elements of it in all ideologies which makes it possible to cosplay the ideas of one ideology as the ideas of another.

That doesn’t mean that the logic of ideas is irrelevant to ideology. We can connect ideas via the implications they have as well as how they impact with reality. Sooner or later we trip over curbs or run into brick walls. Our imagined worlds bump and scrape against the unimagined one. The stability of an ideology over time and over large numbers of people implies at least some degree of coherence. However, the capacity of individuals to adhere to quite novel combinations of ideas or to rationalise their own interests as high-minded principle is essentially unbounded.


Some other coverage:

https://www.theguardian.com/uk/2000/jul/08/davidpallister.johnvidal1
https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2019/apr/23/former-communist-claire-fox-standing-as-mep-for-farages-brexit-party
https://www.theguardian.com/uk/2000/jul/08/davidpallister.johnvidal1
https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/aug/01/truly-the-lords-becomes-ever-more-a-house-of-ill-repute
https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/labour-uses-tories-ira-jibe-to-target-lady-brexit-claire-fox-snjc6v23b
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Claire_Fox
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Revolutionary_Communist_Party_(UK,_1978)

Pandemics & Politics

The soup of conspiracy mongering about the covid-19 pandemic has never truly settled on a clear story. Even as the virus began spreading internationally, reactions ranged from claims that China was exaggerating the numbers of people infected to China was hiding the ‘true’ scale of infection. The common theme with conspiratorial thinking is that genuine doubt, genuine ignorance and genuine shifts in opinion about a novel situation are actually examples of deceit. There is a paradoxical relationship with authority and expertise in any conspiracy theory as the claims of deception always imply that the authorities genuinely do know a lot more about the true state of affairs than everybody else but are lying about it.

The most recent iteration of covid conspiracy-mongering is the ‘Plandemic’ conspiracy video which has sprouted out of anti-vaccine conspiracies. You can read more about it here https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/may/14/plandemic-movie-discredited-dr-doctor-judy-mikovits-how-debunked-conspiracy-theory-film-went-viral but there is also a good analysis of conspiracy-theory thinking which uses it as an example here https://theconversation.com/coronavirus-plandemic-and-the-seven-traits-of-conspiratorial-thinking-138483. The conspiracy is being promoted among some sections of the media in the usual just-asking-questions/exploring-the-controversy way:

“Local television stations owned by the Sinclair Broadcast Group are set to air a conspiracy theory over the weekend that suggests Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top expert on infectious diseases, was responsible for the creation of the coronavirus.The baseless conspiracy theory is set to air on stations across the country in a segment during the program “America This Week” hosted by Eric Bolling. The show, which is posted online before it is broadcast over the weekend, is distributed to Sinclair Broadcast Group’s network of local television stations, one of the largest in the country. A survey by Pew Research Group earlier this year showed that local news was a vital source of information on the coronavirus for many Americans, and more trusted than the media overall.”[1]

https://edition.cnn.com/2020/07/24/media/sinclair-fauci-conspiracy-bolling/index.html

What the various conspiracy theories have in common is a belief that pandemic fears and public health measures are specifically a plot against Donald Trump. The details vary (or even contradict each other) but they aim to support a motive for the imagined conspiracy i.e. that the ‘ruling classes’ have manufactured pandemic fears as a way to undermine Donald Trump. To support this idea conspiracy-theorists point to pre-pandemic articles discussing how Trump might cope with a pandemic (e.g. this one by Ed Yong in 2016 https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2016/12/outbreaks-trump-disease-epidemic-ebola/511127/ ) as evidence that people were ‘planning’ to use pandemic fears against Trump.

Ironically, across the world many political leaders have gained popular support as a consequence of the pandemic (https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2020/05/13/some-world-leaders-popularity-grows-along-with-coronavirus-case-numbers/ ). This pandemic poll-boost has helped politicians both on the left and right and isn’t tied to any particular policy measure nor even whether the covid-19 response was particularly successful. Clear messaging and decisive policy appear to be the main factors but even the shambolic Boris Johnson gained an initial popularity boost (although he eventually squandered it https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2020/jun/14/poll-uk-government-losing-public-approval-over-handling-of-virus ).

The reality of natural disasters, including pandemics, is that they can often boost the standing of national leaders. Nor is it difficult to gain support because it is mainly a halo effect from the leader being seen in the company of competent people doing their jobs at a time when people will naturally hope for national unity. It actually takes some effort to mess up. Notably, the Australian Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, managed to do this during the 2019/20 bushfire crisis leading to a rapid plummet in support and humiliating scenes of firefighters refusing to shake his hand. Conversely, Morrison saw his poll numbers boosted during the pandemic, mainly by not repeating the same basic errors he had a few months earlier.

In short, natural disasters are more likely to boost a national leader than undermine them. As a plot against Trump, a pandemic would be a terrible idea: all Trump would need to do is look presidential, let experts speak and pat them on the back. Of course, there is a counter-argument here. A pandemic may well be an actually electoral boost for most politicians but specifically a problem for Trump. As we have seen, Trump has spectacularly failed but this was entirely due to his own incompetence and the incompetence of his cronies. Even so, in late March, the pandemic led to Trump’s approval numbers steadily improving, only to be undermined by Trump’s inability to handle a crisis.

In short, as a plot against Trump, a pandemic would only undermine Trump’s popularity if Trump was actually a uniquely bad president. Of course, he is actually a uniquely bad president, so I guess that is one thing the conspiracy theories have going for them.


[1] Apparently Sinclair media have since changed their plans https://twitter.com/WeAreSinclair/status/1287110687093714944

Tying up old plot lines

There is a lot of noise amid the right-SF social media sphere currently. It’s very free form and the broader cause is that in mainstream SF&F communities there has been the recent cases of some very prominent and well connected men being held accountable for the way they have been treating other people (earlier coverage). Although post-Puppies, the world of right-wing science fiction claims to have separated and living an idyllic SJW-free life, in reality ructions in mainstream SF&F are felt keenly in the breakaway bubble. The problem they have is working out a clear position. On the one hand various authors they dislike are having a bad time of things but on the other hand, powerful men are being held accountable for their actions against women. Bit of a tricky dilemma and hence we get to see various diversions attacking the ‘wokeness’ of mainstream SF&F (e.g. Dave Freer recently).

Another recent example is Cirsova magazine. Cirsova was, in many ways, a better attempt by the right-wing SF&F community to challenge their energies into something a bit more positive i.e. an on-going story magazine. Up until recently, it had largely avoided outrage marketing techniques. However, that changed on June 29 with the unintentionally funny announcement that they had declared that the SFWA was a terrorist organisation (File 770 coverage). Cirsova’s stance on terrorism had been notably absent during their long association with Vox Day’s Castalia House despite Day’s infamous support of convicted terrorist and mass-murderer Anders Breivik. (“Virtue signalling” could be the term for it if we could find any virtue signalled…)

I draw two big inferences from this:

  1. This is another example of the diversions I talk about above
  2. Sales/income must be bad for Cirsova. There is always a grift with right-wing SF&F. Always, and this is classic outrage marketing. [That observation got me instantly blocked on Twitter by Cirsova…]

On the second point, right-wing SF&F publishing has been contracting. There are still some big sellers (i.e. Larry Correia) but in the time since the Puppies stormed off with their own football from the field, Castalia House has stopped publishing new science fiction and Superversive Press has closed, various at attempts at alt-SFWA have fizzled and Sarah Hoyt is claiming she can’t get published by Baen any more. There’s still a right wing audience out there but it’s just not big enough to maintain a large number of authors and outlets and much of it is catered to by more generic military SF provided by less partisan groups like LMBPN.

On the first point…well the SFWA statement on Black Lives Matter was June 4. Cirsova’s counter-terrorism unit didn’t make its deceleration until twenty-five days later i.e. not until mainstream SF&F was having its own ructions and right-wing SF was trying to find a way to join in.

Let’s throw in a few other bad actors (n both senses of the term). So I was watching a video by Jon Del Arroz…that’s never a good start to a story nor is it something I would recommend. Anyway, JDA’s video was about another charmer Richard Fox. Remember Richard? Fox got a story nominated for a Nebula award courtesy of the 20booksto50K/LMBPN slate in 2019 (https://camestrosfelapton.wordpress.com/2019/03/02/nebula-shorts-going-dark-by-richard-fox/) and then had a bit of a melt-down in the comments section here partly when people noticed the similarity between him and a Goodreads commenter called “John Margolis” who wrote racially abusive comments to people who gave Richard bad reviews on Goodreads.

Fox would go onto behave in even more odd ways (to put it politely) https://camestrosfelapton.wordpress.com/2019/09/15/authors-behaving-badly-episode-1234543-richard-fox/ accusing Mike Glyer’s File 770 of “piracy” because it had a link to the SFWA public Nebula reading list to a PDF of his story that he had uploaded. No, that made no sense but it was enough for the axis of Jon Del Arroz and Larry Correia to try to spin into a scandal.

Where was I? Oh!…a video by Jon Del Arroz. [Here for reference but seriously, it’s just trolling. You can skip it https://delarroz.com/2020/07/01/nebula-award-nominated-author-pulls-story-from-sfwa-anthology-because-of-their-racism/ ]

JDA was proudly announcing that “Nebula nominated” author Richard Fox was withdrawing his story from the Nebula Award anthology (yes, that story mentioned above) in solidarity with Cirsova. Notably, Fox’s author Facebook page and author website say exactly ZERO about this brave stand against ‘terrorism’. It’s not something Fox wants his regular readers to know but…well he’d like some of those Dragon Award votes from the people who are most likely to vote in them.

Long story short: various right wing science fiction people are generally agitated by the fact that some specific male SF authors (who happen to people they don’t like but are also powerful men…so a bit of a dilemma) are being held to account because of misogynistic behaviour and so are finding various random ways of acting out.

Sci-fi, Libertarians, Heinlein and other stuff

I got bored with my previous habit of checking on the clumsy articles at Quillette — the online magazine for people who want to be reassured that reactionary ideas are really quite nice if you stand on your head and squint at them for long enough. However, a recent article crossed into multiple aspects of my interests that I really thought I should write about it. Entitled “The Libertarian History of Science Fiction” (https://quillette.com/2020/06/12/the-libertarian-history-of-science-fiction/) it is not a particularly great examination of the topic but not so blisteringly awful as to be funny. In responding to it I appear to have gone off in many directions and have used many words and long run on sentences. So more after the fold…

There really are free lunches

Priorities

I haven’t posted about Mad Genius Club for a long time but I thought I’d share a link to a recent post. The site has become a lot more focused on its core remit of helping indie authors author independently rather than feuding and political outrage. Of course, their whole eco-system for publishing is very much tied to Amazon and for many of the authors there (including the ones who have been trad-published in the past) Amazon and Amazon Kindle Unlimited are central to their publishing model. So it’s notable when an author gets frustrated with Amazon.

There is an awful lot wrong with Amazon: their near-monopoly power, Bezos’s obscene amount of wealth, shitty working conditions in its warehouses, tax avoidance, collaboration with state surveillance. Amazon has in many ways changed book publishing for the better, enabling easier access to more books for many but not without its own significant issues.

So what’s the issue that is making one author considering abandoning Amazon? https://madgeniusclub.com/2020/06/11/i-was-warned/

“I’m not sure I can do that any more. Since, oh, about the third day of the George Floyd riots, every time I open the Kindle app on my iPad, I get a row of “anti-racist” books shoved into my face.”

The horror of that experience!

“But this display, which I did not ask for and certainly do not welcome, is hardly a good-faith attempt to show me books I might be interested in. Dear Amazon, I am not going to buy Ta-Nehisi Coates’ lousy book. I would not read it even if it were free. I would not read it even if you automatically loaded it into my library, and Dear God, can something like that be far away? Stop pushing these books at me. The display doesn’t make me think, “Oh, how virtuous and public-minded this vendor is.” Rather the reverse.”

Amazon is advertising topical books. Why? It is very, very safe to assume that it’s not because of a quest for left-wing ideological purity from Amazon but from motives that are almost Ayn Randian in their cynical purity: they think people are going to want to read these books and the company will make more money for Jeff Bezos’s Scrooge McDuck giant vault of money* that way.

The offending books included:

Anyway, I’m sure next week Mad Genius Club will be back to scolding everybody about how we just don’t recognise how important diversity of ideas is.

*[I cannot confirm that Jeff Bezos actually has a Scrooge McDuck style vault of money where he skis down huge piles of coins. At a rough calculation I just did would make 150 billion dollars in ten cent coins actually not as big as you would think it is but maybe I missed a zero along the way]

Explaining rhetorical questions to professional writers

I suppose rhetorical questions can be confusing to people particularly ones where the person doing the asking already knows the truth of the matter. Why ask a question if the questioner already has an answer? Perhaps to illustrate a point or perhaps in the vain hope of some self reflection.

In the case of gun-owning American libertarians current events in the United States provide an illustration of something people have known for years. The libertarian right is not and never has been opposed to the government using violence against its own people in general and the only people under any illusion about that are gun-owning American libertarians. It is true that they may very well be opposed to government using violence against specific groups of people but certainly not people less wealthy or less politically powerful.

There is no mystery here. There is no doubt or confusion. Simple observation of their behaviour on many issues has confirmed it. To step away from questions of guns for a moment, the position of these “libertarians” on questions of free speech in practice is one we’ve seen illustrated over and over. The libertarian right is very, very concerned about defending the free speech of the far right, racists, neo-nazis and white supremacists (groups they claim to oppose) and but either little interest or active hostility to the free speech of people on the left or even in the centre. There is a deep searing hatred of free speech, free association and freedom of ideas that reveals itself every time among people who claim to be free-speech purists. There is always some rationale why the given person’s speech should be limited.

For your consideration here is the former instigator of Sad Puppies (a protest movement he started because of the horrific oppression he faced in not winning a book award).

“Where are all you gun owners now?”

https://monsterhunternation.com/2020/06/04/where-are-all-you-gun-owners-now/

That’s the title and Larry seems to be under the impression based on his response that is a serious question, that there are people somewhere honestly wondering why the gun-owning libertarian right aren’t suddenly mobilising to defend freedom in response to American governments using violence against their citizens. Nobody is actually wondering where the gun-owning libertarian right are. Everybody ALREADY KNOWS that Larry will side with overt fascism in a conflict because that’s what he always does. Larry here is just a handy example. Nobody expects Larry Correia to step up and fight for freedom because that would pre-suppose he was ever in favour of freedom in general (as opposed to freedoms for himself or his mates).

“Well, every single gun nut in America has spent their entire adult life being continually mocked, insulted, and belittled by the left. You’ve done nothing but paint us as the bad guys.”

And there you go. Larry literally wouldn’t fight against actual Nazis or fascists or authoritarian governments and not really because the left have been mean to gun owners but because his beliefs and interests, while different, align with them. Aside from anything else the line of argument he is attempting here (that he’ll only defend freedom if people are nice to him) is overtly stating that his belief in freedom is deeply conditional: he’ll defend the ‘freedom’ of people who he likes. The same is true about his concern for the ‘free speech’ of the more overtly authoritarian right: he defends them because he likes them, which is simply the corollary of his stated argument.

The gun nuts? Yes, they are part of exactly the same set of beliefs and attitudes about the use of deadly force against a section of Americans that people are protesting against. The militarised police and the militarised right are not two utterly distinct ideologies but instances of deeply related ideas about the use of guns or deadly force to attempt to control society. There are differences of course, as you will find in any political ideology but not differences so great that the fundamental commonality is not apparent. Heck, as we saw in the anti-lockdown protests, the “libertarians” even try to dress the same as an occupying military force.

So no, nobody is even remotely expecting the likes of Larry Correia to actually defend the principles of liberty and if people are asking “where are all you gun owners now” they already know the answer.

A small denial update

A short follow up on the pro-virus faction. Sarah Hoyt is promoting a protest today in Colorado in a big red font “GRIDLOCK PROTEST AT THE CAPITOL TODAY AT ONE.

On April 4 I wrote this post https://camestrosfelapton.wordpress.com/2020/04/04/a-study-in-denial/ with a section looking at Colorado specifically.

Colorado isn’t a mysterious far away planet. We can literally go and see how Covid-19 is progressing in the state. I’ll use the John Hopkins University visualisation tool for tracking confirmed Covid-19 cases that is available here: https://www.arcgis.com/apps/opsdashboard/index.html#/bda7594740fd40299423467b48e9ecf6 The tool allows you to drill down to state (and within state) data in the USA. Colorado (pop. 5.696 million) currently (April 4 6:50 Sydney time) has 3,742 confirmed cases of Covid-19. For comparison, New South Wales (pop. 7.544 million) has 2,389 confirmed cases and that’s with long established Chinese communities (that Hoyt seems to regard as the only risk factor) as well as Sydney being a major cruise ship destination (an actually pertinent risk factor).

In the time since the number of cases in Colorado has reached 9,440 (as of 5 am April 20 Sydney time) with 411 deaths. The comparison I made then was with NSW but those figures now well exceed the whole country of Australia (6,457 cases, 71 deaths). NSW confirmed cases is currently 2,926.

Here is my other fear. We know that Covid-19 isn’t the worst case scenario, even given how bad it is. We will face worse and this current crisis is a dress rehearsal. Counterfactual beliefs on the right only become MORE entrenched and so the next major pandemic in a window of say 20 years will be met with more strident denial from the right earlier.

The Virus, The Lockdown and the Wingnut Eschatology

A post really wasn’t coming together on all this stuff on the anti-lockdown ‘movement’ among the US right. However, I wanted a bunch of links in one place to come back to later. The whys and the hows and whos and how it all connects to money, oil and denial is sort of there. I intended just a list of links but you get a rambling post instead. Somehow Jonestown and the Last Jedi get connected in here. More after the fold.

Continue reading “The Virus, The Lockdown and the Wingnut Eschatology”

Hoyt’s Covid Denial Hits the Big Time

Sarah Hoyt wrote a new version of her critique of epidemiological models (see my post A Study in Denial) for her column in the far-right outlet PJMedia: https://pjmedia.com/blog/modeling-covid-19-and-the-lies-of-multiculturalism/ It’s basically the same points she made in her original essay, nobody really knows and therefore Hoyt knows and therefore she knows that it is all down to culture or population density etc. It is at best wild guesses and half-formed opinions where her credentials are established like so:

“However, as the mother and wife of STEM people for whom physics is a game and who create such models for fun, I know that the accuracy of the model depends on how much you put into it and how much of the real factors on that day, in that place, you can put in.”

Her theory is, of course, another kind of model and it shares with any model all the flaws plus the additional ones of being half-arsed opinion based on a weak grasp of the news.

“For instance, my friend in Albany, Georgia, tells me he assumes part of the reason it got so bad in his neighborhood (the worst per capita in the U.S. last I looked) is that “we are the touchiest, most social people I know,” i.e., there is a lot of touching and hugging. At a guess, this is the reason it got so bad in Italy, too, but not nearly as bad in Germany, where, frankly, people aren’t that touchy/feely/huggy.”

Quite how the UK fits into the Hoyt-Covid-Hugs model of infection I don’t know but I can’t say us Brits have ever been accused of being a very hug-prone nation. It does help resolve what Hoyt things ‘culture’ might be: national stereotypes. Maybe France has a high infection rate because they wear berets whereas Brazil has a different pattern because they wear bikinis? That’s about the level of Hoyt’s analysis.

So if there is nothing new in Hoyt’s PJMedia piece (one of four, two behind paywalls) why am I mentioning it. Well Rush Limbaugh (who apparently still exists even though I’d forgotten about him sometime around 2010) has been praising the column by Hoyt.

“Now, this is a tough case to make. And Sarah Hoyt does a great job in the piece, a very long piece. We will link to it at RushLimbaugh.com. It was published yesterday. But I want to try here because her point is that we get these models projecting how many people are gonna get sick, how many people are gonna die, assuming everybody’s identical, everybody’s the same, gonna behave the same.”

https://www.rushlimbaugh.com/daily/2020/04/13/the-covid-19-models-cant-account-for-culture/

Hmm, so what would Mr Limbaugh or Ms Hoyt suggest instead for a pandemic response? Now consider, neither of them deny that there is a pandemic even if they question the severity of it. Yet consider, there is no reason to believe that Covid-19 is the worst possible novel viral disease that could occur. Notably, the measures that have been seen to work require them to be implemented BEFORE the full severity of the pandemic is known – the earlier the better. So there is no viable scenario in which the response to a novel pandemic can be made with full and accurate models. Nor is there any possible way of creating models that account for every person’s unique individuality (and what a rabbit hole that would be — implying a level of surveillance state of dystopian proportions).

[ETA: For a better discussion of the limits and value of models in this pandemic see this extended cartoon/discussion at FiveThirtyEight by Zach “SMBC” Weinersmith https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/a-comic-strip-tour-of-the-wild-world-of-pandemic-modeling/ ]

A study in denial

I could have written a post like this one every other day for the past few weeks. Highlight one of the right-wing blogs I read and talk about their reaction to the Covid-19 pandemic. The story would be the same over and over: a mix of genuine confusion, an even more irrational faith in free market economics than usual and the now standard belief that genuine expertise is the hallmark of deception.

But I’ll highlight the inevitable one: Sarah Hoyt https://accordingtohoyt.com/2020/04/03/assume-a-spherical-cow-of-uniform-density-in-a-frictionless-vaccum/ The truth of the general statement I made above would also be nearly true of Hoyt’s blog. Not quite every other day but nearly so, there has been a post about the virus offering a close to fact-free dissent about the wider view of the pandemic.

The denial isn’t hard to understand. There really is no doubt that measures to reduce social contact reduces the spread of the disease – indeed, that’s almost axiomatic about communicable diseases. There’s also not much doubt that reducing social contact has a negative impact on the economy. Which takes us straight to the dilemma of every nation on Earth currently: saving lives will hurt your economy. A corollary to that is that there really is no immediate free market solution to the pandemic. Give it time and yes, there are fortunes to be made from vaccines and treatments but this current situation is genuinely a big-government kind of problem and hence even conservative governments are trying to buy time with quite severe laws restricting our movement.

For libertarians and pseudo-libertarians this must be nightmarish. OK the actual situation IS nightmarish but for the pseudo-libertarians like Hoyt the world has turned on its head. The route through the next months has narrowed to variations on the same basic policy: massive government efforts to keep the health system running, laws massively restricting human movement, massive government spending (based on borrowing) to stop the economy from collapsing. This is not a war (the pseudo-libertarians quite like war) but it is not unlike a war-footing but without the militarism that the pseudo-libertarians enjoy.

For the piece linked above the frame is a standard denialist line: models are simplifications of complex things and hence don’t capture the complexities and hence must be false and wrong and bad etc etc. Part of that is true. Models are simplifications of complex things and have aspects that are known to be both false and misleading. The simplest example (and analogy – which is cool that an actual example is also a metaphor for itself) is a map. Maps leave out details. A roadmap exaggerates the width of roads for the purpose of visibility. Any model must contain such simplifications and errors because that is the purpose of models.

The situation is even more dire than that though. Not only is every model ever wrong (to some degree) but we have no choice but to use models. Unless you are omniscient being, you can’t know everything. So you HAVE to use models. Your brain uses models, your basic SENSES use less than perfect models that approximate and fill in missing details. It is not unlike the version of the laws of thermodynamics (attributed to either Allen Ginsberg or C.P.Snow – take your pick)

  • You can’t win
  • You can’t break even
  • You can’t leave the game

People get that the first two must be true about any kind of model (cognitive, mathematical, computer-based) i.e. that the model is a simplification and that there will be aspects of the model that are misleading. People don’t always get the last one: you can’t escape models. Which takes me back to Hoyt:

“This came to mind about a week ago as I was stomping around the house saying that anyone who relied on computer models for anything should be shot.  My husband was duly alarmed, because as he pointed out, he has designed computer models. At which point I told him that’s okay because his models do not involve people.  Which is part of it.  Throw one person into a model, and you’ll wish the person were a spherical cow of uniform density in friction-less vacuum.”

The question Hoyt raises unintentionally is if people are not to rely on computer models then what SHOULD they rely on? What is the alternative? Because not relying on models at all is an impossibility. The virtue of a formal model is that they are examinable. Hoyt uses the old joke about the mathematician given the task of helping a farmer but the joke itself reveals a strength of a mathematical model as the butt of the joke. The simplification and hence the way the model departs from reality is overtly stated. The alternative is situations were we use models without realising we are doing so an without understanding how the cognitive model we are using departs sharply from reality.

Luckily for me (if not for the health and safety of her readers) Hoyt provides a perfect example of exactly that kind of unexamined model:

“It’s hard to deny the disease presents in weird clusters. I have a friend whose Georgia County is about the same level of bad as Italy. Which makes no sense whatsoever, as they have no high Chinese population. And while the cases might be guess work (with tests only accurate AT MOST 70% of the time, it’s guesswork all the way down) the deaths aren’t. The community is small enough they all know each other. And they’re losing relatively young (still working) and relatively healthy (no known big issues) people.”

Hoyt is still stuck with a mental model of Covid-19 as a “Chinese” disease — as if somehow the novel coronavirus has a memory of where it first infected humans. Spread of the disease has long since moved well beyond travellers from China. For example, I believe in Australia more cases originated directly via travellers from the USA than from China. Mind you, remember this a person who puts every effort into refusing to believe that there can be such a thing as unconscious biases (at least among people she approves of).

Having robustly asserted how people aren’t spherical cows, Hoyt then promptly spends multiple paragraphers generalising about New Yorkers and Italians and so on. More flawed models.

That takes us to Colorado. Colorado, Hoyt assures us, is different. Now that is clearly true. Colorado is not Italy and it is not New York and some of those differences do matter for the spread of the disease. It is a less densely populated state without a doubt. Hoyt argues that because Colorado is different then the rules should be different.

“So, why are the same rules being applied to both places? AND why are both places treated exactly alike? And why are both places assumed to be on the same curve as Italy or Spain or Wuhan, places and cultures, and ways of living that have absolutely nothing to do with how we live or who we are? And here’s the kicker: if you allow states like Colorado and others that naturally self-distance to go about their lawful business, not only time but more money will be available to study the problem clusters.”

Here is the real kicker. Models are imperfect (by definition) and those imperfection can be misleading (by their very nature) and you can’t NOT use models of some kind or another BUT we have a way of minimising the mistakes we make. The method is simple but it has taken us millennia to work it out: we check the outcomes of our models against data and observation. Now even with data we still have models (sorry, they are inescapable) but we have ways of checking our conclusions against others.

Colorado isn’t a mysterious far away planet. We can literally go and see how Covid-19 is progressing in the state. I’ll use the John Hopkins University visualisation tool for tracking confirmed Covid-19 cases that is available here: https://www.arcgis.com/apps/opsdashboard/index.html#/bda7594740fd40299423467b48e9ecf6 The tool allows you to drill down to state (and within state) data in the USA.

Colorado (pop. 5.696 million) currently (April 4 6:50 Sydney time) has 3,742 confirmed cases of Covid-19. For comparison, New South Wales (pop. 7.544 million) has 2,389 confirmed cases and that’s with long established Chinese communities (that Hoyt seems to regard as the only risk factor) as well as Sydney being a major cruise ship destination (an actually pertinent risk factor). Colorado does have major ski resorts* and I suspect we’ll get a better sense of the role they played in the pandemic in the future.

Yes but…as I said, even data relies on models of one kind or another and maybe Australia and Colorado are using vastly different diagnostic criteria or maybe it is due to vastly different testing regimes. I might genuinely be comparing apples and oranges. Sadly, we can reduce (but not remove) disparities in reporting by looking at a more sobering statistic: deaths.

According to the John Hopkins University dashboard New South Wales has 12 confirmed deaths. That’s a tragic and worrying amount. Yes, many more people die from all sorts of other causes but these deaths add to that total or mortality and the progress of this pandemic is far from over. That’s just the beginning of the numbers.

Let’s compare with Colorado (there is also state specific data here also https://covid19.colorado.gov/case-data). From the same data source Colorado has had 97 deaths so far. It’s when I saw that number that I shuddered and decided that I’d write this post rather than just shake my head at Hoyt’s nonsense. I knew things were bad in some parts of the US but I’d assumed that some of the denial I was reading was because the writers of this toxic nonsense were in states were the wave of the pandemic was still to hit. Ninety-seven deaths, shit. I keep looking at that number and knowing that there other places in the US where the numbers of deaths are being under reported particularly for vulnerable communities and shuddering at what might be the true scale of thins.

Now sure, maybe the differences in testing and diagnostic criteria and data collection are so different between NSW and Colorado that the number of cases is incomparable BUT they would have to be significantly different in two different directions simultaneously. That is, if NSW are under-reporting the number of cases compared to Colorado then the case-fatality rate in Colorado is even worse when compared with NSW. I’m not making the comparison to say which state is somehow doing ‘better’ (it’s not a race or a competition) but simply trying to get a sense of what I can see HERE and compare it with where Sarah Hoyt is. It is undoubtedly a crisis here and we’ve got a conservative government in power at the state level and the national level and heck, both of them if they had an excuse to cut spending and pull back on entitlements and let business run wild they would and you know what, they aren’t and in fact they are doing the opposite. That’s not because they have had a sudden ideological conversion to policies they have derided for years but because massive government spending is the ONLY way to keep the economy going. When conservative ideologues rush to implement free government funded childcare it is safe to assume that they felt they had no other choice.

The morbid irony here is that Hoyt is ignoring her own advice. Rather than just look at Colorado and consider whether that state, regardless of what is going on anywhere else, is in the midst of viral outbreak and in grave danger and what action in such a circumstance the state government should take (hint: major restriction on movement and social contact to keep hospitals going and to give time for treatments and vaccines to be developed) she is insisting that because Colorado is not New York it can’t need the same measures as New York. It’s a compounded level of illogic.

Strip everything away from that piece by Sarah Hoyt and what you are left with is the common theme that captures so much of the train of political thought that joins Ayn Rand to Trump to Jordan Peterson: the desire to dress up wishful thinking as something other than a demand that reality should accord with their personal desires.

There’s no conclusion. Stay safe. Wash your hands. Think of others. Be kind. Don’t spread nonsense.

*[To be fair New South Wales does have ski resorts as well but during the start of the pandemic it was 1. summer here and 2. they were on fire.]