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.]

Perhaps the most significant story from a former Sad Puppy ever

I had considered writing a piece about how the various right wing blogs and outlets I read are reacting to the current Covid-19 pandemic. However, I feel I have to point everybody to this frankly epic true story by Declan Finn http://www.declanfinn.com/2020/03/i-have-returned-from-italy-part-1-oh.html

If it was fiction and Declan was a made up character it would be the story for our times, encapsulating so much about 2020’s America and it’s relationship with Europe, the odd cognitive distance from reality of the American right and the very real human issues of coping in a world where the multitude of connections start shutting down. I’m reminded of John Scalzi’s Collapsing Empire as the flow shuts down the gateways between worlds.

For those who don’t want to visit Declan’s blog, let me sum up. Last week (yes, LAST week) Declan and his wife went to ITALY for a holiday. As you can imagine (and indeed could have predicted last week when Italy was already well, well into its crisis) things did not go well.

The collision between belief and reality is laid out in unwitting detail. I genuinely hope he is fine (he and his wife are apparently safely back in the US or as safely back as anybody is).

The short version therefore of how right wing blogs are reacting plays out in a personal level in Declan’s story. Initial scepticism and eagerness to carry on as if it is all a fuss over nothing which then collides with an escalating reality and blaming the government.

Trying to sum right-wing reactions to the Covid-19 situation

As you all know, I read a lot of right-wing/conservative blogs to try and make sense of what people I disagree with are thinking. Nobody who has been following the cognitive decline of the right will be surprised to learn that the uniform reaction to the potential pandemic is that it is all somehow beset by lies. Conservative thinking is no longer just beset by conspiracy theories but rather has become a process of generating and sorting conspiracies.

So beyond the general notion that there is a secret truth hidden behind the virus coverage, there is no other consensus. Instead, positions vary wildly sometimes even within the same article by the same person. The positions include:

  • The virus is a hoax and the deaths are just regular flu.
  • The virus is not a hoax and is in fact more deadly than we are being told.
  • The Chinese government is exaggerating the numbers.
  • The Chinese is hiding that the number of deaths is much higher.
  • WHO/governments/media are exaggerating the danger and there is no need to panic as it will all turn out to be nothing. (e.g. former Sad Pup & Tor Boycotter Peter Grant: “I continue to believe that the current “panic stations” response by many to the threat posed by the coronavirus epidemic is overblown.”)
  • Prepare serious doomsday prepping right now. (e.g. same article “We already have sufficient food and essential supplies for a good three months. It’s comforting to have them available, in case local quarantines become necessary.”)
  • It’s not actually a pandemic.
  • It is actually a pandemic but WHO are pretending it isn’t because of reasons.
  • The virus is a Chinese biological weapon released deliberately for reasons (that make no sense obviously).
  • The virus is a Chinese biological weapon released accidentally.
  • The US economy is in serious danger.
  • The US media are just saying that the economy is in danger to hurt Donald Trump.
  • The left are trying to pretend that Trump will impose martial law and cancel elections.
  • Trump should impose martial law and cancel elections (that’s Vox Day in case you were wondering).
  • This is just like {insert past thing: swine flu, SARS, the Y2K bug} and they told us we were all going to die then {they didn’t} and so we needn’t doing anything {ignoring that those past things weren’t an issue because people took them seriously and did stuff}

There are obviously multiple things going on here. Firstly communication among the American right has become predicated on the idea that the news media in general and any kind of government official/civil servant is lying. Of course, “lying” doesn’t tell you a great deal and in that translate to the twin claims that situation is less serious and more serious. The “they are all lying” heuristic that’s been adopted only eliminates the possibility that things are as they appear to be.

Secondly, there is a lot of shotgun punditry going on. In the face of having no actual insights or extra information, a pundit makes multiple (even contradictory) claims. One of them will turn out to be right. Covid-19 is unlikely to be exactly as serious as health experts are saying and hence will either be a bit less serious or a bit more serious with a distribution of scenarios of varying probability spreading out from there. Speculate about enough scenarios and later on you can claim to be prescient.

Thirdly fear and anxiety have become the defining qualities of right-wing thought. You might respond that isn’t everybody feeling fear and anxiety currently and that’s true but the right has adopted free-floating fears as an ideological goal. It’s not so much Orwell’s image of a boot stamping on a human face forever as the dark figure lurking in the shadows behind you forever. Ramping up racial fears is part of the conservative strategy but also finding ways to exploit the crisis to attack immigration.

But fourthly…public health crisis are exactly those kinds of situation where well organised government responses work well. The potential economic fall out are also circumstances were stimulus spending is a smart idea under any moderately coherent economic theory. So the Covid-19 situation is seen as both natural territory (it provokes fear and insular attitudes) and as a ideological threat (because people will look to governmental solutions).

I don’t think will see a simple narrative emerging from the right on Covid-19. It will keep shifting an evolving although the core theme that the media is lying will stay as a constant.

In the meantime, wash your hands.

Today’s quiz: what are the right putting in their bodies?

OK multiple choice question. What surprising thing are the right (from the intellectual dark web to the alt-right) consuming? Is it…

  1. Milk
  2. Bleach
  3. Turpentine
  4. Benzodiazepine
  5. All of the above at the same time
  6. All of the above but at different times

Did you guess 6? Well done!

Milk. This is an old one and the alt-right have been trying to make a point about genetics, race and Europeaness by ostentatiously drinking milk (see https://www.huffingtonpost.com.au/entry/milk-white-supremacy-racism_n_5bffad35e4b0864f4f6a3e28?ri18n=true ) As always their grasp of genetics and evolution is limited.

Bleach. In recent years, the right have been highly vulnerable to quackery to the extent it can be hard to work out who is the con-artist and who is the gullible mark within their ranks. Now they’ve latched on to a quack cure that’s been sold before as a cure for everything from AIDS to cancer. The snake oil is basically bleach and QANON fans have been recommending it as a protection against coronavirus. (https://www.thedailybeast.com/qanon-conspiracy-theorists-magic-cure-for-coronavirus-is-drinking-lethal-bleach?via=newsletter&source=DDMorning ) Needless to say, it isn’t.

Turpentine. Former comic and now main attraction at Vox Day’s streaming service, Owen Benjamin has apparently taken to drinker small amounts of turpentine to cure intestinal parasites. Again, I’ll just note for the record that drinking turpentine is a bad idea. (see here for the history of this toxic habit https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/is-turpentine-medicine )

Benzodiazepine. At least this is a prescribable drug and not a cleaning product. However, it is mildly surprising to discover that Jordan Peterson has been struggling with an apparent addiction to the drug. (http://www.wehuntedthemammoth.com/2020/02/08/jordan-petersons-quest-to-beat-his-addiction-to-klonopin-sent-him-to-russia-and-nearly-killed-him-his-daughter-says/ ) Nothing wrong with taking your prescribed meds but there is something deeply incongruous between Peterson’s actual mental health and his public claims about mental health (his own, other people’s and the best approaches to it). Back in 2018 Peterson and his daughter were championing a meat only diet as a kind of panacea for physical and mental health (https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/stephaniemlee/jordan-peterson-daughter-mikhaila-meat-carnivore-diet )