The Relative Scale of Stupidity: The Scientific-Industrial Complex

President Trump has once against exposed his ignorance on questions of science. He wondered aloud if there was a way to disinfect lungs savaged by pneumonia. It’s the scandal du jour. While Lysol is warning people not to drink their cleaning products, the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) has had to issue a message to seniors not to avoid the ER for life-threatening conditions. The overblown claims of journalists, politicians, doctors, and scientists have the elderly so petrified that they’re now avoiding hospitals. Why isn’t that a scandal? 

A handful of individuals drinking fish tank cleaner or injecting themselves with disinfectant hurts far fewer people than have been and continue to be hurt by the shuttering of society. It helps to have a sense of proportion when considering the relative scale of stupidity. We could dwell forever and always on Trump’s ignorance (a lot of people do), but what ought to be more concerning are the many experts with their wild projections and damaging prescriptions for dealing with SARS-CoV-2. They did not suggest looking into whether doctors can disinfect lungs. They terrified the public with apocalypse. How did they get it so wrong?

Three major scientific studies have shown that the dangers of SARS-CoV-2 to be overblown. And not by a little. A Stanford University study of antibodies in a large sample of Santa Clara, California residents found the rate of infection to be 50-85 times greater than confirmed cases. A similar study of Los Angeles County, with a similarly large sample, estimated that SARS-CoV-2 infections are 28 to 55 times higher than the confirmed cases Los Angeles County reported at the time of the study. A third study using the same methods estimated that at least 2.7 million New Yorkers have had the virus, far more than those who have tested positive for the virus. These studies indicate that virus is likely no deadlier than the flu, yet the media continues to dwell on false projections and distorted death tolls while mocking the president (who is not a scientist).

ER Physician Drops Multiple COVID-19 Bombshells

Several weeks ago, Neil Ferguson, a mathematical epidemiologist at Imperial College, warned that the United Kingdom’s health service would be overwhelmed with severe cases of COVID-19 and face more than 500,000 deaths if the government took no action. Using the same model, he warned that, with no action, the United States might face 2.2 million deaths. His report prompted Prime Minister Boris Johnson and President Donald Trump to lock down their respective society (although the United States, its structure rooted in federalism, saw wide variability in measures across the country). Our societies are still locked down even after it is clear that these Ferguson’s modeling was wrong. Why isn’t this a scandal?

Some will claim that the lockdown derailed the projections. After all, Ferguson’s model makes these predictions if no action was taken. Great Britain and the United States too action. That the projections did not pan out proves that the actions taken worked. (Good luck, Mr. Trump, receiving any credit for it.)

But the claim that the lockdown altered the trajectory enjoys little evidence. Wilfred Reilly is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Kentucky State University has examined the data and finds no support for the claim that the lockdown played a role in derailing the projections. Using a linear regression model, he found no statistically significant difference between states with stringent restrictions (shelter-in-place orders) over against those with less or without stringent restrictions. (From mark 11:19, listen to The Covid Culture Wars.) Tucker Carlson delivered probably the best commentary during this entirely silly season on the lack of evidence supporting stringent restrictions.

Are coronavirus lockdowns working?

We can see how this happened. But why did this happen? I am still formulating my opinion, but somebody recently asked me what is to be gained by throwing the world into economic depression. Who benefits? That is a great question. Fear facilitates the entrenchment and expansion of police and surveillance powers. In effect, the COVID-19 pandemic has been used as a stress test for popular acceptance of authoritarian government. The public has passed the test with flying colors, enthusiastically indicating their willingness to accept house arrest with little resistance. Many even see shelter-in-place as a virtue and eagerly report those who violate the order to the police. A nation of Gahan Wilson’s snitchy dolls. These attitudes spell the end of a robust defense of democracy and civil liberties. Remember when we were warned that Trump would bring fascism to America? It is remarkable, then, that it’s the left that is demanding the authoritarian clampdown on the free expressions and movement of people.

The calamity suggest more than exposing the stealth authoritarianism of leftwingers. Economic crisis concentrates power in the hands of governments and wealth in financial institutions. It’s not as if governments driving up unemployment to drive down wages, disrupting rising affluence and its associated consciousness, is a new thing. One only has to reflect on the steps made in the 1960s to expose native-born American workers to cheap foreign labor, or recall that, under Reagan, the Federal Reserve under Paul Voelker (rewarded for his judgment with the highest position at the World Bank) threw the US economy into a deep recession in order to deflate the economy and wreck organized labor. Global financial institutions fund projects in poor countries expecting these countries to default on the loan and then use their predicted failure as leverage to dismantle social supports and privatize public infrastructure and natural resources. The generation of enormous debt to justify structural adjustment projects is a triumph of neoliberalism. At this point, derailing the transatlantic populist movements, whose leaders also fell for the absurd projections fed to them, is a priority. It’s the same with war. The United States government lies its way into catastrophic war, wrecks economies, spends trillions, kills and maims millions. And so on. Benefits accrue to powerful entities and people in the midst of calamity. All this is uncontroversial. These are the gales if creative destruction. One doesn’t need to suppose a grand plan, of course; these are functions of calamity.

As for Trump, he should avoid speculating about scientific matters from the podium. The president is not a scientifically-minded person. His questions were imprudent, musings that are better asked in the meetings before the press briefings. But is this really a surprise? What did people think the president knew about such matters? Hearing reports of light and chemical agents killing the virus he wondered aloud if something like that can be done in humans. But it is disingenuous to suggest that he was telling the public to drink bleach or inject Lysol. Reflecting on his utterances, Trump clarified that he was riffing off of what others had said. It was obvious he misunderstood some of it. For their part, the media paraphrased what he said, inserted words, amplified others, and manufactured a confabulation to make it appear as if the president was telling the public to drink bleach and inject Lysol. 

The confabulation was generated on the fly, exploiting words actually uttered by Bill Bryan, Under Secretary for Science and Technology at DHS. “We’ve tested bleach, we’ve tested isopropyl alcohol on the virus, specifically in saliva or in respiratory fluids, and I can tell you that bleach will kill the virus in five minutes,” Bryan said He continued, “Isopropyl alcohol will kill the virus in 30 seconds, and that’s with no manipulation, no rubbing. Just bring it on and leaving it go. You rub it and it goes away even faster.” He then added, “We’re also looking at other disinfectants, specifically looking at the COVID-19 virus in saliva.” He also said, “Our most striking observation to date is the powerful effect that solar light appears to have on killing the virus, both surfaces and in the air. We’ve seen a similar effect with both temperature and humidity as well, where increasing the temperature and humidity or both is generally less favorable to the virus.”

The president said, “So, I’m going to ask Bill a question that probably some of you are thinking of if you’re totally into that world, which I find to be very interesting. So, supposing when we hit the body with a tremendous, whether it’s ultraviolet or just very powerful light, and I think you said that hasn’t been checked, but you’re going to test it. And then I said supposing you brought the light inside the body, which you can do either through the skin or in some other way. And I think you said you’re going to test that too. Sounds interesting. And then I see the disinfectant, where it knocks it out in a minute, one minute. And is there a way we can do something like that by injection inside or almost a cleaning? Because you see it gets in the lungs and it does a tremendous number on the lungs, so it’d be interesting to check that, so that you’re going to have to use medical doctors with, but it sounds interesting to me. So, we’ll see, but the whole concept of the light, the way it kills it in one minute. That’s pretty powerful.”

Most of what Trump was interested in is the possibility of light therapy. He’s not off base here, but I don’t have time to get into the benefits of light on disease. But it’s the disinfectant piece the press would key on. Within moments, ABC News reporter Jon Karl asked Bryan, “The president mentioned the idea of a cleaner, bleach and isopropyl alcohol emerging. There’s no scenario where that could be injected into a person, is there?” As is plain from the president’s comments, he said noting about bleach or isopropyl alcohol. Indeed, he almost immediately clarified his remarks: “It wouldn’t be through injections, you’re talking about almost a cleaning and sterilization of an area. Maybe it works, maybe it doesn’t work, but it certainly has a big effect if it’s on a stationary object.” He then raised the possibility of whether UV rays could kill the coronavirus if it was on a person’s skin, in particular if it were on their hands. “If they’re outside, right, and their hands are exposed to the sun, will that kill it as though it were a piece of metal or something else?”

The spin was immediate and relentless. “The president appeared to be suggesting at one point that you can inject disinfectants into people to kill the coronavirus,” CNN’s Jim Acosta said; “We want to caution everybody at home, please don’t do that, please don’t follow the president’s medical advice here.” Nobody thinks Trump is a physician giving medical advice. He did not suggest injecting disinfectants into people. He wondered whether it was a possibility. Charity and accuracy are not virtues wildly held. Jake Maccoby, a former speech writer for the Justice Department under Obama, tweeted that Trump “told people to drink bleach.” Rob Flaherty of Biden for President tweet that “this election is a choice between two competing visions for America [sic]: one that says ‘you should drink bleach to cure viruses’ and another that says ‘do not drink bleach.’”

If the press were not motivated to use these briefings (and every other opportunity) to delegitimize the Trump presidency, then they would have accurately reported what he said and contextualized his remarks. The questions and reporting would have been charitable and responsible in emphasizing the important findings concerning UV light and disinfectants, all of which got lost in the churn of the feeding frenzy—along with critical questions concerning how badly authorities and experts got this thing wrong. Again, read the transcript. Did the president say “bleach” or “Lysol”? Did he say people should drink fish tank cleaner? Remember when the media wanted to blame Trump for that death  after he talked about the potential benefits of chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine, a pair of drugs that have been used in the treatment of malaria since the 1940s?

Trump’s problem has always been that he is incurious about many things, while at the same time supremely confident in public intercourse. This combination increases the probability that the president will say things that come to his mind without reflecting on how they sound. Like many narcissists, Trump is a victim of his own hubris. But the president’s personality and style shouldn’t be used as a cover by the media to not do real reporting or to distract the public from good news concerning the virus.

However astonishing Trump musings can be (I had fun with it by recalling the Star Trek episode where Mr. Spock is blinded by bright light to rid his body of a giant virus-like creature), we have to stay focused on the problem: the failure of the media to hold authorities and experts accountable for their reckless treatment and misuse of the science to expand and entrench authoritarian structures. The media hasn’t asked the most important questions because they are gleeful over exercising their power to compel the government to throw people out of work and lock them up in their homes. They’re reveling in their ability to manipulate the public. We’re now in the throes of global depression and the obsession is over a series of questions Trump asked his team from the podium. The media plays a central role in manufacturing the fear that persuades the majority to submit to totalitarian desire. The president’s musings become an intentional distraction in this context.

The media are sowing chaos and confusion. To criticize the press for obsessing over this and for not asking actual critical questions of the government concerning why the scientific-industrial complex got this so wrong is not only a fair criticism to make, it is the criticism we have to make if we’re going to get out from under the massive error, an error for which Trump is, along with the leaders of many other countries, responsible. But the media want that error to continue. They’re not going to ask those critical questions. Effective at first, these task force briefings have become a shit show. Trump should stop holding them or at least appearing at them.

I recognize that the perception of Trump as an idiot is so deeply ingrained in the minds of those who loathe the president that charity in interpretation or refusal to feed the frenzy by piling on will be seen as a rationalization. I did not vote for the president nor will I. I agree with many of his policies (restrictions on immigration and bringing our troops home are chief among them). Joe Biden is certainly not a more desirable alternative. So let me emphasize my opinion that what the president said was ignorant and imprudent. I publicly said so right after he said it. My point is that’s comments are being distorted and used to undermine his presidency and distract the public from the questions the press should be asking.

“Fox News Sunday” host Chris Wallace said on Friday that the state of Maryland emergency hotline had received more than 100 calls from people asking whether it was safe for them to drink a disinfectant. Does it occur to anybody that progressives are smart enough to organize a campaign to call the emergency hotline and ask if it was safe to drink disinfectant in order to manufacture the appearance of a reckless president? If you haven’t considered that possibility, then you are naive about the character of modern propaganda.

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Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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