The evolution of the Covid scare resembles the climate scare speeded up about forty times. From panic, to an appeal to the experts, to the worship of expertise, to the hounding of heretics, all in ten months.
Reading Toby Young’s excellent Lockdown Sceptics site, one sees the first puzzled reactions of decent people bewildered by the reaction to their scepticism: the ad hominem arguments; the straw men; the misrepresentation of their position as denialism, the psychological projection, etc., – in other words all the insults and false arguments that climate sceptics have been putting up with for decades.
Lockdown Sceptics does the job that BishopHill did formerly – pointing our interesting news items, spelling out their implications, and linking to the relevant sources. Like Andrew Montford, Toby Young is not an expert, but an open-minded libertarian who values expertise and provides us with the tools for forming our own judgement.
Since last week there’s an anti-sceptic site aimed specifically at countering Lockdown Sceptics and the journalists and scientists it supports: Anti-Virus: the Covid-19 FAQ Like its climate equivalent SkepticalScience, it fires its first broadside at a straw man in its title. Just as SkepticalScience suggests that climate sceptics are not real sceptics, and that it alone represents true scepticism, so the title of the site seems to suggest that the sceptics whose views they are attacking are somehow not anti-virus.
However, their programme as outlined in their opening article is eminently reasonable, and they promise to correct errors if they occur. For a start they agree to call us sceptics, and not anything nastier. And they go to the bother of explaining that:
This isn’t to say that they’re necessarily sceptical of the existence of the coronavirus – but they are often sceptical about its effects.
So far the site consists of a list of thirteen “Common Covid Sceptic Claims Debunked” with summaries of the arguments and counter-arguments, and the names of twelve Covid Sceptics, with quotes of supposed mistakes and wrong predictions.
“Debunked” is obviously a strong claim, since they admit in the very first article (on the claim that the Infection Fatality Ratio is very low) that the situation is developing, and that no final judgements are possible. For “debunked” read “challenged,” and the claim becomes justified. But a challenge is not an answer in the sense required by the FAQ in the title, but rather an invitation to debate. Andthere’s no sign that debate is part of their programme.
The section on sceptics consists of quotes from sceptics (academics and journalists) which are either questionable or have turned out to be untrue. Of course, it would be possible to do exactly the same thing for scientists and journalists supporting the official position. Again, laying out the errors on both sides and adjudicating between them would be an interesting exercise. But that’s not what the site is about.
Five days after the launch of the site, the Guardian has an article about it,and this is where the fun begins. It’s by senior reporter Archie Bland. Of the twenty articles he’s written so far this year, three are critical of Toby Young, and one is critical of Lord Sumption, so we know what to expect. The title: “The information warriors fighting ‘robot zombie army’ of coronavirus sceptics” says it all.
The first four paragraphs of the article are about the fact that lockdown sceptics use smiley emojis a lot. The rest of the article contains nothing in the way of a refutation of the views of lockdown sceptics, but much that will be familiar to readers here.
When you tweet anything to dispute these claims, they come after you endlessly,” said Ritchie. “…They make the same discredited arguments over and over again. It’s like a robot zombie army.”
“Their story always shifts,” said Neil O’Brien, the MP who is one of the progenitors of the group…
“I think you can see that the government is indirectly influenced by [lockdown sceptics],” said Sam Bowman, director of competition policy at the International Center for Law and Economics and another of those behind the site… “These arguments begin on the fringes and get into newspapers and then get regurgitated by backbenchers, but the people behind them are not accountable.”
Zombie arguments repeated endlessly, or constantly changing arguments that aren’t anything like the arguments that have been made previously, with a huge and unjustifiable influence on policy – where have we heard this before? It can only be a matter of time (minutes, possibly) before Professor Lewandowsky regurgitates his Alice in Wonderland paper to prove that Covid sceptics are just a pack of cards endlessly contradicting themselves by constantly saying the same old things that are different from what other people have already said. What do sceptics think they’re up to? Trying to start a debate?
Bowman claims to have bested journalist Julia Hartley Brewer in a Twitter discussion, based on the fact that he got 126,000 Likes. (“It’s sort of sad that the most successful thing I’ll ever do in my life is owning a Telegraph columnist,” he said.) Now that’s what I call a knockdown argument.
There is no appeal to scientific evidence in the article. Instead it offers this curious criticism of sceptics:
…the claims of the sceptics, who are fond of opaque references to the infection fatality rate (IFR), serological surveys, and polymerase chain reaction tests, … critics say, persistently misrepresent scientific reality.
“Opaque references” to .. science. How dare they?
Another of the site’s founders, Stuart Ritchie, lecturer at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience at King’s College London says of the purpose of the site:
“The ambition is not for Toby Young to tweet, ‘actually I was wrong.’ They’re in an ideological system where they’re not interested in a real debate. It’s for the person who hears someone say something bizarre, and thinks, I don’t know how to reply to that.”
As with Skeptical Science, the purpose of Anti-Virus is not to promote debate, because the other side is not interested in debate. Projection, or what? Ritchie is not a lecture at an institute of Psychiatry for nothing. The purpose seems rather to be to furnish pre-cooked arguments to the supporters of the official line.
The Guardian article ends with a torrent of non-sequiturs:
With claims of massive failings in the scientific consensus looking increasingly outlandish in the face of a grimly rising death count, there are signs that the sceptics are recalculating. Besides retweets, [Telegraph journalist] Pearson has remained largely quiet on social media since a row after she threatened to sue a critic at the beginning of January; Young admitted on Newsnight he had been wrong to write that “the virus has all but disappeared” in June, and was the subject of an IPSO ruling finding that a Telegraph column was “significantly misleading”. Heneghan and Gupta, whose names appeared in the Telegraph and Mail 137 times last year before Johnson announced a Christmas lockdown on 19 December, have been mentioned just four times since then.
According to the above paragraph, “a grimly rising death count” (the worst per capita in the world) makes the criticisms of sceptics “look increasingly outlandish.” And the fact that one sceptic has been quiet on social media; that another has apologised for being wrong; and that the Mail has published the names of a couple of scientists less often than before: all these are “signs that the sceptics are recalculating.”
It’s a masterly piece of Guardian reasoning. “Comment is free, but facts are sacred,” as the Graun boasts on its site. But no matter how sacred the facts, a Guardian writer can always mangle them into a piece of sophistry that allows his comments to wander free of any relation to reality.
It’s always possible that the Guardian has grossly distorted the nature of Anti-Virus by selective quoting. Maybe they’re not really about silencing people who have an unjustifiably large influence. Maybe they’re willing to challenge sceptics directly on their “opaque references to the infection fatality rate (IFR), serological surveys, and polymerase chain reaction tests..” Maybe they’ll debate. Maybe they’re not at all like RealClimate and SkepticalScience. Let’s see.