Thursday, August 13, 2020

Coronavirus, philosophy, the noble lie, and the
real problem with Dr. Fauci (and his defenders)

The noble lie, of course, begins with Plato in The Republic. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy's entry on The Republic has more depth.

Its most destructive recent version has been in Straussian economics, and more broadly, Straussian neoconservativism.

That said, its latest proponent was Dr. Anthony Fauci. Only, unlike Plato or Straus, his noble lie was not deployed in the service of political leadership. It was more noble yet, but like all noble lies, both a lie and a lie whose attempt at nobility eventually backfired.

You don't have to go to wingnut websites to find that Fauci did, in the early days of coronavirus, say that masks don't work. Snopes, which in its attempt to go beyond skepticism to political fact-checking, has largely put its oar in the waters of the Democratic half of America's two duopoly parties, calls his claim "outdated." And, this is nothing but high-grade hypocrisy from Snopes.

There's three real options. Either he said it (as he did) and it's "true"; he didn't say it, and it's "false"; or it can't be determined and it's "unknown." NOT "outdated."

And, we know he said it.

Sadly, Snopes isn't the only defender of Fauci. (And, these defenders often have their own political tribalisms; BlueMAGA is as tribalist as MAGA). Snopes certainly does, and that's why, when it went beyond true/not true factchecking at the start of the Trump era, I delisted it. As for more on what those defenders are getting wrong, even in the science world, see this update at bottom.

Meanwhile, there's worse. Only four weeks ago, Business Insider reported that Fauci STILL STOOD BY telling the "noble lie."

Here's what he said:

"I don't regret anything I said then because in the context of the time in which I said it, it was correct. We were told in our task force meetings that we have a serious problem with the lack of PPEs and masks for the health providers who are putting themselves in harm's way every day to take care of sick people," Fauci told O'Donnell.

This is just like Plato, or Straus ... or do I go Godwin's Law?

Doubling down on the original noble lie with a lie about it.

You tell the truth.

Like, maybe, saying something like this:
Dear America: We don't know how serious the novel coronavirus will be, but information from many places in the world shows this is indeed more serious than the flu. Unfortunately, we have a shortage of surgical masks at this time. Our national leaders are doing everything they can to address this. So, at this time, in weeks ahead, we are asking you to take an abundance of caution when venturing outdoors.
But Fauci's refusal to admit he was wrong makes the noble lie that "noble." When one doubles down on a lie like that, then it's really the "noble lie."

In addition? China was recommending masks even for people with low infection risk at the time Fauci said, "nahh."

Update, Aug. 23: There's also the fact that Zeynep Tufekci, on Twitter, was calling out Fauci et al AT THE TIME he made his original statements, per this NYT piece. Extracts from it are worth reading:
Public health officials seem to have had an ulterior motive when they told citizens that masks were useless: They were trying to stave off a run on protective gear that could have made it unavailable for the health care workers who needed it. Ms. Tufekci’s faith in human nature has led her to believe that the government should have trusted citizens enough to level with them, rather than jeopardize its credibility with recommendations it would later overturn. 
“They didn’t trust us to tell the truth on masks,” she said. “We think of society as this Hobbesian thing, as opposed to the reality where most people are very friendly, most people are prone to solidarity.”

There you go. As I note below, and did so in sending a link to this blog post in response to her Tweet, it's possible, even likely, that coronavirus denialists and conspiracy theorists would have found other things to fuel their bubble views. But, more fuel for the fire is never good. (And, in that sense, I'm less optimistic than she was in her original column for the NYT calling out Fauci et al.) And, a sidebar to her: Good luck at The Atlantic. If you really believe in Zapatista Solidarity, aren't you at the wrong spot?

And, saying that Fauci wasn't the only one saying "nahh"? Pointing to Surgeon General Jerome Adams and others? "Just following the herd" isn't THAT different at times from "just following orders."

In addition, a herd telling a noble lie makes it worse by amplification, which then can open the doors to fallacious appeals to authority. (As far as I know, Fauci, Adams and others have never had serious training in medical ethics, or larger sociological ethics, therefore, as opposed to actual medical science issues, an appeal to them on "no masks" would be fallacious.)

As for the damage?

It's quite likely coronavirus denialists and conspiracy theorists would have found other things to fuel their bubble views. But, more fuel for the fire is never good. And, Greg Ip says encouraging early mask wearing might have helped nuance lockdowns and other strategies more selectively, early in the "game." That said, per that WSJ link, we need to be careful about thinking that Sweden's numbers showed that herd immunity worked. Rather, Swedes may may have heard enough in the news about how bad things were in their country and started masking up, started having businesses require masks, etc. And, Ip's info from JP Morgan claiming Sweden's economy suffered less than its Nordic neighbors? Business Insider says that's simply untrue.

Sadly, this untruth is even percolating among people who should know better. "Orac" of his own nom de plume and now part of the gang at Science Based Medicine, made this claim, or at least left himself open to interpretation as making that claim, Nov. 16.

Anthony Fauci, Deborah Birx, and others tried to emphasize responses to the pandemic based on the best public health science. …Messaging on masks early in the pandemic was borderline disastrous, such as when the main message being promoted was that people probably shouldn’t wear masks routinely unless they were sick. … Unlike Fauci, however, Trump refused to change his mind when evidence had by June become pretty definitive.

Sadder yet, this is a 2020 installation of what Orac has done at least one year in the past — a blog post about scientists trying to communicate science messaging to the general public within the American political world.

And, sadder, sadder yet, Orac ignores the February message out of China.

We'd all at least had a shot of being better off, and certainly couldn't have been worse off, both on getting a clear masking message early on AND a clear seriousness message early on, if Fauci had just said: "Masks help prevent the spread of coronavirus. We aren't sure how much they help, but we know they help. Right now, they're most needed by our medical personnel, but any substitute for them is better than nothing," we'd all be well off. After all, Gizmodo ran its DIY masks piece April 6, and notes it was just a week after the CDC issued a masks call.

And, Tufecki's Tweet? MARCH FIRST.


Update: Fauci has since this time admitted engaging in a SECOND noble lie, this one over the percentage of Americans who need either vaccination or previous contraction of the disease to provide "herd immunity."

Let's also not forget that, even as other medical experts, and emerging sociological experts like Tufekci, said otherwise, Fauci in March 2020 also DID utter "just the flu" statements.

Was Fauci better than Trump? Yes. My left butt cheek is better than Trump. But, #BlueAnon / #BlueMAGA tribalism, including that of Snopes, can't hide the facts.

Update 2, June 1, 2021: Fauci's now been busted, under emails obtained by BuzzFeed in an FOIA request, of having spread his original Noble Lie about masks privately already in late February of 2020. Sadly, BuzzFeed engaged in its own tribalism by which emails it chose to focus on for its story, promoting Fauci hagiography rather than his lies about masks — or his hints that, just maybe, the virus DID come from a lab leak at the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

If Fauci had any integrity, as well as political responsibility, he'd at least resign as Biden's special medical advisor at a minimum. At a maximum, he'd also step down from NSAID as well. And, BuzzFeed, if it had any sense of journalistic ethics, would do a second story. Somehow, I don't think either one would happen.

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