Summary: COVID-19 teaches us about the propaganda and arrogance that hobble us. The cost in lives and money might be worthwhile if we learn from it and make a better America.
A nation lit only by propaganda
This “it’s China’s fault” campaign (details here and here) is eerily similar to the hysteria whipped up – manufactured – by the US government against Iraq before the 2003 invasion. The press were uncritical cheerleaders. Much of the US public became a mob (or more accurately, a flock). Calmer voices pointed out that the evidence was weak and that we were being manipulated. Manipulated again, as we were with the Tonkin Gulf incident and the invasion of Afghanistan (9/11 was plotted in Germany, with training in Florida).
The same tactics are being used against us again. Again with equally obvious motives – to arouse people against a new Cold War foe (to justify our massive military spending) and distract people’s attention from the massive failures of the Trump administration during the COVID-19 epidemic.
The saddest aspect of these campaigns is how easily our elites stage them. Can a people so easily manipulated and so unwilling to learn from experience govern themselves?
Climate Science to the rescue
Many climate scientists have been vocal during the pandemic, with unsolicited offers of their expertise. For instance, in this article by James Annan (h/t to Climate Etc). Here is the money paragraph.
“We have been doing a very straightforward MCMC calibration of a simple SEIR model (equivalent of energy balance box model in climate science, pretty much). The basic concept is to use the model to invert the time series of reported deaths back through the time series of underlying infections in order to discover the model parameters such as the famous reproductive rate R. It’s actually rather simple and I am still bemused by the fact that none of the experts (in the UK at least) are doing this. I mean what on earth are mathematical epidemiologists actually for, if not this sort of thing? They should have been all over this like a rash.”
Well, something here is like a “rash.” When a layperson is “bemused” that experts are not doing what seems obvious to him, it probably means that he should ask an expert and dial down the self-confidence. In the climate wars, such statements often precede “analysis” showing that there is no greenhouse effect or that the world is totally doomed really soon.
The staff at CDC and WHO frequently discussed this issue that bemused Annan, explaining that R0 is of little use for laypeople. It is a variable, not a model parameter in the sense Annan appears to use it. Rather than being simple to calculate, R0 is complex. It varies by circumstances and can change over time. The CDC often cites a paper saying that it is “easily misrepresented, misinterpreted, and misapplied.”
More broadly, there are many fields using quantitative models (e.g., macroeconomics). Personally, climate scientists are among the last I would consult. The most obvious similarity of climate models to epidemiological models of COVID-19 is the Imperial College model made famous by Prof. Neil Ferguson. Undocumented code, unvalidated, lacking peer-review – but it made headlines and had a massive influence on UK public policy. Although it now appears grossly flawed (as seen in the “actual results don’t matter” justifications), it made him famous and resulted in a shower of grant money.
More broadly, the COVID-19 crisis has followed the same pattern as the public climate wars. Experts are center stage. Then they are displaced by a wider pool of authorities. Then wild claims by laypeople dominate, displacing actual experts (such as those at the IPCC and WHO). The climate wars reached that point after 3 decades. COVID-19 reached that stage in only 14 weeks, as claims that “It Is China’s Fault” increasingly dominate the news. This suggests that our dysfunctional response to major crises results from deeper problems in our society. If not fixed, we might have difficulty coping with more serious threats than COVID-19.