URLs du Jour

2021-01-05

[Amazon Link]

  • At Reason, Katherine Mangu-Ward writes In Defense of COVID Billionaires. Because someone should.

    People love to hate billionaires. And they really love to hate large pharmaceutical companies.

    But at the very least, the last year has complicated the popular narrative that drug manufacturers and businessmen are selfish profit-taking parasites, hoarding wealth at the expense of the sick. Faced with the challenge of the novel coronavirus, big pharmaceutical companies didn't just beat their record for developing a new vaccine. They utterly demolished it. Multiple vaccines have been created and tested in under a year. The previous record was set in the 1960s by the mumps vaccine, which took five times longer.

    The fact that there were numerous firms racing toward many different vaccines wasn't wasteful; it was crucial redundancy on a difficult high-stakes problem where time was of the essence. And one reason so many were able to spin up COVID response efforts quickly is that they were already sitting on giant piles of cash, enormous, expensive labs, and offices full of well-paid scientists, engineers, and strategists.

    I know there are a lot of brave, selfless, first-responding folks out there. Thank them, of course. But you might also give a quick thumbs-up to your local pharma billionaire, as he flies over your town in his private jet on his way to Gstaad or Saint Tropez.


  • [Amazon Link]
    At Persuasion, Jonathan Rauch analyzes The Made-Up Conspiracy. Which I dearly hope will burn itself out soon. Excerpt:

    The political scholars Russell Muirhead and Nancy L. Rosenblum describe this approach in their important 2019 book A Lot of People Are Saying: The New Conspiracism and the Assault on Democracy. Traditional conspiracy theories—claims about staged moon landings or silent mind control—tend to be grand and elaborate, sometimes comically so, weaving tangled narratives that purport to explain everything. The new conspiracism, by contrast, offers no proofs, evidence or theory.

    It “dispenses with the burden of explanation,” write Muirhead and Rosenblum, and it does not necessarily try to be convincing. Rather, it foments confusion, disorientation, cynicism and division. It levels accusations, observes which get traction, then uses their popularity to justify the claim that they might be true. It thus “substitutes social validation for scientific validation: If a lot of people are saying it, to use Trump’s signature phrase, then it is true enough.”

    Trump is a master of this tactic. The “birther” conspiracy theory, which held that Barack Obama had not been born in the United States and thus was not legally the president, was Trump’s route into national politics. Once in office, he repeated and amplified conspiracy theories, no matter how ludicrous or vicious. If many people entertained a notion, he suggested, it should be looked into because—who knows?—it might be true, it probably is true, and anyway you can’t disprove it.

    That book is available at the University Near Here Library. If they ever let us civilians back in there again…


  • At his blog, David Friedman looks at Fauci, Lying, Greyhound Racing, and Trump. Based on Dr. Fauci's recent faux pas of admitting that he's been fudging the truth in his public comments.

    Greyhound racing uses a mechanical rabbit, kept moving ahead of the dogs to give them something to chase. Too close and they might catch it, too far ahead and they might lose interest. The most plausible conjecture I can come up with to explain Fauci’s account of what he is doing is that he is following the same approach. In order to get people to do what he wants, whether that is getting vaccinated or wearing masks, he has to persuade them that it will do some good. If they believe the problem is almost solved, each individual may figure that others will solve it and he can slack off, or may decide to maintain precautions for a little while longer, at which point the pandemic will disappear and he can stop. If, on the other hand, people believe the solution is very far away, it is tempting to give up on it.

    The solution, as for the greyhound race, is to keep adjusting the estimate, subject to what you can get people to believe and how close the rabbit has to be to motivate the dog to run.

    In the short run this approach, like other versions of lying to people for their own good — telling them, early in the pandemic, that masks were useless to them, in order to save masks for medical personnel, or that a lockdown would be only for a few weeks, in order to get people to go along with it — looks attractive, a way of saving lives. In the longer run, it risks persuading an increasing number of people that they should not believe what authority figures tell them.

    I'd say we're well past the point where that's a possible risk.


  • National Review's Jim Geraghty has often floated a Covin origin theory that doesn't rely on Wuhan bat-eating. With Trump on his way out, he notes today that the Lab Leak Hypothesis is getting Strange New Respect. Specifically, New York magazine has an article by Nicholson Baker that plays "what if".

    In other words, the theory suggests that Chinese scientists wanted to study a particularly dangerous version of an existing virus and thus deliberately accelerated a virus’s process of growth and change to generate a more virulent and contagious version of it. Baker notes that SARS-CoV-2 is similar to other viruses found in nature, but more contagious among humans — and asks whether laboratory efforts might explain what makes SARS-CoV-2 so easily spread:

    The zoonoticists say that we shouldn’t find it troubling that virologists have been inserting and deleting furin cleavage sites and ACE2-receptor-binding domains in experimental viral spike proteins for years: The fact that virologists have been doing these things in laboratories, in advance of the pandemic, is to be taken as a sign of their prescience, not of their folly. But I keep returning to the basic, puzzling fact: This patchwork pathogen, which allegedly has evolved without human meddling, first came to notice in the only city in the world with a laboratory that was paid for years by the U.S. government to perform experiments on certain obscure and heretofore unpublicized strains of bat viruses — which bat viruses then turned out to be, out of all the organisms on the planet, the ones that are most closely related to the disease. What are the odds?

    This is a variation of the question that has confronted the skeptics since the beginning. The city of Wuhan had not one but two laboratories — the Wuhan Institute of Virology and the Wuhan Centers for Disease Control — studying coronaviruses that originated in bats. If there were a terrible outbreak of a rare or new virus in Atlanta, Ga., people would understandably wonder if the virus’s local origins had anything to do with the nearby headquarters of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. If someday there is an outbreak of a new, strange, and deadly virus in Frederick, Md., people will understandably wonder if the outbreak has anything to do with the nearby U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick. While it is possible for a naturally occurring virus to coincidentally manifest in the same city as one or more labs known to be researching similar viruses, Occam’s Razor instructs us that when you have two competing theories that make exactly the same predictions, the simpler one is the better.

    You might think it's odd for me to post this so soon after yammering about conspiracy theories. I can live with that.

    Fun fact:

    Baker is pretty blunt about the fact that many scientists have had these suspicions, or at least concerns, since the beginning of the pandemic, but didn’t want to speak publicly about the possibility of a lab accident while the Trump administration was touting the same idea

    Yeah, so this is either a conspiracy theory item, or a don't-trust-the-experts item.


  • Back to election trutherism. Rich Lowry claims (in the NYPost: The call to Georgia's secretary of state was Trump at his absolute worst. That's a high bar to clear but…

    Trump was repetitive and ill-informed. He had no idea what charges had been ­debunked weeks ago. He didn’t, or couldn’t, distinguish between true and false information. He was fuzzy on the details of his own legal case. He retailed conspiracy theories about ballots being burned and voting machines being ­removed that would be embarrassing if your uncle shared them on Facebook.

    The only thing that mattered to him was getting Raffensperger to pronounce him the winner — legal process and truth be damned.

    The problem with Trump has always been his highly personal view of the presidency, wherein institutions, constitutional principles and sheer propriety take a backseat to the felt needs of his ego.

    I can only hope that otherwise sensible people realize that getting into bed with Trump was a dreadful mistake. Sooner rather than later.