There seems to be a form of skepticism that seems politically alligned rather than general. It effectively says:
“I am skeptical of claims ‘this group’ is doing particularly badly.”
“I am skeptical that there is, or was, a way of doing better, or thinking better about the problems, than ‘this group’ is doing.”
When this position is consistent, it seems directed and perhaps even partisan – ‘this group’ often becomes ‘my side’, or ‘the group I like’.
We can see it in discussions about climate change, with people making statements that seem to translate as follows:
“I am skeptical that climate change is real, I am skeptical of the data, and I am skeptical of the motivations of climate scientists.”
Which might be fair enough, but these statements often seem coupled with another ‘undoing’ skepticism, which translates as:
“I am skeptical that those denying climate change could be faking, or cherry picking, data, or that they could be funded by the fossil fuel industry, or that this funding could have any consequence whatsoever. I am skeptical of claims that nearly all climate scientists are not socialist conspirators…”
Or in other contexts, we can see statements like:
“I am skeptical of government intervention in the economy. And I am skeptical of claims that free markets do not always deliver the best results, and of claims that free markets do not work the ways they are claimed to, or of claims there is no consensus in economic theory that allows us to categorically state that free markets are ‘best’ for most people….”
We can also see this style of skepticism in claims about the covid pandemic. for example in this New York Times article:
It opens claiming:
“In our actual pandemic, most of the institutions that we associate with public health expertise and trusted medical authority have failed more catastrophically than Trump has.”
I think that, while this claim could be seen as skeptical, it is also open to skepticism. It seems more probable to me that if anyone actually looks at Trump Administration’s behaviour and statements they would find the levels of failure and the refusal to listen to medical advice, pretty exceptional. This administration even pretended the previous administration did not have a plan for early response to emerging infectious disease threats. But then preparation for government was not apparently high on their list of priorities.
It is also not the public health authorities who issue or apply policy and rules, that is the government.
But we can suspend initial disbelief, as it is possible that the article might present lots of evidence, or be uniformly skeptical in more than just bursts….
However, as evidence of the idea that medical authorities have failed more than Trump, we are told that the world health organisation “followed its own political imperatives”
Well yes, what do we expect here? The World Health Organisation is a political body. It is part of the UN. Unless there is a specific reason for distrusting a member government it is probably generally going to accept what it is told, until the situation is overtly desperate, or the government is clearly wrong, otherwise it risks alienating support – a problem apparently demonstrated by the behaviour of Trump administration in attacking the organisation and cutting off US funding.
We are told WHO’s behaviour is corrupt in passing (“Less corruptly but no less disastrously…”) without any apparent skepticism, which is odd because making a mistake, in a constantly shifting new situation, is not always corruption – indeed we are later told (correctly I think) that mistakes are unavoidable. We could, however, be reminded that a certain world leader is busy blaming WHO for his own insistence that there was no problem although he often insists he did not insist that there was no problem.
Casually suggesting WHO is “corrupt” effectively operates to support this leader’s allegations, without any skepticism. Let’s not be skeptical of that leader’s claims, or competence…. let’s take him as truthful….
After all, on the 2nd of February, two days after WHO declared a global emergency, President Trump said:
“We pretty much shut it down coming in from China, We have a tremendous relationship with China, which is a very positive thing. Getting along with China, getting along with Russia, getting along with these countries…… But we can’t have thousands of people coming in who may have this problem, the coronavirus. We’re going to see what happens, but we did shut it down, yes.”Fox News 3rd Feb ‘Coronavirus: President Trump said US authorities ‘shut it down.’ Here’s what that means’ and
On February 24th President Trump praises WHO, tweeting:
The Coronavirus is very much under control in the USA. We are in contact with everyone and all relevant countries. CDC & World Health have been working hard and very smart. Stock Market starting to look very good to me!Twitter
On the 14th April, he says:
“Today I am instructing my administration to halt funding of the World Health Organization while a review is conducted to assess the World Health Organization’s role in severely mismanaging and covering up the spread of the coronavirus,”Remarks by President Trump in Press Briefing 14 May
Sure we can suggest that President Trump made a mistake, but he seems to avoid promoting that position altogether. Likewise, in a perfect world WHO would have behaved better, but it hardly seems to have failed more catastrophically than Trump.
One relevant question is how does it appear that an organisation behaves after it is clear it has not done the best job? If it attempts to get on with doing a better job then probably that is good. If it wastes time seeking to portray itself as blameless by blaming others, or pretending it never made a mistake, then this is probably not so good. That latter kind of organisation may be engaged in the processes we can describe as defense mechanisms, which means it pays more attention to soothing itself than to events.
Anyway, the article proceeds:
“But there is no definite pattern of outsiders being wrong and dangerous and insiders being trustworthy and good”
This somewhat dogmatic position (how is the author determining ‘dangerous’ and ‘good’) is arrived at with only two examples (outside WHO), with no consideration of the number of times that governments ignored medical warnings about the virus, which does seem heavily documented.
This is odd, for a real skepticism…
We then get given the “both sides are equally bad” argument.
This nowadays seems to be a popular argument when the supporters of a side which has done spectacularly badly wishes to diminish the effects of their performance.
In climate change we can occasionally get it in allegations that “both sides have blocked climate change action”. This is news to most people who are in favour of action. It is more correct to say, neither side seems interested in the kind of action which seems necessary, but only one side seems to be actively blocking any action at all. We often get a similar format in Republican claims to Democrats that the Democrats are as neoliberal as the Republicans – a claim not repeated to Republicans. So we get the next statement.
There is no mention that the CDC has been effectively muzzled, marginalised and defunded by the Government, and no mention of how the government’s leaders actively promote not wearing masks, or of how the mask reserves where run down and medical authorities were alarmed at the end of January, when this was realised….
This form of skepticism seems consistently directed rather than universal.
“all of the rules we’re implementing are just rough and ready guesstimates.”
Well I’m not sure some of these rules have not grown out of appearances and experiences – but the suggestion is that we should be more skeptical of all of them, than of those who would dismiss them….
Lets look at how this works again….
“Yes, you should trust Anthony Fauci more than Donald Trump when it comes to the potential benefits of hydroxychloroquine.”
but we negate this immediately…
“if you’re a doctor on the front lines trying to keep your patients from ending up on a ventilator, Dr. Fauci’s level of caution can’t be yours, and you shouldn’t be waiting for the double-blind control trial to experiment with off-label drugs that Spanish and Chinese doctors claim are helping patients.”
So people should really listen to the President before they listen to the medical stories and testings that the drug can harm people…? Let’s be skeptical of Fauci but, in an emergency, not skeptical of Trump.
The article continues:
“Every single reopening will be its own unique experiment, with confounding variables of climate, density, age and genetics that are nearly impossible to model, and the advice of epidemiologists will only go so far. Governors and mayors will have to act like scientists themselves, acting and re-acting, adapting and experimenting, with expert advisers at their shoulders but no sure answers till the experiment begins.”
This is correct – but we are not asked to be skeptical of those officials who say that we should open anyway, or that the disease is going away, when the numbers are increasing. We are not asked to be skeptical that openers will follow this procedure.. Again the skeptical proceedure is directed.
Again we have the issue about ‘opening the economy.’ This is not mentioned in the article, but the political struggle over the opening, and how many people dying is acceptable, is a significant part of the article’s background.
Let us look at Fauci’s responses to questions from the Senate (long sorry):
I get concerned if you have a situation where the dynamics of an outbreak in an area are such that you are not seeing that gradual over 14-day decrease that would allow you to go to phase one. Then if you pass the checkpoints of phase one, go to phase two and phase three. What I’ve expressed then, and again, is my concern that if some areas, city, states, or what have you, jump over those various checkpoints and prematurely open up without having the capability of being able to respond effectively and efficiently, my concern is that we will start to see little spikes that might turn into outbreaks…..
most of us feel that the number of deaths are likely higher than [the reported] number because given the situation, particularly in New York city, when they were really strapped with a very serious challenge to their healthcare system, that there may have been people who died at home who did have COVID, who were not counted as COVID because they never really got to the hospital….
My concern is that as states or cities or regions, their attempt, understandable, to get back to some form of normality, disregard, to a greater or lesser degree, the checkpoints that we put in our guidelines about when it is safe to proceed in pulling back on mitigation. Because I feel if that occurs, there is a real risk that you will trigger an outbreak that you might not be able to control. Which, in fact, paradoxically, will set you back, not only leading to some suffering and death that could be avoided, but could even set you back on the road to trying to get economic recovery….
I have never made myself out to be the end all and only voice in this. I’m a scientist, a physician, and a public health official. I give advice, according to the best scientific evidence. There are a number of other people who come into that and give advice that are more related to the things that you spoke about, about the need to get the country back open again, and economically. I don’t give advice about economic things. I don’t get advice about anything other than public health. So I wanted to respond to that….
we should be humble about what we don’t know. And I think that falls under the fact that we don’t know everything about this virus, and we really better be very careful, particularly when it comes to children. Because the more and more we learn, we’re seeing things about what this virus can do that we didn’t see from the studies in China, or in Europe….
I think we better be careful if we are not cavalier in thinking that children are completely immune to the deleterious effects….
If you think that we have it completely under control, we don’t. I mean, if you look at the dynamics of the outbreak, we are seeing a diminution of hospitalizations and infections in some places such as in New York City, which has plateaued and started to come down, New Orleans. But in other parts of the country, we are seeing spikes. So when you look at the dynamics of new cases, even though some are coming down, the curve looks flat with some slight coming down. So I think we’re going in the right direction, but the right direction does not mean we have, by any means, total control of this outbreak….
it would seem that if you want to keep things like packing plants open, that you really got to provide the optimum degree of protection for the workers involved, the ability to allow them to go to work safely, and if and when individuals get infected to immediately be able to get them out and give her the proper care. So I would think when you’re calling upon people to perform essential services, you really have almost a moral responsibility to make sure they’re well taken care of and well-protected. And again, that’s not an official proclamation. That’s just me speaking as a physician and as a human being.Dr. Anthony Fauci & CDC Director Senate Testimony Transcript May 12
This was President Trump’s response
Q Dr. Fauci yesterday was a little cautious on reopening the economy too soon. Do you share his concerns?
THE PRESIDENT: About reopening what?
Q Reopening the economy too soon, some states.
THE PRESIDENT: Look, he wants to play all sides of the equation. I think we’re going to have a tremendous fourth quarter, I think we’re going to have a transitional third quarter, and I think we’re going to have a phenomenal next year. I feel that we are going to have a country that’s ready to absolutely have one of its best years……
Q Sir, when you say Dr. Fauci is playing both sides, are you suggesting that the advice he’s giving to you is different?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, I was surprised — I was surprised by his answer, actually, because, you know, it’s just — to me, it’s not an acceptable answer, especially when it comes to schoolsMay 13, 2020 Remarks by President Trump in a Meeting with Governor Polis of Colorado and Governor Burgum of North Dakota
And I just want to make something clear. It’s very important: Vaccine or no vaccine, we’re back. And we’re starting the process. And in many cases, they don’t have vaccines, and a virus or a flu comes, and you fight through it. We haven’t seen anything like this in 100-and-some-odd years — 1917. But you fight through it. And people sometimes, I guess — we don’t know exactly yet, but it looks like they become immune, or at least for a short while, and maybe for life. But you fight through it….
And if we don’t, we’re going to be like so many other cases, where you had a problem come in, it’ll go away — at some point, it’ll go away. It may flare up, and it may not flare up. We’ll have to see what happens. But if it does flare up, we’re going to put out the fire, and we’ll put it out quickly and efficiently. We’ve learned a lot….
But again, you know, it’s not solely vaccine-based. Other things have never had a vaccine and they go away. So I don’t want people to think that this is all dependent on vaccine, but a vaccine would be a tremendous thing.May 15: Remarks by President Trump on Vaccine Development
So I ask you which of these positions sounds more dogmatic and less open to unexpected consequences and feedback from the world?
The article continues…
“So if you’re going to find your way out and up to health and safety, you have to be prepared to grope, to stumble, to make your own light, and sometimes to move by feel or instinct through the dark.”
This apparently is similar to the WHO pronouncement on 15 April:
“In the first weeks of January WHO was very, very clear; we alerted the world on January 5th. Systems around the world, including in the US, began to activate their emergency management systems on January 6th and through the next number of weeks we’ve produced multiple updates to countries including briefing multiple governments, multiple scientists around the world on the developing situation – and that is what it was; a developing situation.WHO COVID-19 virtual press conference – 15 April, 2020
The virus was identified on January 7th, the sequence was shared, I think on 12th with the world.”
When we are in a new situation, or facing a new challenge, we cannot say we know the best path for sure. However it is going beyond evidence to assert that past experience and knowledge of similar challenges is as useful as, or less useful than, ignorance and apparent incompetence. Or that experts and non-experts are showing equal levels of catastrophic failure.
So we might also try to be skeptical of skepticism that is so consistently directed.