Flat White

The dishonesty of the political class

12 August 2021

4:00 AM

12 August 2021

4:00 AM

Good public policy-making requires a wide swathe of opinions being stirred in the cauldron of competing ideas. The jurisdiction in which ‘yes men’ with one monolithic view surround the ultimate decision-makers does worse than the jurisdiction where divergent views from across the spectrum are heard. Many will be rejected, but they will be heard. If a sort of ‘only accepted opinion can be heard’ ethos arises then you get really bad policies, in part because honesty gets sacrificed to help further the approach that is deemed to be ‘correct’. I think history shows that. I also think much of the Western democratic world has lived through just that sort of lousy policy-making and unwillingness to tell its citizens the blunt truth these past 16 months of the pandemic. 

Take vaccines for those under 25 (and given the current climate I had best come straight out and say that yes, I have had my first AZ jab and the second is soon to come). The evidence out of the United States is that for those under 25 who catch Covid and are not vaccinated their chances of dying are a bit less than 1 in a million. That’s less than the odds of dying from the seasonal flu for them. It’s less than the chances of dying from being hit by lightning. And it is way, way less than the chances of dying in a car. 

In most of the democratic world, and certainly here in Australia, the public health class and the politicians suppress that fact at all costs. Because if it got out we might ask ‘why should the young be vaccinated?’. No matter how politically incorrect or unacceptable in nature, surely that’s a fair question. The answer would appear to be ‘they are being asked to vaccinate not for their own benefits (these are next to zero, if honesty means anything) but for the benefits of the very old and otherwise already sick or obese’.

Now that might be a persuasive answer for you; certainly it is for the Peter Singers of the world, all the utilitarians. I just note here that I spent seven years when working in New Zealand on a university ethics committee. If anyone tried to advance that sort of utilitarian claim – that person X must be massively incentivized to take a treatment in order to help person Y not X – it would have been rejected on the spot. Rightly or wrongly, and I have some sympathy for the utilitarian outlook at times, there is no chance at all it would get through. 

So, if that is what we are asking young people to do then why shouldn’t we be honest about it? Isn’t suppressing that a sort of, you know, prevarication or outright lie? Heck, the US data seems also to show that for those under fifty it takes some 50,000 of them to be infected for one to die. For the vast majority of the population, Covid is a bad flu and very, very, very unlikely to kill you. Full stop. But that fact is hidden from citizens relentlessly. Yes, for the elderly and already quite ill Covid can be a very, very dangerous disease indeed. Nevertheless, public health types and many doctors – not all doctors, as the myriad who signed the Great Barrington Declaration shows – come close to outright lying to people in trying to perpetuate a picture where Covid is equally lethal to all and sundry. 

Two things follow from this.  One is that much of the press becomes an echo chamber.  Committed to the official line it is not willing to give a voice to those who diverge from orthodoxy (the SpecOz being one of a very few exceptions). So most citizens do not hear that ‘no lockdown for the past eight months Florida’ has a far, far lower deaths per million count than does the world’s second-toughest lockdown jurisdiction of New York State. Or that Florida (and lockdown-shunning Texas for that matter) scores about the same as the deaths per million in the other hard lockdown US State of California. But Florida and Texas have much lower unemployment and no shuttered small businesses. Why the silence on that? 

Or why is it that Sweden, the bete noir of all the hard lockdown proponents, now has a deaths per million tally that is lower than over half of all those lockdown mad European countries, and achieved this without destroying any small businesses or without spending hundreds of millions of dollars per life saved as we have?  And did you know that right now, as I write this, wide-open, never-having-locked-down Sweden has basically zero Covid deaths?  Rightly or wrongly, and if this matters to you, that all was the result of decisions taken by a Swedish epidemiologist with credentials miles better than those of any chief health officer in this country. (And for those who try to deflect here and say, the other three Nordic countries have a lower deaths per million tally than Sweden then notice that Australia looks no better than Taiwan, where brutal lockdowns were shunned. You can’t have it both ways. And those other Nordic countries’ lockdowns were very light compared to ours.) 

My point here is that these sort of uncomfortable facts need to be discussed openly in the public arena. Right now in Australia much of the press and nearly all of the politicians are in the business of scaring people senseless, with claims that cannot be cashed out. That leads to two possibilities. One is that for a small slice of the population, non-epidemiologist people like me who spend chunks of the day now reading the data from around the world and even a fair few boring peer-reviewed studies, we simply no longer trust the politicians, the public health advisors or much of the press. All they do, we think, is selectively to recite the evidence most sympathetic to their orthodox view and ignore (make that try to suppress) all the contrasting evidence – evidence they know is out there.  

How many readers know that in mid-July when Boris more or less opened up Britain some 1,200 scientists and the whole of the SAGE body advising the British government prophesied catastrophe and signed a letter making apocalyptic predictions of immediate surges in cases, hospitalisations and deaths that have proven to be laughably wrong. Make that laughably wrong — on steroids. Shouldn’t that fallibility of these real-life modellers and advisors be publicised?  Shouldn’t we try to understand why they got it so palpably wrong? 

The other possibility that flows from stifling competing views (and let’s remember that Big Tech is censoring even elected politicians around the West, including here in Australia, not to mention that it spent a year totally suppressing any claims that Covid resulted from a lab leak which is now the odds-on favourite explanation readers) is that the preponderance of citizens believe all the distortions and exaggerated fear porn and have no clue about their real risks. 

Surveys show people being wrong by two orders of magnitude as regards their actual chances of dying from Covid, which is astounding but probably not an unintended outcome in the planning of all the ‘nudge’ advisors.  (More than a few surveyed responders think it’s 30 per cent, when for the median person the risk of Covid death is under 0.3 per cent.)  That’s why far too many Australians are prepared to dob in neighbours, to support endless lockdowns, to turn a blind eye to shameful heavy-handedness by the police, and implicitly to sign off on the worst inroads on our civil liberties in two centuries.  With people that scared it is no easy task to get back to normal. 

Honesty matters. So does input from competing views. I spent a couple of years way back when teaching a course on the philosophy of science. I can tell you that ‘science’ is not equivalent to what some civil servant public health doctor announces nor is it ever settled. Nor is it resolved by experts voting, by how many epidemiologists are in this corner versus that – though in the anti-lockdown corner let me remind readers there are world-class ones from Oxford University, Stanford, Harvard and more.  If you doubt me think about Newtonian physics which for well over two centuries looked to be as solidly correct as any scientific claims ever made, until Einstein disabused us of that. Or think about ulcers and how nearly the entire medical class thought they were the result of stress, until an Australian (I think) iconoclast proved that was wrong.  Would he be censored today by YouTube and rubbished by our chief medical officers without a hearing?  

We desperately need to stop stifling views in this country that go against the Covid lockdown orthodoxy. It is now patently plain that such orthodox policies and prescriptions have been weighed and found wanting.  It is equally plain that politicians keen on re-election will never admit they erred in any way, though I’m betting this lockdown mania will go down in history as the biggest public policy fiasco of the last century at least. 

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