Fallacies in argument were a compulsory part of my Year 12 English course in Victoria in the late Sixties. We learnt about straw men and red herrings, ad hominem attacks, appeals to authority and more. In hindsight I’d add a popular new category: failure to engage. Many ‘debates’ now take place at cross-purposes, where key points are never answered but just ignored and deflected, with all the agility of Neo in The Matrix dancing on the walls to avoid being hit by bullets.
In climate science, warmists don’t bother arguing about sensitivity and CO2 feedbacks, skipping straight to renewables and the next mad carbon target. Podcaster Joe Rogan argued precisely this point recently with atmospheric scientist Andrew Dessler, who refused to debate the science (‘settled’, dontcha know?) but he was happy to talk about policy. Pressed, he explained that a previous debate on science with top Harvard sceptic Richard Lindzen was ‘terrible’, (i.e. he’d lost) and he’d vowed never to do it again. Closer to home, examples of failure to engage arrive daily, a recent one being the Australian Electoral Commission saying it is already working with social media companies to take down electoral ‘misinformation’ in the coming poll, on issues such as postal voting security and bias. What could possibly go wrong?
US Covid policy also seems to have been a prime example of failure to engage, according to Trump advisor, radiologist and Harvard academic Scott Atlas, whose book A Plague Upon Our House, mounts a damning account of public health workings at the highest level. He writes about arriving at Covid Task Force meetings with Drs Anthony Fauci and Deborah Birx, armed with the latest scientific findings to review policies such as lockdowns and mask mandates, only for the top health bureaucrats to refuse to engage. Although others would later privately congratulate Atlas for ‘speaking up’, Fauci and Birx stonewalled with dismissive references to their own experts, ultimately refusing to attend meetings with Atlas, sidelining and undermining him. He quit after only a few months. Privately Birx accused Atlas of ‘cherry-picking data from non-peer reviewed Covid publications’. Atlas said he was stunned that ‘Fauci did not present scientific research on the pandemic to the group that I witnessed. Likewise, I never heard him speak about his own critical analysis of any published research studies’. Similarly, the UK government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies modeler Professor Mark Woolhouse has just released a book The Year The World Went Mad, in which he recants despairingly and almost disbelievingly his role in the hated and ultimately ineffective lockdowns. ‘There was never at any stage, even by the following year, any form of analysis of the harms caused by lockdowns.’ Insiders may see the elephant in the room, but it’s far easier for outsiders to call it out.
It was the West’s bad luck that Covid policy was largely driven by the much too powerful Fauci, who has been at the helm of US public health policy for some forty years. He sits atop a multi-billion national grant machine, so woe betide those who cross him. He’s exactly the kind of powerful, empire-building official who can – and did –protect a narrative from any number of real-world challenges. And the narrative is still being protected; it came out this week that the CDC was hiding nearly a year’s worth of Covid data, partly, a spokesman said, for fear of the vaccines being seen as ineffective.
Anyone familiar with bureaucracies will get the groupthink imperative and the careerist tendency of most to choose discretion over integrity. Those who must keep a job to raise children and pay mortgages are not in a position to be what Sir Humphrey would call ‘courageous’. This is also why the loudest critics of bandwagons like climate change, Covid lockdowns and vaccine safety are post-career or older, or insulated with wealth, or no longer vulnerable – they have nothing to lose.
A bigger issue is now arising, with the digital disrupters exposing the static and poor quality of official narratives, by comparison with the dynamic and constantly evolving ‘hive mind’ of the internet, where one day’s conspiracy theory becomes next week’s simple truth – or is discarded as nutty. Twitter cancelled ex-New York Times reporter Alex Berenson for saying of Covid vaccines: ‘It doesn’t stop infection. Or transmission. Don’t think of it as a vaccine. Think of it – at best – as a therapeutic…’. Few would now dispute this conclusion, yet at the time it was heresy and he was dumped.
Our elites remain chained to an unwieldy bureaucratic information network that cannot keep up with the speed and agility of a digitally connected society. Politicians and bureaucrats sit atop a system of data processing that is slow, cumbersome, report- and committee-driven, subject to political considerations, cliques and credentialism, and porous to outside agendas, including industry, lobbyists and ideologies. Knowledge is edited, curated and massaged; what emerges may not be right, but it is agreed upon by the powers that be and becomes the narrative. Raw truths, levels of doubt and nuances are lost along the way, but officials and bureaucrats gain both authority and deniability. If finally proven wrong, as looms probable on lockdowns, they will merely say they followed the best advice at the time. Not their fault.
Increasingly, we find ourselves informed by more dynamic and arresting voices from the web. The anonymous Substack author Eugyppius argues that official discourse in his field ‘suffers from a pervasive, unoriginal banality’ while his Twitter world has proven both more correct and more interesting. Why? ‘There are more people involved; the barriers to publishing are lower; nodes that provide bad analysis are easily removed; the thinkers are more thoroughly networked to each other; they gather audiences solely on the basis of their ability; they consider everything, not just the official line.’ Officialdom is hopelessly outclassed, he says, hobbled by ‘gate-keeping mechanisms like peer review and credentialism’.
There is nothing new about the dark arts of fudging information, ‘twas ever thus. What’s new is the speed and spread of digital challenge, which is also what’s driving cancel culture. The worst thing we could do is allow the powers that be to suppress the very data that challenges them.
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