Conservatives, science and Fauci

Kyle Smith:

Our friends on the left think they understand why so many on the right loathe Anthony Fauci, the media-anointed de facto spokesman for coronavirus response despite his being the head of merely one of 27 agencies that operate under the aegis of the National Institutes of Health, which in turn is one of many agencies in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

The Right, according to the Left, hates Truth and Science (along with poor people, women, minorities, and immigrants from anywhere but Cuba), and we are bitter about Fauci because of his insistence on repeating inconvenient facts. Also Fauci made Trump look bad. Yet strong approval for Fauci is down to 7 percent among Republicans. That is down there in the same range as the most overtly partisan figures in America. Something more has to be going on, and it is.

For reasonable people on the right, there are perfectly legitimate reasons for hating Fauci, and they are as follows:

  1. Although he is a medical expert, he is not the only expert on coronaviruses, and he frequently contradicts other experts, who are backed by gold-standard clinical studies.
  2. The media treat him as the wisest of solons despite his having been proven wrong on many occasions and having admitted lying to the public. Fauci personifies the closed epistemological loop, the formation and protection of which is the media’s increasingly undisguised operational mode. Experts who confirm the media’s biases are given the stage to expound upon their view of matters long past the point where any objective grading would have ruled them unreliable.

Fauci dug his own reputational grave, and the more he talked, the more divisive he became. In early April of 2020, Fauci’s approval ratings were consistent across ideological lines (65 percent among Democrats, 61 among Republicans, according to YouGov last April 4). By mid-July, that had changed completely: He was rated very favorably by 58 percent of Democrats but only 19 percent of Republicans, according to YouGov. In January of this year, the split was 60/11. By April, when the question was worded as whether voters would “trust a lot” what Fauci said, the party split was 67/7.

It’s as if the media’s continued reverence for Fauci has combined with the Democrats’ continued reverence for the media to create a Democratic Party whose members simply aren’t aware of, or don’t care about, Fauci’s admitted lies, or the many times he made predictions and claims that turned out to be wrong. It is slightly encouraging that suspicion seems to be growing. The “trust a lot” number for Fauci among Democrats has fallen to 49 percent in the mid-May YouGov poll; that figure remains 7 percent among Republicans.

Let’s review why this might be.

On at least three discrete issues, Fauci has admitted to using his prominence, which is without peer in the entire history of American public-health management, to mislead the American people. On each occasion, Fauci has cited previously undisclosed ulterior motives for his choice to deceive us.

First, he lied about masks: “People start saying, ‘Should I start wearing a mask?’ Now, in the United States, there is absolutely no reason whatsoever to wear a mask,” he told USA Today on February 17, 2020. As with virtually every other aspect of the crisis, there is a lot we don’t know about masks. There is evidence that they provide little-to-no protection in real-world settings. But this was not Fauci’s defense for this claim; in fact he claimed last June something close to the opposite, that “simple cloth coverings . . . can work as well as a mask,” by which he apparently meant a professional-grade surgical-mask (false, but that’s not my point.) He flat-out declared in an interview with The Street last June, however, that he had a hidden motive for telling people not to buy masks.

On June 17, 2020, when asked, “Why were we told later in the spring to wear [masks] when we initially were told not to,” Fauci replied, “Masks are not 100 percent protective, however they certainly are better than not wearing a mask.” To justify this 180-degree swivel from his guidance that masks were unnecessary, he added, “Well, the reason for that is that we were concerned, the public health community . . . that it was at a time when personal protective equipment, including the N95 masks and the surgical masks, were in very short supply and we wanted to make sure that the people, namely the health-care workers, who were brave enough to put themselves in [harm’s way] to take care of people who you know were infected. . . . We did not want them to be without the equipment that they needed.”

Second, when Fauci was asked by the New York Times in a Christmas Eve story why he kept bumping up his estimate of the point at which herd immunity would be reached — first offering estimates of 60-to-70 percent vaccination levels but then gradually increasing the estimate to 90 percent — he said he was tailoring his figures to what he believed polling showed the American people were willing to accept. “When polls said only about half of all Americans would take a vaccine, I was saying herd immunity would take 70 to 75 percent. Then, when newer surveys said 60 percent or more would take it, I thought, ‘I can nudge this up a bit,’ so I went to 80, 85.

“We need to have some humility here,” he added. “We really don’t know what the real number is. I think the real range is somewhere between 70 to 90 percent. But, I’m not going to say 90 percent.” Huh? So his original estimate of 60 to 70 percent might have been right. Or not. But the Times’s Donald McNeil Jr, paraphrasing Fauci, noted that the doctor’s figures were based “partly on his gut feeling that the country is finally ready to hear what he really thinks.”

Gut feelings about what the country is ready to hear are not science. For many of us on the right, this episode was proof positive that Fauci had followed the path of many other figures who have been in Washington too long and allowed himself to morph from an acknowledged expert in his field into just another political hack playing with the truth based on a “gut feeling.”

Third, this week my sharp-eyed colleague Isaac Schorr noticed that Fauci admitted lying yet again, this time to a U.S. senator who asked him whether it was necessary or merely “theater” for vaccinated people to wear masks given the minuscule risk, which is very well documented and has been for months. A hysterical press has focused on whether vaccinated people “never” transmit the virus, but “never” is a very silly adverb to apply to the situation. There is a risk of catching the disease, or transmitting it to others, after vaccination, but that risk is minuscule. “This must never happen, or I won’t feel safe,” is not a standard human beings apply to any other activity. Yet under oath two months ago, Fauci hotly denied Senator Rand Paul’s questions along these lines, then went on CBS This Morning to denounce Paul as “dead wrong.” On Good Morning America this week, he confirmed that Paul was, in fact, correct: “Before the CDC made the recommendation change, I didn’t want to look like I was giving mixed signals. But being a fully vaccinated person, the chances of my getting infected in an indoor setting is extremely low.”

That’s exactly what Paul had been saying. Paul tied the false messaging about masks to vaccine hesitancy, which now appears to be the single greatest remaining hurdle to defeating the virus, saying that millions of Americans were likely thinking that since getting vaccinated did not provide freedom from masking, there was little point to getting the jab. This is a plausible story; Fauci’s false statements have real consequences, but his fear-mongering is catnip for the media, whose members have demonstrated throughout the crisis that they are extraordinarily fearful and risk-averse, and whose business model also depends on maximizing panic. Singing the tune they love to hear, Fauci said as recently as February that Americans might have to wear masks into 2022, though it was obvious at the time that most Americans would be vaccinated by the start of this summer and that many millions more had achieved some degree of immunity because they had already been infected. This was stoking the embers of COVID in hopes of creating more fire to dazzle his audience.

Fauci’s GMA statements confirm that he knew the CDC guidance on the necessity of masking for vaccinated people throughout April and early May was wrong. Yet he chose to amplify this false messaging with his own behavior because he wanted to send certain “signals.” A signal that we should harbor and/or advertise irrational fears as a twisted gesture of solidarity for the most neurotic among us is not a signal that should interest a man of science.

Fauci continues to say, for the moment, that children playing outdoors should continue to wear masks, reiterating this point in an interview with the Today show on April 28, though judging by his previous actions he will back down after a critical mass of columns in The Atlantic questions this dubious assertion. On May 13, he began to hedge, saying children should still wear masks but this time adding, “particularly in an indoor situation,” as though sensing that even Democrats have grokked that outdoor masking for anyone is unneeded and his position is becoming politically untenable. This was an exquisitely Faucian thing to say, hinting that he is going to change the guidance he offers but waiting until he senses that he is losing progressive columnists again, at which point he will declare “the science” has changed, though it hasn’t.

We on the right have been pointing out for months that children are at very low risk from this virus and at very low risk of transmitting it to others, plus the disease essentially doesn’t spreadoutdoors in the first place, and we should factor into the matter how cruel it is to force masks and social distancing on children, whose mental health and development seem to rate nearly zero importance to Fauci. The research has been screaming all of this for months. Fauci isn’t following the science and seems oblivious to the idea that there is any social or psychological cost whatsoever to extreme and unprecedented protective measures.

Since Republicans have a lot more kids than Democrats, Fauci’s indifference to the plight of children strikes us as political; it antagonizes the Right, just as his overreaction two-and-a-half months ago to the end of mask mandates in Texas and Mississippi (but not to a similar move in Connecticut) looked like yet another instance of Washington elites treating red areas of the country as though they are populated by the Croods. Fauci blasted the two Southern states on March 4, the same day Connecticut also announced it was lifting its mask restrictions, but expressed no opinion on the latter state’s policy.

Fauci’s fears about what would happen in Texas and Mississippi turned out to be completely unjustified: Texas yesterday reported seven cases of COVID per 100,000 residents, Mississippi five; the national average is nine. (Connecticut had 24 cases per 100,000 the day its governor announced he would lift the mask mandate; Texas also had 24, and Mississippi had 10.)

Anthony Fauci’s inexhaustible interest in television stardom has created perverse incentives for him to distort the truth, downplay good news, and cling to draconian measures long past the point where they become absurd. Neither the virus nor he can disappear from the scene fast enough.

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