one of the truly startling processes to watch in 2020 was the manner in which politicians and their pet scientists at health agencies not only tossed out a century of pandemic knowledge and guidelines to run roughshod over our lives and livelihoods, but how in doing so, they unerringly homed in on just the right sort of pseudoscience to fuel their fear mongering and the needs of their social control/technocratic narrative. i’m not sure the human race has ever been exposed to such rapidly iterated and shaped propaganda before because until just recently, there had never been a mechanism to create such a thing. social media thrives on attention and nothing grabs attention like the intersection of fear and of in-group/out-group virtue signaling. this weaponizes the medium into something akin to a massively iterated polling mechanism whereby the audience of a horror move can vote, in real time, about what monster or plot twist would be most frightening in the next scene and then unerringly provide it in jarring 4k resolution and deafening surround sound. it conjures the deepest atavistic fears into headlines and force feeds them to you. the lies are repeated until they become “the truth.”
this is the implacable emergent property of a couple of simple rules: fear spreads in crowds and makes them irrational, crowds seek to quell fear by forming into in-groups and identifying enemies against which to unify and take action. the rest is history. this simple function generates all the complex structures of panic-propaganda, pseudo-science, sanctimony, and cultural war. a panicked people loses possession of its reason and abandons not just thought, but training and prior knowledge as well. this is exactly why emergency responders and combat troops drill and drill and drill again until response becomes reflex and rational action rote. when you disrupt that, you are on the curve to disaster. you get mob rule when you need expert science. you abandon the science and guidelines you knew just moments before and get so caught up in the need to “do something” that you wind up “doing something crazy.” your training is gone. your knowledge becomes inaccessible. fear and emotion reign.
this is precisely why no one trusts “green” troops in a battle. you just cannot tell who will focus and who will freeze until you have a real trial by fire. it is also why you need to be double and triple sure of “the science” when you start trying to handle public health emergencies. even in the best of times, this is difficult, in times of widespread social panic, it’s far more so; but in times when the very experts who ought to be handing matters, calming things down, and providing sage advice are the ones spreading the panic and misleading the public, well, that’s a special kind of conflagration. it’s how you get an out of control train loaded with weapons of mass induction to push terrible, damaging, dogma-driven policy onto a society by whipping large segments of it up into a mob who will sanctimoniously assault the rest, inflicting grievous harm in the name of “i’m afraid and irrational.” this is when the “credentialed class” needs to stand up and defend we the people from their own bad instincts. and they failed us. they turned on us. we needed a guard dog. instead we got fed to wolves.
much of this policy was underpinned by one truly awful assumption: that asymptomatic spread was a major factor in covid contagion. but it’s not, it never was, and this was known and knowable. let’s look.
i’m going to rely here on the following meta-analysis. i chose it because it seems to be high quality and because, as it has been cited repeatedly by the CDC and by skeptics alike, i think it represents something of a neutral ground in terms of data and therefore can hopefully keep the shrieking about slant and cherry picking to a minimum.
this meta-study was published in december 2020. it looked at 54 prior studies with a total of 77,758 subjects dating all the way back to april 2020. we’ve had this data since very close to the beginning and certainly by summer. here’s what the study found:
this is striking data. for those not well versed in the terminology, let me translate a bit: this is measuring secondary attack rate in households. secondary attack rate is the likelihood that one infected person will pass the infection on to another person who is exposed to them. if it’s 100%, you’ll give it to everyone, every time. if it’s 0%, it will not spread. the SAR for SARS-2 covid (admittedly a confusing confluence of acronyms) was 16.6%. so, 16.6% of people in any given household could expect to be infected if one member of the household had covid. OK.
where this gets interesting is in the subset analysis. they then split the infected cohort into 2 groups: those with symptoms and those without. the variance turns out to be massive. symptomatic carriers had an SAR of 18%. asymptomatic carriers had an SAR of 0.7%. not only is that a nearly 26X variance, but it shows that the likelihood of an asymptomatic carrier spreading disease to you is less than 1% overall even in what looks to be one of the highest risk vases around: living together. this is long exposure in enclosed spaces with shared food, bathrooms, cooking facilities, and who knows what else. spouses had 37.8% SAR vs 17.8% for rest of family, so clearly, sleeping in the same bed and physical intimacy are likely big risk factors affecting overall SAR. but even despite ALL that, SAR for asymptomatic is sub 1%. this is a major finding. and the authors more or less buried it. (perhaps this is why the CDC allowed this study to be cited) the author’s conclusion was this:
and while it may be accurate, wow did they bury the headline. the headline and key takeaway from this data should have been this:
asymptomatic people don’t spread covid to any meaningful degree.
this headline has gigantic ramifications for policy. it means that to handle a pandemic like this, it’s really simple: stay home of you feel sick and try to isolate yourself from other people. that’s the whole ballgame. but his did not fit the fear narrative so when this useful meme started to spread early on, it was swamped by the torrent of atavistic night-terrors dredged from the collective unconscious by social media and then amplified by cowardly public health officials who should have known better and leaned in to quiet the panic parade, not grabbed the baton and run to the front to make it go faster.
if living with someone who is infected but asymptomatic carries only a 0.7% change of infection, the chance of catching it from them by passing by outdoors is going to be statistically impossible to differentiate from zero. the likelihood that supermarkets, restaurants, and most other shopping and eating encounters would result in spread from someone without symptoms is similarly low. this is why, after all this time, there is so little evidence of any such spread. this was just never a real risk and therefore, all the policies to mitigate this risk were pointless or so close to pointless as to make no difference. even if wearing a mask reduces infection rate by 50%, that would mean that instead of having perhaps a 0.1% SAR at the store, you’d have 0.05%. you’re stopping 1 person in 2000 from being infected. and real mask rates used in the real world are WAY below that. even an n-95 drops to far less with only a 1% gap. (and unless you’re a pro, trained to wear one and had it fitted, you’re WAY above that. cloth etc is useless and possibly worse than useless.)
and this is based on contrived mechanistic studies. actual clinical impact could easily be zero or worse that zero. mechanistic studies actually show quite little, especially when pathogen spread is aerosol (as covid is), not droplet. the point here is that public masking simply cannot work because not only is it, at best, a barely effective modality, but it’s being used in a setting where so long as you avoid symptomatic people the risk of spread is already so low that there is basically nothing for masks to work on. the possible benefit even for total efficacy is so low that it cannot justify the social and economic costs. at actual efficacy it becomes ludicrous. this is the epidemiological equivalent of putting a 2 foot fence around your BACK yard to try to stop the neighbor’s dog from pooping in your FRONT yard.
and this was, of course, all known before hand. the WHO did a meta-study of masks in 2019 and determined that they do not work to stop flu or similar RTI spread.
this is why we keep seeing chart after chart showing masks vs control not working. the CDC has gone so far as to commit actual fraud in publishing the now notorious “kansas county masking” study that cherry picked a timeframe to claim masks worked and then ignored the data that directly contradicted it. they cherry picked the start date and then ended the study on aug 23rd, before the covid wave even came. but they published AFTER that surge, so they knew full well they had disqualifying data that had refuted the basic claims. that’s not a mistake. that’s scientific malpractice and fraud. gottlieb himself was pushing it. you cannot in good faith publish subset data that has clearly fallen apart in the greater set. do that to the FDA and see what happens to you…
but because “2020” this became canon. so many outlandish things did and so many were clearly the output of a fear driven moralizing engine, not of any sort of process grounded scientific method. it was clear that “wear a mask to protect yourself” was never going to cut it as social prescription. it’s an individual choice based on personal risk assessment. to force such a mandate into the collective demands a collective idea like “source control.” “your mask protects you” cannot drive a sanctimonious in-group vs out-group conflict but “your mask protect me” can. so they invented this claim out of whole cloth. it never had ANY basis in fact, it was just a social trope generated to fit social need and plucked from the instant A/B testing of the social media lab as proven propaganda. many science-fair looking “proofs” were ginned up in labs with mannequins and cough tests. none had the slightest clinical relevance and as we saw above, all were pointed at a “problem” so minor that solving it accomplished essentially nothing anyway. worse. all ignored that which did have real clinical relevance: studies on source protection. masks do not stop source spread of infection even when used by trained surgeons in operating theaters.
doctors wearing face masks had 4.7% post operative wound infection rates for patients.
those with no masks had 3.5%.
wearing a mask made infection 34% more likely.
this was made up hokum to support pre-selected prescription, not science to help shape proper policy. it was massively socially effective because social media generates only those sorts of memes. propogandists no longer need guess at humanity’s fears or foibles and how to inflame them with just the right message: the exact, battle tested answer pops out of twitter every single day.
this emergent property of modern media poses a terrible danger to we the people, but it is also a danger we can learn to manage. it’s probably a danger we could have managed last year had that been all we had faced or had those assigned to safeguard our health chosen to do so rather than safeguarding and advancing their own careers instead. but they didn’t. i watched researcher after researcher and official after official change their tune as he who pays the piper demanded it. even those who knew full well this was a risk and that this was bunkum gleefully changed jerseys and went in for pushing panic.
this came straight from john’s hopkins.
who then ignored it all and spent the whole year raking in grants and budget increases by selling their credentials in the service of propaganda. there are hundreds of studies at this point to refute lockdowns. i’ve certainly written my share. nearly a year ago, i was one of the first to use google mobility data to show that locking down did not stop covid. but, of course, no one listens to cats. amusingly, this same “discovery” now seems able to get humans published in “nature.” sigh. speciesism, pure and simple.
there are 1000 of these little wars to fight and issues to argue. and the “experts” are not on our side. as can be seen even there, the nature editorial staff is going to try and smear this incredibly clear data. fine, let them. few will dig in this deeply. most will simply accede to the claims of those who seem to have the most credentials, but as we’ve seen all year, this is pure folly. these people are NOT on your side. they are fief builders and nest featherers, not dispassionate scientists. they chose to inflame, not inform for one simple reason: it pays better. worryingly, this works because few have the time and wherewithal to dig deeply into each new claim and you cannot really fix that. but you can inoculate yourselves and to this end i’d like to leave you with my 2 shot vaccine for expert fear porn on covid.
1. these people ARE out to scare you
social media finds your fears and those that would control you use them. every time you see some new bugbear that seems just a bit too convenient and contrived as it just so happens to be just the monster scariest to you right now and that just so happens to validate what the government is doing, pause and remember that. ask a few questions. someone may be trying to sell you a bridge.
2. Asymptomatic spread is vanishingly low
so read ALL claims about masks and lockdowns and travel bans and all other kinds of NPI with real skepticism. they are not nor have they ever been the “base case.” they are a reckless devolution into epidemiological adventurism and their price has probably exceeded any non-wartime policy in human history. they addressed a problem that was not really a problem. they were the equivalent of france trying to keep the germans out by fortifying normandy. it’s not just that they did not work, it’s that there was nothing for them to work on. that was never how covid spread.
remember these two things, and a lot of the rest of this will fall into its proper place and so will the role of these experts. data and skepticism ARE science. they are what separate it from superstition. claiming to be “on the side of science” rather than presenting data is a near perfect shibboleth for being dishonest and hiding behind credentials.