The Curious Case Of The Political Virus
When our vision is hopelessly distorted we see a twisted version of reality
It’s commonplace to observe that Trump supporters are for the most part drawn from the unfortunate end of the Gaussian distribution of IQ scores. They tend to be far more ignorant, far less educated, far less healthy, and far more superstitious/religious than the average US citizen (which is quite an accomplishment given how widespread these characteristics are across the USA). Trumpies have no capacity whatsoever for evaluating facts and then reasoning coherently from them. In fact a Trumpie wouldn’t recognize a fact if they tripped over one while waddling to the nearest McSlop franchise. Worst of all, they worship an infantile inarticulate moron whose self-proclaimed genius is roundly disproven every time he opens his pouty little lips.
So you’d think it would be effortless for those on the other side of the US political divide to seem better, right? Surely somewhat more educated people wouldn’t simply believe whatever they were told by TV personalities, fail to reason coherently from widely-available data, and adopt totally untenable positions that are at every turn contradicted by reality?
Sadly, you’d be wrong.
The hard fact is that in the USA one’s reaction to SARS-CoV2 has nothing whatsoever to do with widely available data, nor with reason. One’s reaction is determined entirely by one’s political affiliation. Neither confused Trump supporters nor terrified liberals show the slightest interest in looking at the data and reasoning coherently from it. Both simply hold the positions they’ve been told to adopt by their respective TV pundits.
For confused Trumpies, covid-19 is simultaneously a hoax and a devilish Chinese plot to undermine the eternal greatness of the eternally greatest country in the universe.
For terrified liberals, covid-19 is definitely the worst plague ever to exist in the history of disease and so many people are going to die that the USA will have to import additional people just to have enough corpses to meet the death rate projections.
In reality, as all the available data shows clearly, covid-19 is a naturally occurring pathogen of the sort predicted by virologists and epidemiologists for the last two decades, an inevitable product of evolution and people living in close proximity to various primary host organisms.
Fortunately for us, covid-19 is also nearly completely harmless. No, that’s not what terrified liberals believe, but belief is irrelevant. All that matters in the real world are facts. And the facts all tell us the same thing in abundant clarity: SARS-CoV2 is a minor threat. We’ve turned it into a major crisis because we panicked, not because it was a real problem. We burned down the house because we stubbed our toe on a stair-rod.
Of course, neither Trumpies nor liberals can hear this. Both are too deeply dug into their respective mental bunkers in which belief supersedes both facts and reason. Both are addicted to their favorite TV pundits who tell them what to think. No one is interested in facts and reason, and so the show goes on and on and on.
Although liberals may be on average around ten IQ points higher than Trumpies, those IQ points aren’t being put to use. Liberals are just as guilty as Trumpies of steadfastly ignoring reality in favor of clinging to untenable beliefs. Which means there are no heroes in this story, just two equally obtuse self-harming groups devoted entirely to seeing the other as The Enemy.
It’s easy to feel sorry for Trumpies. They drew the short straw when it came to genetics and place of birth. What chance did they have of ever learning anything? What chance did they have of ever discovering that you don’t have to just believe whatever you’re told; you can actually fact-check and try to reason things out for yourself. Trumpies are doomed to be the butt of the joke, the bottom of the barrel, the inadequate desperately looking for some group they can look down on so they can briefly feel slightly less bad about themselves. They are pitiable.
It’s more difficult to feel sorry for liberals. On average they’ve received slightly less inadequate educations. In theory they know they can look up information and supposedly draw rational and coherent conclusions from it. But they don’t. They default to precisely the same lazy behavior the Trumpies are doomed to remain trapped within: believing whatever you’re told by your favorite authority figures.
There’s absolutely nothing preventing a terrified liberal from using the Internet to discover that SARS-CoV2 is nowhere near being the existential threat they imagine. Reliable data from reliable sources is abundant. And it all tells the same story: less than one-tenth of one percent of the population will die from the disease, which is nearly ten times fewer people than the daily deaths from smoking-related diseases. It’s a tiny fraction of the six million who die every month. Even now, more than nine months into the pandemic, we’ve only just surpassed the deaths for a bad flu season, which lasts for a much shorter period of time.
Liberals could, in theory, notice how they’ve been manipulated by sensationalist media reportage designed explicitly to grab eyeballs with hyped up claims and made to believe things that even a small child would be able to see are untrue. But they don’t. It’s far more comfortable to believe what all the other liberals are believing, parrot what the TV personalities are saying, and pretend it’s all the fault of Donald Trump, even though in reality far fewer US citizens have died than one would expect given the atrocious state of health of most US inhabitants and the abysmally inadequate healthcare services available.
Liberals will claim that their irrational beliefs are more reasonable than the absurd delusions of Trumpies, but this claim is spurious. Ask a terrified liberal why they’re convinced covid-19 is so dangerous and that only facemasks can save the human race and they’ll tell you they heard someone say that a scientist said so.
The problem is, science isn’t about assertion or about belief. Science is, at least in theory, about empirical facts. And science is often on such shaky ground that progress is laborious and very, very uncertain.
Unfortunately most scientists never learn how to design robust experiments and never learn adequate statistical techniques. Nearly fifteen years ago both Science and Nature, the pre-eminent scientific journals of record, both ran editions bemoaning the fact that at least half of all published research is worthless because of inadequate experimental design and mis-applied statistical analysis.
And that was the output being generated when researchers could take five years to run through their RO1 grants and work under the most slow-paced conditions imaginable. In a state of panic in which “studies” are performed and analyzed and published within the space of weeks, it is obvious that nearly all the supposedly “scientific” results delivered to us by journalists who know nothing whatsoever about anything are as reliable as a Trump speech.
We’re not supposed to “believe” scientists. We’re supposed to evaluate their output and determine for ourselves whether or not (i) the research was adequately designed, (ii) the data sets are reliable,(iii) the statistical analysis is properly done, and (iv) the conclusions reasonably follow from the analysis. If we don’t do this, we’re no different from mindless Trumpies believing whatever they’re told by their Great Orange Leader or their local pastor.
But who bothers to read the papers on arxiv? Who bothers to pay for access to PubMed, or The Lancet, or the New England Journal of Medicine? Who among all the terrified mask-wearing liberals who imagine they’re saving the human race from a deadly threat has actually bothered to read even a single research paper?
So we can’t really feel sorry for liberals because, in theory, they didn’t have to be so stupid. Trumpies can’t help it (and let’s face it, many can’t even read), but in theory liberals could have gone another way.
They didn’t because it was easier to be intellectually indolent. It was easier just to go with the herd, exactly like the Trumpies, than to think for themselves.
And so liberals chose to be part of the very same problem they decry: ignorance masquerading as knowledge, belief masquerading as fact, and false claims masquerading as truth.
Liberals should have been better than this.