Last night Tucker Carlson shared with his audience the blinding revelation that social-distancing measures have proven completely unnecessary. The basis for his conclusion, which has eluded public-health authorities in the Trump administration, elsewhere in the United States, and across the world, is simple: Fewer people have died than authorities said would die in the absence of stay-at-home orders. Therefore, the orders were unnecessary:
“You may remember what they first told us back in February and March? They said we have to take radical steps in order to ‘flatten the curve.’ Well, six weeks later, we’re happy to say that curve has been flattened, but it’s likely not because of the lockdown. The virus just isn’t nearly as deadly as we thought it was … Hospitals never collapsed. Outside of a tiny number of places, they never even came close to collapsing.”
Fox News personalities have been making versions of this argument for weeks: Public-health officials warned that social distancing was needed to prevent mass death, therefore the absence of mass death proves it was never needed. Public-health professionals call his fallacy “the paradox of prevention.” Any measures implemented soon enough to work will be seen as unnecessary. (As Homer Simpson complained, “We’re always buying Maggie vaccinations for diseases she doesn’t even have.”)
The odd thing is that the death toll is not even coming in below projections. A week ago, Trump predicted, “Now we’re going toward 50 — I’m hearing, or 60,000” coronavirus deaths. Yesterday, he added 10,000 to both the upper and lower bound of his estimate (“We’re probably heading to 60,000, 70,000”). And this is based on a model which assumes that after the first wave of infections declines, it disappears with no second wave.
There are a lot of things scientists don’t understand about COVID-19. Does social-distancing requirements slow its spread? is not one of those mysteries.
Yet Carlson is not merely probing the very real ambiguities in epidemiological models. He is pronouncing the entire public-health profession to be filled with idiots, whose idiocy can be deduced from such simple facts as the relatively low death rate that followed the adoption of their recommendations.
In the same monologue, Carlson proceeded to sneer at Dr. Anthony Fauci, who is so stupid that, Carlson claims, he thinks people should stop shaking hands but not stop hooking up on dating apps:
“Earlier this month, Dr. Anthony Fauci, who we are apparently required by law to respect no matter what he says, suggested that in fact we may never be allowed to resume a normal life … That is the same Dr. Fauci — keep this to yourself because, as noted, you’re not allowed to show any skepticism — that’s the same Dr. Fauci who also announced that shaking hands, the ancient custom of shaking hands should be done away with forever, and then a week later, told Snapchat that actually it’s fine to have sex with strangers you meet on Tinder.”
Fauci did not say that shaking a person’s hand is more likely to transmit coronavirus than having sex with them. Rather, he suggested that eliminating handshakes would be helpful not only in slowing the spread of COVID-19 but also in slowing future transmission of influenza. The sex comment was in response to a question about hooking up with new sex partners, to which he observed it’s a matter of individual risk tolerance.
Despite Carlson’s derision, it’s actually quite easy to reconcile both these positions. Generally, people shake hands with more people than they have sex with. And, despite Carlson’s obvious fondness for “the ancient custom of shaking hands,” the custom of having sex is even more ancient. Given that the sex-having impulse is also more deeply rooted in biology than the urge to shake hands, Fauci sensibly calculated that the latter is more easily quashed than the former.
To be sure, everybody is different. Maybe Tucker Carlson gets unusually high gratification from hand-shaking, or unusually low gratification from sex, and cannot fathom a cost-benefit calculation that would permit intercourse but deny him the routine pleasure of a firm, manly grasp. But Fauci is trying to gauge the tolerance of society writ large, rather than account for every idiosyncratic fetish.
The Republican base is increasingly being told that President Trump has turned over the most important decisions in the country to frauds whose ruinous decisions are premised on evidence so flimsy, it can be dispatched by the Fox News evening lineup.