In a well-known episode in the Bible, Moses commands the princes of the tribes of Israel to survey the Land of Canaan and report back to their people on its quality and the nature of its inhabitants. Known as the “Twelve Spies” the group returned and delivered a bleak description of a harsh land ruled by giants. “We seemed like grasshoppers, and so we were in their eyes” (Numbers 13:33). Two princes, Joshua and Caleb, gave a minority report praising the land. In response, the Lord punishes the 10 other princes decreeing that they would never enter the land, and that the Israelites would wander in the desert for 40 years.
One interpretation of why this happened is that upon conquering Canaan the princes would have to govern without the security of total divine intervention as they had been doing during their sojourns in the desert. It also offers a useful analogy for the dangers of relying on social institutions and their figureheads without critically analyzing their performance.
As Joe Biden’s administration churns on through its first year, there could not be a greater gap in the perception of it by the media versus the public, nor between his supporters and those of his predecessor, Donald Trump.
During this short period, the Scranton Kid has enabled a border crisis, has been outfoxed repeatedly by his rivals Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping, and has failed on several of his own policy promises such as the $15 minimum wage and student debt forgiveness. The man who once said that the Chinese Communist leadership are “not bad folks, folks” now insists that China aims to own America within 15 years. Commodity prices for lumber and gasoline are spiking and America is simultaneously facing a labor shortage and an inflation cycle.
Now compounding these challenges for Biden is a new headache. His mouthpiece for the COVID-19 response, Dr. Anthony Fauci, willfully deceived the public about his true thoughts regarding mask wearing and the origins of the virus from the very beginning of the pandemic. The illustrious “Tony F” even filled out a March Madness infectious disease bracket created by a CDC colleague on March 11, 2020 and sent it out to some friends as a macabre joke. It is a spicy and revelatory indictment of the president who, as a candidate, vowed repeatedly to “listen to the experts and heed their advice.”
The Technocratic Ideal
Putting aside other possible and more sinister motivations for his attitude (such as the conflicts of interest exposed via information found on his son Hunter’s laptop) is it wrong to blame Biden for this approach? After all, neither he nor former President Trump have the professional background to offer a detailed response to COVID-19 without the help of epidemiologists and public health figures like Fauci and Dr. Deborah Birx.
Historically, the theme of expert authority is one that can both enable tremendous progress and also justify grotesque abuses. In the 1940s, a braintrust of physicists came together for the Manhattan Project that would bring about the nuclear age. Many of them would come to regret their roles in creating the powerful weaponry that ushered in the possibility of man-made armageddon and began keeping a “doomsday clock” to warn of such a danger.
But what of those who push doomsday theories that miss the mark completely?
Stanford University biologist Paul R. Ehrlich predicted in 1968 that due to human overpopulation, sea life would be dead within 10 years and that England would not exist by 2000. His prognostications were published in the bestseller Population Bomb that helped to spur the Zero Population Growth movement, urging couples to have families of no more than two children. While not the only person to propose the scenario of mass death by malnutrition, Ehrlich reveled in the attention of the press and dozens of appearances on the “Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson. Ehrlich’s predictions fell flat and yet he maintained his academic post while still claiming in interviews that his predictions from 50 years ago were not predictions at all and those who called them such were “idiots.”
Ehrlich’s recommendations were wrong, but the ZPG movement was not institutionally powerful enough to be influential beyond the 1980s. Not so with the climate change movement.
Climate change is now blamed for every major disaster. The purveyors of the viewpoint that the Earth’s temperature is being altered by humans consuming fossil fuels such that it will cause an irreversible die-off of most animal and plant life rely extensively on consensus views of publicly funded scientists and international bodies like the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
In 2008, a scandal erupted among IPCC scientists similar to the Fauci disclosures of last week. Known as “Climategate,” it involved the leaking of a treasure trove of hacked emails from the Climate Research Unit at the U.K.’s East Anglia University, one of the most marquee programs for climate change research. In the most famous email, a CRU scientist wrote that he was going to use a “Nature Trick” data manipulation tactic popularized by Penn State climate scientist Michael Mann to “hide the decline” in temperatures over certain intervals.
While the email disclosures put a major dent in the credibility of the Climategate correspondents, neither Mann nor any of the CRU scientists have suffered any professional consequences as a result. Instead, the role of presenting the climate change crusade has passed to activists such as author Bill McKibben and Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg, along with youth pressure groups like the Sunrise Movement and Extinction Rebellion. Politicians including Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Canada’s Catherine McKenna rail about the importance of abandoning fossil fuels to avoid an imminent climate calamity. Rarely do they cite the scientific findings (based largely on computer model temperature predictions that seldom come true) which are the only “scientific” basis for their policy recommendations.
Science is not the only area where “expert opinion” diverges from reality in its proposals for public policy. The Iraq War started not because the Bush Administration refused to listen to the defense and intelligence experts, but because all of those agencies and services told them what they wanted to hear in order to justify the invasion. Similarly, the recommendations of major Ivy League economists like Austan Goolsbee and Paul Krugman have allowed the federal government to ignore icebergs like the housing bubble and fueled dismal failures like the Cash for Clunkers program.
From the start of the COVID-19 pandemic not only Americans but every person living in organized society has been subject to the abuses of tyranny by technocracy. The recent email disclosures are by no means the first examples of them:
British physicist Neil Ferguson of Imperial College London predicted that without lockdowns, millions would die as a result of the pandemic. While many Western nations including the U.K. heeded his advice and similar recommendations, Sweden opted for the soft approach of advising residents to socially distance and protect themselves rather than forcibly enact a shelter-in-place order. The Doomers claimed that Sweden would suffer 96,000 deaths by mid-April 2020, but in that interval only 13,000 fatalities from COVID-19 were recorded.
Ferguson was forced to resign in May 2020 when it was revealed he violated his own lockdowns while having a liaison with his married mistress.
CDC director Dr. Rochelle Walensky warned of “impending doom” during a briefing in March ahead of lifting of coronavirus restrictions in several states, despite all data suggesting that cases and fatalities are falling.
Pennsylvania was one of the U.S. states to enact tougher lockdowns, including one against indoor dining, youth sports, and holiday parties in December 2020. But as early as May 2020 local media was highlighting how then-Pennsylvania State Health Secretary, Rachel Levine (formerly Richard) had removed her mother from a nursing home just prior to issuing an order to house COVID-19 patients in elder care facilities. Not only was Levine never held accountable for this, she was then promoted to deputy secretary of health and human services under Joe Biden and celebrated as the first transgender high officeholder.
Only now are other crucial and life-altering controversies concerning the pandemic being debated publicly such as the Wuhan Institute of Virology’s suspected role as the source of the leak of a genetically engineered virus that began the first outbreak. The Washington Post’s Glenn Kessler has published a timeline explaining how the lab-leak theory “suddenly became credible.” As the Post’s lead “fact-checker,” shouldn’t Kessler have done the work of shortening that timeline by evaluating the evidence earlier? Instead, as is common practice in his industry, Kessler and his newspaper have loosened their tongues not because the facts have changed, but because the consensus on the facts was lost.
Kessler in July published a fact check in which he attacked Donald Trump for criticizing Fauci’s contradictory advice on mask wearing, travel bans, and whether he believed the pandemic would be a passing phase. We know now that early in the pandemic—on March 1, 2020, in fact—Fauci dismissed Homeland Security warnings that 500,000 Americans could die from COVID-19 as “exceptionally high.”
The Weight of Power
Fauci may have been exposed and critics like Senators Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) are doing “told ya so” tours before the media. But this is not a time for celebration. It pays to remember that the Trump Administration helped to elevate Fauci’s role in the U.S. pandemic response by making him a spokesman for the administration’s policy early on. So unless the president and his staff were unaware that Fauci’s public statements were a deception when he made them, they were fully complicit in the lie. And the Biden Administration is complicit in the cover-up after the fact.
On May 27, Fauci and fellow NIH official Francis Collins testified before the Senate that Biden had not consulted them when he decided to cancel the ongoing Trump-ordered investigation into the origins of the virus. Biden then ordered a new intelligence report drawn up within 90 days for the purpose of investigating the same open questions.
Meantime, Secretary of State Antony Blinken has not committed to saying how China might be punished should the lab leak coverup be proven. When he was named to his post in November, I warned how Blinken has conflicts of interest with China stemming from his work as managing director of the Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement. Under Blinken’s watch, the center accepted $22 million in anonymous donations from Chinese sources, contrary to U.S. Department of Education regulations.
Unfortunately, real consequences and accountability don’t seem to be coming. When facts cannot be used to forward an agenda, “faith” is an excellent substitute. Not only is Biden not acknowledging past falsehoods that he and his administration have spread about COVID-19 like calling Texas’ reopening “Neanderthal thinking,” he is standing by his man, Fauci. On June 4, Biden affirmed that he is “very confident” in Fauci, notwithstanding the email revelations. Fauci toured a COVID-19 vaccination site at a Harlem church on June 6 with Jill Biden, encouraging teens who were getting the jab, and he appeared on June 3 in a press briefing with other members of the White House coronavirus response team, including Walensky.
To avoid the devastating impacts caused by poor public policy, the parable of the Twelve Spies needs to be revisited. Like the 10 princes who gave the majority negative opinion, failed high ranking advisors and academics luxuriate in the glow of attention and prestige of delivering bad news while avoiding any actual accountability. American institutions have allowed these doomsayers to flourish by giving them plum positions, often with tenure. Paul Ehrlich continues to be an emeritus professor of biology at Stanford. Paul Krugman, who has made startlingly awful predictions on economic topics from Argentinian debt defaults to the role of the internet in commerce, remains a columnist for the New York Times and emeritus professor of economics at Princeton. We can be sure that Fauci’s exit from the NIH will involve a golden parachute and a cushy role at a hallowed academic institution.
Failing upward is a sad feature of a society where media and business elites protect consensus and stifle dissent rather than debate respectfully. We may never reach the “Promised Land” but with this current arrangement America can expect many more years wandering in the wilderness behind these princes of institutional expertise.