In my latest Spectator column I’ve revisited the theme of why lockdown sceptics lost the argument – and I say this in spite of believing another national lockdown in England is quite unlikely.
I’m optimistic that the government won’t implement ‘Plan B’, let alone impose another lockdown – but not because sceptics like me have won the argument. Why do I say that? Because the public debate is about whether another lockdown is necessary, with the participants on both sides taking it for granted that non-pharmaceutical interventions are an effective way of suppressing infections. For at least a year, sceptics have been arguing that these don’t work, pointing to numerous research studies showing that the rise and fall of infections in different regions of the world has no correlation with stay-at-home orders, mask mandates, business and school closures, etc. But this argument has fallen on deaf ears.
One explanation – the one I like best – is that we made the mistake of trying to appeal to reason. This was a point made by David McGrogan, a professor at Northumbria law school, in a piece for my sceptical website. ‘I am somebody who encourages students to investigate and debate facts for a living. So this has been a very bitter pill for me to swallow indeed, but the reality is that most people are just not actually interested in finding out the truth for themselves. They are much more interested in conforming with what they perceive to be the “moral truth” – the prevailing moral norm.’ The reason the vast majority of the public supported lockdowns is because they believed they were the ‘right’ thing to do.
Of course, the lockdown enthusiasts wouldn’t have been so quick to conform to that ‘moral truth’ without believing that lockdowns actually did what they said on the tin. But I was astonished by how many intelligent people just swallowed the government line without subjecting it to proper scrutiny – particularly as lockdowns meant the surrender of our liberty on an unprecedented scale, as Lord Sumption has pointed out ad infinitum. It was as if such people were yearning for the social solidarity usually available only during wartime. And the flipside of that – denouncing anyone who refused the accept the restrictions – also had wide appeal. No doubt the government helped this process along by spending hundreds of millions bombarding us with propaganda, much of it designed by behavioural psychologists to penetrate our reptile brains.
But I go on to say that sceptics have to accept some responsibility for their failure to persuade more people that lockdowns don’t work.
Common sense dictates that if you confine most people to their homes then infections will start to fall, so if we’re going to persuade people that lockdowns don’t work we need a compelling theory as to why that hypothesis is false. We never came up with one. We also got a lot of things wrong at the beginning, such as saying there wouldn’t be a second wave and, when the second wave was upon us, claiming it was a ‘casedemic’ not an epidemic. I don’t think we got more things wrong than the enthusiasts – take their prediction that daily infections would rise to 100,000 after ‘freedom day’, for instance – but given that we were arguing against the prevailing wisdom we couldn’t afford to make any mistakes. In retrospect, I wish I’d been more cautious.
Worth reading in full.