Lockdown Sceptics

Why Sceptics Like Me Lost the Argument

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.

Is Christopher Snowdon an Anti-Vaxxer?

Christopher Snowdon is plainly an anti-vaxxer, however well he tries to hide it. “Existing Covid vaccines are simply not good enough at preventing transmission and infection,” he writes. Hasn’t he read the trial results, showing 95% efficacy against infection for the Pfizer vaccine and 74% for the AstraZeneca vaccine? Or the large population study from Israel showing Pfizer’s 92% efficacy? Or the study from Public Health England showing 67% and 88% vaccine efficacy against the Delta variant for AstraZeneca and Pfizer vaccines respectively?

On what does he base his bald assertion that they are “not good enough at preventing transmission and infection”? Clearly not the science. He doesn’t appear to feel it necessary to give a single scientific reference for a claim that flies in the face of all these respectable studies, leaving the baffled reader assuming he must have picked it up in some article he read on an obscure website somewhere, presumably by a pseudo-scientific sceptic in denial.

This, of course, is not the way to go about intelligently criticising someone’s viewpoint. Which is precisely my point. As it happens, I agree with Christopher that the current vaccines are not very good at preventing infection or transmission, particularly now the Delta variant is in town. But I’m also aware that that is not the current mainstream scientific position (though it is based on recent official data and reports). Rather, it is currently a claim being circulated among the very networks that Christopher pillories in his recent piece in Quillette, naming and shaming the “coronavirus cranks”.

It seems, then, that Christopher is not averse to a spot of ‘crankery’ himself. But how helpful really is all this name-calling, mudslinging and smear by association? Science does not advance by consensus, by everyone agreeing, or by closing down dissenters. Christopher himself is evidently sceptical of one of the key mainstream vaccine claims – that they are highly effective against infection and transmission – so inadvertently places himself within the ambit of his own polemic. Indeed, at one point he fires a shot at the ‘smileys’, as he calls sceptics, for being sceptical of the vaccines, arguing the jabs “have been tested in clinical trials and have demonstrated their safety and effectiveness beyond reasonable doubt in recent months”. Yet he himself goes on to doubt their effectiveness!

Do the U.K.’s Falling Case Numbers Prove Lockdowns Don’t Work?

I’ve written a piece for Mail+ today asking whether the rapid decline in daily cases since ‘Freedom Day’ suggests that lockdowns don’t work. Here’s the kernel of the argument.

For critics of the lockdown policy like me, this is beginning to look like vindication. We have long argued that the ebb and flow of the virus isn’t affected by state interventions, pointing out that cases seem to rise and fall in the same wave-like patterns across similar regions, irrespective of the action taken by different leaders.

For instance, the states of California and Florida share a number of characteristics, but their governors have taken very different approaches to managing the virus. Gavin Newsom, the democratic governor of California, has imposed some of the most severe restrictions in the United States, while Ron DeSantis, the republican governor of Florida, has imposed some of the lightest. Yet the number of Covid deaths in each state are almost identical – 163 per 100,000 in California and 179 per 100,000 in Florida.

Lockdown advocates claim that the UK’s lockdowns prove the policy is effective, with cases only starting to decline after they were rolled out. But Simon Wood, a professor of statistics at Edinburgh University, has analysed the impact of our lockdowns in detail and found that in all three cases infections had begun to fall before they were imposed, e.g. the UK’s third lockdown was put in place on January 6, but cases peaked at the end of December.

Prof Wood’s analysis, as well as the data from other countries, suggests that an infection wave will start to decline in the absence of top-down restrictions, and that has been confirmed by the steady fall in daily cases since ‘Freedom Day’. The reason that’s significant is because it implies that the eye-watering financial cost of the lockdowns – £250 billion and counting – has been unnecessary, not to mention the missed hospital appointments, school closures, and terrible toll on the nation’s mental health.

Worth reading in full.

I think it’s probably too early to start gloating, but it does look as though the gloomsters on SAGE – not to mention the doomsters on Independent SAGE – got the modelling badly wrong. According to the latest data, the number of new cases today stands at 24,950, the sixth consecutive fall in as many days.

Lockdown zealots will attribute this decline to the vaccines, but that begs the question of why they weren’t confident the vaccines would prevent cases from surging when they predicted armageddon last Monday? No doubt vaccines have played a part, but so has natural immunity (by catching the disease and recovering) and pre-existing immunity (by having caught and recovered from a similar disease in the past). And we shouldn’t exaggerate the part the vaccines have played because we now know the trial data over-estimated how efficacious vaccines are against infection. The evidence that they significantly reduce the risk of serious disease and death is still robust; but evidence that they significantly reduce the risk of infection or transmission isn’t holding up very well, which is one reason vaccine passports are a waste of time.

Even though it’s too soon for lockdown sceptics to declare victory, we can at least start thinking about which of the zealots to start ridiculing – and with that in mind, it’s worth revisiting Neil Ferguson’s appearance on the Andrew Marr Show on July 18th.

Among Professor Lockdown’s claims were:

  • It was “almost inevitable” that daily cases would climb to 100,000 a day and hospital admissions to 1,000 a day following the easing of restrictions.
  • It was distinctly possible that daily cases would climb to 200,000 a day and hospital admissions to 2,000 a day, which would cause “major disruption” to the NHS.
  • The peak of the current wave could occur between August and mid-September.
  • “It’s going to be a difficult summer for many reasons.”

Anti-Maskers “Practice a Form of Data Literacy in Spades”, Says MIT Study

We’re publishing a guest post today by retired lawyer Cephas Alain (not his real name) about an unexpected benefit of the pandemic: the emergence of scientifically- and data-literate groups of non-experts who rigorously scrutinise and challenge the official scientific narrative. Groups like the one that has coalesced around Lockdown Sceptics.

Until now, we’ve had to rely on anecdotal evidence about this phenomenon, but now we have some research evidence: a paper by Lee, Yang et al. of Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) entitled “Viral Visualisations: How Coronavirus Skeptics Use Orthodox Data Practices to Promote Unorthodox Science Online“. Noah Carl wrote about this study last week, but Cephas Alain has written a more detailed summary. The reason we’ve referred to “anti-maskers” in the headline is because that’s the catch-all term used by the MIT researchers to describe those in the sceptical community. Not very flattering, but could be worse – it’s better than “covid deniers”, the favoured terms of Neil O’Brien, et al.

Here is an extract from Alain’s summary:

In the most scientifically/data literate groups, the following characteristics were observed by Lee, Yang et al. which, while linked to visualisations, have much wider application:

There is a commitment to quality:

* “we find that anti-mask groups on Twitter often create polished counter-visualisations that would not be out of place in scientific papers, health department reports, and publications like the Financial Times”.
* “Qualitative analysis of anti-mask groups gives us an interactional view of how these groups leverage the language of scientific rigour – being critical about data sources, explicitly stating analytical limitations of specific models, and more – in order to support ending public health restrictions despite the consensus of the scientific establishment.”
* “anti-mask groups practice a form of data literacy in spades. Within this constituency, unorthodox viewpoints do not result from a deficiency of data literacy; sophisticated practices of data literacy are a means of consolidating and promulgating views that fly in the face of scientific orthodoxy”.

We might say that they seek to, and often do, really know their stuff.

Worth reading in full.

MIT Researchers Find That ‘Skeptics’ Value Data Literacy and Scientific Rigour

Throughout the pandemic, governments have claimed to be following “the science”. But of course, many aspects of “the science” were never settled. 

The WHO, as well as the UK Government, initially told us not to wear face masks. They then decided that face masks were essential. Countries like Australia and New Zealand introduced border controls in early February. Meanwhile, UK scientists were advising against port-of-entry screening. Researchers predicted there would be 96,000 deaths in Sweden by July. But as it turned out, there were fewer than 6,000. 

Of course, many people have been sceptical of “the science” (by which I mean the officially endorsed science) from the very beginning. And of course, they’ve formed communities online with other like-minded persons. (Lockdown Sceptics would be one example of such a community.) 

In an unpublished paper, researchers from MIT sought to understand how the users of these communities obtain, analyse, share and curate information. Surprisingly (to them), they found that users place a premium on data literacy and scientific rigour. 

The researchers used a mixed methods design. First, they analysed a large sample of pandemic-related tweets sent between January and July 2020. Second, they employed ethnographic methods to study users on “anti-mask” Facebook groups. (Note that they use “anti-mask” as a “synecdoche for a broad spectrum of beliefs: that the pandemic is exaggerated, schools should be reopening, etc.”)

In their analysis of Twitter data, the researchers found that sceptics “share the second-highest number of charts across the top six communities”, and that they are “the most prolific producers of area/line charts”, while sharing “the fewest number of photos”. They also found that such individuals “often create polished counter-visualizations that would not be out of place in scientific papers”.  

In their study of “anti-mask” Facebook groups, the researchers found that users “value unmediated access to information and privilege personal research and direct reading over “expert interpretations”, and that “their approach to the pandemic is grounded in more scientific rigour, not less”. 

“Most fundamentally,” the researchers write, “the groups we studied believe that science is a process, and not an institution”. They note:

While academic science is traditionally a system for producing knowledge within a laboratory, validating it through peer review, and sharing results within subsidiary communities, anti-maskers reject this hierarchical social model. They espouse a vision of science that is radically egalitarian and individualist.

According to the researchers, “anti-maskers often reveal themselves to be more sophisticated in their understanding of how scientific knowledge is socially constructed than their ideological adversaries”, and data literacy is a “quintessential criterion for membership within the community they have created”.

Based on these descriptions, one might assume the paper was written by a cadre of undercover sceptics. But the researchers make clear they are “not promoting these views”. Overall, it’s a fascinating study which is worth reading in full

Mick Jagger Comes Out as a Lockdown Sceptic

A number of famous musicians have nailed their colours to the good ship lockdown sceptics in the past 12 months, including Van Morrison and Eric Clapton, but none quite as illustrious as the latest addition to our ranks: Sir Mick Jagger. The Rolling Stones frontman has released a song today called “Eazy Sleazy“, a collaboration with David Grohl of the Foo Fighters. “It’s a song that I wrote about coming out of lockdown, with some much needed optimism,” says Jagger.

If you watch this YouTube version of the song, complete with the lyrics, you’ll find a number of anti-lockdown messages:

We took it on the chin
The numbers were so grim
Bossed around by pricks
Stiffen upper lips

Pacing in the yard
You’re trying to take the Mick
You must think I’m really thick
Looking at the graphs
With a magnifying glass
Cancel all the tours
Football’s fake applause

No more travel brochures
Virtual premiers
I’ve got nothing left to wear

Looking out from these prison walls
You got to rob Peter if you’re paying Paul
But it’s easy, easy
Everything’s going to get really freaky
Alright, on the night

Soon it’ll be a memory you’re trying to remember to forget…

That’s a pretty mask
But never take a chance
Tik Tok stupid dance
Took a Samba class

I landed on my ass
Trying to write a tune
You better hook me up to Zoom
See my poncey books
Teach myself to cook
Way too much TV
It’s lobotomising me

Think I’ve put on weight
I’ll have another drink
Then I’ll clean the kitchen sink

We’ll escape from these prison walls
Open the windows and open the doors
But it’s easy, easy
Everything’s going to get really freaky
Alright, on the night
It’s gonna be a garden of earthly delights
Yeah it’s easy, sleazy
Everything’s smooth and greasy

Easy, believe me
It’ll only be a memory you’re trying to remember to forget

However, lest you think Jagger has become a full-blown conspiracy theorist, there’s a swipe at some of the crazier fringes of lockdown scepticism in the final verse:

Shooting the vaccine
Bill Gates is in my blood stream
It’s mind control
The earth is flat and cold
It’s never warming up
The Arctic’s turned to slush
The second’s coming late
And there’s aliens in the deep state

The Darkness and the Light

I initially created Lockdown Sceptics – with the help of Ian Rons, co-founder of the Free Speech Union and computer whizz – in March of last year as an aide-mémoire for personal use. I was writing a lot about the new and still largely unknown virus and wanted to create a kind of online reference library, collating all the articles and papers and interviews about different aspects of the pandemic under separate headings. Then, when I’d created it, I decided to make it public in case anyone else would find it useful. I got into the habit of constantly updating it because so much new information about the virus was being published every day and, to do that, I found myself spending the best part of the the evening looking through news sites and blogs and medical journals. That, in turn, led to the daily update – I had gathered all this information, so why not publish it in one place? And so Lockdown Sceptics, as a daily news blog, was born.

Many readers have contacted me in the past 12 months to say that reading the blog has kept them sane because, until they discovered it, they thought they were the only ones who weren’t buying into the official narrative. Compiling it has also been therapeutic for me, although in a slightly different way, which I’ll try and explain.

First, the darkling plain.

For me, the most depressing thing about the past 12 months is that it’s destroyed my faith in so many of the people and institutions that I used to have some respect for – Boris Johnson, Matt Hancock, the Conservative Party, the judiciary, the police, the BBC, Sky News, the Civil Service, Imperial College, the Lancet, Nature, the Royal Society… the list goes on. I’ve always been alive to the risk that crowds are susceptible to collective hysteria and I’ve witnessed a few manias and moral panics first hand, but I hoped that Britain’s elites, particularly those who bear responsibility for steering the ship of state, would be immune to such madness. And it seemed they would be for a few weeks, which made their eventual surrender to a global psychosis that much harder to witness. To see them not only succumb to mass hysteria but consciously whip it up, using sophisticated psychological techniques, has been a shock. (I blame that, in part, for the British public’s willingness to surrender their liberty and hope they will recover their good sense once the propaganda ceases.) I won’t say this has been a deep shock because I’ve always been pretty cynical, but I used to have a sliver of confidence in Britain’s elites and I have struggled to hold on to that. It’s not an exaggeration to say my belief in Britain has been knocked for six.

But what has kept me from slipping into the slough of despond has been all the thoughtful, intelligent people who’ve contacted me, offering not only to help put out Lockdown Sceptics, but to contribute to it, too. They’ve come from all walks of life, different sides of the political spectrum and from a wide range of academic fields, all united in doubt about the wisdom of the Government’s approach to managing the pandemic. Some of them have been based overseas, but most have been my fellow countrymen and their presence and willingness to help has gone some way to restoring my faith in Britain. I often think, when reading a submission from a retired professor of economics or a lecturer in philosophy just starting out on her career, that here is the best of Britain – the heirs of Isaac Newton and David Hume and Rosalind Franklin. Like Orwell, writing in the Lion and the Unicorn during another crisis in our history when the people at the helm seemed to be steering us towards the rocks, I have persuaded myself that the problem isn’t with the country, just the people at the top. As he wrote: “A family with the wrong members in control; that, perhaps, is as near as one can come to describing England in a phrase.”

The wrong people have been in charge during this crisis in almost every sphere of public life. But there are good people out there – still – and not a few of them have been involved in this website – above and below the line. And the fact that Lockdown Sceptics has become such a thing – a kind of focal point for dissent from the official narrative, with an average of 1.25 million page views a month and – even more heartening – attacked and ridiculed almost daily by the lackeys of the Establishment is also a source of hope. And a tribute to the talent and energy of all those who’ve helped and contributed.

As a country, this has not been our finest hour. But I still believe in Britain – just.