Something about Twitter allows mainstream journalists to converge quickly on what they deem to be the highest-status opinion about current events. Nassim Nicholas Taleb refers to this class of people as IYI, Intellectuals Yet Idiots, and defines it as “the inner circle of no-skin-in-the-game policymaking ‘clerks’ and journalists-insiders.”
We all feel this class exists. It is the most prominent voice in the culture. Many of us also feel that this kind of faux expert is almost always wrong, that these “clerks” are an anti-compass, and whatever they say is true north must almost certainly be due south.
I think this suspicion is very much at work in the story of the coronavirus. The question is: When did you decide the “clerks” were screwing up this story and its meaning?
For me, it happened in the last week of January, in the days after Wuhan went into lockdown. I kept thinking: This must really be horrible, if China is willing to shut down some of its major industrial heartlands in response.
A Chinese lawyer who complained on YouTube about the terrible state of affairs in Wuhan disappeared — or was disappeared. Meanwhile, the World Health Organization offered cringe-inducing praise of the Chinese government’s “transparent” efforts.
And what really got me worried was that around this time, I started looking for face masks, and all the shelves were emptied of them. Store clerks told me that Chinese-Americans were buying them and sending them to China.
Mainstream US media, meanwhile, made it seem as if only rubes could be concerned about the coronavirus. Vox edited and repurposed an old article about the Ebola outbreak saying that travel restrictions aren’t effective against the spread of disease. Concerns about the virus itself and belief in the efficacy of quarantines, one of the most traditional methods of disease control, were deemed racist.
The WHO took an anti-travel-ban stance and criticized governments banning travelers from China. The outfit’s boss denounced the “stigma” as worse than the disease, even as the organization continued praising China’s response to it, which happened to include draconian restrictions on internal travel. Even President Trump praised Chairman Xi’s handling at some point.
Taken together, these were my IYIs. And as I saw them treating the coronavirus the way they treat every subject, my sense was that it would probably be very serious, indeed.
Most people in America didn’t pay much attention until cases started clustering in Seattle and Westchester, and the Italian government decided to put some northern regions, and eventually the entire country, into a lockdown.
Trump was still, at this point, saying that the virus would go away on its own. He resisted letting infected patients off a cruise ship, seemingly to keep the overall numbers down.
And then, almost overnight, the media conventional wisdom flipped. Vox, to take a representative example, memory-holed its confident prediction that the coronavirus wouldn’t become a deadly pandemic.
By the time most people tuned in, lockdown was the urgent conventional wisdom, even though it is a form of extreme travel restriction. New explainers have been born to map out incubation periods, asymptomatic spreaders and how to flatten the curve. Instead of anti-racism, epidemiology is the order of the day. And now people who opted not to take AP calculus their senior year of high school are plotting fatality rates.
Simple mathematical extrapolation, unconnected to how humans actually socialize with one another, has led to extravagant projections of millions of deaths.
I think a great many Americans are wondering if it’s all a lot of hysteria from the intellectual-yet-idiot class. Trump obviously senses this suspicion is out there. And he’s getting nervous about the projections of Goldman Sachs and other Wall Street institutions that 20 or 30 percent unemployment is in our near future.
Maybe they are right, but then again, Taleb became famous precisely because he understood that the masters of the universe on Wall Street were almost entirely IYIs, too. Some humility is in order from amateur epidemiologists and economists. COVID-19 is called the novel coronavirus because it is a new thing in the world. That should caution us against orienting ourselves to it by the same old antagonisms.
Michael Brendan Dougherty is a senior writer at National Review, from which this column was adapted. Twitter: @MichaelBD
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