Saturday, April 11, 2020

Meet the former NYT reporter who is challenging the coronavirus narrative

As daily life across America is upended by the coronavirus crisis -- with mass business closures plunging the economy into freefall -- one former New York Times reporter is sounding the alarm about what he believes are flawed models dictating the aggressive strategy.

Alex Berenson has been analyzing the data on the crisis on a daily basis for weeks and has come to the conclusion that the strategy of shutting down entire sectors of the economy is based on modeling that doesn’t line up with the realities of the virus.

"The response we have taken has caused enormous societal devastation, I don't think that's too strong a word," he told Fox News in an interview Thursday.

Berenson is a former reporter who worked for the Times from 1999 to 2010 primarily covering the pharmaceutical industry. He recently came to prominence again with a book, “Tell Your Children The Truth About Marijuana, Mental Illness, and Violence,” which challenged prevailing narratives on marijuana.

In the face of a broadening consensus on both the left and the libertarian right that sees marijuana as mostly healthy and even a positive in some circumstances, Berenson argued that the evidence instead shows a link between the drug and serious mental illness and an epidemic of violence.

Now he’s turned to challenging the narratives on the response to the coronavirus. What Berenson is promoting isn’t coronavirus denialism, or conspiracy theories about plots to curb liberties. Instead what Berenson is claiming is simple: the models guiding the response were wrong and that it is becoming clearer by the day.

"In February I was worried about the virus. By mid-March I was more scared about the economy. But now I’m starting to get genuinely nervous," he tweeted this week. "This isn’t complicated. The models don’t work. The hospitals are empty. WHY ARE WE STILL TALKING ABOUT INDEFINITE LOCKDOWNS?"

Hospitals, of course, are not empty in places like hard-hit New York City, and tales are widespread of overburdened doctors and emergency rooms. Berenson acknowledged as much in the interview Thursday.

Concerns that this virus is significantly more contagious and deadly than any ordinary flu strain are what's driving the current government approach, in America and around the world. Perhaps due in part to more testing, America reports the highest number of cases in the world right now, with more than 430,000 cases and nearly 15,000 deaths. Symptoms vary widely, with some patients reporting only minor discomfort yet others dealing with crushing physical pain and struggling to breathe, forced to go on ventilators.

But Berenson is taking a broader look. He initially challenged the model put forward by the Imperial College in London, when one of the authors of the models appeared to significantly walk back projections that the U.K. would see 500,000 people killed by the disease to closer to 20,000 -- although the author later said that the 500,000 prediction was without social distancing measures, and 20,000 was with them in place. That model is being used to advise the U.K. government on its strategy for the virus.

“That was March 22 or 23, and ever since then I’ve been paying incredibly close attention to the modeling and trying to figure out whether it lines up with what we’re seeing in reality -- and the answer is it hasn’t lined up at all," he said.

Recently he’s been focusing on discrepancies within the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) model. That model has come under renewed scrutiny as it has revised its metrics multiple times. It once predicted more than 90,000 deaths by August but recently issued a new estimate that has the figure closer to 60,000. Government officials say it's a model that's moving with what the country is doing.

"We believe that our health care delivery system in the United States is quite extraordinary," Dr. Deborah Birx said at a White House press briefing on Wednesday. "I know many of you are watching the Act Now model and the IHME model— and they have consistently decreased the number, the mortality from over almost 90,000 or 86,000, down to 81,000 and now down to 61,000. That is modeled on what America is doing. That’s what’s happening."

Dr. Anthony Fauci said that the indicators are that social distancing efforts are working: "Because remember, what you do with data will always outstrip a model. You redo your models, depending upon your data, and our data is telling us that mitigation is working."

But Berenson argues that those models have social distancing and other measures baked into them. As for further proof, he says that outside of places like New York there has not been a national health crisis that was predicted -- nor are there signs that the level of lockdown in various states has made a difference.

“Aside from New York, nationally there’s been no health system crisis. In fact, to be truly correct there has been a health system crisis, but the crisis is that the hospitals are empty,” he said. “This is true in Florida where the lockdown was late, this is true in southern California where the lockdown was early, it's true in Oklahoma where there is no statewide lockdown. There doesn't seem to be any correlation between the lockdown and whether or not the epidemic has spread wide and fast.”

He has also argued, in lengthy Twitter threads, that the drop in cases seen in various states has come before lockdowns would have had an impact -- since it takes a few weeks for social distancing measures to take effect due to the window between infection and symptoms.

Berenson blames the models for a response that has effectively shut down large sectors of the economy and is causing significant financial harm to Americans. On Thursday it was announced that the number of Americans seeking unemployment benefits swelled to 6.6 million last week, surging for the third consecutive week. Congress has sought to alleviate the pain by boosting those jobless benefits.

His is a view that has seen some sympathy from President Trump, who has spoken about the "cure being worse than the problem" and has indicated that he is keen to end the strict measures as soon as is possible -- saying Wednesday he wants to re-open the economy with a "big bang."

Berenson says the correct response in the initial days of the crisis would not have been to do nothing, but instead to adopt a more measured and targeted approach.

“There was incredible pressure to do something ... so these lockdowns all cascaded, every governor tried to outdo the next. And no one stopped and said ‘OK what about Japan, they don't seem to have a terrible epidemic, they wear masks, maybe we should wear masks,” he said.

He said other measures such as protecting individuals particularly at risk, and even things such as banning large gatherings such as concerts and sporting events could have been appropriate. But now he fears it may be too late for officials to say they overreacted.

“Now we’re in a bad spot because there’s clearly a dangerous political dynamic right now -- the economy is in freefall, a lot of people are hurting. If we acknowledge what is clearly happening ... the people who made these decisions, I think there’s going to be a lot of anger at them, so they don't want to acknowledge it, so they say 'oh it's the lockdown that saved us,'” he says.

Berenson is not a known partisan. His Twitter feed and other works contain few references to specific politicians, and there’s no indication that he’s in this to bash or defend Trump or either political party. But he noted that, like with his conclusions on marijuana, there has been a distinct lack of interest from the left.

“I went to Yale and I worked for the New York Times, the people on the left hold themselves out as being science-driven, as being smarter, they think they're smarter but they won’t look at facts that won’t meet their narratives,” he said.

He voiced frustration that these arguments have been ignored by a lot of mainstream outlets.

“That is frustrating for me ... but everyone needs to hear this counterargument, whether or not it's right, you need to hear it because the damage we are doing to ourselves right now is so enormous.”



Authoritarianism on full display amid the lockdowns

We are going to have to begin today’s Morning Briefing with a preemptive strike/disclaimer sort of thing. I have been writing a lot in the last month about being cautious and responsible while fighting the spread of the virus. I’ve been sticking to the rules and being more isolated than I usually am. Still, I’ve occasionally expressed my wish that we had a clearer endgame and I’ve also mentioned some worries about various petty tyrants using this crisis to turn the Constitution into the toilet paper so many people need right now.

My approach is prudent, my concerns valid.

Every time I attempt to explain that, however, somebody pipes up about me not understanding the gravity of the situation.

I write this from the bottom of my heart as an early response to the first person who wants to pipe up this morning: I’ve been out of my house a total of five times since March 7th, so shut it. I’m taking everything plenty seriously.

Glad we had that talk.

Now let us move on to my disdain for the overreaction of the petty tyrants, like the ones who arrested a man for playing in a park with his six-year-old daughter and wife while trying to comply with social distancing rules.

Sure, the bosses of the petty tyrants let the guy go, but he was still hauled away in handcuffs in front of his family by the local Idiot KGB.

In the more dystopian 21st-century department, a New Jersey city is sending out drones to get all up in the business of the local social distance scofflaws.

Do we all feel safer with our airborne overlords watching over us?


A little less totalitarian glee wouldn't be a bad thing, however. That's all I'm saying.

But hey, on the bright side, some of the more heavy-handed municipalities are finding a way to profit off of all of the anxiety and fear:

Manhattan Beach is cracking down on those violating city's physical distancing guidelines. Since zero tolerance policy went into effect last week, officers have issued 129 citations. They say violators can face $1,000 fine

Don't worry kids, the police are assuring us that none of this is reminiscent of a police state.

One of the worst of the petty tyrants has been Eric Garcetti, the mayor of my longtime city of residence, Los Angeles. It's quite obvious that he's relishing his authoritarian turn in the spotlight. He gave everything a Soviet flare last week when he encouraged the citizens of the City of Angels to snitch on neighbors who aren't obeying lockdown rules.

Not creepy at all.

Here in Arizona, we've been told to both stay at home but get outside and breathe some fresh air, as long as we maintain proper social distancing. It seems to be working so far.

Granted, we are quite spread out here in the Southwest -- even in the cities -- so distancing is easier.

My point, however, is that we’re keeping our distance without the threat of arrest from the state. Sure, people from state-to-state are different, but I maintain that human nature tends to react badly to threats, especially when that human nature is also American nature.

We have already been told this week to expect death tolls here in the U.S. that are far lower than originally predicted because we’ve been heeding the social distancing suggestions. Most places haven’t gone full Eric Garcetti while exhorting citizens to remain at home and/or away from each other. We’re still making it work though.

There is a very real possibility that we could have pulled this off without the Eric Garcetti and Gavin Newsom types fetishizing their political authority.

Just sayin'.




CDC loosens guidelines for some exposed to virus to return to work (NBC News)

CDC releases early demographic snapshot of worst cases, which skew toward those with underlying conditions, men, and African Americans (The New York Times)

Over 300,000 people have recovered from coronavirus around the world (Newsweek)

Ninety percent of federal PPE stockpile depleted amid pandemic (National Review)

A cumulative 16 million and counting: Weekly unemployment claims swell another 6.6 million (Fox Business)

Americans could start receiving relief checks starting today (USA Today)

Regulatory state: Thirty regulations that stymied Trump's virus response (Washington Examiner)


For more blog postings from me, see  TONGUE-TIED, EDUCATION WATCH INTERNATIONAL, GREENIE WATCHPOLITICAL CORRECTNESS WATCH, AUSTRALIAN POLITICS, and Paralipomena (Occasionally updated), A Coral reef compendium and an IQ compendium. (Both updated as news items come in).  GUN WATCH is now mainly put together by Dean Weingarten. I also put up occasional updates on my Personal blog and each day I gather together my most substantial current writings on THE PSYCHOLOGIST.

Email me  here (Hotmail address). My Home Pages are here (Academic) or  here  (Personal).  My annual picture page is hereHome page supplement


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