Lawyers and self-importance go together like a slime & maggot sandwich

This New Yorker interview with “legal scholar Richard Epstein” is one of the most amazing exhibitions of arrogance I’ve read lately…and I’m living in the age of Donald Trump. Epstein earlier wrote an essay for his home base, the right-wing think tank the Hoover Institution, in which he predicted that the coronavirus pandemic was over-exaggerated, that it would peak with about 500 deaths and then fade away. His work was widely cited by conservatives, claiming that it showed that the cure was worse than the disease. His estimate was passed within a week, and the death toll is still rising. He’s wrong, definitively, and his prediction was quickly falsified. But he’s still defending it!

Most galling, his defense is that his prediction is supported by evolutionary theory. I know a little bit about evolution, so that was a startling claim. He’s a lawyer, not a biologist. He tries to explain his justification in this interview, and it turns out to be built on wishful thinking and faulty beliefs in how evolution works.

Here’s why he thinks the pandemic wouldn’t be as bad as the experts say.

But then adaptation starts to set in. And, in my view, adaptation is a co-evolutionary process in which things change, not only in human behavior but also change in genetic viral behavior.

OK, sure, humans are evolving, the virus is evolving, but how does that support the notion that the virus will kill 500 and not 100,000 people? There’s a leap there that emerges murkily.

…as the virus becomes more apparent, adaptive responses long before government gets involved become clear.

Wait, so his argument is that the virus will adapt to become relatively harmless before any public health work can take effect? I seem to recall that this viral adaptation to become weaker didn’t happen with, say, polio. He’s making assumptions about the rate of change.

Well, what happens is it’s an evolutionary tendency.

Also assumptions about a “tendency”. How does this work? He explains that. It’s jaw-droppingly stupid.

So the mechanism is you start with people, some of whom have a very strong version of the virus, and some of whom have a very weak version of the virus. If the strong-version-of-the-virus people are in contact with other people before they die, it will pass on. But, if it turns out that you slow the time of interaction down, either in an individual case or in the aggregate, these people are more likely to die before they could transfer the virus off to everybody else.

So his idea of why slow-the-spread works is not that it gives health services time to treat severe cases, it’s that he imagines there is this substantial variation in lethality of the virus, and that isolation allows people carrying strong strains to die, eliminating those variants, giving weak strains a selective edge. This ruthless Darwinian winnowing of viral strains will occur over the course of a few weeks.

He’s postulating a hyper-evolutionary acceleration; it’s very similar to the arguments of creationists who think all the vast amount of variation in species emerged from a few kinds preserved from the Flood 4000 years ago. Good evolutionary biology does not treat selection as a god-like force that instantly generates an optimal solution — we’re entirely aware of the limitations and how fast it can potentially work. We can use math. Epstein’s mechanism might work…over a few hundred thousand generations, which I suspect is even slower than our dilatory president’s response to the crisis.

And you’re not an epidemiologist, correct?

No, I’m trained in all of these things. I’ve done a lot of work in these particular areas. And one of the things that is most annoying about this debate is you see all sorts of people putting up expertise on these subjects, but they won’t let anybody question their particular judgment.

No, he’s not trained in those particular areas. He’s a lawyer. They work contrary to how scientists work. Lawyers start with the conclusion that they want to reach, and then select evidence that fits that conclusion.

That comment is particularly ironic because it applies spectacularly well to him. He’s claiming expertise he doesn’t have. You know, as I said, I actually do have some training in evolutionary biology, but I understand the limitations of what I know. I understand general principles and basic rules, but I also know that there are domains of specialization, like epidemiology, that I know very little about. I wouldn’t try to trump an epidemiologist’s detailed understanding of pandemics with my general knowledge of evolution of fish and spiders and cephalopods. Yet here’s Epstein, asserting that his legal training qualifies him to know better than epidemiologists.

I also wouldn’t declare that my knowledge of biology means I know better than Epstein how the law works.

What I’m doing here is nothing exotic. I’m taking standard Darwinian economics—standard economic-evolutionary theory out of Darwin—and applying it to this particular case.

There is actually a field of Darwinian economics. It’s mostly a bunch of economists who are smart enough to know that biologists have built up a lot of theory about how evolutionary biology works, and they’re trying to apply biological principles to economics. That’s not what Epstein is doing. He’s trying to jigger his fantasy Libertarian notions of economics to fit biology, and throwing a snit because biology is not obliging.

Oh yes, a snit. The following exchange is a stunning demonstration of how thin-skinned Richard Epstein is.

I was just asking about—

I’m saying what I think to be the truth. I mean, I just find it incredible—

I know, but these are scientific issues here.

You know nothing about the subject but are so confident that you’re going to say that I’m a crackpot.

No. Richard—

That’s what you’re saying, isn’t it? That’s what you’re saying?

I’m not saying anything of the sort.

Admit to it. You’re saying I’m a crackpot.

I’m not saying anything of the—

Well, what am I then? I’m an amateur? You’re the great scholar on this?

No, no. I’m not a great scholar on this.

Tell me what you think about the quality of the work!

O.K. I’m going to tell you. I think the fact that I am not a great scholar on this and I’m able to find these flaws or these holes in what you wrote is a sign that maybe you should’ve thought harder before writing it.

What it shows is that you are a complete intellectual amateur. Period.

O.K. Can I ask you one more question?

You just don’t know anything about anything. You’re a journalist. Would you like to compare your résumé to mine?

Wow. Like, wow. I’m speechless. A bit touchy, isn’t he?

Richard Epstein, you are an amateur and a crackpot, and also arrogant and ignorant. I hope this interview follows you for the rest of your days and demolishes your credibility in all scholarly things.


  1. says

    They should have asked a physicist or a software engineer. Those guys have opinions about everything!
    “Hey Elon Musk, how bad do you think coronavirus is going to get? And why should we care what you think?”

  2. says

    Wow. In the article it turns out that he thinks that Syphilis is no longer a killer because it’s got less severe, not because it’s now treatable with antibiotics. And that HIV is now a treatable, chronic disease because it’s got milder, not because new anti-retroviral treatments keep the condition under control.

    He is an absolute idiot when it comes to medicine and biology.

  3. wzrd1 says

    It sounds like he gets his “knowledge” on viral mutation from the first “The Andromeda Strain” movie, where the non-carbon based giant virus magically mutates to eat rubber and hand wave, the problem disappears once they disable the magicnuke from mutating it even more into a pathogen or worse (whatever worse is).

    Meanwhile, there is very little information on viral genetic code conservation, especially which parts are tightly conserved and which are poorly conserved. But, there is a rather good hint, given the minimal shift from other recorded coronavirus strains in the world and that shoots holes in it large enough to sink the Bismark instantly, had it not already been sunk long ago.

  4. zenlike says

    In the interview, he also whines about medical experts using their credentials to shoot down his nonsense, but immediately attacks the credentials of the interviewer the moment he gets pushback from him.

  5. komarov says

    O.K. I’m going to tell you. I think the fact that I am not a great scholar on this and I’m able to find these flaws or these holes in what you wrote is a sign that maybe you should’ve thought harder before writing it.

    That should have been the most devestating put-down possible, except it could never really work on anyone that self-assured. Most people digging themselves into a pit would notice the dimming sun and rising walls eventually.

  6. stroppy says

    “Right wing think tank.” There’s an oxymoron for you.

    Is there audio of that interview? The guy looks suspiciously like Gilbert Gottfried.

  7. anchor says

    Anybody with a reasonable mind wouldn’t hire his services as a lawyer either. He’s inept where it counts, in the noggin.

  8. weylguy says

    I’m surprised that Epstein and his ilk are not working on ways to make money from this pandemic. After all, lawyers leaped into mesothelioma, hip-replacement surgery, talcum powder(!) and any number of other issues and conditions from which to milk the system.

    Next up: “Do you drink water? Well, researchers have shown that …

  9. microraptor says

    wzrd1 @4: Yeah, I was going to say that the guy’s knowledge of pathology seems to have come from seeing that move.


    Over thirty years ago.

  10. says

    I also wouldn’t declare that my knowledge of biology means I know better than Epstein how the law works.

    Don’t dismiss yourself so rapidly, Professor. Epstein may be a law professor, but he has less experience with how courtrooms and actual trials and actual disputes work (and don’t) than you do after your bout with Carrier. Epstein claiming he understands how law works (and doesn’t) is very much like physicists solving all problems in science without ever setting foot in a lab whose actual equipment is more advanced than children’s toys. Actually, less so: Most physicists would actually mock up their grand theories on paper to ensure there were no divide-by-zero errors before going public with them.

  11. a_ray_in_dilbert_space says

    No, his understanding of evolution is even worse than that in the Andromeda Strain–it derives from his study of “Evolutionary Economics,” which is Evo Psych interpreted through a lens of libertarian economics! Oh fricking boy! Talk about a toxic mix of smug self-congratulatory rhetoric coupled with Just-So stories masquerading as “theories”.

    At a certain point, when a person poses a threat to themselves or others, we take their guns away. When they have weaponized stupidity, it propagates unchecked. Guys, this, right here, is what peer review is for: eliminating bullshit of the purest ray serene!

  12. KG says

    …as the virus becomes more apparent, adaptive responses long before government gets involved become clear.

    Wait, so his argument is that the virus will adapt to become relatively harmless before any public health work can take effect?

    No, I think what Epstein was trying to say in that particular piece of drivel is that people adapt their behaviour “long before government gets involved”. Which is of course fuck-all to do with evolution, except insofar as our cognitive and social capacities are outcomes of evolution. And also, largely false. Most people have continued to congregate in groups large and small unless and until told not to by their governments – usually with the threat of punishment if they disobey.

  13. Artor says

    Epstein isn’t even a lawyer, he’s a “legal scholar.” I assume this means he knows as much about the law as he knows about biology. Dunning-Kruger, hallowed be thy name.

  14. a_ray_in_dilbert_space says

    KG, Actually, it’s worse that that–it’s both. He believes that the virus evolves to become less deadly, because a less deadly virus has more opportunity to infect. He believes that human behavior “evolves” over time, because people see that it keeps them safer, and that’s “kind of like” evolution.
    I hadn’t heard of “evolutionary” economics before, but good fucking dog, it is an utterly confused mish-mash of libertarian Just-So Stories with a veneer of “…’cause evolution”.

    Guy is also a climate denialist.

  15. says

    @a_ray_in_dilbert_space, 16

    Did you just find the thread that explains why the scholar’s interview …. breaks down …. toward the end (regarding the climate science denialism)?

  16. eurosid says

    This line of argument is taken straight from The Andromeda Strain, but more from Michael Crichton’s novel than the film. The bit about Syphilis is practically verbatim from the novel.

    Crichton would be proud.

  17. a_ray_in_dilbert_space says

    No, I’ve seen some of his crap before. His climate denial is in the same vein. “It doesn’t make sense to me, so it must be wrong.”

    Hmm. Can anyone here think of another reason? Anyone? Beuhler?

  18. photoreceptor says

    This might seem a bit arrogant and churlish and is way off the main thread, but I see people use the term “oxymoron” frequently to put someone down (in the present context, “right wing think tank”). But oxymorons are not negative comments, but associations of seemingly contradictory terms which somehow MAKE SENSE. The textbook example is “bitter-sweet”, which does convey a true idea, even if the two words composing it are contradictory. Another, which I learned at school is “littlest loudest roar” from Shakespeare’s “A midsummer nights dream”. So, for “right wing think tank”, better to say “f…ing impossible”. Sorry for the diversion, I will duck out now.

  19. says

    @a_ray_in_dilbert_space, 19

    I may not have been clear, or made sense, but I was meaning that a long history of being told “you’re a crackpot” due to bloviating (a presumption on my part) about this contrarian, incorrect understanding of climate science has sensitized Epstein to such criticism.

    Surely seemed rather primed to see people calling him a crank, AAR.

  20. a_ray_in_dilbert_space says

    Ah, probably. OTOH, this now seems to be the standard operating procedure for Republican politicians–deny the value of expertise by erecting a straw man and then appealing to “common sense” based on that flawed model.

  21. unclefrogy says

    this guy is a perfect example of the kind of thinking that places ideas and beliefs about reality over what reality actually is. It is a legalistic argument based on some desired outcome. they never think to ask the question do things actually do that, the idea is paramount and of course they are important because they thought it up or they are parroting it.
    They have never found out any fundamental fact about reality ever, they are only adept at argument , not thinking nor investigating what truth might be. Th idea of questioning anything that might possibly apply to there ideas is unthinkable.
    a crack pot is very apt descriptive in that a cracked pot is incomplete and does not function as a pot other than just an object even if somewhat esthetically pleasing
    uncle frogy

  22. stroppy says

    @ 20 Oxymoron
    perhaps so in some strict literary sense

    “right wing” … “think tank”
    “military” … “intelligence”

    Labeling these as oxymorons is snark ironically suggesting that, despite dictionary definitions, people have it wrong and they are actually inherent opposites. Simply substituting “fucking impossible” would be flat and neither ironic nor snarky — in my warped opinion of course. I will admit however that ‘military intelligence’ so labeled would be the stronger of the two quips– for reasons that I will happy bore you with if you request it.

  23. stroppy says

    Attacking expertise is deeply embedded in American history. But I’d be curious if anyone has any thoughts on how or when, or even if, an inflection point was reached where it became an explicit propaganda weapon (flooding the zone) designed to bring down a society.

  24. says

    @#27, stroppy:

    IIRC, all the modern, professional “attack the experts” hitjobs have their roots in the advertising campaigns by tobacco companies in the 60s and 70s, trying to persuade the public that the increasing evidence that tobacco was bad for you were invalid. (And yes, the first such report dates from the 50s, that’s how long it’s been going on.) The oil companies hired the same advertising companies in the 1980s to cope with global warming, the original execs from that company served as advisors to the Republican Party under Reagan and later, and IIRC they also had some kind of connection to the anti-anti-apartheid right-wing in the late 70s.

    It is, however, worth noting that there is expertise and there is expertise. Since the Iraq invasion, the message of establishment Democrats on foreign policy has been “you should elect one of us over the Republicans, because even though we agree with them about what should be done and vote for all their initiatives, we are more competent than they are and this will somehow turn extraordinarily boneheaded policy into success”. Look, for example, at how Hillary Clinton voted for Bush’s wars, was a saber-rattling monstrosity as Secretary of State under Obama (and is credited by him as being the motive force for our ridiculous and disastrous invasion of Libya), but was still touted as an “expert” on foreign policy, just as Joe Biden, who agreed with Hillary Clinton on every mistake she made, is now being touted as an “expert”. Of course, there are no massive campaigns to discredit expertise on foreign policy, because both parties agree that acting unilaterally, deploying the military in response to diplomatic crises, and drone-bombing anybody who is poor and brown-skinned is good policy.

  25. publicola says

    This guy must have gotten his education at Trump Univ. Either that, or he has magnets up his nose.

  26. mythago says

    weylguy @9, Epstein is not and never has been a practicing lawyer; instead of making money the hard way, by suing companies that sold and profited off dangerous products (like tobacco, which didn’t make your parade of horribles), he’s a kept man, writing apologia and position papers for the kind of people who like to believe that they’re rolling in money because that is the natural order of things.

    I mean, even other lawyers think the dude is a self-important, ignorant ass, which is saying something.

  27. says

    Religious fundamentalists are very resistant to facts and science.
    Libertarianism is a religion which almost demands fundamentalism for its Articles of Faith.
    Finishing the syllogism is left as an exercise to the reader.

  28. raven says

    It’s a combination of gibberish and magical thinking.
    I’m surprised he didn’t claim the Invisible Hand of the Free Market was going to protect Americans from this virus outbreak.

    Some of those who said the Covid-19 virus was no big deal have already died.
    From infection and pneumonia caused by…Covid-19.

  29. raven says

    Epstein knows nothing about what he is babbling on about.
    We do in fact, know something about how viruses evolve over time.
    Some of it from evolutionary theory and mostly by watching past pandemics.

    .1. Virulence can either increase or decrease as time goes by.
    It depends on the details of transmission.
    Fast serial transmission selects for virulence.
    Slow serial transmission selects for attenuation.

    .2. The earth is now a human monoculture of 7.7 billion people.
    36% of the large animal biomass of the planet is human, much of the rest is our food supply e.g. cows.
    This makes us a huge target and a huge opportunity for any pathogens in the biosphere.
    A scientist noted this in the late 1970’s and predicted that we would see a series of pandemics from nonhuman animal pathogens jumping to humans.
    He was right and it’s been happening ever since, every few years. It was during the first Swine Flu scare.
    Shortly after that, HIV/AIDS showed up.

    .3. To evolve a new human pathogen takes two steps.
    The virus has to jump between species.
    It then has to evolve to adapt to its new host species.

    It’s likely that the Covid-19 virus is evolving to adapt to humans.
    It’s also likely and unfortunate, that if that is the case, we may never get rid of it.
    It will end up being part of our pathogen load like HIV did.

    .4. We will develop antivirals and vaccines against Covid-19.
    The virus will evolve…resistance to the antiviral drugs.
    It’s less likely but some viruses can evolve resistance to a vaccine, antigen escape.
    The flu does this so often we need a new vaccine every year.

  30. a_ray_in_dilbert_space says

    Vicar: “IIRC, all the modern, professional “attack the experts” hitjobs have their roots in the advertising campaigns by tobacco companies in the 60s and 70s, trying to persuade the public that the increasing evidence that tobacco was bad for you were invalid. ”

    While the anti-science think tanks did get a big boost from cigarette manufacturers, these were not the first anti-science, industry funded propaganda masquerading as science. The tetra-ethyl lead industry propaganda predates the tobacco propaganda by a couple of decades. Almost as soon as they started adding TEL to gasoline, workers in the factories started developing severe neurological symptoms and in some cases dying. The company that produced the compound engaged in a PR campaign to suppress these stories. The campaign persisted into the ’70s, with absolutely vicious hit campaigns impugning the integrity and expertise of anyone who opposed them.

    And of course, none of this would have been successful had there not been a long culture of rejecting experts and other elites in English-speaking cultures going back centuries. Many English folk tales take the form of an ignorant peasant getting the best of his “betters” through luck and cunning. So-called Jack tales–of which Jack and the Beanstalk is the best known–are usually in this vein.

    People are stupid, and they’ll fight to the death to keep it that way.

  31. stroppy says

    Thanks, that was informative. It seems as though it’s been a continuous evolution. I can’t help thinking that something changed in the 70’s after the defeat in Viet Nam. The result of that being that anti-expertise sentiment, prevalent across the political spectrum at the time, became normalized within the militarized right. And with that, the leadership turned its resentments inward on “America the Left,” in particular the press, and has been systematically disinforming and shredding democracy ever since.

    Now enter Putin.

    At least that fits with your comment: “People are stupid, and they’ll fight to the death to keep it that way.” No argument here.

  32. rrutis1 says

    “People are stupid, and they’ll fight to the death to keep it that way.”

    Can we get that on a t-shirt right now because it seems we are reaching peak stupid.

  33. rrutis1 says

    Also, on the “attack the experts” comments. I would like to defend republicans and conservatives, their experts do seem to be…lacking a bit of expertise.

  34. a_ray_in_dilbert_space says

    What changed in reaction to Viet Nam was that the smartest people in the room were too intimidated to tell LBJ that we couldn’t win. They also held him in thinly veiled contempt, and the feeling was mutual. The result was that the Whiz Kids lied to the American People, “and the war came.”
    The Boomers have always held experts in contempt, and it’s only gotten worse as they’ve aged. One result of this is that they haven’t supported education, and the following generations have suffered as well. When people look back at the fall of the US, they’ll point to the Boomers as when it started.

  35. Aaron Baker says


    You may recall that a lawyer saved your bacon from a certain Jesus mythicist. A little less of the insulting generalization might be in order. I would add that practicing law (something Epstein never seems to have done) is actually a pretty good training in evaluating the credibility of evidence.

  36. a_ray_in_dilbert_space says

    Aaron Baker,
    Yeah, it’s the 99.99% of lawyers that give the other 0.1% a bad name.
    (Sorry, but you did leave yourself open to that.)

    And legal training does NOT leave you with any expertise in assessing scientific evidence.

  37. Aaron Baker says

    I didn’t say it did. As you may have noticed, I wasn’t defending Epstein.

  38. Aaron Baker says


    I’d add that what a good lawyer does in these circumstances is consult the relevant scientists. that’s all I meant by evaluating evidence.

  39. Aaron Baker says


    I’d add that what a good lawyer does in these circumstances is consult the relevant scientists. that’s all I meant by evaluating evidence.

  40. stroppy says

    @ 38 For sure. But Nixon’s southern strategy was significant for setting the stage for future madness, and on top of that losing in Viet Nam was a traumatic blow to the martial pride of the country. There was a great deal of casting around at the time to explain why, and faulty analysis deflected blame to the left and the press, followed by a determined effort to never let that happen again.

    And so fast forward… years later Dubya claims to have redeemed the Viet Nam war by (Mission Accomplished!) dragging the US into yet another quagmire– all based on a bunch of Gog and Magog religiosity, grandiose “we make our own reality” and “end of history” hokum, lies, bull shite, and Freedom Fries.

    Fast forward again past further devolution, and [gasp] shockingly, a black president (“How could this happen, let the bashing begin!”) etc. … And…Ergo Trump, Putin and all the rest.

    That’s how I’m seeing it, anyways.

  41. a_ray_in_dilbert_space says

    Stroppy, all true. However, I think that the anti-authority spirit in English speaking nations should not be underestimated. After all, Oz, the US and the UK are pretty much tops in global warming denial.

  42. hellslittlestangel says

    Admit to it. You’re saying I’m a crackpot.

    What not to say when you don’t want to look like a crackpot.

  43. stroppy says

    @ 45
    True, although New Zealand seems somewhat sane.

    Elsewhere it’s the rugged individualists who are lining up to kiss Trump’s authoritarian rump. The US does seem to have mutated a particularly virulent strain of weirdness that it exports to its closest allies.

    It’s probably rooted in part in the uneducated frontier preachers who, cut off from traditional religious institutions, started making up their own brand of bullshit; which in turn proved to be fertile ground for fundamentalism –among other things. Now their empowered offspring and the Cliven Bundys of America can’t seem get enough of President Fubar.

  44. Curious Digressions says

    That’s [that I’m a crackpot] what you’re saying, isn’t it? That’s what you’re saying?


    Admit to it. You’re saying I’m a crackpot.


    Well, what am I then? I’m an amateur?


    You’re the great scholar on this?

    This isn’t about me.

    Tell me what you think about the quality of the work!

    C.R.A.C.K. and wishful thinking.

    What it shows is that you are a complete intellectual amateur. Period.

    In epidemiology – accurate. Also irrelevant.

    You just don’t know anything about anything. You’re a journalist. Would you like to compare your résumé to mine?

    Off topic.

    He should just stamp his feet and yell, “I’m better than you so shut up!”

  45. zetopan says

    @#27; Stroppy: “Attacking expertise is deeply embedded in American history.”

    As that great ‘merikan non-thinker and moron creationist (redundant) dentist and former chairman of the Texas State Board of Education Don McLeroy had stated: “someone has to stand up to experts!”. He is no longer in that particular position to wreck education but his pro-ignorance attitude still long persists in the Reich Wing GOTP (GOP + Tea Party).