Challenging the pandemic skeptics

If you are a credentialed academic in any field at all, then if you espouse policies that are favored by the libertarian, free-market, right wing, you can be assured of a platform for your views in think tanks and the media, even if the subject you are pontificating on are not the ones in which you are credentialed.

Richard Epstein is a good example of that. He is a professor of law. In a recent interview, Isaac Chotiner of The New Yorker questioned him about some contrarian claims that he had made about the coronavirus epidemic. Epstein is one of those who believes that we are over-reacting to the pandemic and that the danger to the economy is greater than the danger to people and we should not be having these tough social distancing rule, views that the Trump administration is anxious to believe, and so his views have been influential and received considerable publicity.

This is not the only field that Epstein has been talking about.

Epstein has long been one of the most cited legal scholars in the country, and is known for his libertarian-minded reading of the Constitution, which envisions a restrained federal government that respects private property. He has also been known to engage with controversial subjects; last fall, he published an article on the Hoover Institution Web site that argued, “The professional skeptics are right: there is today no compelling evidence of an impending climate emergency.”

Epstein initially claimed that there would be no more than 500 deaths in the US and when that number was quickly outstripped, he said that that was an error and that he had meant to say 5,000. But that number has also already been exceeded because today we are over 12,000. While it took 30 days to reach the first 5,000 deaths, the next 5,000 took just five days. (A useful rule of thumb to get a rough estimate of the doubling time of anything is to divide 70 by the current growth rate. So for example, if the growth rate is 14%, then the number will double in five days. The estimates are better for small growth rates and get worse as you go to larger ones but even for 20% growth rates, it is only off by about 10%.)

Despite Chotiner being polite in his questioning, his persistence in trying to get Epstein to justify his assertions made the latter angry and defensive and he claimed that he was able to speak authoritatively on epidemiology and economics because of his expertise in evolutionary theory. (Remember, he is a law professor.). Chotiner said that Epstein was initially wary about talking to him and agreed only after saying that he was making his own recording of the call. Chotiner has published a transcript of the interview and it makes for interesting reading, because Chotiner follows up the assertions made by Epstein with rebuttals by actual experts in the field.

The transcript of that part of the latter part of the interview is especially fun to read when Epstein gets angry about being challenged and I reproduce that bit below. The bolded passages are Chotiner.

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?

No, actually, I would not.

Then good. Then maybe what you want to do is to say, “Gee, I’m not quite sure that this is right. I’m going to check with somebody else.” But, you want to come at me hard, I am going to come back harder at you. And then if I can’t jam my fingers down your throat, then I am not worth it. But you have basically gone over the line. If you want to ask questions, ask questions. I put forward a model. But a little bit of respect.

When you talk to real experts in a field and ask them to justify what they are saying, they will point to evidence and arguments that form the basis for their beliefs. They tend not to get angry and defensive and lash out at the questioner because they believe that the science speaks for itself.


  1. Bruce says

    As I’m not a lawyer, I should enter into playing this game by quoting a common legal saying.
    If you have either the law or the facts on your side, pound on that one. If you have neither, then just pound on the table.
    So we all understand what’s happening here. An implicit confession of his incompetence.

  2. jrkrideau says

    There seems to be something called possibly ‘evolutionary legal theory”. This makes evolutionary psychology seem mainstream.

  3. rrutis1 says

    It’s so frustrating that these morons aren’t just laughed out of the room in the first place, but this is where we are now. Makes me long for the days of Reagan’s policy by astrology.

  4. publicola says

    This is exactly what Trump does. As usual, the people with nothing to say insist on saying it, and loudly.

  5. mediagoras says

    As a lawyer and a professor, one might expect Epstein to have a healthy understanding of logic and rhetoric. If so, he would recognize he regularly commits the fallacy of “appeal to authority.” Although this is a fairly common fallacy, at least some of us who commit it have the good taste not to appeal to ourselves as the (improper) authority. By putting himself forward as a so-called expert, his ego is invested in others bowing to his authority. This is why he resorts to schoolyard bullying when someone calls him on his BS.

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