Credit: Capture The Nutty Professor

ZeroLeaks: How Zero Covid’s “Science” isn’t science at all.

After Gary’s revelation yesterday that Professor Anthony Staines was sharing texts from “rules for radicals” urging the zero covid group to “look for ways to increase anxiety, insecurity, and uncertainty” in the population, it’s worth taking a deeper dive into the trove of zero covid correspondence we’ve recently received here at Gript. Because, as you’re about to find out, it’s most revealing.

One of the big problems with the discourse around the pandemic, in general, has been the uncritical veneration of “science”. There’s a difference, of course, between “science” and “scientists”. The former is a process, with a scientific method, designed to investigate and examine and test various hypotheses about how the world works. Science, done properly, will seek to find answers about the Coronavirus, and the pandemic, by investigating it, testing solutions, and reporting on how they work.

Scientists, on the other hand, are just people. When they’re not engaged in Science, they’re just like you and I: People with an opinion. Very often, these days, Scientists are treated as if their very words are science, when those words, in truth, are just opinions. The Covid Zero people are possibly the greatest example of that.

Let’s start with something that’s already in the public domain. The Independent ran an article by Tomas Ryan this week in which they gave him platform to disseminate more of the Independent Scientific Advisory Group (ISAG) message.

 

The article makes several claims. To the average reader, the assumption would be that these are scientific claims, made by a scientist, who is an expert in the area. The problem is that they are not, and the internal communications of ISAG prove it.

Firstly, there is the ‘done by April’ tagline at the start. The only problem with this is that back in January, ISAG members were telling one another that with a zero covid lockdown we could do this ‘by Paddy’s day’:

Here is internal email correspondence from December which says as much.

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Now you might say, “but John”, of course the timeline changed. If you start covid zero later, it will finish later.

And that is a fair point. But what is strange is that within the group, people didn’t believe that Paddy’s day was realistic in the first place. What they were telling the public in December did not square with what they believed themselves. Here’s Helen Dolk of Ulster University, for example, saying that she doubts anybody will believe this. Note: the question is not about whether it’s accurate or not, just what people might ‘believe’.

Further, this is followed by a concern about how to keep people locked down even after vaccinations roll out:

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There are a couple of interesting things there: First, the admission that Ireland is already in “full lockdown”. Second, there’s the revelation that she doesn’t think anyone will believe the “paddy’s day” message. Third, there’s the big concern, and this is really telling: For all that “Zero Covid” is supposed to be about the fastest way to open the country up, her real concern is how to keep it locked down even longer, after people are vaccinated. How does that remotely square with what Ryan is saying in the Sunday Independent? On the one hand, they want to “open up by April” – and on the other hand, their own scientists are warning that we need to stay locked down even after the vulnerable are vaccinated, which would mean lockdown well into the Summer. So in the Sunday Independent, are we reading Science, or are we reading Spin?

Later, Andrew Kunzmann of Queens University tells the group that Paddy’s day is a “decent target” but that they should also show they are ahead of the science by ‘pre-empting’ the dates:

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This, needless to say, is not “science”. It’s guesswork, supposition, and public relations. At all points, ISAG’s main concern is “how to sell zero covid to the public”. It is not, as you might expect, “will this work?”

In fact, while they’re publicly confident, in private, the Covid Zero people have been repeatedly and consistently, wrong. As far back as September, for example members of the group were actually thinking that we might be done with Covid by Christmas – and it was when this didn’t happen that the public narrative changed.

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Here’s their mathematical modeller, Paul Dempsey, back in September, full of optimism, showing that with how things were going at the time we’d be at below 10 daily cases by Christmas. A later email says that with April style lockdown we would have been at zero. That, it turns out, was desperately wrong. But it hasn’t impacted their certainty.

 

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Aside from being wrong, though, on various matters of science, the bigger issue with ISAG is that they persistently engage in spin. For example, look at the below:

Again, this is a plan to mislead the public about what the Covid Zero people actually believe. How does “back to normal by Paddy’s day” square with their private belief that lockdown would have to continue, even after the vulnerable were vaccinated?

They were aware, though, that what they were advocating was a long, and brutal, lockdown, Indeed, the PR arm was ready and willing to head this off: Find good hashtags, and don’t let them use one that tells the truth:

But locked up to Paddy’s Day is exactly what we are, and exactly what they intended us to be.

The issue here is this: Consistently, and repeatedly, this group, which is an almost ever-present in the media, has been engaged in shaping a message based on something other than what their own science appears to say. On the one hand, they promise an early end to lockdown, but on the other, they privately admit that it will have to last longer. And what they are presenting to the public as “science” is, in fact, just their own personal political preferences.

When you put this together with Gary’s story yesterday, which revealed members of ISAG had been instructed remember to keep people anxious, insecure, and off balance, you don’t see a picture of a group that’s especially flattering.

One other matter of interest: ISAG relies on opinion polls carried out by Ireland Thinks which is headed up by a very good pollster in Dr. Kevin Cunningham and whose client list includes Trinity College Dublin – which begs a question about how ISAG got this poll done? Was it with University money? We know, for example, that they have sent out press releases from the University press office despite not being an official University organisation.

What’s clear is that they will remain prominent in the media, called upon almost endlessly to pontificate about the freedoms that you and I should, or should not be granted. That’s why it’s important to remember that so much of what you are hearing from them is spin, targeted, according to themselves, to keep you feeling anxious. And in a lot of cases, they don’t even believe it themselves. It’s not science. And the media shouldn’t continue to allow them to present it as such.

 

 

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