Conservative Jonathan V. Last, writing at The Bulwark, invites readers to Come Meet the Biggest Fool in America. In part of an email newsletter sent to subscribers today, Last rightly excoriates economist Richard Epstein for minimizing the risks from the coronavirus pandemic.
Last writes (yes, a pun) that
I mention all of this as a wind up to this extraordinary interview in the New Yorker with the Hoover Institution’s Richard A. Epstein.
On March 16, Epstein published a piece arguing that all existing COVID-19 models were fundamentally flawed because they failed to talk into account “standard Darwinian economics.” The result, Epstein concluded, was that the total number of deaths from the outbreak in the United States would be of the order of magnitude of 500.
I am not going to link to his original piece, because it is one of the most irresponsible essays I’ve ever seen from a serious person.
What I want to push you to, instead, is his interview, because in it he betrays a truly astonishing combination of ignorance and confidence.
He talks about “weak” and “strong” forms of the coronavirus. There is no “weak” or “strong” version of this virus.
He claims that the novel coronavirus “[tends] to weaken over time.” There is no evidence for this. None.
He claims there are no known examples of viruses which do not “weaken” over time. To pick just two: Neither SARS nor ebola have mutated over time in such a way as to weaken.
And over and over Epstein talks about his “sense” of this or his “sense” of that while making iron-clad predictions and dismissing modeling and science that he does not understand.
But what marks Epstein here most deeply isn’t that he’s wrong about so much of the basics of how infectious diseases work. It’s his total confidence that he has full command of all the relevant knowledge—that he cannot possibly be missing anything and that it is the entire rest of the world—almost literally everyone else on the planet who does this for a living—who is wrong. The hubris is breathtaking.
Toward the end of the interview Epstein tries to bluster his way out by saying that he’s willing to bet “a great deal of money” on his claims and that he’s willing to debate anyone, anywhere, at any time.
The problem, of course, is that math doesn’t care about debates.
In his original piece, Epstein asserted that the world would see roughly 50,000 deaths, total, from COVID-19 and the United States would see 500.
He later revised that figure, saying that while the global 50,000 would hold, the United States would see between 2,000 and 2,500 deaths.
As of this morning, we have 35,019 confirmed deaths globally and 2,513 deaths in America. Both figures are still accelerating.
Epstein says he wants to wager “a great deal of money” on his predictions. Well, whether he understands it or not, he wagered his career on them. And he’s already lost.
Indeed, after reading Epstein’s interview with the New Yorker, economist Justin Wolfers writes of Epstein: “I have never seen someone demolish a scholar’s reputation as savagely as Richard Epstein demolishing his own.”
Epstein’s seventy-six; he should have stopped writing no later than at age seventy-five.