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Knut Wittkowski: The Coronavirus Truthers’ Newest “Expert”

People are remarkably stupid.
April 9, 2020
Knut Wittkowski: The Coronavirus Truthers’ Newest “Expert”
A body is removed from a refrigeration truck serving as a temporary morgue at the Brooklyn Hospital Center, in the Borough of Brooklyn on April 8, 2020 in New York. - New York recorded a new single-day high for coronavirus deaths on April 8, but Governor Andrew Cuomo said the epidemic appeared to be stabilizing. Cuomo said 779 people had died in the last 24 hours, bringing the total death toll in New York state from COVID-19 to 6,268. (Photo by Bryan R. Smith / AFP) (Photo by BRYAN R. SMITH/AFP via Getty Images)

1. Morons

Models are not facts. They are snapshots in time which attempt to predict, with varying degrees of confidence, what the future might look like, dependent upon a number of variables—which may, or may not, remain constant.

One of the hallmarks of know-nothing conservatism is that people will take a model, strip out all of the context and caveats, pretend that the model definitively “predicts” something it does not, and then try to dunk on it if the exact outcome does not materialize precisely on schedule.

Like this.

That’s bad enough. It’s an indication either of bad faith or severe cognitive limitations.

What’s worse is when the same people who dismiss careful modeling then latch onto utter bs because it confirms their priors.

Exhibit #500,426 is this credulous piece in the College Fix, which dutifully regurgitates a bunch of Trump-friendly talking points from one Knut Wittkowski. If I could summarize what’s going on here, it’s basically that the College Fix is saying: Don’t trust all of those experts with their fancy models. Trust this one expert, who’s shooting from the hip.

And what this one “expert” is saying is: “[W]hat people are trying to do is flatten the curve. I don’t really know why. But, what happens is if you flatten the curve, you also prolong, to widen it, and it takes more time. And I don’t see a good reason for a respiratory disease to stay in the population longer than necessary . . .”

Let’s leave aside the fact that the reasons to flatten the curve are well-stated: If the virus proceeds along its natural infection path, the healthcare system would be overrun in the course of several weeks and more people would die than necessary, because many of them would be unable to receive appropriate care. The bargain you strike by flattening the curve is that, yes, the virus stays in circulation longer, and yes, this is sub-optimal, but the payoff is that the overall fatality rate is dramatically lowered because we have the resources to treat all serious cases according to best-practices, so fewer people die.

Grokking this basic premise isn’t like understanding string theory. If you can’t even “see a good reason” for flattening the curve, then you probably don’t know what you’re talking about. That should have been the first alarm bell for the College Fix.

The other alarm bells should have come from the substance of the Wittkowski interview itself. Here are some highlights:

Question: You were speaking to my producer the other day on the phone, and you said, “The pandemic is over.” What do you mean by that?
Wittkowski: There are no more new cases in China and in South Korea. . . .

Question: Do you believe the Chinese statistics? Do you think they’ve lied to us? Do you believe the stats that have come out of China?
Wittkowski: The epidemic has ended there, yes. Because otherwise, we would see people emerging—and even in China, it’s today very difficult to keep information under the hood. . . .

Question: So, we’re now spending more time indoors. We’ve been told to go indoors. Isn’t that—doesn’t that help keep the virus going?
Wittkowski: It keeps the virus healthy, yeah. . . .
Question: So we should be told to go outdoors?
Wittkowski: Yeah. Going outdoors is what stops every respiratory disease. . . .

Wittkowski: Of all symptomatic cases. 2% of all symptomatic cases will die. That is 2% of the [25,000] a day. So that is 500 people a day, and that will happen over 4 weeks. So, that could be as high as 10,000 people.

After this, Wittkowski goes on to say that there is no shortage of PPE equipment. His reasoning is that, somewhere in the world, there exists PPE equipment that is not currently being used, ergo any local “shortage” is just a misallocation.

This is true in the same way that a drought is just a misallocation of water that is currently in the ocean.

What’s weird is the way Wittkowski vacillates from hyper-technical semantics like that of there being no actual “shortages” to wildly abstracted assertions—like the fact that staying indoors keeps a virus “healthy.” And that going outdoors “stops” respiratory diseases. These generalities are not, in fact, true. The location of the host does nothing to the “health” of the pathogen. If you are alone on a mountain with coronavirus in your system, the virus will not be “stopped.” You will get sick. You will either become symptomatic or not. If you become symptomatic, you will either die or recover. This cycle is the same whether you are indoors or outdoors. The biological process of the virus is not affected in any way by being “indoors” versus “outdoors.”

But what’s most alarming is Wittkowski’s mis-statements of basic facts.

Wittkowski claims that there are “no more new cases” in China and South Korea. As he was saying this, China was reporting new cases. South Korea has reported new cases every single day.

Wittkowski also asserts that he believes Chinese statistics. How he could take this position is unfathomable, since China only decided that they would include asymptomatic positive results in their data on March 31. Which means that even if they are telling the world the whole truth and nothing but the truth now, we can have no confidence in their data prior to March 31.

And then there’s the big one: Wittkowski has a muddled paragraph where he offers his prediction of 10,000 deaths in the United States:

Of all symptomatic cases. 2% of all symptomatic cases will die. That is 2% of the [25,000] a day. So that is 500 people a day, and that will happen over 4 weeks. So, that could be as high as 10,000 people.

It’s unclear what, exactly, he’s trying to say here. (Note: The transcript incorrectly says “2 percent of 250,000 a day.” If you listen to the actual video, he says “2 percent of 25,000 a day.”) Is Wittkowski saying that, had no suppression measures been taken, then there would only have been 25,000 new cases a day and 10,000 deaths? Because that is . . . insane. It’s the epidemiological equivalent of WeWork’s path to profitability.

Or is he saying that given where we are now, then there should only be 10,000 dead?

I mean, he’s incoherent even on the basic mechanics of what he’s saying here, and that is one problem. But the other is that his numbers have already been disproven by events. Today we will go over 430,000 confirmed infections in the United States and 15,000 deaths. And remember: Those numbers almost certainly undercount the reality on both scores.

What is happening here? I feel like I’m taking crazy pills!

How on earth can the editors at the College Fix, or other supposedly smart people, tout this Wittkowski interview as confirmation of their contra-factual beliefs as opposed to an indictment of them?

There are only two possible explanations. And even though it’s off-brand, I suppose I’ll take the more optimistic one.

2. Bernie

The dream will never die!

Bernie Sanders is finally out of the race. Good for him, I suppose.

I highly recommend Tim Miller’s post-mortem on the Sanders campaign, because it gets at the central conundrum Sanders faced: To court other parts of the Democratic party, or to demand that they conform to him.

Here’s Tim:

He never considered any olive branches to the mainstream left. He didn’t shed his independent label in the Senate in favor of a big, blue D. He wouldn’t move off of the “socialist” brand. He couldn’t even just say that Fidel Castro was a bad guy, full-stop, without twisting himself around to try to praise him a little bit.This sort of approach isn’t entirely a bad thing. Never Trump Republicans like me should actually have some respect for a guy who sticks to his guns, even when it would be expedient to pivot. You don’t have to like Bernie’s proposals to admire his steadfastness. That’s a kind of character.

But unflinching steadfastness at the expense of even modest concessions isn’t the path to the presidency.

For Bernie, the movement—and especially the “narrative” of the movement—was more important than the victory. And that’s his choice. For all we know, 20 years from now the Democratic party will be remade in his image and he’ll be as beloved as Barry Goldwater once was to Republicans.

That’s the key difference. If you want to create an ideological movement, you don’t concede anything to anyone. Increasing the barrier to entry actually becomes a selling point. The purity is the product.

But it’s very hard to win a presidential election with an ideological movement. (Not to be confused with a personality cult. It’s much easier to win an election with one of those.)

3. Caddyshack

I’ve never understood this, but there is a segment of the population which does not love Caddyshack. My wife is one of these people. They are a mystery to me.

So enjoy this old Golf Digest piece on the making of the greatest sports movie, ever:

Kenney saw himself as a bit of a misfit — one of Caddyshack’s original taglines, “Some People Just Don’t Belong,” was tailor-made for him. But he had kindness, intelligence and charm, and he learned how to be popular by making people laugh. As a student at Harvard, things seemed to come easily. He was president of his fraternity, a member of the Signet Society and editor of the Harvard Lampoon, the world’s oldest humor magazine.

At the Lampoon, Kenney spent long hours in the magazine’s headquarters, a 1909 castle complete with turreted tower and leaded-glass windows. It was there that he met an old-money upperclassman named Henry Beard. The creative sparks flew immediately. “With him, two and two made 30,” says Beard, who today has dozens of books to his name (including The Official Exceptions to the Rules of Golf and Golfing: A Duffer’s Dictionary).

The pair’s first stand-alone collaboration was a parody of Life Magazine — it lost about $200,000 and plunged the Lampoon into debt. But Matty Simmons, of Twenty-First Century Communications, was convinced of their talent. He published their next effort, a spoof of Time Magazine, and this one made $250,000.

After their respective graduations (Henry ’67, Doug ’68), having both been kicked out of the Reserve Officer Training Corps, they ended up hanging out in Cambridge, Mass., trying to figure out what to do next. What followed was a wicked parody of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of The Rings called Bored of the Rings — it sold 750,000 copies and was recently republished in the U.K.

The parodies were a perfect outlet for Kenney’s amazing ability to mimic. If a musician has perfect pitch, Kenney had perfect ear. “I was subletting an apartment once,” says Ramis, “and Doug came over and pulled out a book and started reading from it. At some point he would stop reading and start improvising in the style of the book. He did this as a showoff exercise. He’d defy me to guess where the book ended and the improv began, but I couldn’t. He could do it with virtually any book on the shelf.”

Read the whole thing.

Jonathan V. Last

Jonathan V. Last is editor of The Bulwark.