You might wonder why I haven’t been blogging as much recently. After all, given Governor Whitmer’s shelter-in-place order, my patient and surgical loads have been much lower than usual, and I’m spending a lot of time working at home. That should mean I’d be blogging up a storm, shouldn’t it, given that there’s now so much COVID-19-related material in the form of pseudoscience, bad science, quackery, and conspiracy theories. Oddly enough, it hasn’t happened yet. Although my ‘nym and persona for this blog are based on a cranky, nearly all-knowing computer from an obscure (in the US, at least) 40-year-old British science fiction show, I’m not a computer, and I’ve had trouble—shall we say?—focusing, at least on anything other than patient care. Also, I’m working on a manuscript regarding the premature hype over hydroxychloroquine (for which actual scientific evidence—as opposed to anecdotes—is definitely trending in the direction of the conclusion that it does not work for COVID-19). I also think that I’ve been taking my frustrations out on Twitter. Then, yesterday, I saw this gem from “Dr. Phil” McGraw who seems to be competing with Dr. Mehmet Oz in a competition to say the stupidest things about the pandemic, leading me to contemplate what I now like to call COVID-19 denial, or just COVID denial, of which this is a classic example:
TV personality Dr. Phil McGraw appeared on Fox News on Thursday evening to slam the shutdowns intended to stop the spread of coronavirus.
McGraw, a psychologist, talked about the mental health toll on people living in isolation and said the lockdowns would “create more destruction and actually more death across time than the actual virus will itself.” Then, he compared the toll of the virus to other causes of death.
“Forty-five thousand people a year die from automobile accidents, 480,000 from cigarettes, 360,000 a year from swimming pools,” McGraw said, “but we don’t shut the country down for that. But yet we’re doing it for this?”
Here’s the entire video:
Truly, Oprah Winfrey has a lot to answer for after having made Dr. Phil (and Dr. Oz) household names, now more than ever given their promotion of COVID-19 denial.
Of course it had to be Laura Ingraham’s show. Recall that she’s been spreading COVID-19 denial and featuring doctors hawking hydroxychloroquine based on their anecdotal “case series” that are anything but rigorously conducted case series. As the article points out, the toll from auto accidents is around 32,000 a year, while drowning claims roughly 3,500 a year. If Dr. Phil is going to use figures like this to promote COVID-19 denial and disinformation, at least he could have an intern look up the correct numbers for him.
Be that as it may, this is whataboutism at its most naked. Whataboutism is a propaganda technique commonly used by the Soviet Union during the Cold War that seeks to discredit an argument or person making an argument by implying hypocrisy using a comparison that is often (but not always) spurious and unrelated. It’s nothing more than a rhetorical diversion, in this case intended to discredit the policy of social distancing enforced through shutting down schools and nonessential businesses and ordering people to shelter in place by not leaving their homes except for essential activities, like getting food, medicine, etc. Dr. Phil’s comparison is particularly spurious because, as the article above notes, drownings and automobile crashes are not contagious; they are not spread by person-to-person contact and, while secondhand smoke can cause harm, the health issues due to smoking that lead to so much death from lung cancer and heart disease are not, strictly speaking, contagious either. This is a particularly brain dead comparison, even by Dr. Phil’s standards. Also, they don’t overwhelm hospitals in a manner of weeks.
I also can’t help but point out that conspicuously absent from Dr. Phil’s whataboutism was a mention of the tens of thousands of Americans who die from gun violence every year. This was Fox News, after all.
Meanwhile, Dr. Oz was engaging in a bit of COVID denial of his own:
Here’s America’s quack:
“We need our mojo back,” Oz said. “Let’s start with things that are really critical to the nation, where we think we might be able to open without getting into a lot of trouble. I tell you, schools are a very appetizing opportunity.”
Oz went on to cite a study which found that school closures in the United Kingdom only reduced coronavirus deaths by about 2 to 4%.
“I just saw a nice piece in The Lancet arguing that the opening of schools may only cost us 2 to 3% in terms of total mortality,” he said. “And, you know, any life is a life lost. But to get every child back into a school where they’re safely being educated, being fed and making the most out of their lives — with a theoretical risk on the back side, that might be a trade-off some folks would consider.”
Dr. Oz appears to mean this modeling study from a month ago from the Imperial College COVID-19 Response team, which appears not to have been peer reviewed that concluded that school closures likely only decrease overall COVID-19 mortality in the UK by 2-3%. (Of note, the study did not suggest reopening the schools.) Of course, models are highly dependent on the assumptions fed into the model. On this question, admittedly, the evidence is all over the map. For example, a 2015 systemic review of social distancing measures for influenza (which is less contagious than COVID-19) noted a decrease in transmission from 1-50%, depending on the study. More recently, a 2020 systematic review from Hong Kong of school closures and other social distancing measures reported fairly strong evidence that school closures reduced transmission, particularly among school-aged children, but there was also evidence that transmission surged again after schools reopened, leading to questions about timing and duration such closures. There is also evidence that less stringent means of social distancing in schools (e.g., rotating classes, spacing out desks, etc., could be effective.)
Of course, Dr. Oz was making what could have been a valid point (that closing schools might not be as effective at halting the spread of coronavirus as we think) in the worst possible way, a manner favored by those those engaging in COVID denial, to cherry pick a study questioning the effectiveness of whatever social distancing measure he might like to attack, and then comparing it to other things in a highly offensive way. “A very appetizing opportunity”? “We need our mojo back”? WTF? Basically Dr. Oz framed his message as a choice that he thinks worth considering, suffering an additional 2-3% mortality (that’s assuming that the model he cited is even applicable to the US or even correct in its estimates) in return for reopening schools to start to “get our mojo back” while referring to reopening the schools as an “appetizing opportunity.” There are no facepalms big enough, but this one is at least in the right order of magnitude.
Hilariously, libertarian propagandist Robby Soave at the inappropriately named Reason.com website was quick to leap to Dr. Oz’s defense:
But Dr. Oz was not describing a death toll in the millions. He said the cost could be “2–3 percent in terms of total mortality,” not among all school-aged children or the population at large.
That Lancet article argues that school closures may not be a particularly effective social distancing measure. It cites modeling from Imperial College London that estimates the U.K.’s school closures will reduce overall deaths by about 2–4 percent. In other words, if there are 100,000 COVID-19 deaths despite the schools being closed, having had the schools open anyway would have yielded 2,000–4,000 additional deaths. That’s thousands, not millions.
Let’s just put it this way for Mr. Soave: If your defense of Dr. Oz is that he was advocating a policy that would result in “only” a few thousand more people, not millions more, dying as a result, that’s not a winning argument or good defense. But, hey, you got to “own the libs” for a moment. So it was worth it, right?
Libertarian hacks being libertarian hacks aside, the backlash against Dr. Oz’s comments was incredibly fierce, even by Twitter standards, so much so that yesterday he was forced to backtrack and apologize:
His suggestion sparked an enormous response on social media — prompting a somewhat apologetic statement late Thursday: “I misspoke,” he said in a video released on Twitter, acknowledging that his words had “confused and upset people.” The goal, he said, was to discuss “how do we get our children safely back to school” as he is “being asked constantly how we’ll be able to get people back to their normal lives.”
Here’s the video:
I love the part about how Dr. Oz “realizes” that his comments had “confused and upset people.” No. No they didn’t. People knew exactly what he was saying. He was arguing that a few thousand extra deaths could be a price worth paying to reopen the schools. OK, some people were confused, I guess, in that they interpreted Dr. Oz’s statement as advocating a policy that would cause millions of extra deaths, but that doesn’t change the problem with what Dr. Oz said, his contribution to the denial of the severity of pandemic by Fox News. (Never mind that COVID-19 is fast becoming American’s number one cause of death right now.)
This particular meme made over Dr. Oz’s statement was actually the harshest, but, in my mind, fair:
I’ve long referred to Dr. Oz as America’s quack. It’s possible I might even have been the one to coin that epithet, but I can’t prove it one way or the other and probably didn’t. (I just don’t recall having seen the term until I first started using it.) This isn’t even the first time that things have gone badly for him on Twitter. In a way, I almost miss the days when all Dr. Oz did was to feature psychic mediums, astrology, homeopathy, and bogus weight loss supplements on his show while being lambasted by a Senate panel. Compared to now, those were the “good old days,” days of grift and bread and circuses, rather than days of promoting misinformation that could lead to thousands more deaths.
I don’t know why Dr. Oz and Dr. Phil have decided to align themselves with the right wing COVID-19 denial machine at Fox News and contribute to their “whataboutism,” advocacy of prematurely “reopening” America, and promotion of unproven treatments (with Dr. Oz most recently encouraging people to sign up for a home hydroxychloroquine trial while leaving out the scientific caveats), but they have. I have to wonder why. Maybe their audiences significantly overlap with the audience of Fox News. I suspect that’s the most likely reason.
In any event, the propaganda and disinformation about COVID-19 to which Dr. Phil and Dr. Oz have contributed have real world consequences. Two days ago, in Michigan, there was a large protest against Gov. Whitmer’s executive order to shelter in place in which thousands of people drove in front of the State Capitol Building in order to call for loosening of the restrictions. Dubbed “Operation Gridlock,” it was organized by right wing groups funded by the DeVos family and, as you will see from the video below, resembled a Donald Trump rally more than anything else:
Meanwhile, as this news report indicates, Michigan Militia was out in full force, open carry gun nuts menacing people just by their presence and their openly brandishing their firearms. So were Michigan Proud Boys, the Michigan branch of what are, in essence, fascist brownshirts.
Be that as it may, notice how the protestors who got out of of their cars were not social distancing much. Basically, this protest was a large COVID-19 incubator in which people from parts of Michigan not yet affected much by COVID-19 mingling with people from the hardest hit part of the state (the Detroit area) for several hours and then headed home to take coronavirus with them to every corner of the state. Areas of the state that have so far had few COVID-19 cases could well start to see their numbers climb dramatically in 2-4 weeks, as protestors return home and, likely, fail to social distance adequately once there. Many of the protestors parroted the sort of misinformation that Fox News has been pushing and to which Dr. Oz and Dr. Phil have started contributing.
COVID-19 denial in the form of “whataboutism” promoted by Dr. Phil and false dichotomies/dilemmas promoted by Dr. Oz are merely two forms of COVID-19 denial. As the pandemic drags on, I will examine other forms of COVID-19 denial. In the meantime, I’ll just repeat what I said above. Not only do Dr. Oz and Dr. Phil have a lot to answer for given their decision to join the right wing COVID-19 grift and denial parade, but Oprah Winfrey has even more to answer for for having made these two quack into stars.