To paraphrase a popular expression: A crisis does not create character, it reveals it. The beginning of the Covid19 crisis reminded many of the days immediately after September 11. Those days were marked by a sense that we are all in this together and we need to set aside our differences and come together.
That didn’t last too long. A few weeks back the top headline on CNN’s website was, “Can you believe what Georgia’s governor just said?” It caught my attention for two reasons: First I live in Georgia, and second, we are in the middle of a national crisis, who cares what someone said?
It turns out that Governor Kemp had commented on a CDC study which was published that very day stating that data had shown that people infected by the coronavirus are contagious before they are symptomatic. CNN argued this proved that Kemp is an idiot because “everyone” already knew this. Actually, most experts suspected this was the case, but it can’t be known until the data confirms it. Either way, what possible public good comes from publishing a story based on a partial quote taken completely out of context for the purpose of ridiculing of someone?
It was then that I knew our “we are in this together spirit” was gone. Now it has become a political litmus test whether you think we should reopen the economy. That is shameful. In my daily life, I wonder where this division comes from. I don’t see it in my personal interactions. I believe that most of this fallacy is media-driven. We have no news in our world today, only propaganda.
The biggest piece of propaganda is my new pet peeve: people saying this is “unprecedented.” Pandemics are not unprecedented. They may very well be the most precedented thing in human history. Smallpox killed more Colonial soldiers than British bullets. It has been only in the last few generations that infectious disease has not been the number-one cause of death for human beings. Modern medicine has cured most of them and they will beat this virus as well. Nothing like this has happened in most of our lifetimes, and that is the secret to propaganda. Propaganda has to have an ounce of truth for it to work.
For example, President Trump never suggested ingesting Lysol. During one of the recent press conferences he was discussing using disinfectants like Lysol to clean surfaces and then turned and asked his experts if that could be a cure. He later claimed that comment was a joke. It was a reporter who asked if he was suggesting ingesting Lysol and the answer was a dismissive no. The propaganda is that Trump suggested drinking Lysol. It isn’t true, but when one reads and hears over and over again that he did it, then people who did not actually watch the press conference believe it. The Washington Post reporters who were there did not even mention the comment in their re-cap, but later pounced on the story to capitalize on popular interest.
As Covid19 data comes in from around the world, it is also twisted. Sweden never closed down, while New Zealand reportedly has had the strictest lockdown rules in the world. CNN published an article praising New Zealand and damning Sweden. New Zealand used “good science” while Sweden acted stupidly. The same day, The Wall Street Journal published an article saying the exact opposite. Both articles were guilty of cherry picking data. Sweden actually has had a better results mortality-wise than the average European country, but CNN compared them only to some neighbors whose data was better. New Zealand has had an effective response, but no more than Australia, who did far less damage to their economy.
This is actual data being twisted, yet it is even worse with models and projections. Does anyone still remember the model that said 2.2 million Americans would die from Covid19? Similar models for Sweden suggested that 40,000 would die by May 1 and 100,000 by June if they did not lock down. They did not lock down, and according to The Spectator in an article published earlier this week, there have been 2,680 deaths thus far while the daily number peaked two weeks ago. I said this early on and I will repeat it, the “academics” who make such predictions should be held accountable when they are that far off. They should lose their jobs, yet media outlets gladly publish these models as if they are facts…
Unless they don’t like the facts. Last week CNBC published the results from their survey of economists. The consensus of all the economists they surveyed is that we will see 16 percent growth in the third quarter as we bounce back sharply. The story they are pressing, however, is that the recovery will be slow. So, after mentioning the survey results, they highlighted the one economist who saw third quarter still being negative and interviewed her on-air. She is an outlier, but her view fit the story so she got the airtime.
So what are we to do? Simple: Don’t believe everything you read. Exercise critical thinking. No matter what source you read, look for data, for facts, and ask: Is that the whole story? Don’t be quick to believe things just because they sound good. Look for the bias and you will get closer to the truth. At least that is my perspective.
Chuck Osborne, CFA