Dr Fauci as Machiavellian Boddhisattva

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If you parse what US authority figures like Dr Fauci are explicitly saying about COVID, you end up learning things like:

On the other hand, yesterday I visited a toy store that sells Dr Fauci figurines for children, insists that everyone wear masks regardless of vaccination status, and limits the number of people in the store.

Corporate mass media was happy to broadcast lies like “masks don’t work” early in the pandemic. But while official state announcements clearly indicated the direction in which the press was expected to distort the narrative, they were careful not to brazenly say the opposite of the truth, that masks don’t work, only to tell ordinary people not to use them because healthcare workers needed them. A literal-minded person who read and believed actual government statements rather than news and opinion articles would have inferred from the start that masks worked.

My experience at GiveWell demonstrated a similar pattern. Our research reports explicitly indicated that our case for indiscriminately administering deworming pills to African children as a charitable intervention was highly speculative, based not on ambiguous evidence for long-run health improvements, but on a single randomized controlled trial that found implausibly large long-run income improvements. But the charity was listed under “health” interventions on GiveWell’s top charities list, GiveWell hired a PR specialist to promote things like an Atlantic article that said “If what you want is to save lives with certainty, several people said, you have to go to GiveWell,” and effective altruists not affiliated with GiveWell publicly claimed that there was strong evidence for the GiveWell-estimated benefits of deworming.

A literal-minded person would also infer from the state-certified public numbers that any one vaccine shot is equivalent to any other vaccine shot. [redacted because it was based on a factual error]

It seems to me that Dr Fauci takes the corruption of the existing system for granted, and has adopted a Machiavellian strategy to save lives by infiltrating the existing system, and sending out messages that are distorted in ways that will effectively command the sorts of people who mindlessly follow orders to act as prosocially as they can be made to act during a pandemic, while esoterically informing the intelligent few about what’s actually going on.

Unfortunately, while I chose a position on the social graph that made it easier to save the lives of prisoners, Fauci chose a position that made it easier to save the lives of the privileged. And while his messaging doesn’t actively try to mislead close readers of the original text, the orders he’s sending are optimized for uptake by people trying to give a costly signal of loyalty by hurting themselves and others, not by people who are deferent to normative authority.

A while ago, I observed a series of subway advertisements promoting the use of masks. One such ad showed a pair of faces behaving in three different ways, labeled “bad,” “better,” and “best.” The “bad” faces were talking to each other unmasked. The “better” figures were talking to each other masked. The “best” figures were silently staring at their phones. While the instruction to avoid talking to one’s neighbors is unfortunately brazen totalitarian silencing, there is at least a plausible public health rationale for it.

There is no plausible public health rationale for the new ads I saw a couple of days ago. The first one reads, “Masks are like opinions /​ Everyone should have one.” The first few Google search results for “are like opinions” link to the well-known witticism “Opinions are like assholes /​ Everyone has one.” The obvious transitive implication that masks are like assholes does not promote the idea of mask-wearing. It does not describe a benefit of wearing a mask. The thinly veiled message behind this advertisement is, “Wear a mask and eat shit.”

The second ad reads, “Masks speak louder than words.” This neither describes a benefit of masks nor instructs people to wear one, but—while alluding to “actions speak louder than words” and therefore implying that a mask is a costly signal—but of what? - its explicit content is that masks are a form of silencing. And they do in fact impede speech and make it harder to understand and be understood by strangers.

When I pointed out on Twitter that it seemed like these ads weren’t trying to promote wearing masks so much as they were trying to degrade and humiliate mask-wearers, the only responses framed the discussion as one about the benefits of masks. In other words, complaining about anti-mask propaganda was construed as an anti-mask position. The “pro-mask” position is unthinkingly in favor of authoritarian propaganda related to masks, regardless of its content.

While I consider making people do something they don’t want to do a cost we accept to get the public health benefits of masks, this sadomasochistic social-metaphysics perspective regards the dramatic authoritarianism of making people do things they don’t want to as the principal benefit of masks, and sees public health arguments as a convenient cover story to recruit dupes with good intentions as enforcers. And since believing a narrative in good faith makes someone an unreliable coalition partner, coalition members want to send credible signals to each other that they don’t take their own arguments literally.

Likewise, most of the responses to my cost-benefit analysis of going for a second vaccine (via email and Facebook) didn’t engage with the idea of quantifying and comparing risks, but simply asserted that the potential severity of COVID is very high and the harm caused by the vaccine is very low, a crude, innumerate provax position, as though I had taken an antivax position.

The side effects from the vaccines are minimal. COVID can be very harmful to your health. The risk of death cannot be compared with time lost due to vaccine side effects.* You cannot draw inferences about your risk level from local data because there is no peeing section of the pool.** I live in the real world, where cost benefit analyses are inapplicable. I’ll get a booster shot if The Science tells me to, no matter how bad the side effects are.

I would be quite surprised if anyone who argued against me this way actually followed Zvi’s advice and doubled up on vaccines (unless specifically ordered to by the authorities), while I might if case rates get high enough. They weren’t arguing for an opinion, they were just arguing against me.

For most people in the privileged classes, good-faith argument about the vaccines, even if it explicitly endorses the official recommendations, reads as an antivax position—only bad faith counts as provax. The point isn’t to argue for some particular proposition, but to undermine the idea that propositions are credited or discredited by argument.

They are not trying to live. They are not trying to save their friends’ lives. If they were, they would have picked up my message about high-dose vitamin D, which seems similarly effective to vaccines with smaller downsides, and I would hear that message repeated from time to time by people in my extended network. As it is, not one friend or acquaintance has checked in to make sure I know about this potentially life-saving intervention. Plenty of people are excited about scolding others for not wearing masks, not getting vaccinated, or being insufficiently uncritical about either.

This coalition is implicitly threatening me with collective violence for reasoning publicly at all, so I have to regard myself as in a military conflict with it. I have to assume that prisoners and migrant farm workers and the psychiatrically incarcerated are on my side since my enemies are engaged in war crimes against them. My friends and I were able to fund and arrange a small distribution of masks to prisons at the beginning of the pandemic. Jack Dorsey followed up with enough money to distribute them nationwide. Van Jones, who led Reform Alliance in helping turn money into mask distribution, was just given enough money to empower him to do whatever he wants by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, who seems to share my opinions. But when we tried to follow up by distributing vitamin D in prisons, the prisons blocked us, and according to reports from the inside, the prisons jacked up the price of vitamin D in the commissaries and told prisoners there was a shortage in the outside world.

Members of this coalition recognize each other through costly signals of intent to reject information. Things like COVID that make it easier to get hurt by trying to stay ignorant and follow orders are advantageous to my side. Bodhisattvas like Dr Fauci, by reducing the cost of opposing consciousness though alleviating the problems of the unconscious, are themselves reducing the relative frequence of consciousness by reducing its relative fitness. Just like in the case of blackmail, I specifically request the opposite of this.

* No one saying this was signed up for cryonics.

** This implies that social distancing is pointless.