Dr Fauci as Machiavellian Boddhisattva

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 recognizes 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.

10 thoughts on “Dr Fauci as Machiavellian Boddhisattva

  1. Ben Pace

    I was following along and things made sense, but I was surprised by the mention of collective violence. I do think that you are being collectively misinformed in a way that can lead to severe health effects (e.g. punished for taking the right precautions and risks around covid) and, more relevantly, you're under various threats of ostracisation by major political factions and forces for reasoning out loud. But I would call it cruelty and subjugation, which has nuanced differences from violence. In some situations I'd also say it was military conflict and you should see yourself in that situation, but I'm not sold that that particular deontological line has been stepped by the powers punishing you for reasoning out loud about vaccines. I do think basic parts of your functioning in the world may be threatened, like getting a bank account, renting a house, international travel, and more (maybe police protection? that sort of thing would obviously be relevant), but I think the modern world threatens a lot less direct violence than being in this situation in Soviet Russia (for example), and there's proportionally less just cause to enter into military conflict, I think.

    If you add a link for the war crimes against the prisoners and migrant farm workers and so on I might get what you mean about collective violence and military conflict.

    1. Benquo Post author

      I do think basic parts of your functioning in the world may be threatened, like getting a bank account, renting a house, international travel

      All of these are backed by threats of direct violence - people with guns who will physically abduct me and put me in a box if I try to meet my needs without official approval. If I can't get or keep a bank account I don't have access to the payment processing I need to pay my rent unless a friend does it for me, and if I don't pay my rent eventually cops show up and eject me from my home, by force if needed. If I'm homeless I'm likely to be frequently evicted from wherever I happen to be staying and have my stuff, with the threat of force if I don't comply. If I try to travel to another country without a passport, uniformed armed people will try to stop me, by force if necessary, and if I succeed, they will try to hunt me down and deport me.

      I am also worried about tail risk events like the Holocaust.

      1. Ben Pace

        I hear you describing bullying abuse of power – power over things that the people with guns will enforce. Like a border patrol guard who intimidates those who try to enter into giving him money or other favors, who is threatening you with deportation, or a policeman who pulls you over and is threatening you with arrest if you don't give the same favors; except at a much larger scale. A large group of people are saying "Hey, you're gonna parrot what we say on this issue, or else we're coming for you" and they have some real power to back that up with.

        In the case of the corrupt patrol guard or corrupt police officer, I do see them as enemies to be treated adversarially and to rightfully hurt and punish if the opportunity arises. I typically won't escalate to armed conflict with them because I expect to get arrested for it and also because I think that just because they broke a deontological rule doesn't mean that I *should*. It means that I *can*, but it's much better for the surrounding norms to punish them in ways that don't also violate that deontological rule. It shows more respect for the rule.

        (I reckon that's what "an eye for an eye will make the world blind" means, not that you don't punish them way harder than they punished you, but that you don't need to break the same deontological rule they did. Like when the NYT threatened to dox Scott Alexander, I was against threatening to dox the NYT back, but I was pro causing them severe reputational damage that was at least as damaging and made them very sorry they'd threatened it in the first place.)

        In the case of the people in the political faction that threatens those who don't parrot what they say... well, I'm not really sure what I recommend. Nothing succinct comes to mind about how to "fix things". The strategy space for dealing with abuse of power and corruption is pretty wide open, and I think there's a couple of promising options to build better accounting and conversation and redistribute power toward those who are honest and just, but this comment grows long.

    2. Benquo Post author

      war crimes against the prisoners and migrant farm workers and so on

      There are substantial US populations, most notably African-Americans, who are regularly attacked and abducted from their homes. Most of them aren't engaged in military conflict against the US, so they're civilians. In many cases they're denied access to a meaningful trial. They're then held in unnecessarily unsafe conditions where they can reasonably expect a substantially elevated risk of death.

      Migrant farm workers are often from countries affected by Operation Condor or its successors, and face a campaign of terror in the US from ICE.

      I'm not sure I'll endorse the term "war crimes" here in a week and it seems potentially distracting so I might just replace that phrase with "violence."

  2. Doug S.

    "Vitamin D supplementation benefits condition X" consistently fails to replicate for lots of different things, so I have a pretty low prior that high dose vitamin D supplementation does much of anything for COVID...

    1. Benquo Post author

      Can you give me 3 examples where an RCT with an effect size comparably large & with a comparably low p-value failed to replicate?

  3. cronodas@yahoo.com

    I think you're overanalyzing the mask ads... they're just trying to piggyback on well-known lines to seem clever and/or memorable.

    1. Benquo Post author

      Yes, the obvious alternative hypothesis is that the authorities are just babbling incoherently about masks. This hypothesis *also* has important implications if true.

  4. JenniferRM

    > 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.

    Woah. That seems like "news"? Like something that a journalist could or should or did report on, and which would sweep across the world's consciousness if it was true and framed correctly.

    1. Benquo Post author

      Seems to me like there are enough well-documented abuses of power that nothing much is being done about that I don't see much opportunity in going to the press, but if you happen to know a lawyer licensed in Michigan who might be willing to take on a class-action suit about this, that would be helpful.


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