The Bulwark Presents
The Triad by JVL

Knut Wittkowski: The Coronavirus Truthers’ Newest “Expert”

People are remarkably stupid.
April 9, 2020
Featured Image
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.