I watched Covidland so you don’t have to.

Data in societyEpidemiology &c.Pseudoscience

I have never watched a single Alex Jones show. I’m told they’re a hoot, gay frogs and all that. I don’t do politics, I don’t quite understand or like politics,1) so I have never felt I could have much of a position on the matters Jones discusses.

Covidland,2) Jones’s ‘documentary’ about COVID-19, is rather different – it hits closer to home. I have written on COVID-19, I have done extensive research (the academic kind, not the looking-it-up kind) on the vaccine and its side effects, and I have probably done more analysis on VAERS and the COVID-19 vaccine than anyone outside the FDA/CDC. I am far from an expert on COVID-19, but I would consider myself to be pretty comfortably at home with many of its aspects.3)

Super male vitality, bro.

Alex Jones, meanwhile, sells something called Super Male Vitality. I don’t even know what that is. Clearly, anything he could say about COVID-19 could be quite interesting.4) And so, I have placed all throwable objects outside reaching range, poured myself a very stiff Old Fashioned and decided that tonight will be devoted to watching Covidland.

Covidland before the curtain

Jones is a virtuoso at amping up the drama ahead of the show. You see, you can only watch Covidland on banned.video. That is literally their domain name. Just like Plandemic, an earlier COVID-19 conspiracy video, Jones intimates that the audience is about to enter the sanctum sanctorum. There, Covidland will presumably introduce them to the secrets of… I don’t quite know what exactly. This knowledge is so secret, it can’t just reside on a normal domain. No, the domain must announce that this is a banned video indeed.5)

I have studied political propaganda the informal way (i.e. being involved at both sides of it). I find the best description of it is what Christopher Priest wrote in his book, The Prestige:

Every great magic trick consists of three parts or acts. 

The first part is called “The Pledge”. The magician shows you something ordinary: a deck of cards, a bird or a man. He shows you this object. Perhaps he asks you to inspect it to see if it is indeed real, unaltered, normal. But of course… it probably isn’t.

The second act is called “The Turn”. The magician takes the ordinary something and makes it do something extraordinary. Now you’re looking for the secret… but you won’t find it, because of course you’re not really looking. You don’t really want to know. You want to be fooled. But you wouldn’t clap yet. Because making something disappear isn’t enough; you have to bring it back. 

That’s why every magic trick has a third act, the hardest part, the part we call “The Prestige”.

Christopher Priest, The Prestige (1995)

And so the conspiracy theorist proceeds, too. You are, of course, familiar with this trivial thing he shows, right? That’s the pledge. But then, of course, the conspiracy theorist presents it in a way that is anything but trivial. And then comes the Turn. The Turn, well, you expect. It’s a facet of your life. Lockdowns, fluoride in tap water, the Federal Reserve. That sort of stuff. Nothing out of the ordinary… until the conspiracy theorist does what makes him (or, in fewer cases, her) the big bucks: The Prestige, turning the ordinary into the extraordinary and, inevitably, nefarious. Because fluoride in the tap water is one thing, but if it’s fluoride in the tap water because the Rothschilds and the Bilderbergers conspired with the Trilateral Commission to calcify your pineal gland… well, ain’t that something else, right?

The Pledge

The hero Covidland needs... and deserves... or something.
The man, the myth(omaniac), the legend.

At the heart of this episode of Covidland6) is the notion of counting cases – the ‘casedemic’ argument, viz. that cases have been overcounted and deaths misattributed to COVID-19. This is not a trivial issue – mortality attribution is one of the great bugbears of doing decent mortality analysis in epidemiology. I was trained as a lawyer, so I had to spend considerable time studying intricate and often pretty byzantine rules about determining causation. Physicians have only a few minutes to fill in a death certificate, and so it is hardly unexpected that death certificates will not be the product of an in-depth causal inquiry but rather of what Glanville Williams called causal generalisations.

It does not start subtly. The very first words of the movie are Bill Sardi, an alternative ‘health journalist’, calling COVID-19 the greatest fraud ever. And this is followed by a rogue’s gallery of politicians Infowars apparently isn’t too fond of. At the core is the notion that fear leads to psychological malleability (which is true), and hence all fear must be artificially induced to achieve Some Nefarious Aim (much less true, of course). Just minutes in, it falls victim to the availability heuristic: just because there were some instances where people found hospitals that were not overwhelmed, that did not, of course, disprove the fact that many hospitals were beyond a doubt under serious pressure. In addition, people have been advised not to go to hospitals with minor injuries – a normal and fairly well known disease-avoidant behaviour. There’s a subtle insinuation, through swift jump-cuts against footage from ‘citizen journalists’ (with no timestamp or location, of course) against concerning news reports. The impression is, of course, that the reports of overwhelmed hospitals are, for the lack of a better word, a mendacious lie.

The Turn

Jones’s subtle legerdemain is that because there is evidence of some hospitals that are furloughing persons and are not overloaded, no hospital could be reasonably overloaded. To anyone reading this, this should be a risible cognitive bias. No mention of the elites trying to ‘keep us in fear’ wipes that away. Epidemics are often local phenomena, and thus there might be extensive spatial disproportionalities (my forthcoming book discusses this in detail, by the way).

The core testimony of this is by the (in)famous Del Bigtree. His argument sublimates to an absolute lack of understanding of the way death certificates work. Bigtree, in case you are among the fortunate few who do not know him, is a notorious anti-vaxxer whose medical expertise extends to being… a television producer on a show about doctors. The underlying idea is that if someone died with, but not of, COVID-19, they were attributed to mortality counts. This is clearly a source of skewed data, however, it is not an intentional inflation, nor a conspiracy. Quite simply, it is accounting for mortality in a way that allows deaths to be attributed non-causally but in way that accounts for prevalence. Death certificates are tricky – for all but unambiguous causes of death, they’re best-guess approximations, not truth set in stone. Often, especially in patients who experience a clinical decline and succumb to it, it is hard to determine the chain of causal events. In the end, just as the case is in jurisprudence, perfect neat chains of causation only exist in textbooks.

Mortality numbers are not facts set in stone – they are figures to be used for a particular purpose. For the purpose of tracking COVID-19, persons dying with COVID-19 qualify as COVID-19 deaths, even if the cause of death is something that ‘breaks the chain of causation’ or is ‘causally supervening’, such as a drug overdose or a car accident. Or, to put it more directly: figures make sense on their own terms. COVID-19 numbers make sense on the terms that they include all cases of death of a person with COVID-19 for the purposes of monitoring disease prevalence. As long as that is disclosed, it is rather disingenuous of Covidland to insinuate that there is an intentional overattribution.

The Prestige

Covidland: showing the trivial as super-scary.
Alex Jones’s Covidland tells me there’s a shocking fact here. I just wish I knew what it is.

And so, Jones and Covidland allege that the deaths were caused by other reasons. That may be, at the same time, true and irrelevant. It is true in the sense that COVID-19 might not be the dominant cause of death (as noted, the process of determining causality is far from trivial). But it is also irrelevant. The interviewee Dr Annie Bukacek, a Montana health department member, argues that this is because of vague economic incentives to hospitals. Regardless, the interviewees share one logical trick: they lump together all comorbidities. A person who has, say, eczema is a person with a comorbidity – so is someone with Stage IV metastatic lung cancer. The notion of treating comorbidities as etiologically coherent is, to put it mildly, lunacy. It does not reflect any sensible differentiation among the clinical pictures.

The Prestige of Alex Jones’s movie is this: Covidland questions the entire masks and lockdowns paradigm by questioning the PCR testing paradigm. It relies greatly on two concepts: first, that you cannot quarantine the healthy (and expect a result), nor can you merely use PCR to test for ‘sick’ individuals.

But we know, of course, from stage magic what The Prestige is: clever delusion, but delusion no less. And so it is in this case. The ‘healthy’ who test positive are not what any conceivable discourse on immunology would regard as ‘healthy’. You may be well, but from an epidemiological standpoint, you’re infectious. The Prestige will want you to believe these individuals are healthy, but for the fact that the PCR cycle threshold is set at such a high figure. Yet, how can PCR yield a positive result in the overall absence of any trace of the pathogen? There’s no convincing answer by Alex Jones or his interviewees.

In the end, case definitions are not trivial. This is so true that in clinical research, we spill considerable amount of ink defining what counts as a case. What may count as a case for a particular purpose is not necessarily a case for another. Covidland’s ‘experts’ roundly criticise cinical diagnosis, which relies on presentation rather than testing, as a way to inflate numbers, but where tests are difficult to come by (as was the case earlier in the pandemic), it is an entirely legitimate method of identifying cases.

The End of Covidland

Covidland thinks Del Bigtree is an 'expert'.
If this is the best expert you can get… run.

I firmly believe in understanding people with different opinions, including wacky ones. Even if their argument is largely created by clever and selective editing of public statements.

Covidland is an interesting insight into Alex Jones’s reasoning, and a strange cult of unreason. Cults of unreason, of course, flourish in times of chaos. In our scientific worldview, we’re prone to articulate unreason as a moral judgment of sorts, but it really isn’t.

Rather, it is a psychological response to pervasive disorder. It is the primordial mess from which wonderful and terrible things can emerge – the Italian renaissance, after all, came from an era of civil war, murder and intrigue. History’s survivorship bias obscures that a ton of truly nonsensical stuff was, of course, also produced during the same time. The uncertainty we experience might give rise to wonderful things – but the concomitant of that is, of course, that Alex Jones will talk about chemtrails, US Navy sponsored dolphin-human hybrids and the health effects of water fluoridation.

It’s not necessarily a bad thing in the long run. In the short term, however, such rhetoric is a dangerous lashing-out. It promises an awakening but it delivers an oppressive, near-soporific fear in lieu of a solution. The historian Stephen Kotkin has poignantly noted that in order to prevail, we must encounter crises have to be encountered with competence and compassion.

In a strange way, Covidland manages to do neither.

Part 2 is coming out in December, I’m told. I can’t wait.

References

References
1 I have taught political and moral philosophy. It made me like, and understand, politics even less.
2 Incidentally, the title isn’t really original. Medscape made a wonderful short by that title. I recommend watching it.
3 My areas of specialisation lie in population infectious disease dynamics and the computational game theory of infectious disease, with a branch into VAERS analytics and adverse effects analyses. You can read about my research work here.
4 “Interesting” is British for potentially batshit insane.
5 I’ll leave identifying the blatant oxymoron (and other morons) for the reader.
6 Reportedly, there will be another five episodes. G–d save us.
Chris von Csefalvay
I'm a data scientist and computational epidemiologist focusing on the intersection of public health, data science and artificial intelligence.

You may also like

Leave a Reply