Over the past few months, The Wall Street Journal editorial team has published several counterintuitive and contrarian takes on the nascent epidemiology of Covid-19. Besides the most famous one (“There Isn’t a Coronavirus ‘Second Wave’: With testing, treatments and vaccine trials ramping up, we are far better off than the media report” by Vice President Mike Pence), most of these essays have been authored by Allysia Finley, a member of The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board.
As far as I can tell, Finley has no background in science or epidemiology. Indeed, she seems to have no real expertise in anything at all. I’ll quote liberally from her self-summary on The Wall Street Journal website:
My dad worked as an accountant for the Orange County government and my mom was a math teacher, so numbers are in my DNA. Perhaps this is why I enjoy poring over spreadsheets. My parents also regaled us with stories of bureaucracy and incompetence, which taught me a healthy skepticism of government.
Although my parents were both conservative, my political beliefs didn’t take shape until college. The overbearing liberal atmosphere at Stanford University and lack of tolerance for alternative views brought out the contrarian in me. I recall being especially horrified by the vicious attacks on supporters of Prop. 8, the California referendum banning same-sex marriage.
I joined the conservative student newspaper, The Stanford Review, and wrote an against-the-grain column for the school’s Daily. During the summers, I worked at a family-owned frozen yogurt shop that gave me my best lesson in microeconomics and the costs of excessive regulation as well as the value of immigrants. The hardest workers and my best friends there were kids of immigrants.
On a whim, I submitted an op-ed to the libertarian Orange County Register about what I learned from my experiences. I was offered an internship at the paper, which is how I first developed an interest in local and state government. By day I reported on Sacramento’s “nanny state” while at night I experienced it first hand.
Majoring in American studies gave me a broad education in U.S. history, literature and government. But the best part was it afforded me the freedom to cultivate interests in human biology, creative writing and journalism. During my final year in college, I considered applying to medical and law school. But I wasn’t gung-ho about either.
Kismet ultimately brought me to the Journal’s editorial page, which has further enlightened my thinking. I have often developed interests in new subjects while delving into others. Crafting editorials is similar to writing short stories in that both require narrative arcs that engage readers. Writing editorials requires one to exercise intellectual muscles in new, sometimes uncomfortable ways—deadlines can feel like running wind sprints—but that’s what makes the job fun.
Finley seems to have grown up in Orange County, birthplace of the white, suburban, well-to-do “new conservatism” that drove Barry Goldwater to the Republican nomination, and, later, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan to the presidency. Short stints at the “libertarian” Orange County Register and the “conservative” Stanford Review propelled her to the best-known conservative opinion page in the United States, The Wall Street Journal’s, with only a creative writing bachelor’s degree to her name. Her story sheds light on an underreported system in America: “wingnut welfare”. This is the system that provides sinecures to pseudointellectuals, failed philosophers, and ersatz academics: people like Charles Murray, whose work would have struggled to pass the low bar of peer review (a fact that Murray would undoubtedly have blamed on academia’s liberal bias), but who became influential nevertheless because of the platform provided by right-wing think tanks, media organizations, and politicians.
Finley has interests in “human biology, creative writing, and journalism”. She declined to pursue the first interest in a rigorous way, deciding that she wasn’t “gung-ho” enough about medical school to commit to 5+ years of hard work. And who would blame her? She has been comfortably ensconced in the editorial team at The Wall Street Journal since graduating college (more than 11 years now), and she has the prerogative to write (creatively!) about “human biology”, notwithstanding her lack of relevant degree, expertise, or command of the facts. (Perhaps the right-wing critique of welfare was right after all: it really does enable people to take the easy way out.)
I’ll take you through her greatest hits. Finley profiled a fellow contrarian, John Ioannidis, a highly cited and well-known scientist who has argued, convincingly, that many branches of science suffer from a “reproducibility crisis” and, therefore, that many famous scientific results within these domains are simply untrue. Ioannidis is known as an “iconoclast”, which is a fancy way of saying that he enjoys poking at mainstream science. In the middle of March, Ioannidis applied his iconoclasm to the coronavirus. He authored a highly controversial essay (i.e., not peer-reviewed), in which he argued that locking down the U.S. in response to Covid-19 would be a “fiasco in the making” and that “if we assume that case fatality rate among individuals infected by SARS-CoV-2 is 0.3% in the general population — a mid-range guess from my Diamond Princess analysis — and that 1% of the U.S. population gets infected (about 3.3 million people), this would translate to about 10,000 deaths.” He further claimed, somewhat morbidly, that even in his most pessimistic scenario, “The vast majority of this hecatomb would be people with limited life expectancies. That’s in contrast to 1918, when many young people died.” (The implication being that saving millions of people so close to death is not worth the cost to the “billions…of lives…eventually at stake” from lockdowns.)
Buzzfeed reported in July about Ioannidis’ further efforts to ensure that his op-ed did not get lost in the noise:
Over the following days, Ioannidis grew more vocal in a flurry of interviews and scientific commentary. And his Stat op-ed caught the eye of many conservative commentators, from Ann Coulter to Fox News personality Lisa Boothe. Bret Stephens cited it in a New York Times column titled “It’s Dangerous to Be Ruled by Fear.” It also circulated among West Wing aides, Bloomberg reported.
But Ioannidis wanted to make his case to the president directly, according to the emails. Starting around March 23, he began rounding up a cohort of vocal and influential lockdown skeptics to help him do so.
“I was told that they can arrange for the President to meet with 5-7 top scientists,” Ioannidis wrote in one email, with the subject line “meeting with the President in D.C.” He added, “I think you can make a huge difference in this critical time.
On March 28, he proclaimed victory, declaring “I think our ideas have inflitrated [sic] the White House regardless.”
In her mid-April profile of Ioannidis, Finley ignored all of these things: the absurd prediction of 10,000 deaths (by that time, the U.S. had suffered roughly 60,000 deaths, and the crisis showed few signs of abating); the idea that old people’s lives were dispensable; and the furtive campaign to influence the White House. She instead took the angle that Ioannidis was being silenced by the politically powerful scientific elite, in a sort of scientific counterpart to “political correctness”. She quotes Ioannidis saying, “There’s some sort of mob mentality here operating that they just insist that this has to be the end of the world, and it has to be that the sky is falling. It’s attacking studies with data based on speculation and science fiction.”
Like Ioannidis, Finley is also an iconoclast. Unlike Ioannidis, she doesn’t have tens of thousands of citations and hundreds of papers to her name. But what she lacks in credentials she makes up for in self-confidence and chutzpah. In mid-March, she profiled Aaron Ginn, a self-described “growth hacker” and Silicon Valley product engineer, who spent the early days of the crisis combing through scientific literature. Oddly enough, he ended up finding data points that supported his initial suspicions: that many epidemiologists were “ideologues heavily invested in the idea of lockdown, regardless of the cost”; that “some populations may achieve herd immunity with an infection rate of only 10% to 20%”; and that the best way to handle this disease is to “let the epidemic go through”. On that last point, both Ginn and Finley must surely be heartened by our country’s response.
Remarkably, even in early July, Finley published an essay entitled, “Herd Immunity May Be Closer Than You Think”, in which she argued that “it’s possible that some early hot spots, like New York City and northern Italy, already have a degree of herd immunity. The same may be true of other places soon.” There is no way of disproving her claims definitely, but it’s worth noting that even in the places that have tried the “herd immunity” strategy, like the United Kingdom (for a time) and Sweden, nothing close to it has been achieved. And if the strategy is to make the entire country suffer what New York or Bergamo suffered, god help us all.
I admire Finley’s perseverance. She was wrong about lockdowns, about herd immunity, about how bad this epidemic would get, and about whom to trust. But instead of letting those facts get her down, she simply moved on to other bullshit. She wrote a “both sides” article about hydroxychloroquine, arguing that Biden reflexively opposed the drug because Trump supported it. She fisked some scientific studies indicating that the drug was ineffective (or even harmful) and found other studies indicating the reverse. She has a tendency to probe deeply when a study contradicts her predetermined conclusions, and to do the opposite when it comports with them. Of course, this approach is not exactly scientific (although perhaps they don’t teach that in creative writing classes). Eric Topol, director of the Scripps Research Translational Institute and an actual scientist, explained, “You want to look at the totality of the data. The totality is overwhelmingly in the opposite direction. You have to conclude the Henry Ford study [one of the studies she cited] is an outlier, and there’s some kind of confounder that is skewing the data and not representing the truth.”
More recently, Finley has written opinion pieces with titles such as, “The Hidden Danger of Masks” and “Lockdowns and School Shutdowns May Make Youngsters Sicker”. I don’t have the energy to try to debunk these essays, even though I’m fairly confident that they are indeed bunk. Partly that is because Finley’s point is not to be correct; it is simply to cast enough doubt on mainstream wisdom that right-wing policymakers have an excuse to do whatever they wanted to do originally. If hydroxychloroquine is the flavor of the day, The Wall Street Journal can supply you the intellectual ammunition to pimp it (and perhaps make your friends rich in the process). If wearing a mask makes you feel like a liberal pussy, The Wall Street Journal can cherry-pick a few studies to justify your decision. And if schools have to be open for your re-election campaign to have even the slimmest chance of success, an armchair epidemiologist with medical degrees from the Orange County Register and The Stanford Review can tell you that you’re justified in reopening them.
What is truly depressing about this situation is not just that science has become another weapon in political warfare. (That has been the case for a long time now.) It is that there really is no end in sight. The wingnut welfare machine has an endless supply of Allysia Finleys. (Because, to be honest, who wouldn’t want to be Allysia Finley?) The Wall Street Journal has limitless digital space. And there will always be an insatiable appetite, on the part of right-wing power centers, for the kind of scientific bullshit that has a short but effective life. By the time the fact-checkers get around to it, we will have moved on—to the next round.
3 thoughts on “Allysia Finley”
Hello A centurie ago a doctor realized that washing his hands prior to helping women give birth had far fewer deaths.
He he was ostracized by his fellows. For it was assumed that the gentleman was always clean. And many people died maybe Millions who knows. Until somebody finally figured out the cleaning your hands helped you rid yourself of germs and bacteria. That’s the power of the mob and how it affects Medical Care. You might want to add that as a PostScript. Oh I might add that in Tennessee the removal of the Jewish candidate for the Republican party still reaches the same as it was that centuries ago. Dr. Semmelwis was his name.
You have put my gut reaction to this woman’s “opinion” into words perfectly. Thank you.
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P.S. And yes, of course, she hasn’t slowed down over 2 years on…
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