When Prophecy Fails, 2021 Edition
If you thought this year was bad, it could have been much worse: Nostradamus might have been right1! Near the end of every year, some websites and tabloid newspapers put out lists of supposed predictions of Nostradamus for the coming year2. In fact, right now there are a few of these online for next year in case you're interested. However, in this entry we're going to look back at how the predictions for this year turned out. The publications that print such predictions don't do post mortems at the end of the year, so we'll have to do it for them.
Nostradamus has, of course, been dead for half a millenium. So, the predictions are allegedly based on his book of poetic prophecies, The Centuries, first published in 15553. The major problem with attempting to apply those prophecies to this or any other year is that Nostradamus seldom gave them dates, or any other way of assigning them to a specific year. Moreover, some of those who produce lists for the year seem to make some of them up and falsely attribute them to the famed "seer". For the purposes of this entry, I'm going to ignore any predictions that have no basis in his writings.
So, here are some select events that happened this year according to "Nostradamus":
The Zombie Apocalypse
Prediction: "A Russian scientist will create a biological weapon-virus that can turn people into zombies. The end of humanity may be closer than we think [sic]"4
Fact Check: Thankfully, I haven't noticed any dead people stumbling around the streets trying to eat living people's brains this year. While the page contains no reference to a Nostradamus quatrain, there is one that may be the inspiration for this prediction, which is quoted by a different article:
Try not to feel too frustrated about our current predicament though. Things could always be worse. After all, Nostradamus has also predicted an imminent zombie apocalypse:The year of the great seventh number accomplished,
it will appear at the time of the games of slaughter,
not far from the age of the great millennium,
when the dead will come out of their graves.
Something for us to look forward to in 2027?5
This is a translation of quatrain X-74. Who knows what the "year of the great seventh number" or "the great millennium" refer to? When is "the time of the games of slaughter"? Unlike the prediction quoted above, the author of this article seems to think that the zombies won't rise from their graves until six years from now, which is a relief―at least that gives us time to stock up on ammunition and canned goods. But what reason is there for thinking that the prediction will come true in six years rather than this year? Is it because 2027 ends in seven? Then why not 2017, or 2007, or 2037, or any other year ending in seven?
Where did the Russian scientist come from? That's a nice detail, and just the sort of thing to give the prediction a bit of verisimilitude, but there's no mention of Russia or a scientist in the quatrain. In addition, there's nothing suggesting why the graves open and the dead come out, let alone that it's due to "a biological weapon-virus".
Verdict: Seven Pinocchios
California Fell into the Pacific
Prediction: "According to the interpretation of the quatrain, written by Nostradamus, an extremely powerful earthquake will destroy California in 2021. Nostradamus predicts that a massive earthquake will hit the New World ('western lands'), and California is the most obvious place where it could happen. According to astrologers, the verse 'Mercury in Sagittarius, Saturn is extinguished' indicates the next date when the planets Mars and Saturn will be in this position in the sky–November 25, 2021."4
Fact Check: Luckily, I don't live in California, but that has nothing to do with zombies or killer earthquakes. California gets earthquakes every year, but there was none this year that was so "massive" as to destroy the state―leave that to the politicians.
What is it with predictions that California will fall into the ocean? I've been hearing these since I was a child, and I'm always disappointed. It was Edgar Cayce who infamously predicted the destruction of southern California by 19986, not Nostradamus. You don't hear much about Cayce these days, probably because of his foolishness in making many specific predictions for the last century none of which came true. At least, he had the good sense to die in 19456, before his prophetic powers were shown to be less than perspicacious.
Nostradamus had more sense than to put dates to his prophecies; as a result, they are open-ended and have all of future time to come true. Revealingly, the quatrain quoted is the same one that supposedly predicted the coming of the coronavirus epidemic last year, which just goes to show how open to interpretation these poems are. As I pointed out in discussing that alleged prediction7, the word interpreted as applying to California just means "western lands"―as helpfully noted in the Prediction, above―and this could refer to anywhere west of France, where Nostradamus wrote it. In applying the quatrain to COVID-19 last year, it was taken to refer to America as a whole rather than just one state.
There's no indication of when all of this is supposed to happen other than the usual astrological mumbo jumbo. The earlier article claimed that Mercury had entered the constellation of Sagittarius in December 2019, but some other astrologer placed it in 2044. Moreover, no one seems to know what the old French "Saturne fenera" means: it's translated here as "Saturn is extinguished", but that's no clearer than the original.
Verdict: Pants on Fire!
An Asteroid Collided with the Earth
Prediction: "'In the sky, a person will see fire and a long trail of sparks.' This can be interpreted as impending natural disasters, but according to other interpretations of this quatrain, we are talking about a large asteroid that will collide with Earth. Once in the Earth’s atmosphere, the asteroid will heat up and appear to be on fire in the sky. Indeed, NASA has announced that there is a very real danger that asteroid 2009 KF1 will collide with Earth on May 6, 2021."4
Fact Check: If an asteroid did hit Earth on May 6th, it must've been a small one. The line quoted is from quatrain II-46:
Après grand trouble humain, plus grand s'apprête
Le grand moteur les siècles renouvèle:
Pluie, sang, lait, famine, fer et peste,
Au ciel vu feu, courant longue étincelle.
After great trouble for humanity, a greater one is prepared
The Great Mover renews the ages:
Rain, blood, milk, famine, steel and plague,
In the heavens fire seen, a long spark running.8
This seems to be describing a comet rather than an asteroid. In fact, it's the "key verse that provides the first definitive clue on the arrival time of Nostradamus' comet", according to R. W. Welch, though he expected that arrival in 20049. There's also no indication in the poem that the comet hits Earth. Comets have long been considered harbingers of disaster by superstitious people, and the third line sounds like a list of typical plagues―except for milk; what the heck is milk doing there? So, Nostradamus seemed to be predicting the arrival of a comet which would presage various disasters, natural or otherwise, but when all this was supposed to happen is anybody's guess.
Happily, there is no asteroid 2009 KF110. There is an asteroid JF1 that passed close to the Earth in 2009―that is, close for an asteroid, which is still very far away―but didn't hit. The alleged asteroid 2009 KF1 was apparently the result of some genuine fake news that the author of this silly article picked up and spread.
Verdict: A Pinocchio with his pants on fire.
What about next year?
If you thought those were pessimistic prognostications, just wait till you hear next year's! The only prophets more pessimistic than "Nostradamus"―and more wrong―are public health officials.
So, what can we look forward to next year? Three days of darkness, vampires instead of zombies, alien invaders, attacking robots, World War 3, and a black hole swallowing everything11―not necessarily in that order. I would promise to come back next year with a fact check of these predictions, but what's the point? A single prediction sums up the lot: we're doomed!
- Previous weblog entries on Nostradamus:
- One such publication is the once-respectable news magazine Newsweek. Its article is a bit more skeptical than others, but it's not skeptical enough; see: Kelly Wynne, "Nostradamus' Predictions for 2021 Aren't Pretty: Asteroids, Earthquakes, Plague and More", Newsweek, 12/28/2020.
- Nostradamus, "The Compleat Works of Nostradamus", 1555.
- "8 predictions of Nostradamus for 2021", Ordo News, 11/22/2020. This is the earliest archived copy of this page from the Internet Archive's Wayback Machine.
- Rae Alexandra, "Perhaps Nostradamus Predicted Coronavirus After All…", KQED, 4/6/2020. This is the same article that I discussed in 1-VI, above. I've added line breaks to the quatrain.
- James Randi, An Encyclopedia of Claims, Frauds, and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural (1993), under "Cayce".
- See 1-VI, above.
- Edgar Leoni, Nostradamus and His Prophecies (1982).
- R. W. Welch, Comet of Nostradamus: August 2004―Impact! (2001), p. 6; see 1-II, above, for a review.
- "Social Media Misinformation Regarding Asteroid Encounters", National Radio Astronomy Observatory, 1/4/2021.
- "Nostradamus Predictions 2022", Wise Horoscope, accessed: 12/30/2021.
Unmasking the CDC & Manufacturing Fear
- David Zweig, "The CDC’s Flawed Case for Wearing Masks in School", The Atlantic, 12/16/2021
…[T]he [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] CDC has taken an especially aggressive stance, recommending that all kids 2 and older should be masked in school. The agency has argued for this policy amid an atmosphere of persistent backlash and skepticism, but on September 26, its director, Rochelle Walensky, marched out a stunning new statistic: Speaking as a guest on CBS’s Face the Nation, she cited a study published two days earlier, which looked at data from about 1,000 public schools in Arizona. The ones that didn’t have mask mandates, she said, were 3.5 times as likely to experience COVID outbreaks as the ones that did. … But the Arizona study at the center of the CDC’s back-to-school blitz turns out to have been profoundly misleading. …[T]he study’s methodology and data set appear to have significant flaws. …
Starting at the end of October, I reached out to [Megan] Jehn [the corresponding author] and [the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report] MMWR…. Neither the journal nor the study’s authors agreed to share the list of schools, or any other data from the study. The journal replied: “MMWR is committed to quickly correcting errors when they are identified. We reviewed the specific items that you describe below and found no errors.”
Refusal to share data is automatically disqualifying since it makes it impossible for others to evaluate the study. Instead, we're just supposed to take the journal's word for it that it reviewed it and "found no errors". There's no excuse for such unscientific behavior. This study goes in the trash bin.
Given its apparent flaws, the Arizona study would seem to…offer… little evidence, one way or another, on whether mask mandates “work” in schools, or to what degree. Even taken at face value, though, its findings don’t appear to fit with those from other research. …
…[U]nder the Biden administration, the [CDC] has not always been apolitical. In May, it was revealed that the American Federation of Teachers, the nation’s second-largest teachers’ union, had private exchanges with CDC officials prior to new school guidance being issued under Walensky’s tenure, and some of the union’s suggestions were added nearly verbatim. In September, on the same day as the Arizona study’s publication, Walensky overruled her agency’s advisory committee by endorsing the use of COVID-vaccine booster shots for teachers and other workers deemed at high risk of exposure, thereby aligning the CDC more closely with President Joe Biden’s position.
Still, the publication and agency endorsement of the Arizona study is especially demoralizing. How did research with so many obvious flaws make its way through all the layers of internal technical review? And why was it promoted so aggressively by the agency’s director? I reached out to Walensky’s office to ask about the study, noting its evident limitations and outlier result. How, if at all, does this research figure into the agency’s continuing guidance for schools around the country? The CDC did not respond to my inquiries.
With Biden in the White House, the CDC has promised to “follow the science” in its COVID policies. Yet the circumstances around the Arizona study seem to show the opposite. Dubious research has been cited after the fact, without transparency, in support of existing agency guidance.
The Arizona study is advocacy research produced by the government to try to justify its unjustifiable policies. It should be ignored.
The following medium-length article by Heather MacDonald deserves to be read as a whole. It explains the techniques being used by government bureaucrats and their media enablers to try to drum up hysteria over the Omicron variant of the coronavirus. Mostly, these are the standard strategies for spreading fear, and only the last one is particular to COVID-19. For that reason, the article should be read as a tutorial on what to watch out for when the news media go into their next fear-mongering frenzy.
- Heather MacDonald, "Inside the Omicron fear factory", Spectator World, 12/20/2021
In March 2020, a profile of the typical Covid victim emerged from Italy. The average decedent was eighty years old, with approximately three comorbidities such as heart disease, obesity or diabetes. The young had little to worry about; the survival rate for the vast majority of the population was well over 99 percent.
That portrait never significantly changed. The early assessments of Covid out of Italy have remained valid through today. … The data out of South Africa, after five weeks of Omicron spread, suggest that Omicron should be a cause for celebration, not fear. Its symptoms are mild to non-existent in the majority of the infected, especially the vaccinated; hospitalization rates are over nine times lower than for previous Covid strains; deaths are negligible. … Yet the public health establishment and the media are working overtime to gin up Omicron hysteria. The official response to the Omicron variant provides a case study in the deliberate manufacture of fear. The following strategies are key:
- Create a group norm of fear
The media want you to believe that everyone around you is scared out of his mind, and thus you should be, too. Man-on-the-street interviews quote Nervous Nellies exclusively. … Are there any New Yorkers who are not panicked? Presumably, but you would not know it from the [New York] Times’s and other outlets’ coverage. Needless to say, dissenters from Omicron fear in the rest of the country are beneath notice. The point of these one-sided quotes is to spread and normalize panic as the only reasonable reaction to the variant.
- Buttress group fear with expert opinion
The only public health experts whom the media quote are those determined to put the most dire spin on Omicron. They stress worst-case hypothetical scenarios and dismiss actual good-case evidence. At best, they may grudgingly admit that Omicron symptoms are disproportionately mild, but rush to assert that there are still many as-yet unrealized grounds for worry. … There are outliers in any disease and any treatment; the question is: what is the predominant reality? The zero-risk, zero-harm standard for public policy adopted for the first time with Covid has proven a social, economic and public health disaster. …
- Manufacture epistemological uncertainty and insist on that uncertainty as long as possible
The media intone repeatedly that much remains uncertain about Omicron, including how likely it is to cause severe disease. But we already have a good picture of that likelihood from the South Africa experience: very unlikely. …
- Bury both good news and dissenters from the bad news
The South African data should lead any coverage of Omicron, yet it has barely been reported. Though only 27 percent of the country is fully vaccinated, less than two percent of new cases are requiring hospitalization. And that number is undoubtedly too high, since many reported Covid hospitalizations were admitted for reasons other than Covid. In countries such as the US with much higher rates of vaccination, the breakthrough infections from Omicron will be even milder. Omicron will be an ideal vehicle for achieving herd immunity, conferring protection without tears on the vast majority of the infected. …
Just as we are supposed to believe that everyone around us is universally spooked, so we should believe that there is an unbroken expert consensus about the likely disaster that is Omicron. European health officials are warning of an Omicron spike, we are told. State and local health officials are urging that holiday gatherings be held outdoors and that all participants get vaccinated, boosted and tested; partygoers should wear masks. Are there no experts who think that Omicron is not an emerging threat? Apparently not, if you read the mainstream media. If any dissenters do break through, they will be as demonized and silenced by Big Tech as the lockdown skeptics in the scientific community were at the start of the Covid era.
- Omit relevant context
We hear constantly that 1,300 people are dying a day from Covid. By comparison, about 2,000 people die each day from cancer, and 1,600 from heart disease. Their deaths get no coverage. Covid was the leading cause of death in the US only in January 2021, even among those eighty-five and older. Since then, it has ranked as the third most frequent cause of death both in the overall population and in the elderly. … Even those 1,300 daily Covid deaths are an overcount, since public health reporting counts deaths with Covid as deaths from Covid. Someone who was dying already from cancer will be deemed a Covid death if he happens to contract that more newsworthy disease at the end of his life. Someone who dies of old age will also be counted as a Covid fatality if infected at death. …
- Flog the case count
If the media is obsessing about case count, it means that Covid deaths have been a terrible disappointment. Covid death rates have plunged over the last year and are barely budging in the post-Omicron era. But case counts are a particularly deceptive measure of pandemic severity, when so many of the new cases are mild to asymptomatic. And despite the concerted effort to generate hospital horror stories, hospitalization rates in New York City, the leading wedge of Omicron, remain comparatively low. Covid hospitalization numbers are themselves deceptive, for the same reason as Covid death counts: being admitted to a hospital with Covid is treated as being admitted for Covid. …
- Create a group norm of fear
Disclaimer: I don't necessarily agree with everything in these articles, but I think they're worth reading as a whole. In abridging them, I have sometimes changed the paragraphing, de-italicized words, or rearranged the order of the excerpts.
Christmas at the New Logicians' Club
Due to other holiday commitments, I arrived late for the New Logicians' Club's Christmas celebration. The club was playing its usual game in which every member was randomly assigned to be either a truth-teller or a liar for the evening, and required to answer every question accordingly.
I looked around the room for an empty seat at one of the tables, but every chair was filled. Luckily, at that moment, an elderly man rose slowly from his seat at a nearby table. When he turned toward me, I recognized him as Professor Knight, who taught philosophy at a nearby college, and was the very embodiment of the stereotypical absent-minded professor. Knight was also a Kantian* who refused to lie even as part of a game, so he was always assigned to be a truth-teller. He headed towards the door where I was standing.
"Good evening, Professor," I said as he came within earshot, "are you leaving so soon?"
"Er, um, yes!" he answered, "I just remembered that it's Christmas! I must get home!"
Since I like to know whether the logicians I share a table with are liars or truth-tellers, I asked Knight about the three who remained seated at the table he had left.
"Oh, yes," he replied, "I seem to remember that one said that at least one of them was something, and another said that exactly one of them was that something, but the third claimed that at most one of them was that same thing."
"But, Professor, what was that something?"
"Hmm, I can't seem to remember, but I do seem to recall that it was either truth-teller or liar. Anyway, it doesn't matter, as I'm sure that you can figure it out. I must be going!" With this, he rushed out the door.
Can you figure it out? In case what the Professor said wasn't entirely clear, the three unnamed logicians seated at the table―let's call them "X", "Y", and "Z"―said the following:
X: "At least one of us is a ____."
Y: "Exactly one of us is a ____."
Z: "At most one of us is a ____."
Where the blank is filled with either "truth-teller" or "liar" in each statement, with the same word filling the blank in all three statements.
The question is: what are X, Y, and Z? What is the veracity status of each of the three logicians?
Suppose that Y is telling the truth. What happens to the statements of the other two logicians?
Suppose that what both X and Z said is true. How does that affect what Y said?
X is a truth-teller, but Y and Z are liars.
Explanation: To solve the puzzle, it's useful to realize that what Y says is logically equivalent to the conjunction of what X and Z said. In other words, "exactly one" means the same as "at least one and at most one". So, if what Y said is true then so is what both X and Z said, and contrariwise.
Since the blanks in the three logicians' statements are filled with either "truth-teller" or "liar", there are two cases we need to consider:
- The missing word was "truth-teller"; then here is what the three said:
X: "At least one of us is a truth-teller."
Y: "Exactly one of us is a truth-teller."
Z: "At most one of us is a truth-teller."
Let's concentrate on Y: Could Y be a truth-teller? If so, then what Y said is true. Then Y must be the only truth-teller among the three. However, we know that what Y said implies the truth of what both X and Z said. So, all three are truth-tellers, which is impossible. Therefore, Y could not be a truth-teller.
If Y is a liar, then either none of the three is a truth-teller or more than one is. They can't all be liars, since what Z said would be true, as "at most one" means "either none or one". So, both X and Z would have to be truth-tellers. However, if both are truth-tellers, then what Z said would again be true, which is impossible. So, Y is not a liar.
Therefore, Y cannot be either a truth-teller or a liar, but that contradicts what we know about Y. This shows that it is inconsistent to suppose that the blanks were filled with "truth-teller". Therefore, the next possibility must be the correct one:
- The missing word was "liar"; then here is what the three said:
X: "At least one of us is a liar."
Y: "Exactly one of us is a liar."
Z: "At most one of us is a liar."
Again, let's concentrate on Y: Could what Y said be true? Then what X and Z said would also be true. So, all three would be truth-tellers. However, this means that what both X and Y said is false, but truth-tellers speak the truth. Therefore, what Y said must be false, which makes Y a liar.
Since Y is a liar, X must be a truth-teller. Could Z also be a truth-teller? No, since we know that if what both X and Z said is true then what Y said would have to be true. Therefore, Z is also a liar.
Disclaimer: Ladies and gentlemen, the puzzle story you just read is false. The names have been changed to protect innocent logicians.
* The philosopher Immanuel Kant rather notoriously held that lying was immoral in all circumstances; see: "The morality of lying", Encyclopaedia Britannica, accessed: 12/24/2021. I'm not sure whether Kant included games in the prohibition of lying, but Knight certainly does.
A Troublesome Trio: Peremptory, Preemptory, and Preemptive
I recently came across the following sentence in a book: "The lawyers then use their preemptory challenges in such a way as to get jurors with the demographics and other characteristics that are found to be most favorable to their side.1" My mental spellchecker alarm was set off by the word "preemptory": shouldn't that be "peremptory"?
"Peremptory" is an adjective that means "final", "decisive", or "unappealable"2. It comes to English from the Latin word "peremptorius", which meant to "take completely" or "destroy", and "[b]y extension it was used for 'taking away all possibility of debate', and hence 'decisive.'3"
Like all Gaul, "peremptory" is divided into three parts: the prefix "per-", the stem "empt", and the adjectival suffix "-ory". The Latin stem is the root of the word "emptor", meaning "buyer", from the familiar phrase "caveat emptor": "let the buyer beware"4. The prefix often means "through", as in "perambulate", to "ambulate"―that is, to walk―through. However, it can also mean "through and through", "thoroughly", or "completely" as in "perfect"―"to make complete"―from the Latin verb "facere", "to make".5
In current English, "peremptory" is a rare word that usually occurs in legal phrases such as "peremptory challenge". In law, a challenge is used by one side in a trial to prevent a prospective juror from being seated on the jury, and there are two types: for cause and peremptory. Challenges for cause must be approved by the judge, but not peremptory ones, which is why they are final.6
The Latin prefix "pre-", in contrast to "per-", usually means "before", as in "prefix" itself, which is something that is "fixed" or "fastened" to the beginning of a word. Similarly, to "predict" is to say something before it happens, where the stem "dict" comes from Latin "dicere": "to say". Also, to "preempt" is to "take before", as in a preemptive strike, which is one taken before a predicted attack.7
On the basis of its construction, "preemptory" ought to mean the same thing as "preemptive", since the only difference between the two words is in the adjectival suffixes. So, a "preemptory challenge" would be one that happens before, but both types of challenge occur before the jury is seated and the trial proper begins. What sets the peremptory challenge off from the challenge for cause is that the challenge itself is unchallengeable8.
Is "preemptory" simply a misspelling of "peremptory", perhaps based on confusion with "preemptive"? If so, it ought to be caught and corrected by spellchecking programs. However, my old copy of Microsoft's Word program accepts either spelling. In contrast, a few online spellchecking programs that I tried all marked "preemptory" as incorrect9.
A search in Google Books finds many examples of "preemptory", primarily in legal texts―there's even a book from 1989 with the word in its title. Does this mean that "preemptory" is an accepted alternative spelling in legal writing? None of the legal dictionaries that I've consulted include "preemptory", but all have entries for "peremptory"10.
For these reasons, I conclude that "preemptory" is indeed a misspelling of "peremptory", albeit a common one. If you're a lawyer or legal writer, you might check your spellchecker to see whether it will launch a preemptive strike, and give "preemptory" a peremptory challenge.
- Herbert F. Weisberg, Jon A. Krosnick & Dale R. Newman, An Introduction to Survey Research, Polling, and Data Analysis (3rd edition, 1996), p. 9.
- "Peremptory", Cambridge Dictionary, accessed: 12/15/2021.
- John Ayto, Dictionary of Word Origins (1991).
- Eugene Ehrlich, Amo, Amas, Amat and More: How to Use Latin to Your Own Advantage and to the Astonishment of Others (1985).
- For the previous two paragraphs, I consulted Ayto, above, and also: Joseph T. Shipley, Dictionary of Word Origins (1945), pp. 268 & 285.
- For the legal definitions and procedures in this paragraph, see: "Peremptory Challenge", Legal Dictionary, 9/21/2015; and "Challenge for Cause", Legal Dictionary, 8/21/2015.
- I used both Ayto and Shipley for this paragraph.
- This is not quite true; there are rare circumstances in which such challenges can be themselves challenged, see the sources under note 6, above.
- I used the following: "Online Spellcheck", "Reverso Speller", and "Online Spell Check"; accessed: 12/15/2021.
- I checked the following: "Legal Dictionary", "Law Dictionary", Merriam-Webster, and "The Law Dictionary"; accessed: 12/15/2021.
Fact Checking the Future and the Future of Fact Checking
Last month's entry in this series discussed the important but poorly understood distinction between facts and opinions1. It's generally agreed by experts that fact checkers should avoid checking opinions but, unfortunately, the temptation to do so seems irresistible. As I argued in that entry, predictions are a type of statement of opinion, and I predicted that I would examine an example of such opinion checking. This entry is the fulfillment of that prophecy.
Predictions are expressions of opinion because, unlike the past, the future is not fixed, and there are no facts about it. There are, of course, some claims about the future that are highly likely, even so likely that they are almost certain and one could be forgiven for calling them "facts". For instance, is it a "fact" that the sun will rise tomorrow? Based on past experience, as well as scientific knowledge about the rotation of the Earth and the life spans of stars, it's so probable that the sun will rise that only a philosopher would doubt it. However, such exceptional predictions are unlikely to be the targets of our fact checkers, so let's examine in depth a prediction that they actually checked.
Last year, President Donald Trump claimed that a vaccine for COVID-19 might be available before the end of the year. Despite the fact that this was an expression of opinion, and that Trump as president was obviously in a position to take steps to speed the development of a vaccine, both The Washington Post's Fact Checker and NBC News chose to "fact check" it. Here's the cautiously worded start of The Post's "fact check":
President Trump has adopted a new refrain: A vaccine for the novel coronavirus will be completed in record time. On several occasions, the president has bragged about the speed with which experts and pharmaceutical companies are working on a vaccine. Trump is not wrong in saying that scientists are rapidly developing a vaccine to combat the novel coronavirus. However, he seems to be overstating when a vaccine will be available to the public.2
The Fact Checker carefully hedges its claim that Trump was wrong: he "seems" to be "overstating" it. What, specifically, did Trump claim? A couple of days before The Post's article in early March of last year, Trump held a roundtable with representatives of pharmaceutical companies and members of the coronavirus task force. At the end of the meeting, Trump answered questions from unnamed members of the news media, and his answers seem to have inspired the "fact check":
Q: Mr. President, do you accept that this will take longer probably than you would like?
Trump: I don’t know what the time will be. I don’t think they know what the time will be. I’ve heard very quick numbers—a matter of months—and I’ve heard pretty much a year would be an outside number. So I think that’s not a bad range. But if you’re talking about three to four months, in a couple of cases, and a year in other cases—wouldn’t you say, Doctor, would that be about right?
Q: Is it realistic to think, really, that a vaccine could be ready in three or four months?
Trump: Well, you have the greatest companies in the world sitting around the table. I mean, Johnson & Johnson and Pfizer and all of the companies—Gilead—you have all of these great companies and that’s what they’re saying.
Anthony Fauci: Would you make sure you get the President the information that a vaccine that you make and start testing in a year is not a vaccine that’s deployable. So he’s asking the question, “When is it going to be deployable?” And that is going to be, at the earliest, a year to a year and a half, no matter how fast you go.3
This is a confusing exchange. The first question is itself unclear: what does "this" refer to? Vaccine development? Treatment development? Both were discussed during the previous roundtable discussion. The follow-up question is clearly about vaccines, and Trump may have been confused about the difference between when a potential vaccine would be at the testing stage as opposed to being ready for vaccinating people in the population, as Fauci's intervention suggests.
NBC News' "fact check" was over two months after The Post's, and NBC had additional statements to check:
President Donald Trump has suggested multiple times that a coronavirus vaccine could come within months, an accelerated timeline that prominent health experts and veteran vaccine developers say is unlikely absent a miracle. "We're looking to get it by the end of the year if we can, maybe before," Trump said Friday during in [sic] a Rose Garden event centered on his administration's efforts to fast-track a vaccine. “Vaccine work is looking VERY promising, before end of year,” Trump tweeted on Thursday. … “I think we’re going to have a vaccine by the end of the year,” he told reporters later in the day.4
Only the last of these is a prediction, but it is also qualified by the word "think" indicating that it is an opinion. How could you check such a prediction, aside from waiting until the end of the year to see whether it comes true? Predictions are opinions, and they cannot be checked against the facts, since the facts that will make them true or false don't yet exist. The only approach available is to check the opinion against other opinions, and this is what both The Post and NBC News chose to do: asking experts for their opinions as to when a vaccine would be available. For example, here is NBC's "fact check":
[E]xperts say that the development, testing and production of a vaccine for the public is still at least 12 to 18 months off, and that anything less would be a medical miracle. …
“I think it’s possible you could see a vaccine in people’s arms next year—by the middle or end of next year. But this is unprecedented, so it’s hard to predict,” said Dr. Paul Offit, a professor at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania and the director of the Vaccine Education Center at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. …
Dr. Walter Orenstein, a professor at Emory University and the associate director of the Emory Vaccine Center, said a vaccine in less than a year would be “miracle.” While technically possible, he added, it is unlikely. “There’s a lot of things that could go wrong,” Orenstein said.
Dr. Stanley Plotkin…said developing a vaccine in a year to a year and half was “feasible,”…. “In the best of circumstances, we should have a vaccine—or let's say vaccines—between 12 and 18 months," he said. …
…Dr. Anthony Fauci, told the "Today" show that January 2021 is the earliest a vaccine could be ready, but cautioned that that timeline is "aspirational" and depends on companies producing a vaccine before researchers are sure it will work. …
Rick Bright…testified at a House hearing Thursday that an accelerated timeline might paint too rosy a picture. “A lot of optimism is swirling around a 12- to 18-month timeframe, if everything goes perfectly. We’ve never seen everything go perfectly,” Bright said. “I still think 12-18 months is an aggressive schedule, and I think it’s going to take longer than that to do so.”4
Like NBC News, The Post's Fact Checker pits expert opinion against Trump's prediction:
Experts have emphasized that actual deployment of the vaccine is more than a year away, not a few months, as Trump has suggested. Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said at a White House news conference on Feb. 26: “So although this is the fastest we have ever gone from a sequence of a virus to a trial, it still would not be applicable to the epidemic unless we really wait about a year to a year and a half.” …
Peter Jay Hotez, the dean of Baylor’s National School of Tropical Medicine, said…“I doubt very much that we’ll have a vaccine in time for this epidemic, maybe if this virus returns on an annual basis. … But unfortunately, I think for now, we have to look at the realistic prospect that we’re going to have to battle this virus without the benefit of a vaccine.”2
The Fact Checker, to its credit, didn't give a Pinocchio rating to Trump's prediction, but here is what it calls "The Bottom Line":
Trump appears to be expediting the vaccine development process, misrepresenting how fast a vaccine will be available to the public in fighting the novel coronavirus [sic]. Fauci has repeatedly corrected the president’s comments on the vaccine to put forward a more accurate timeline. As the United States and the rest of the world prepare for the novel coronavirus to continue spreading, it’s important to share factual information about the virus and methods to combat it.2
Here's the real Bottom Line: The first vaccination against COVID-19 was given in mid-December of last year5, and by the end of the year news outlets reported that "only" 2.8 million Americans had been vaccinated6.
I don't mean to criticize the experts who were consulted by the fact checkers7: I assume that they were sincerely expressing their opinions―expert opinions, no doubt, but only opinions and not facts. However, experts are no more prophets than anyone else. Their predictions were presumably based on experience with past vaccine development, but this was a situation in which such experience could be misleading. The fact that it had taken at least a year-and-a-half to test and deploy past vaccines obviously did not mean that the process could not be speeded up.
If fact checking is to have a future, and not be laughed into extinction, fact checkers need to have the intellectual humility to recognize the difference between their own opinions and the facts. If journalists want to argue against the opinions of presidents or others, they should do so on the editorial pages where such argumentation belongs. Fact checks are not, or at least should not be, battles of opinion between experts. Is there a better way to debase the coinage of fact than to confuse it with opinion?
Neither news outlet issued a correction to their mistaken "fact checks", but The Post did update its report with an Emily Litella-style "never mind":
Update: A coronavirus vaccine was administered to the first U.S. citizen on Dec. 14. The vaccine development was faster than scientists expected, in part due to the high caseloads in the U.S.2
What do high caseloads have to do with faster vaccine development? The Fact Checker might as well have blamed its error on sun spots. I suppose that The Post just could not bring itself to admit that Trump might have been right about something, or that he could deserve some credit for a "medical miracle".
Paul Offit made a wise observation in NBC's article that's a good final judgment on the whole affair:
“It’s all very humbling. If you learn anything from all of this, it’s be humble. Because nature is humbling.”4
So is the future.
- "Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.", 11/23/2021.
- Elyse Samuels, "Fact-checking Trump’s accelerated timeline for a coronavirus vaccine", The Washington Post, 3/4/2020. Some paragraphing suppressed.
- "Remarks by President Trump and Members of the Coronavirus Task Force in Meeting with Pharmaceutical Companies", The White House, 3/2/2020. I've edited out some repetition.
- Jane C. Timm, "Fact check: Coronavirus vaccine could come this year, Trump says. Experts say he needs a 'miracle' to be right.", NBC News, 5/15/2020. Some paragraphing suppressed.
- Peter Loftus, Melanie Grayce West & Jared S. Hopkins, "First Covid-19 Vaccine Given to U.S. Public", The Wall Street Journal, 12/14/2020.
- Rebecca Spalding & Carl O’Donnell, "U.S. vaccinations in 2020 fall far short of target of 20 million people", Reuters, 12/31/2020.
- In particular, I respect Paul Offit, who wrote a book on the anti-vaccination movement that I've reviewed favorably; see: Book Review: Deadly Choices, 7/21/2013.
Getting Polling Wrong
Quote: "Over the past eighty years or so, polls and poll-based forecasts have misfired in many ways in the U.S. presidential elections, leaving pollsters, journalists, and pundits baffled or humiliated, and often without immediate explanation as to what went wrong. Polls in presidential elections do not always go wrong. Or dramatically wrong. But they have been wrong often enough to invite skepticism and wariness. Indeed, it is a rare election that does not produce polling controversies of some sort."1
Title: Lost in a Gallup
Comment: Clever title!
Subtitle: Polling Failure in U.S. Presidential Elections
Comment: Nice subtitle: it tells you exactly what the book is about.
Author: W. Joseph Campbell
Comment: Campbell is the author of the previous book, Getting it Wrong: Ten of the Greatest Misreported Stories in American Journalism, which I've read and recommend if you're interested in that sort of thing. He also writes the website Media Myth Alert, which mostly tracks recrudescences of the myths debunked in the book. Campbell is a professor of communication studies, whatever that is―I guess it's either a fancy name for what used to be called "rhetoric" or perhaps journalism, or some combination of the two. Based on his previous book, he's a careful and reliable historian, which is important for a debunker of pseudohistory. Since he's not a pollster or statistician, the book doesn't focus on the technical aspects of polling, but is a history of polling failures in American presidential elections instead.
Summary: This book was written and published before last year's polling failure, so it's perhaps even more timely now. Judging from the Introduction and chapter titles, its chapters discuss the following elections:
- 1936: The year of the famous Literary Digest "debacle", to use Campbell's word for it.
- 1948: When Dewey did not defeat Truman, despite the polls.
- 1952: Republican candidate Eisenhower wins in a landslide unforeseen by the polls.
- 1980: Republican candidate Reagan wins in another landslide unforeseen by the polls.
- 2000: This election was really too close to call, so it's not surprising that the polls got it wrong.
- 2004: Exit polls falsely showed Kerry winning.
- 2016: This time it was the polling models that falsely showed Clinton winning.
Excerpt: "In a way, polling failure in presidential elections is not especially surprising. Indeed, it is almost extraordinary that election polls do not flop more often than they do, given the many and intangible ways that error can creep into surveys. And these variables may be difficult or impossible to measure or quantify. … Opinion polls can never flawlessly reflect the views of the entire population. It's a statistical fact of life that some amount of error resides in every poll taken of some portion of a target group. This is true even when rigorous and reliable polling techniques are applied…. The inevitable distortion in sample surveys is called the margin of error (or, more precisely, the margin of sampling error).
"…[P]ollsters have developed various ways of estimating who among the respondents to pre-election polls are most likely to vote. Weeding out nonvoters is essential because many poll respondents fail to follow through on assurances that they will vote. … Even now, after many years of testing, pollsters do not agree on the best method for deciding who will vote. 'There are as many "likely voter" models as there are pollsters,' Kyley McGeeney, a polling expert in Washington, DC, noted…. The distorting effects of screening for likely voters were strikingly demonstrated in 2016, when Nate Cohn of the New York Times arranged for four well-regarded pollsters to calculate the results of a pre-election poll in Florida in which voters pronounced themselves in favor of Trump or Clinton for president. The pollsters were given the same raw data to analyze, and their results differed markedly, ranging from a four-point advantage for Clinton to a one-point lead for Trump."2
Comment: Likely-voter models are the suspects in the polling problems in both last year's and this year's elections, as just about every other source of bias seems to have been ruled out.
Fact Check and Copy-Editing: I didn't notice any factual errors in the parts of the book that I was able to read, namely, the introduction, the first chapter, and part of the second. The copy-editing is also first-rate as I noticed only a few typographical errors.
The Blurbs: The book is positively blurbed by Joel Best, whose books on the sociology of statistical errors I highly recommend.
Disclaimer: This book is from last year, so it's not brand new, but I just heard of it. I haven't read all of it yet, though I intend to, so I can't review or recommend it. However, its topic interests me, and may also interest Fallacy Files readers.