Epistemic Sabotage

People like Dennis Prager, in the words of Decoding The Gurus, "produce ersatz wisdom: a corrupt epistemics that creates the appearance of useful knowledge, but has none of the substance. …the guru is highly motivated to undertake epistemic sabotage; to disparage authoritative and institutional sources of knowledge."

When I argue that someone like Dennis Prager engages in epistemic corruption, I claim that he manipulates knowledge for his personal, professional and monetary gain, and by so doing, he pollutes public and private discourse. 

Dennis Prager's March 7, 2023 column is a classic example of his habit of epistemic sabotage. The innumerate pundit normally disdains academic studies, but because he found one that he thought supported his point of view, he embraced it as a truth bomb against the Left without regard to what it actually said. To push his personal and ideological agenda, he treated truth like a used tampon. 

Why the Left Is Pro-Mask

The world’s most trusted evaluator of medical studies, the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, has just released as close to a conclusive report on the effectiveness of masks against respiratory viruses such as COVID-19 as we are likely to have for the foreseeable future. The report assessed data from 78 different studies, including 11 new randomized controlled trials involving 610,872 participants.

In the words of one of the authors, Dr. Tom Jefferson of Oxford University, Cochrane concluded, “There is just no evidence that they (masks) make any difference. Full stop.”

Among the reasons for that assessment was Cochrane’s conclusion that states and countries with mask mandates fared no better than states and countries without.

Moreover, Dr. Jefferson’s conclusions were not limited to cloth and surgical masks. Regarding N95 masks, Jefferson said, “Makes no difference — none of it.”

As for the early COVID-19 studies that policymakers cited to justify mandates for mask-wearing, Jefferson said: “They were convinced by nonrandomized studies, flawed observational studies.”

Compare Prager's column with the essay of sociologist Zeynep Tufekci in the New York Times March 10, 2023:

Here’s Why the Science Is Clear That Masks Work

“Many commentators have claimed that a recently updated Cochrane review shows that ‘masks don’t work,’ which is an inaccurate and misleading interpretation,” Karla Soares-Weiser, the editor in chief of the Cochrane Library, said in a statement.

“The review examined whether interventions to promote mask wearing help to slow the spread of respiratory viruses,” Soares-Weiser said, adding, “Given the limitations in the primary evidence, the review is not able to address the question of whether mask wearing itself reduces people’s risk of contracting or spreading respiratory viruses.”

She said that “this wording was open to misinterpretation, for which we apologize,” and that Cochrane would revise the summary.

Soares-Weiser also said, though, that one of the lead authors of the review even more seriously misinterpreted its finding on masks by saying in an interview that it proved “there is just no evidence that they make any difference.” In fact, Soares-Weiser said, “that statement is not an accurate representation of what the review found.”

While the review assessed 78 studies, only 10 of those focused on what happens when people wear masks versus when they don’t, and a further five looked at how effective different types of masks were at blocking transmission, usually for health care workers. The remainder involved other measures aimed at lowering transmission, like hand washing or disinfection, while a few studies also considered masks in combination with other measures. Of those 10 studies that looked at masking, the two done since the start of the Covid pandemic both found that masks helped.

The calculations the review used to reach a conclusion were dominated by prepandemic studies that were not very informative about how well masks blocked the transmission of respiratory viruses…

Soares-Weiser told me the review should be seen as a call for more data, and said she worried that misinterpretations of it could undermine preparedness for future outbreaks…

Lab studies, many of which were done during the pandemic, show that masks, particularly N95 respirators, can block viral particles. Linsey Marr, an aerosol scientist who has long studied airborne viral transmission, told me even cloth masks that fit well and use appropriate materials can help…

David Lazer, a political scientist at Northeastern University, calculated that before vaccines were available, U.S. states without mask mandates had 30 percent higher Covid death rates than those with mandates…

So the evidence is relatively straightforward: Consistently wearing a mask, preferably a high-quality, well-fitting one, provides protection against the coronavirus…

Others have come to think mandates represent illogical rules. To be sure, we did have many illogical rules: mandating masks outdoors and even at beaches, or wearing them to enter a restaurant but not at the table, or requiring children as young as 2 to mask in day care but not during nap time (presumably, the virus also took a nap). Some mask proponents and public health authorities have also used weak studies to make overblown or imprecise claims about masks’ effectiveness…

It’s no surprise that Jefferson says he has no faith in masks’ ability to stop the spread of Covid.

In that interview, he said there is no basis to say the coronavirus is spread by airborne transmission — despite the fact that major public health agencies have long said otherwise. He has long doubted well-accepted claims about the virus. In an article he co-wrote in April 2020, Jefferson questioned whether the Covid outbreak was a pandemic at all, rather than just a long respiratory illness season. At that point, New York City schools had been closed for a month and Covid had killed thousands of New Yorkers. When New York was preparing “M*A*S*H”-like mobile hospitals in Central Park, he said there was no point in mitigations to slow the spread.

In an editorial accompanying a 2020 version of the review — the review is in its sixth update since 2006 — Soares-Weiser noted a lack of “robust, high-quality evidence for any behavioral measure or policy” and said that “when protecting the public from harm is the objective, public health officials must act in a precautionary manner to take action even when evidence is uncertain (or not of the highest quality).”

Which of the two authors above is more committed to truth? Prager or Tufekci? Due to his agenda, Prager took what he wanted out of the study, and then moved on, like a man dispensing with a whore. 

Prager reminds me of the protagonist of the 1970 Paul Simon song The Boxer. "Still a man hears what he wants to hear/And disregards the rest"

Justin Peters wrote for Slate Nov. 8, 2021:

On Monday, Nov. 1, Dennis Prager began his popular radio show with a very strange boast. “I rarely say, ‘I did the following.’ It’s not my style,” the 73-year-old conservative host and YouTube culture war impresario said. “But I believe I am responsible for the CDC announcing the following: that if you have natural immunity you are less immune than if you have the vaccine.”

Prager was referring to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study, released on Friday, Oct. 29, which found, basically, that the immunity conferred by full vaccination with an mRNA COVID vaccine is more effective than the “natural immunity” gained by having had and recovered from COVID-19. Good news, right? Ha! If you welcomed the CDC’s findings, you are almost certainly not in Dennis Prager’s target demographic.

The CDC’s conclusions are broadly in line with the scientific consensus on the efficacy of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. And they directly contradict Prager’s contention, voiced over and again on his long-running, nationally syndicated show, that natural immunity to COVID-19 is superior to vaccinated immunity. To Prager, the CDC’s latest findings did not mean that he, Prager, was wrong—they meant that the liberal, corrupt health agency had ginned up a bogus study in order to cloud the debate and specifically silence his voice.

“All I did was open up to you, my audience,” Prager said, referring to his advocacy for natural immunity. “I had no idea that I would shake up the nest to the extent that I did.” Assuring his audience that he had done “a lot of homework on COVID,” and highlighting an Israeli study from August (even though it has not yet been peer reviewed and had certain limitations that ought to make any prudent person think twice before citing it as definitive), Prager weaved a fantastical counternarrative as a way of underscoring his central point: that the CDC study in question was a dirty, rotten lie. “To some of you, it is stunning to say the CDC is lying,” said Prager. “To me, it is like saying the sun shines brightly when there are no clouds.”

Huh? Why would the CDC rush out a false study—co-authored by more than 50 people—just to neutralize a random right-wing radio host? Why would Prager presume calumny and conspiracy in the agency’s motives? These fair questions naturally beget another fair question: Why are so many right-wing talk show hosts still being such dicks about COVID measures?

…“I took ivermectin for the last year and a half as a prophylactic, believing, and I put my actions where my mouth was, believing that ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine and zinc, et cetera, over the course of time, that it would prevent COVID from being seriously injurious to me,” Prager said on that Nov. 1 show, railing against those fools in the media who dared to characterize ivermectin as a mere “horse dewormer.” As per the irrationalist imperative to willfully confuse correlation with causation, the host presented his victorious bout with COVID as clear evidence both of the merits of Dr. Prager’s Curative Elixirs and of the superfluity of the various vaccines. By ostensibly proving that his ivermectin use was what prevented him from dying from COVID, Prager hoped to demonstrate that he was once again privy to the “real truth” that the liberal establishment is determined to suppress.

For decades now, the most successful conservative broadcast media sources have sought to isolate their audiences by constantly sowing distrust of any news outlet or official entity that exists outside of the hard right. The unifying theme is the notion that there are no depths to which the deep state, liberal media, and elitist professoriate will not stoop in order to advance their godless, anti-American, and culturally transgressive agendas.

So for committed Pragerheads, it is perfectly rational to believe—even as 750,000 Americans have died due to COVID-19—that the media is still suppressing the real truth about ivermectin and that the CDC is basically SPECTRE, because right-wing media has literally spent decades convincing its audience that politics is as conspiratorial and simplistic as a James Bond movie. “It’s impossible, virtually impossible, to live in a right-wing bubble,” Prager said on his program on Wednesday, in a statement that is so un-self-aware as to be almost entirely self-aware. Prager surely understands how right-wing media works, even as he also surely understands that he can never, ever publicly admit it.

This cynical strategy, enervating enough in normal times, is especially frustrating in the midst of an ongoing public health crisis in which lots and lots of people are still dying in part thanks to the endemic misinformation being spread by dummies on the radio. Actually, dummies might not be the right word here. No matter what you might think of their politics, Prager and his nationally prominent peers are not stupid. You can tell this is true because they are so adept at dancing right up to the lies-and-lunacy line while almost never crossing it. The evening opinion hosts on Fox News, for example, rarely tell outright lies; instead, they draw false equivalencies, or cherry-pick outlying details and use them to inaccurately characterize the whole, or offer misleading narratives that can be explained away as matters of opinion.

Even Prager is not explicitly anti-vaccine. He does not say that the vaccines don’t work, or that they are actively harmful to those who take them. Instead, he disparages them via a boatload of logical fallacies that he presents as plain common sense. “I have never once told any of you or anyone not to take the vaccine; it is not my province to tell you what to do. But it is my province to tell you the truth, and the truth is that natural immunity is stronger,” said Prager on Nov. 1. “Alex Berenson wrote about this. He’s the guy who was with the New York Times until he started telling the truth.”

As always with right-wing anti–virtue signaling, deflection is the point here. Prager and his peers’ goal writ large is to get their audiences so hot and bothered about federal government overreach and the scurrilous rascals in the elitist media that those audiences do not stop to think critically about what these hosts are actually selling. When Prager threw his show to commercial break, his announcer reported that The Dennis Prager Show was broadcasting “live from the Relief Factor Pain-Free Studio.” The ad gave away the game.

As historian Rick Perlstein observed in his seminal Baffler essay “The Long Con,” and as anyone can observe by watching or listening to more than 20 minutes of conservative broadcast content, right-wing media is and has long been underwritten by billions of dollars of advertising for dubious curatives. While lots of reputable news sources also have some questionable advertisers, the practice is particularly pervasive on the right…

“The strategic alliance of snake-oil vendors and conservative true believers points up evidence of another successful long march, of tactics designed to corral fleeceable multitudes all in one place,” wrote Perlstein. “One weird trick”–style remedies, in a very real sense, pay the salaries of hosts such as Prager; these hosts are incentivized to tout them just as their audiences are conditioned to trust them. The vaccines threaten the framework of burnished shit that supports and sustains these sorts of programs…

On Monday, Prager led off his show by blasting the city of Los Angeles for a new ordinance that would require patrons to show proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test in order to dine inside a restaurant, get a haircut, or engage in certain other indoor activities. Prager warned of “the communist hell that all communists create, and will in the United States if allowed,” and bemoaned “the love of power and the hypochondriacal fear, the maniacal fear that pervades the left about [COVID] and global warming.” Then, he threw the show to a commercial for Relief Factor, in which he spoke glowingly about the supplement’s “100 percent drug free ingredients, each helping your body deal with inflammation.”

…the layout of HumanEvents.com on the day it featured an article headlined “Ideas Will Drive Conservatives’ Revival.” Two inches beneath that bold pronouncement, a box headed “Health News” included the headlines “Reverse Crippling Arthritis in 2 Days,” “Clear Clogged Arteries Safely & Easily—without drugs, without surgery, and without a radical diet,” and “High Blood Pressure Cured in 3 Minutes . . . Drop Measurement 60 Points.” It would be interesting, that is, to ask Coulter about the reflex of lying that’s now sutured into the modern conservative movement’s DNA—and to get her candid assessment of why conservative leaders treat their constituents like suckers.

When Prager came back, he was at it again about natural immunity and the CDC—“who I believe are professional liars,” he clarified. By sowing doubt over the vaccines and crying foul over mandates, Prager and his peers are running through the tribal script of right-wing infotainment, otherizing every idea and institution that could plausibly be considered “liberal.” But in a very real sense, they just don’t want the liberals’ miracle drugs, because they already have plenty of their own.

In 2012, Rick Perlstein wrote:

The Long Con – Mail-order conservatism

In 2007, I signed on to the email lists of several influential magazines on the right, among them Townhall, which operates under the auspices of evangelical Stuart Epperson’s Salem Communications; Newsmax, the organ more responsible than any other for drumming up the hysteria that culminated in the impeachment of Bill Clinton; and Human Events, one of Ronald Reagan’s favorite publications. The exercise turned out to be far more revealing than I expected. Via the battery of promotional appeals that overran my email inbox, I mainlined a right-wing id that was invisible to readers who encounter conservative opinion at face value…. I learned of the “23-Cent Heart Miracle,” the one “Washington, the medical industry, and drug companies REFUSE to tell you about.” (Why would they? They’d just be leaving money on the table: “I was scheduled for open heart surgery when I read about your product,” read one of the testimonials. “I started taking it and now six months have passed and I haven’t had open-heart surgery.”) Then came news of the oilfield in the placenta…

These are bedtime stories, meant for childlike minds. Or, more to the point, they are in the business of producing childlike minds. Conjuring up the most garishly insatiable monsters precisely in order to banish them from underneath the bed, they aim to put the target to sleep.

Dishonesty is demanded by the alarmist fundraising appeal because the real world doesn’t work anything like this. The distance from observable reality is rhetorically required; indeed, that you haven’t quite seen anything resembling any of this in your everyday life is a kind of evidence all by itself. It just goes to show how diabolical the enemy has become. He is unseen; but the redeemer, the hero who tells you the tale, can see the innermost details of the most baleful conspiracies. Trust him. Send him your money. Surrender your will—and the monster shall be banished for good.

This method highlights the fundamental workings of all grassroots conservative political appeals, be they spurious claims of Barack Obama’s Islamic devotion, the supposed explosion of taxpayer-supported welfare fraud, or the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

And, in an intersection that is utterly crucial, this same theology of fear is how a certain sort of commercial appeal—a snake-oil-selling one—works as well. This is where the retail political lying practiced by Romney links up with the universe in which 23-cent miracle cures exist (absent the hero’s intervention) just out of reach, thanks to the conspiracy of some powerful cabal—a cabal that, wouldn’t you know it in these late-model hustles, perfectly resembles the ur-villain of the conservative mind: liberals.

In this respect, it’s not really useful, or possible, to specify a break point where the money game ends and the ideological one begins. They are two facets of the same coin—where the con selling 23-cent miracle cures for heart disease inches inexorably into the one selling miniscule marginal tax rates as the miracle cure for the nation itself. The proof is in the pitches—the come-ons in which the ideological and the transactional share the exact same vocabulary, moral claims, and cast of heroes and villains.

…Lying is an initiation into the conservative elite. In this respect, as in so many others, it’s like multilayer marketing: the ones at the top reap the reward—and then they preen, pleased with themselves for mastering the game. Closing the sale, after all, is mainly a question of riding out the lie: showing that you have the skill and the stones to just brazen it out, and the savvy to ratchet up the stakes higher and higher. Sneering at, or ignoring, your earnest high-minded mandarin gatekeepers—“we’re not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact-checkers,” as one Romney aide put it—is another part of closing the deal.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been covered in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and on 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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