Unethical Tweet Of The Week: Prof. Carl Bergstrom

One could also call this an ethical tweet, as it neatly unmasks the hypocrisy of the scientific community as well as the self-serving myth that scientists are squeaky-clean objective and do not bend their pronouncements to partisan and political motives.

Bergstrom is a science star. Atheoretical and evolutionary biologist and a professor at the University of Washington in Seattle, he has been a vocal critic of low-quality or misleading scientific research. Now he is proving how we get it.

In another tweet, he writes, “We are having difficult but vital conversations about whether public health professionals can support the #BlackLivesMatter.protests during a pandemic. I’m unhappy to see these defaulting to utilitarian calculus rather than considering deontological or virtue ethics perspectives.”

That one’s pretty funny. The reason policy-makers are told that they must follow in lockstep the pronouncements of “experts” is that scientists et al. are not calibrating facts, recommendation and conclusions based on biases, personal preferences and non-factual considerations. In fact, that is the very reason policy makers must make the trade-offs scientists cannot, or should not. Now, struggling to find a way out of the obvious verdict of hypocrisy, Bergstrom is extolling “virtue ethics.” The problem is that virtue ethics also requires balancing and prioritizing among the virtues. Now we know that Bergstrom, among others, calibrates his recommendations according to his own political and ideological preferences. Go to work to continue earning income and care for one’s family? Not important enough to justify the risk. Gather in church to serve one’s spiritual needs? Nope. Attend a funeral of a loved one to express grief and respect? Not worth the risk. Protest being forced to accept an economic Armageddon and the suspension of civil rights to prevent virus-triggered fatalities that have been tolerated in the past without installing such draconian measures? Selfish and irresponsible.

Mass demonstrations in the streets out of anger and opportunistic political motivations, leading to millions of dollars of property destruction, human misery, deaths of bystanders and police, looting and riots in furtherance of vague objectives and generalities?

Sure! Now that’s worth it!

One of the many weaknesses of scholars, academics and scientists is that they think the pubic is even dumber than it is. This hypocrisy is flaming and obvious; Bergstrom and his ilk cannot double-talk their way out of it. What his tweet reveals is that when a scientist cares about something, his “objective recommendations” are flexible. Other people’s concerns, cares, needs and passions don’t matter: the scientists can be ruthless about them.

Later in the same tweet series, Bergstrom says,

Now the ethical side of things. I am not merely a scientist. I am a human being, and a citizen. Peaceful protest is a fundamental right and even responsibility of all Americans. No cause is more pressing than the racial disparities we face in America today. The fact that millions are taking to the streets in all 50 states, despite the personal risk of harm, speaks volumes. Change is long overdue and bringing about this change is a public health necessity and a human justice issue as well. Thank you to those taking a stand.

Well…

  • Professionals are trusted because they are supposedly trained and pledged to put their personal biases aside in favor of the authority conferred by their expertise and integrity. Professionals who play the “Professional hat on! I’m an expert! Professional hat off! I’m just a human being like you are!” game are untrustworthy.
  • Peaceful protest is a fundamental right, except that the protesters who gathered to demand opening businesses were condemned by public officials and their health experts.
  • “Peaceful protest is a responsibility” is nonsense. Yes, if you’re going to exercise the right to protest, you have a responsibility to do it peacefully, but nobody has a responsibility to protest anything and everything, especially something as ephemeral as “systemic racism.”
  • These protests weren’t peaceful. One again, a public figure is evoking Rationalization #64. Yoo’s Rationalization or “It isn’t what it is.”
  • “No cause is more pressing than the racial disparities we face in America today.” Is that an expert opinion, Professor? A scientific pronouncement? I’d say its virtue-signaling propaganda. I think a lot of Americans, including African-American, think having a job, and income, and being able to live like something close to normally despite the opposition of “health professionals” is the most pressing “cause.”
  • The fact that a lot of people do anything is not proof of its virtue or validity. The professor is appealing to Rationalization #1, “Everybody does it.” Here’s an idea, you pompous hack: you stick to science, and leave the ethics to me.
  • “Change is long overdue and bringing about this change is a public health necessity and a human justice issue as well” What “change?” Bergstrom has no idea, does he? And the old trick of calling any political issue a “public health necessity”—gun control, shutting down industry to fight climate change, now unspecified social reforms—just how gullible do scientists think we are?

It is fun to read the attempts of Bergstrom’s fellow sceintists to make his indefensible hypocrisy appear laudable. Here’s PhD Elizabeith Pathek (Signature significance: putting PhD in your Twitter handle):

In its very nature, protesting is not about safety. Anti-racist protest has always been dangerous, whether in the streets, at school, or at work. These protests are not *optional.* They are as *essential* to the protesters as going to the grocery store to buy food.

Isn’t that great?

One response to Bergstrom on Twitter:

We were told for months to shut up and miss that family funeral, that doctors get the only voice on virus policy and that politics should not be a factor.. only to learn the scientists ignore science for politics. Never again.

To be fair, everyone should have figured out that scientists frequently warp their scince with politics: the abortion debate has demonstrated that beyond dispute.

Johan Goldberg discusses the significance of the double standards displayed by Bergstrom and his colleagues—he includes several Bergstrom-like tweets from other “experts”– in a post called, The Treason of Epidemiologists.

I especially like this passage, because it tracks with what Ethics Alarms has been saying about the protests…

…the whole idea that these protests will solve “systemic racism” or police misconduct is a form of magical thinking. Let’s assume that there is legislation that can solve these problems that stem from human nature for all time. How many more days of protest are necessary to get them? If they go on for another week, will Trump be more likely to sign the legislation? How about another month? Will that do the trick? How long do they have to go on for, how much germ spreading for justice, has to occur before what the epidemiologists were saying becomes true again?

Or, as a critic on Twitter responded to Bergstrom’s tweets,

“Shorter version: ‘Never Again Take Me Seriously as a Scientist.’”

Bingo.

7 thoughts on “Unethical Tweet Of The Week: Prof. Carl Bergstrom

  1. #13. The Saint’s Excuse: “It was for a good cause”

    #22. The Comparative Virtue Excuse: “There are worse things.”

    -And I am sure there are many more that I am missing, but those are the two that immediately spring to mind.

    • There are many more, notably #59. The Golden Rule Mutation, or “I’m all right with it!” I already mentioned #1 and #64. I almost took the Rationalizations approach to the tweets analysis.

      • What the hell is happening to our society-I’ve been asking myself almost daily if this is how it ends. Political discourse has devolved into tribal warfare, the media is now blatantly just a platform for political agitprop, mob justice is a fact of life now thanks to social media, and during all of this China and the Russians are circling our nation like vultures.

        God I hope sanity prevails.

  2. One can wonder if Bergstrom would be willing to forego any future grants if it meant racial disparities ended.

  3. Jack ,
    My analogy is likely flawed, but allowing health experts to dictate health policy feels akin to letting a victim’s father determine the sentencing of his daughter’s killer. They’re too close to the subject matter at hand to give rational advice. Fauci used his platform to suggest we should henceforth refrain from handshakes, others have suggested equally drastic measures in perpetuity.

    Of course we, the people, would be less vulnerable to contagions I’d stayed inside, washed our hands maniacally, and only went out in HAZMAT suits. Come to think of it, having everyone home all the time will likely cut down on property theft, and muggings. In fact, why not mandate hyperbaric chambers (coincidentally, googling “hyperbaric” to confirm spelling resulted in a COVID-19 public health alert, that only came up searching that word on multiple devices) for homeless people., and isolate people even at home, except for approved interactions. And mandatory exercise. And …

    Yes, our lives would end up safer, but they also would’t be ours anymore …

    • Just had a conversation on this exact point with my sister. Health experts look at health as the priority above all else, and that’s as it should be, but nobody should pretend that’s a balanced perspective, or that other priorities don’t have to factored in to policy decisions. But if health officials slant their health advice by bringing into the mix other considerations beyond their expertise, even the health advice is polluted.

      You analogy is sound.

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