Long time no blog, fam!
So, I had this hope that the next thing I posted here would be a grand explanation about my extended absence, all the weird stuff that’s happened over the past few years, my loss of faith in nutrition as a front-line approach to healing, and various other sundries I’ve been storing up in my brain-attic.
But then COVID-19 happened, and if that isn’t the biggest cosmic plan-changer that ever did plan-change, then I don’t know what is. So we’re gonna roll with it. And at the risk of writing something that’ll already be outdated by the time I hit publish (such is the nature of current events), I’m hoping this post will stay evergreen (or at least ever-chartreuse) by sheer virtue of its universal core theme: navigating conflicting, emotionally charged narratives in which objectivity behooves us but doesn’t come easy.
So LET US BEGIN.
In case you didn’t notice, the cyber-world (and its 3D counterpart, I assume, but we’re not allowed to venture there anymore) is currently a hot mess of Who and what do we believe? This is zero percent surprising. Official agencies have handled COVID-19 with the all grace of a three-legged elephant—waffling between the virus being under control/not under control/OMG millions dead/wait no 60,000/let’s pack the churches on Easter!/naw, lockdown-til-August/face masks do nothing/face masks do something, but healthcare workers need them more/FACE MASKS FOR EVERY FACE RIGHT NOW PLEASE AND THANK YOU/oh no a tiger got the ‘rona!; on and on. It’s dizzying. Maddening. The opposite of confidence-instilling. And as a very predictable result, guerrilla journalism has grown to fill the void left by those who’ve failed to tell us, with any believability, what’s going on.
Exercising our investigative rights is usually a good thing. You guys know me. I’m all about questioning established narratives and digging into the forces that crafted them. It’s literally my life. Good things happen when we flex our thinking muscle, and nothing we’re told should be immune to scrutiny.
But there’s a shadow side here, too—what I’ll henceforth refer to as “lopsided skepticism.” This is what happens when we question established narratives… but not the non-established ones. More specifically, when we go so hog wild ripping apart The Official Story that we somehow have no skepticism left over for all the new stuff we’re replacing it with.
And that, my friends, is exactly what’s happening right now.
I’ve been watching homegrown theories about COVID-19 spiral through various social platforms, born from a mix of data (sometimes) and theory (usually) and anecdote (always). They’re generally a pushback against the mainstream narrative about the coronavirus’s timeline, severity, concern-worthiness, fatality rate, treatment, infection breadth, classification guidelines, origin… round and round we go. Some theories are reasonable (“Has the virus been here longer than we think?”), some are untenable (“The ‘virus’ is actually radiation poisoning from 5G towers!”), and many more lie somewhere between.
Most importantly, they all have one thing in common: a tendency to embrace any and all supportive data without, well, making sure it’s true.
Y’all know what I’m talking about. Evidence we’d never give the time of day if it didn’t work in our favor. The “I remember reading somewhere…”, the “I have a friend who knows someone who…”, YouTube interviews that are impossible to fact-check (but please just trust this person’s top-secret info from an organization they can’t name without the Feds beating down their door), crowdsourced anecdotes, retracted papers, retweeted screenshots of Facebook comments from people whose names and profile pictures are blacked out, the whole shebang.
This stuff. Is. EVERYWHERE.
Unfortunately, throwing a bunch of really bad evidence together can create the illusion of a well-supported theory. And this is what’s happening, my dudes. This is what it’s come to. In our rabid quest to undermine the Powers That Be and figure out what’s really going on, we’ve thrown quality control out the window and become that which we loathe: loyalists to narrative over data.
Case in point, let’s look at what might be the most popular COVID-19 theory circulating right now: that mortality stats are getting padded by assigning deaths to COVID-19 that are really from other causes—thereby making this whole thing seem worse than it actually is. Depending on the sub-theory, this might be due to financial incentives for hospitals (more COVID-19 patients = more $$$); a coordinated government hoax to trick people into relinquishing their sovereignty; a way to butter us up for mass ID microchipping; something something lizard people; and so on.
And from what I’ve seen—and by all means correct me if I’m missing something—this theory draws on the following claims:
- The CDC has literally issued guidelines telling doctors and medical examiners to classify deaths as COVID-19 if they “presume” the patient has it—no test results needed.
- CDC data shows a precipitous drop in pneumonia deaths right around the same time COVID-19 became a thing—suggesting pneumonia deaths have been getting reclassified as COVID-19 deaths, and creating the illusion of a pandemic.
- People who die with coronavirus, but not from coronavirus, are getting counted as COVID-19 deaths—again inflating the body count.
- Despite COVID-19 mortality skyrocketing, total mortality is staying the same (or even dropping)—suggesting a “cause of death” shuffle, if you will, and betraying the idea that we’re seeing additional deaths from a new disease. (Alternatively: “Only people with preexisting medical conditions are dying and they were gonna keel over any minute anyhow.”)
This theory would be pretty awful if it’s true. We’d have been got. Duped. Manipulated AF. But how solid is the evidence? Have we actually peeled this thing apart piece by piece before getting all ragey about the injustice of it all?
Oh, we haven’t? Well GUESS WHAT WE’RE GOING TO DO NOW?
Let the unpeeling commence.
1. First, the whole “CDC is telling people to report COVID-19 deaths without testing!” ordeal. The damning bits come from the CDC’s COVID-19 reporting guide (PDF), which gives permission to use COVID-19 on a death certificate if it’s “suspected or likely” and “‘probable’ or ‘presumed'”:
And also says it’s okay to report COVID-19 without testing confirmation:
And the WHO’s “Emergency use ICD codes for COVID-19 disease outbreak” gives a whole death code for COVID-19 cases that aren’t confirmed via test:
And finally, this National Vital Statistics System document says COVID-19 can be put on a death certificate when it’s “assumed” to have caused death:
The point of contention here, which has sparked something of an outrage in important places such as Twitter, is that these guidelines allow a level of guesswork that could mess things up real bad. Especially if there’s already some sort of incentive to bend data in the direction of more coronavirus deaths. What if people assign COVID-19 willy nilly to anyone who has a cough or fever? Or who had a poorly-timed bout of allergies? Where does the line get drawn? For sure, “probable,” “presumed,” “suspected,” and “likely” aren’t very reassuring words when it comes to a disease we’ve shut down the whole globe to contain.
But is this actually conspiracy worthy? And, in a clinical setting, with actual doctors doing doctor things rather than us internet-dwelling oafs imagining how it all might go, would these guidelines really lead to a significant over-reporting of COVID-19 deaths?
For starters, let’s look more closely at that CDC reporting guide. Although it does say COVID-19 deaths can be assigned without a positive test result, it also emphasizes the importance of drawing from all available evidence in order to make an informed judgment:
And it turns out, this is really no sketchier than the CDC’s guidelines for certifying pretty much any cause of death. Seriously. According to the agency’s Medical Examiners’ and Coroners’ Handbook on Death Registration and Fetal Death Reporting (PDF), it’s okay to use personal “judgment” when there’s uncertainty:
And yes, medical examiners and coroners are invited to give their “opinion”:
So are physicians, according to the CDC’s Physician’s Handbook on Medical Certification of Death—note also the use of “probable”:
And medical examiners are broadly allowed to list “causes that are suspected,” and to “use words such as ‘probable’ or ‘presumed'”—again, for any death-cause:
And here we see the CDC’s Instructions for Completing the Cause-of-Death Section of the Death Certificate telling us again that a condition can be listed as “probable” even if there isn’t a definitive diagnosis (and also the words YOUR and OPINION written in CAPS because the CDC successfully learned how to yell on the internet; good job, CDC):
*I know it’s tiny; click for bigger
Are you sick of this yet? Guess what? Alzheimer’s deaths can get the same code whether the disease is confirmed or “probable”:
Oh hey, remember 83 seconds ago when we were so mad that COVID-19 deaths could be listed as “probable” or “presumed”? Because it seemed like some unique-to-coronavirus word twist intended to help pad the death stats? REMEMBER?
No. Just no. This same language is consistent through all the cause of death guidelines, no matter the killer in question. It’s been that way for years. And COVID-19 is even lucky enough to get separate codes for “probable” versus “confirmed” cases, which is more than we can say for some other diseases. (And to boot, some places were already seeing COVID-19 mortality explode before reporting the “probable” deaths at all.) Heck, the guidelines for coronavirus deaths are far more straightforward than the maze-like estimation formula the CDC takes for flu mortality.
In short—and please make me eat my words if I’ve overlooked something important here—this really isn’t outrage-worthy. Certifying any form of death is an imperfect, partly subjective process, and concessions for that reality are baked into all sorts of official guidelines. If overzealous COVIDing is happening (and you’re welcome to investigate any theory-offshoots that it is), it’s not because the CDC told death certifiers to cook the books.
2. As for pneumonia deaths getting classified as COVID-19 deaths? This graph of CDC data has been making the rounds as evidence that something very shady, very shady indeed, is going on. As you can see, around week 10 of this year (starting March 2nd), pneumonia mortality told its wife it loved her and then jumped off a cliff:
If we’re already primed to think the COVID-19 numbers are being doctored, we might take this graph at face value and add it to our stash of outrage fodder. But that would not be smart, friends. Face value is where critical thinking goes to die. And so, in the spirit of questioning literally everything, we must ask: could anything else explain what we’re seeing?
As a matter of fact, yes! So much yes! We only have to venture as far as the CDC’s Provisional Death Counts for Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) page to see what’s up. Go take a look. Especially the “Delays in reporting” section. Thar be some gold.
Basically, the CDC’s death-certificate-processing system is a slow, laborious beast that ensures any recent mortality data is always incomplete. They give a decent rundown of how death certificates get handled from start to finish:
Provisional counts of deaths are underestimated relative to final counts. This is due to the many steps involved in reporting death certificate data. When a death occurs, a certifier (e.g. physician, medical examiner or coroner) will complete the death certificate with the underlying cause of death and any contributing causes of death. In some cases, laboratory tests or autopsy results may be required to determine the cause of death. Completed death certificate are sent to the state vital records office and then to NCHS for cause of death coding.
And here we have a special shoutout to our favorite infectious diseases, noting that pneumonia, flu, and COVID-19 certificates take extra long to trickle into the data pool due to manual coding (emphases mine):
At NCHS, about 80% of deaths are automatically processed and coded within seconds, but 20% of deaths need to manually coded, or coded by a person. Deaths involving certain conditions such as influenza and pneumonia are more likely to require manual coding than other causes of death. Furthermore, all deaths with COVID-19 are manually coded. Death certificates are typically manually coded within 7 days of receipt, although the coding delay can grow if there is a large increase in the number of deaths. As a result, underestimation of the number of deaths may be greater for certain causes of death than others.
Zooming in even further, the CDC gives some stats conveying just how incomplete their recent data is, and boy howdy is it a sorry sight. At any given moment, data from two weeks ago is likely to be barely over a quarter complete, while data from eight weeks ago is still less than three-quarters complete:
Previous analyses of provisional data completeness from 2015 suggested that mortality data is approximately 27% complete within 2 weeks, 54% complete within 4 weeks, and at least 75% complete within 8 weeks of when the death occurred. Pneumonia deaths are 26% complete within 2 weeks, 52% complete within 4 weeks, and 72% complete within 8 weeks (unpublished). Data timeliness has improved in recent years, and current timeliness is likely higher than published rates.
The CDC even slaps this little disclaimer after each table of COVID-19, pneumonia, and flu death counts:
Once again, with feeling: CDC mortality figures are initially very incomplete, low-balled-as-all-get-out, and retroactively fill in over time. Which means a weird pneumonia death-drop will show up any time we check the most recent data, COVID or No-vid.
To illustrate, Joseph Dunn graphed the CDC’s pneumonia data as it appeared on the same mid-March week of each year since 2013. Behold:
Look at all them swan dives!
And data scientist Tyler Morgan even went to the trouble of graphing the data from every weekly CDC pneumonia report published in the last decade, to show how the lines shift as data gets back-filled. Click here or on the image below for the really cool animation (it’s weirdly beautiful and absolutely worth the 30 seconds of your life):
In other words, there’s nothing anomalous at all about 2020’s pneumonia trends. Nothing. The popular graph up top is a meaningless piece of hooey and it’s sad that it went viral.
Note: there’s an issue here I’m cognizant of, but intentionally not touching on yet, which is that some people believe the CDC (and any other government organization) literally makes up data from thin air, thus rendering all of the above irrelevant. This level of conspiracy is beyond the scope of this post, but I may try to address it at some point later on. Not from a data angle, but from a psychological one.
3. Here we have the wildly popular claim that people are dying with COVID-19, not really from COVID-19. At least, not in the numbers we’re being told. It’s basically a steroided-up version of Claim #1—just with more trickery and plot-thickness and finger-tenting.
The evidence for this one is a lot harder to fact-check, because there are actually no facts to check. Its trueness rests on us believing that doctors and death-certifiers are being marionetted by evil forces and/or just plumb don’t know what they’re doing.
The closest thing we’ve got to “evidence” are citationless social media statements like the above, which we’re expected to trust because LOOK AT ALL THOSE RETWEETS!, a few well-publicized examples of allegedly mis-assigned COVID-19 deaths, and Youtube interviews with people who are pretty sure they know what’s going on. Like this one, featuring Dr. Annie Bukacek, with nearly 750,000 views at the time of writing.
Apparently, she knows her stuff. And the stuff she knows is that the coronavirus figures are being manipulated!
Serious question: how many of us bothered to look Dr. Bukacek up before thrusting her atop a pedestal of trustworthiness? And sharing her video far across the lands? And assuming she’s an impartial commentator on the whole situation (her praiseful introducer was literally her pastor)? Should we really put faith in someone we didn’t even know existed ten seconds ago just because 1) they’re telling us what we want to hear and 2) an internet headline made them sound prestigious?
By the way, to state the obvious, this is me intentionally and very shamelessly cherry-picking to make a point. Not all of her reviews are bad. Nor do the existing ones necessarily prove she isn’t credible. And if we wanted to be truly fair, we could prod deeper and ask whether she might be getting bad-review-bombed due to her vocal pro-life activism or religious affiliation or anti-vaccine stance (she’s definitely got some haterz). There’s a lot of sticky tricky gray-zone business in evaluating reputation, which is why—whenever possible—we should investigate a person’s claims rather than their character.
But the issue here is that with Dr. Bukacek, we can’t “investigate her claims” without installing cameras into every death certifier’s brain and watching what unfolds within their basal ganglias. So we’re left with only her word. And one person’s word is not useful data. Even if it’s the best of persons and the best of words.
Now, to play devil’s advocate with my own arguments here, there’s another popular video—this one featuring Coronavirus Response Coordinator Deborah Birx—that seems more genuinely suspect. I saved this one for last because it might actually have some merit. In it, Dr. Birx talks about the USA’s “very liberal approach to mortality” and outright states that people who die with COVID-19 are counted as COVID-19 deaths:
Transcript: There are other countries that if you had a preexisting condition, and let’s say the virus caused you to go to the ICU and then have a heart or kidney problem, some countries are recording that as a heart issue or a kidney issue and not a COVID-19 death. Right now we’re still recording it and we’ll—I mean the great thing about having forms that come in and a form that has the ability to mark it as COVID-19 infection, the intent is right now that those—if someone dies with COVID-19 we are counting that [as a COVID-19 death].
It’s not surprising this clip went gangbusters! It seems like a deal-clinching A-ha for anyone who suspected COVID-19 was getting slapped onto every death possible.
However, here and always, context matters. After all, this segment was carefully cropped from a much longer coronavirus briefing from April 7th. And if we listen to the full segment—the audience question that came before this clip, and the follow-up question that came after it, and the follow-up answer Dr. Birx gave, and the addendum answer Dr. Anthony Fauci gave—we can better orient ourselves in the conversation that was happening.
Go have a listen. The relevant stuff starts at the 1:39:07 mark:
Could it be that Dr. Birx thought the question-asker was wondering if lack of testing might cause under-reporting, and tried to reassure her by explaining that the current COVID hotspots are flush with tests? And that people with “heart or kidney problems” wouldn’t be reported as dying from those things if they’d ended up in the ICU from coronavirus? (Especially given that COVID-19 itself can cause cardiac injury and kidney damage?)
It sounds to me like the thrust of the asker’s question—which was more along the lines of “Are we sure we’re not over-counting deaths?!”—went over the heads of the task force, and they addressed a different issue than the one she was trying to get at.
But I can’t read minds. And I can’t prove that it’s not all just political doublespeak and of course they understood the question. And I think there’s far too little information in this video alone to assess it from a “scam vs. not-scam” angle. And most importantly, in the absence of actual mortality data that could clue us in to potential over-reporting, I doubt analyzing this thing to smithereens can bring us any closer to the truth.
But, you be the judge. And speaking of mortality data…
4. Lastly and not leastly: the claim that COVID-19 isn’t actually causing excess mortality; we’re just reshuffling death causes to stack up higher for COVID-19 and lower for everything else. Boom, insta-pandemic!
First, a note. This is a Very Important claim. It’s the supreme ruler of all the claims that came before it and perhaps all those incipient ones that will come after. It has executive power and a VIP card for entry into the most highly guarded chambers of our brains. This is because, unlike causes of death, actual body counts can’t be fudged. This is the one true test. If COVID-19 really is taking lives en masse above and beyond what we’d expect from normal death trends, total mortality is where it’ll show up. If it’s not, then our game of death-code musical chairs will be revealed for the con that it is.
Again: Very Important claim. This is the crux of it, my dear readers.
Fortunately, there’s an easy way to test this claim: looking at total mortality trends in areas that COVID-19 has purportedly ravaged, and comparing that to historical mortality in the same location. An absence of anomalous death spikes—taking into account, of course, delays in processing death certificates and the lag time between infection and dying—would suggest we’re over-reporting COVID-19. And if excess mortality does appear, then we either have to concede that COVID-19 isn’t a nothingburger after all, or propose that some other ghastly, unnamed entity is stealing lives very coincidentally at the same time we have a made-up pandemic.
*Keep in mind, too, that our current near-global quarantine should slash deaths from accidents and certain crimes and infectious disease—and thus “normal” mortality rates for right now would likely be lower than for previous years.
So let’s dig into this. The “COVID-19 is overblown” theory asserts that total mortality isn’t doing anything unusual. At least not significantly so. No more than a bad flu year, let’s say. And depending on the source, we may be furnished with graphs that seem to demonstrate this truth to our hungry, data-seeking eyes, such as the following for England and Wales:
There’s one very big problem here. Check the dates.
Almost universally, the “See, it’s nothing!” graphs use data from mid to late March, when COVID-19 was just starting to pick up steam in the areas it’s most recently terrorized. And in March, there really weren’t massive mortality spikes, except perhaps for Italy. Nothing to see here, folks was true. And no one in the infectious disease world was claiming otherwise. In March, the rumblings of upcoming mortality explosions was what people were getting worried about, not the numbers as they then stood. The whole deal with “exponential growth” is that it’s—wait for it—exponential. This is how we went from 0 reported COVID-19 deaths in the USA on February 15th, 65 deaths one month later, and 30,000 deaths yet another month later.
So let’s see what happens when we look, instead, at more recent data from countries with known COVID-19 outbreaks. (This site is a great starting resource for raw mortality data and some visuals.)
First, here’s what’s up with England and Wales now (source):
London, OMG (source):
Excess mortality in Spain as a whole, from December 2019 to April 15 of this year (source):
Madrid, in particular, got clobbered:
And Bergamo, Italy, in which March deaths far surpassed anything seen locally within the past decade (source):
Heck, northern Italy as a whole (source):
Switzerland looking pretty wonky for the 65-and-olders (source):
Total mortality in the Netherlands (source):
A big chunk o’ Europe getting excess-mortalitied (source):
New York City, graphed by the New York Times (article here; viewable with free subscription) (NOTE: this data is almost two weeks outdated and the the April deaths are now many magnitudes higher):
We could do this all day, but you get the point.
Here’s the deal, folks. People. Are. Dying. The mortality trends for COVID-19-affected areas look like what happens when you’re trying to draw a straight line and then sneeze. This is not normal. This is not how things “should” look. We can argue all we want about how accurate the COVID-19-specific data is—and indeed, there’s plenty to argue about— but total mortality doesn’t lie. This is real.
By all means, the above peel-apart is far from complete. I’m sure there are more viral videos we could assess, more statistics to double-check, more anomalies to ponder. The point isn’t to reach a final conclusion here—just to demonstrate the process. The level of detail that must go into investigating a theory before we let ourselves fully entertain it. And if that process seems exhausting, excessive, excruciatingly nit-picky, too time consuming—well, it’s the price of admission for calling ourselves “informed.” Anything less and we’re operating on faith. Which is okay, if that’s our goal. But we must call it what it is.
Now maybe you’re thinking, “Okay, the ‘COVID-19 deaths are getting padded’ theory didn’t really hold up. But what about G5 radiation causing virus symptoms? What about mandatory vaccine agendas getting pushed on the world? What about COVID-19 being a bioweapon? What about what about what about?”
To which I say, Yes! Great! What about them indeed! Put on your best-tailored thinking cap and go find out. Marinate in all the data you can find. Watch out for claims that seem sciencey but trace back to a 4chan post. Be mindful of the universal human tendency to filter out things we disagree with and embrace any evidence that we like. Dig in, first and foremost, with the goal of proving yourself wrong. If you can’t, then perhaps there’s something there.
Of course, I realize the type of deep-dive we did in this post isn’t always possible, and not everyone can sit at home all day opening so many browser tabs that their MacBook freezes with a “System Has Run Run Out of Application Memory” error (anyone else? No? Just me?). Sometimes we need shortcuts. So for anyone who really wants to do the work, to prioritize truth-seeking over ideology, to stay oriented in reality, to let go of false narratives, but who doesn’t have infinite time to do so: here are some questions to ask whenever a new or alternative theory presents itself. Especially a theory we find ourselves enamored with. None of these questions can substitute for ruthlessly investigating, but they can help us stay grounded in situations where our minds easily lead us astray.
- Am I claiming to see through the media’s fear-mongering, but falling prey to conspiracy fear-mongering instead?
- Am I being pressured to accept this theory in order to be “woke” or “not sheeple”?
- Have I read the full context of this quote, clip, or screenshot before assuming I know what it means?
- Does the group promoting this theory invite questions and critiques? Or does it flippantly dismiss those things and/or attack its doubters?
- If this same form of evidence (Youtube interview, social media comment, etc.) was used to support the “other side” instead of mine, would I still consider it trustworthy?
- Am I taking time to research counter-arguments to these ideas, even when I want them to be true?
- Am I looking for good vs. evil narratives as a distraction from my immediate reality? Is getting worked up about hypothetical injustice easier than being present with what is?
- Am I embracing this theory as a way to feel like I have control—by naming an enemy in a situation where I’m otherwise helpless?
- Does seeing myself as a “good guy” on the side of “truth” or “justice” make me feel validated, empowered, and important?
It’s easy to trick ourselves into thinking we’re being Good Skeptics when we’ve really only lifted one veil of many. There’s nothing “woke” about rejecting the official story while gullibly swallowing its alternatives.
Rather, waking up means waking up to ourselves. It’s recognizing that the battle of good and evil we project onto the world is playing out daily within ourselves. It’s committing to seeing “what is,” instead of stories about “what is.” It’s spreading our skepticism evenly across the info-scape instead of saving it for the things we already distrust.
So here it is, you guys. This is me groveling at the collective feet of the internet, with one thing to say: to anyone—everyone—listening, we need to reflect on how we’re processing the claims we hear. If we’re going to question official narratives, we need to question alternative narratives with the same degree of rigor. There’s no use retiring our sheeplehood from the mainstream only to rejoin the herd on a different pasture.