Dr. Fauci and Dr. Greenspan

Four and a half minutes into an interview with Jake Tapper on CNN Sunday morning, in the middle of a mini-lecture on the perils of modeling, Dr. Anthony Fauci tossed off an estimate of the death toll in the U.S. from Covid-19:  100,000 to 200,000. 

He said “cases,” then corrected himself, and added “I don’t want to be held to that… We really don’t need to make a projection because it’s such a moving target, and we could so easily be wrong, and mislead people.”  The mentioning of a figure seemed to be entirely at cross purposes from the point Fauci was trying to make.  “To be honest with you, Jake, we don’t have any firm idea,” he replied, when first prodded to provide a number.  “There are things called models, and when someone creates a model they put in various assumptions, and the model is only as good or accurate as your assumptions.”  Why didn’t he leave it at that?

We’ve seen models from respected authorities revised radically downward a short time later.  One of the most notorious instances was an estimate of 500,000 deaths in the U.K. by Neil Ferguson of Imperial Collage, which was slashed to 20,000 “or much lower.”

Alan Greenspan, Fed Chair for nearly two decades, was notoriously Sphinxlike in his pronouncements.  Every sentence in his reports was endlessly parsed by analysts.  A new adverb was scrutinized as if it were a prophesy from the Delphic Oracle.  While Greenspan’s scrupulousness did not prevent him from helping to precipitate the dot-com and housing bubbles, he was acutely sensitive to how his words would play out the next day.

It’s not the job of the Director of Infectious Diseases at the NIH to be opaque.  If a truly persuasive study convinced Fauci that we would exceed 100,000 deaths, that’s an announcement that should be made in a press conference, with references to the sources, not dropped casually into the middle of an interview -- where the point he seemed to be making was that there’s no such thing as a reliable model.

Of course the figure was headline news, most of the media going with 200,000, and ignoring all the qualifying phrases.  The markets are likely to plunge on Monday, taking down last week’s big gains.  Unless that was his objective, it’s hard to know why Fauci would share information generated by a process he professed to have little faith in.  What purpose does it serve to further alarm a nation for which the needle is already twitching at the extreme right edge of the panic meter?

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