Walz’s COVID “Science” Was Always a Smokescreen

At the end of May, my friend Todd Myers, of the Washington Policy Center, wrote an excellent piece for The Wall Street Journal detailing how Washington Governor Jay Inslee’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic was anything but scientific. In Minnesota, Governor Tim Walz has claimed he is “following the science,” but nearly all of the decisions he’s made have been arbitrary value judgments based on his own political worldview.

In his piece, Mr. Myers explains how politicians abandon the scientific method and data-driven policymaking when the numbers don’t support the actions they want to take. You’ll see there are many parallels between Washington and Minnesota.

Excerpts of the article, originally appearing in The Wall Street Journal, can be read below. The entire piece can be read here:

The word “science” has been hollowed out by politicians, who have stripped it of its substance and power and replaced them with emotional pabulum. These politicians discard the scientific method and deploy the term merely as a weapon against their opponents.

This trend isn’t new, but it has been magnified during the fight against the novel coronavirus. In his first tweet on the subject, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee used the word “science” in a snarky attack on Vice President Mike Pence, who had called to see how the federal government could assist the state in dealing with the nation’s first Covid-19 cases.

Mr. Inslee didn’t say what he meant by “the science.” In fact, at the time of his tweet, there wasn’t yet much science regarding the virus at all. We’re still learning it. What is the true mortality rate? What is a safe social distance? How contagious is the virus? What percentage of carriers are asymptomatic? We still don’t know any of these facts with certainty.

When the governor and other politicians refer to “the science,” they rarely point to actual science. It is a bluff designed to imply that their chosen policy is based on more than guesswork and politics.

Govnernor Walz has also been quick to call any critique of his policies unscientific, but his “follow the science” mantra has resulted in Minnesota having the worst of both worlds, with highest death rate per capita and the highest unemployment claims of any neighboring state.

But where did Governor Walz get the idea that his decision to shut down almost all of Minnesota’s economy were informed by “the science?” The models from the University of Minnesota, which have been, as my colleague John Phelan wrote, a total disaster.

“On May 13th, the state government unveiled Version 3 of the SARS-CoV-2 (COVID-19) Model, produced by the University of Minnesota School of Public Health and Department of Health. This forecast that with the stay-at-home order (SHO) in place to May 18th – which it was – Minnesota would see 1,441 Covid-19 deaths by the end of May.

That seemed pessimistic to me. Up to that point, Minnesota had suffered 638 deaths from Covid-19 so to reach 1,441 by May 31st the state would need to suffer 45 deaths a day. Then, the record high of fatalities in one day was 30 (May 6th) and the average for the previous 18 days had been 22. In other words, the model which has been driving state government policy in response to Covid-19 forecast that the average daily death rate for the last 18 days of May would be double the average daily death rate for the previous 18 days.”

As of June 18, 2020, Minnesota has experienced 1,325 deaths from COVID-19, and 1,051 of its victims (79 percent) had resided in long term care facilities.

No model is 100 percent accurate, but some models can be useful. The University of Minnesota models haven’t been, and their alarming predictions for deaths in the state have led to policies that have enhanced the economic suffering of more than 781,000 Minnesotans who have filed for unemployment. Business owners who have spent years, and some of them generations, building their brand have been forced to close their doors forever based upon them. This is a human cost that will never be discussed by the Walz administration, but it should be.

Other policies enacted by the Walz administration have been plainly anti-science. A few weeks ago, Governor Walz, “turned the dial” and allowed bars and restaurants to open for outside seating in groups of up to 50, had originally said churches could only have outdoor attendances of up to 10 people, and that things such as singing were too dangerous.

This was a blatant double standard. If one meeting is safe for 50 people, then there was no scientific rationale for limiting the capacity of outdoor church ceremonies. The virus doesn’t care where people congregate, but Governor Walz does.

Ditto for the protests in the wake of the killing of George Floyd. Weeks earlier, Minnesota Attorney General was threatening the full force of Minnesota’s legal system against any business owner that dare to try and make a living by defying the never-ending closures imposed by the Walz Administration. Ellison even accused those who protested the stay at home orders of killing grandma. During the Floyd protests, Minnesota’s top elected officials had no such harsh words for demonstrators.

This too, is a double standard. No matter how righteous you believe either cause to be, “the science” as Governor Walz had presented it, wouldn’t have allowed for either.

Back to Mr. Myers’ piece:

For a while, Mr. Inslee claimed he supported using objective metrics to improve government performance. After he took office he launched Results Washington, a program he said was designed to set data-driven targets for many areas of public policy. For example, he set targets for policies designed to reduce CO2 emissions from cars, buildings, and energy. By the beginning of 2018, five years into Mr. Inslee’s governorship, his administration was missing nearly every target.

Soon before Mr. Inslee announced his 2020 presidential campaign—based almost entirely on fighting climate change—the embarrassing metrics were removed from the state webpage. After the Washington Policy Center highlighted this, a reporter from the Seattle Times asked the head of Results Washington about it. The agency director answered: “The new dashboards also represent a shift away from the old data-only approach to a more human-centered approach that incorporates narratives.” Replacing data with “narratives”—story telling—is practically the definition of unscientific. It is exactly what Mr. Bernard’s book warned about: eliminating measures and replacing them with political rhetoric. It’s one reason Mr. Bernard has expressed disappointment with Mr. Inslee’s management.

Mr. Inslee’s “Covid-19 dashboard,” which is supposed to provide a science-based path for Washington’s recovery, is much the same story. The online dashboard includes “dials” for five public-safety variables but gives no indication of how each is calculated or where the dials need to be to begin the various phases of reopening. When will builders be allowed to start new construction? When will small stores be able to open like Home Depot is open? The dashboard is designed to imply science but lacks meaningful data.

Ironically, a Bloomberg interview with the governor this month about his response to the coronavirus referred to his work on climate change. The headline: “Fighting Climate Change Prepared Jay Inslee for a Pandemic.” That’s partly correct: His use of “science” as a rhetorical tool, rather than a guide, is similar in both cases.

The history of the past seven years indicates that Mr. Inslee uses the word “science” mostly to construct a rhetorical Potemkin village: a facade that conceals the lack of substance behind his decisions while giving the public something nice to look at.

The sooner Minnesotans realize that the elected officials in this state who say they are “following the science” almost never are. Instead, they are using science as an appeal to authority and doing whatever they wanted to do anyway.