COVID19 & another linguistic "tail wagging the dog" (Labels dictate reality?)

While driving I found myself listening to Rush Limbaugh. (I’m a trained professional driving a closed course. Do not attempt this stunt on your own.)

Several of his arguments about COVID19 illustrated what we’ve discussed on other threads where people assume that a linguistic label somehow dictates scientific reality. (For example, “Despite all of that alleged evolution, the resulting organism is still a bacteria. So there is no significant change.” Or, “DNA is a code. Therefore, it must be intelligently designed because codes are designed by an intelligent agent.”)

I haven’t checked a transcript so these Rush sound bites are not in quotation marks. I’m reproducing them from my best recollection:

COVID19 has a a number in it. It is the 19th one. So in other words, coronaviruses have been around for a long time. Nothing new here.

COVID19 produces stuffy nose, cough, and some sneezing. In other words, it is simply the common cold. And the common cold is nothing to get all worked up about.

COVID19 is really just another flu. We casually accept thousands upon thousands of flu deaths each and every year with hardly any notice. It gets very little news coverage. So it makes no sense that journalists and scientists around the world are hyping COVID19 as a “pandemic” when it hasn’t produced anything close to many thousands of death. It is just another flu, folks.

Human nature so often likes to assume that a linguistic label somehow controls/restricts the reality of what it describes. (That’s why I call it the tail wagging the dog.) And it easy to see how politicians and media celebrities often exploit this fallacy to manipulate audiences. In this case, by making COVID19 just a “fake news” synonym for “the common cold” or “just the flu”, many swallow the disinformation.

It was fascinating to listen to Rush’s callers who further built on his pseudoscience. Nobody questioned the bizarre reasoning.

I didn’t hear Rush actually state it, but I wonder if he would say that he shares the virology knowledge of a very famous Chief Executive who said "I’m really good at this stuff. I know what I’m taking about."


Even the most basic google search on the meaning of COVID19 readily demonstrates that the 19 refers to the 2019, the year that it was discovered. Surely Limbaugh or somebody on his staff has figured this out?

I honestly don’t know why it’s happening, but I am dismayed by the number of people with large platforms who are systematically misinforming their audiences regarding the dangers of this outbreak.


I’m dismayed and frustrated. But ratings are ratings. And if anyone has listened to a typical Alex Jones broadcast, Rush sounds downright soft-spoken and rational by comparison. Shouting loudly and obnoxiously some of the most ridiculous things imaginable apparently delights audiences. It even gets some people elected to very high offices.

I do think it is yet another anti-intellectualism (and anti-elitism) sentiment of our society. Many of the callers would no doubt cheer a statement like, “Let’s put those know-it-all scientists in their place! We run the show, not them!”


I have a feeling that the same people who lap this up, “COVID19 is just a common cold”, will also be cheering President Trump for stopping flights from the EU.

After all, we don’t want all those Europeans with a common cold entering the US, right?


The National Review is treating the situation with proper respect, Breitbart, not so much.

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Indeed, and consequently one of the most common errors people make when trying to reason about complex phenomena is a kind of simple reification mistake: assuming that because there is a name, the things described by the name are related to one another and can be characterized in the same way.

In the tradition of demonology, one can get the jump on a demon if one can know its name, Rumpelstiltskin-style. But it’s not just demons – we can label a class of political views with a single word and, because we dislike some of those views, regard them all as a package deal and automatically dislike the rest of them.

This is one of the reasons why, when discussing reasoning, I think it’s very important to understand the difference between pure reason and weight-of-the-evidence argumentation. Pure reason is flawless when operating in an abstract domain where the objects upon which it operates, and the statements it makes, are perfectly defined and fit into classic logical formulations, e.g. syllogisms. But as soon as one starts trying to say things like “X is complex, X is designed, complex things are designed, ergo, Y which is also complex is also designed” one has got to understand that one has stepped outside of the type of work which pure reason can do and into a world where things and properties are not susceptible of perfect definition, where analogies may be helpful or instructive but are never conclusive, et cetera.

Many arguments about facts are like that: people want to take complex things and render them susceptible to pure reason, thinking that they’ll be able to do definitively in the realm of reason what cannot be done in the realm of evidentiary weighing, but it just cannot be done. Evidence, and good old pedestrian empirical scrutiny, are actually all we have when it comes to most of the questions most of us think about.


I am dismayed as well. What would these same people be saying about the safety of airplanes if 1 in 200 flights crashed and killed everyone aboard? Would they be willing to get on a flight? Contracting COVID19 carries this same level of risk, and that’s before we get into age related risk factors.


Paging @DaleCutler

It is Dunning - Kruger on steroids.

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