A Thoughtless Thinker

A supposedly original publication has ended up becoming a propagandist of a sensationalist and baseless ideology.

By Ahmed Zaki

I’ll start with a disclaimer: I am not an American and I have no affiliation to any political movement or party in the United States. I am an Egyptian who came to the University of Chicago to study economics and political science. Do I have my own beliefs and opinions? Absolutely. But my beliefs never consistently fall on one side of the political aisle or the other. So, I want to make clear that the instant rebuttal I expect of me being a “woke leftist” won’t work.

I also want to be very forthcoming in what it is exactly that I am going after. I am not going after conservatives or conservatism per se. I am going after conservatism as it is practiced today in the United States and by extension in the University’s conservative outlet, the Chicago Thinker. I am going after a consistent methodology of nitpicking which facts to use and how to use them to advance a political agenda, and I am most certainly going after the very fact that a supposed news outlet is actively trying to put their politics ahead of everything else, even if it means capitalizing on tragedies to advance a political agenda. Does the Thinker quote facts in their articles? Sure. But the facts they use are almost always taken out of context and are often outdated. They also often choose “facts” that have not been verified or accepted by experts in the field, specifically when it comes to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, a rapidly evolving public health crisis where new inputs are being presented from day to day that completely change our course of action. Everything else aside, this is unprofessional and frankly bad journalism.

Here are some examples of exactly how that works. In an article accusing Dr. Emily Landon, the face of the University’s pandemic response, of being “anti-science,” the author tries to show Dr. Landon’s incompetence by using her endorsement of cloth masks early on in the pandemic. Did Dr. Landon endorse cloth masks? Yes. But she did that in May 2020, just two months into the pandemic being declared a global public health emergency. At the time, there was an acute shortage of personal protective equipment (which is still occurring today) and cloth masks were the best available option to many people. Emily Landon herself said they are not perfect later in the video. The Thinker writer quotes a study published on the NIH’s website in September 2020 as if presenting a scathing indictment of Landon as an “anti-science” figure, when in reality, she was presenting the best public health guidance at the time. It also attempts to frame Landon and the University as lockdown-obsessed people who are actively trying to keep us confined. In reality, the University has done everything to make sure in-person learning returns, even in the midst of disagreement from a sizable portion of students, faculty, and staff.

Another very prominent example of the Thinker cherry-picking facts appears in that same article, where they claim that Landon “dismisses natural immunity” as a protective measure against COVID-19. Once again, the author cites a study published in October 2021—prior to the Omicron variant—claiming that natural immunity is at least equivalent to vaccine-induced immunity. Setting aside the fact that relying on natural immunity means you risk having serious illness from COVID-19, as well as persistent symptoms aka long COVID, the new evidence we have in light of the Omicron variant shows that vaccine-induced immunity, including the booster shot, is superior to (and much safer than!) natural immunity. You are also much less likely to report persistent COVID symptoms if you’ve been vaccinated. In other respects, like doctors and nurses being exempt from the booster shot, the author is absolutely right. While it is very unfortunate that healthcare workers around the nation are refusing to get vaccinated, the University should have done better to ensure that the mandate goes across the board.

In another article blaming UChicago for its “cruel masking policy,” the author attempts to show how the Omicron variant is more “tame” by speaking of how deaths have remained “flat” as of January 8th. As strange as it is to trivialize the fact that upwards of a thousand people a day die of COVID every single day, the author is also very mistaken. As Omicron surged in the United States, so did deaths. In fact, COVID-19 deaths in the United States have now reached their highest point since the development and rollout of the vaccines. The Omicron variant also pushed hospitalizations to a new pandemic record. Sadly enough, it could have been prevented if people had gotten the vaccines and booster shots the Thinker is so wound up about. In many studies, vaccines were shown to decrease mortality from COVID-19 by 99 percent. Here are graphs of hospitalizations and deaths by vaccination status from New York that show just how potent the vaccines are. And here is data on death rates by vaccination status. Boosters are also still effective at preventing symptomatic disease.

Masks, and specifically the KN95 masks which are currently being distributed by our undergraduate student government, are also incredibly effective in preventing transmission. The author does, however, raise a valid point about how those who are hard of hearing struggle with not being able to hear as well as they can without masks. That said, there are countless methods that offer support to challenged individuals. Professors can use live caption techniques to provide the student with a real-time transcript of the lecture. They can also use microphones to amplify their voices. But it does not make sense for a classroom full of students to risk infection when there are readily available methods of helping those who are hard of hearing. I am in no way claiming to understand how it is to face those challenges—I am merely trying to offer some potential solutions to the problem that don’t include potentially infecting people with COVID.

I don’t like wearing masks and I certainly hate online schooling. I loathed the first two weeks of the winter quarter. I miss not being anxious when dining indoors or going to the gym. If anything, I support the removal of the mask mandate in the University and the city once cases are at a similar level to where they were in the summer of 2021. In fact, this is a point iterated by public health experts as the Omicron wave subsides. However, following a monotonic approach of being anti-mask and anti-vaccines in the face of deadly waves of infection goes to show that the Thinker is not approaching this from a scientific perspective but a political one. If they were, they would have endorsed relaxing restrictions when the virus is not too prevalent and tightening restrictions when there’s a very high risk of transmission. That is what an approach based on science means. No one wants to lock people down and keep them in their houses. But no one wants to see 150,000 people hospitalized whether it is “for” or “with” COVID. An overwhelmed healthcare system means people going to the hospital for problems completely unrelated to COVID cannot get treatment.

It's necessary to distinguish between public health policy and public health as a science. No one can deny that there have been massive failings on the policy ends. In many ways, bad communication from public health officials, including Anthony Fauci and Rochelle Walensky, has resulted in a lot of mistrust in public health institutions. The mask mandate should not have been removed prematurely in June 2021. It should’ve been made clear from the get-go that we might need a booster shot. We should have always entertained the fact that a new variant might come before announcing victory and then rolling back on it. I completely agree that, on the policy front, grave mistakes were made. However, top public health scientists of no political affiliations or positions have been very consistent in their guidance and have altered and updated their beliefs as the situation has evolved. Free of any political leanings because politics should not dictate facts. Facts should dictate politics and policy. The Thinker, however, subscribes to a model that puts politics ahead of facts and ahead of saving lives. The Thinker tries to force public health to align with its politics. Rather than make a distinction between policy and science, it conflates the two into a sensationalist message that implies that public health is misleading us into getting so many vaccine doses and staying locked up in our houses.

My problem with the Thinker and modern conservative America has very little to do with their beliefs and much more to do with blind political movements dead set on maintaining a certain rhetoric even when the world is changing. The “facts” cited as reasoning behind their proposed COVID policies are a front for what in reality is just the same exact rhetoric being echoed by conservative media in the United States. There is no updating prior knowledge and no changing in viewpoints as time goes on. It’s a movement trying to mend its obsoletion by playing the victim and interpreting anything and everything as an attack on American values and freedom. There’s no thinking involved in the Thinker’s thought process. Even their word choice to describe lockdowns and COVID prevention measures—“draconian” and “tyrannical”, to name a few—is a sign of how out of touch and repetitive this movement is. The Thinker is as much a genuine and informative student-run newspaper as Fox News is a genuine and informative TV station. Nothing the Thinker says is original; it might as well be Tucker Carlson’s personal propagandist at the University of Chicago. The modern conservative movement also completely misses the intentions of scientists and politicians. Modern conservatives believe it’s a project set to control, dominate, and brainwash citizens into believing it’s okay to be locked down and that, somehow, this will morph into a sort of fascist program. Setting aside the fact that they do not know what fascism means and have never experienced it, they are also completely wrong. If anything, governments and institutions are dying (or at least, sanctioning death) to get us back in the streets. The CDC even shortened the quarantine period to five days, completely going against scientific evidence on transmission, just to get people back to work. How can that be the same government that’s trying to lock everyone up? The logic is completely inconsistent.

The conservative movement in America is losing ground not because of an attack on American values but because it has become obsolete. Trying to defend it by simply standing in the way of whatever the other side does and trying to mingle the facts into supporting your stance won’t help. A true thinker updates their beliefs with new knowledge. A true thinker does not use tragedies to advance their political agendas. A true thinker is able to think and analyze beyond their political beliefs and does not play victim whenever their opinions come under fire.

Where I come from, freedom is a luxury most of us do not have. I come from a place where speaking out against actual injustices can and will get you in serious trouble. So, I understand as much as anyone the value of being free. I also don’t come from a wealthy or privileged country. When I came here, one of my first observations was that people take the luxuries and freedoms associated with being American, specifically if you’re white, for granted. It is saddening to see how Americans have twisted their luxuries into what we see today. Freedom is a human right. Your freedom to express yourself is a human right. Your freedom to choose is also a human right. But as the saying goes in my country: “You are free to choose so long as you don’t harm.” Your freedom ends the moment it has consequences, specifically when those consequences can mean loss of life for thousands. America manufactured the two most potent vaccines against COVID-19 and yet it ranks behind 60 countries in vaccination rates. Back home, we couldn’t get easily accessible vaccines until late 2021. And when we did, we weren’t even given the best vaccines available. Americans had all the tools necessary to beat the pandemic and to help the world beat the pandemic. Instead, the U.S. leads the rich world in confirmed cumulative deaths per capita from COVID-19. And yet, after all of that, there are still some who will come out and say it’s “tyrannical” and “draconian” to mandate that people get a life-saving vaccine.

Ahmed Zaki is a fourth-year in the College.