Those who suffer with PLDD, which The Higgy is meant to (dis)honor, try to boss other people with the delusion that doing so benefits those being bossed around. It doesn’t really matter whether the bossing is based on something true or false. It’s all for a good goal, so that justifies everything. This is probably what Peter Daznak was thinking when he organized a group letter of public health experts to The Lancet in February 2020 asserting that considering the possibility that Covid originated from a lab leak was dangerous conspiracy thinking and needed to be squashed. As Matt noted in his nomination, those who signed the letter didn’t know then and probably still don’t know now whether Covid originated from a lab or the wild.
In some ways, they didn’t really care whether it was true or false as long as the letter achieved something that they thought was good. That good might be maintaining positive relations with the Chinese government, getting stronger cooperation from China with global health organizations to combat the virus, avoiding the possibility that people would wrongly blame Chinese individuals for collective responsibility for any leak, avoiding scrutiny of the EcoHealth Alliance’s relationship with the lab in Wuhan, or some other thing they valued. When people do bad things, they can almost always rationalize to themselves that they are doing something good.
But the path to the Higgy is paved with good intentions. Once we abandon standards of truth-telling and acknowledging uncertainty, we develop the over-confidence required to boss others around and are prey to the self-delusion that whatever we want must be good for others. We don’t know Peter Daznak’s heart. But we do know that he organized an effort by self-interested experts to delegitimize reasonable inquiry into the origins of the Covid virus.
We highly doubt that the confident assertion that the lab leak theory was a crazy conspiracy achieved any of the good things Daznak and his colleagues may have imagined. But it is more likely that using their expert status to stymy reasonable inquiry may have made discovering the truth impossible and may have shielded those responsible from accountability. That accountability is not merely a matter of justice, which is important in its own right, but may help avoid future global-level catastrophes through deterrence and improved practices.
For this abuse of expert status to boss around others with recklessness about the truth, Peter Daznak is this year’s recipient of the William Higinbotham Inhumanitarian of the Year Award.
Daznak beat two other worthy nominees: Jennifer Dorow (nominated by Greg) and Yusuke Narita (nominated by me). Dorrow was certainly self-absorbed and destructive in her behavior by refusing to yield to another candidate from her party who stood a better chance of winning. But her self-absorption is not so much derived from the desire to boss around others (like a PLDDer) as from the regular politician desire to be the one receiving attention. It is still blame-worthy but not obviously PLDD to want to win a nomination even when one is not the best candidate for the party.
Narita is more like Daznak in that he uses his expert status to try to boss around others. But unlike Daznak, it is very unlikely that anyone is likely to listen to Narita other than the few dozen grad students in the Yale econ program compelled to take his courses and maintain his favor by agreeing with him. Daznak was more effectively mobilizing government officials to dismiss lab-leak investigations. That effectiveness made Draznak more worthy of The Higgy.
Daznak joins past “winners” of The Higgy: Abraham Flexner, Alison Collins, Mark DiRocco, Kosoko Jackson, John Wiley Bryant, Plato, Chris Christie, Jonathan Gruber, Paul G. Kirk and the incomparably petty inaugural winner, Pascal Monnet.
Huzzah! Oops, I mean, boooo!
Great work all around this year, and congratulations to Matt for his excellent work in highlighting excellence in the field of anti-excellence!