Remember when a law school professor said only 500 Americans would die from COVID? What happened with that?
It has been about 20 months since NYU law professor Richard Epstein published an article stating that America had nothing to fear from the novel coronavirus as it would only claim the lives of around 500 people. He based this prediction on his own model of “Darwinian economics” because he is, after all, not a scientist or a doctor but a professor of law.
Surprisingly, Epstein’s complete lack of skills and common sense resulted in a truly spectacular failure. Even after having “revised” his figures to admit that he really meant 5,000 deaths – a decision he made when it became clear the country had passed the 500 mark even before publishing his original article. It turned out – when all the data arrived – that the death toll in the United States had already more than doubled the figure of 5,000 as of the date of its update. Whoops.
For the record, this morning the total is 789,164 plus the deaths that Florida and Alabama are sitting on rather than reporting. It’s been a while since I’ve been in econometrics, but is 157,732% a statistically significant failure? In his defense, the principle behind his figure had an obvious connection to science. Viruses often weaken over time, as natural selection favors strains that keep hosts alive longer. They just do it over “years” or “decades” as opposed to “a few weeks” as Epstein’s March 2020 hypothesis would have demanded. And, this trend is not a guarantee, as some viruses can mutate and become more deadly, which Epstein might have wanted to ask a doctor before he articulated his analysis.
The thoughts of a public health dilettante would be hilarious if their impact weren’t so tragic. Epstein’s miscalculations have made their way to the highest levels of government, encouraging Trump officials in their efforts to slow the response to the disease. When confronted with his epic shit, Epstein made Freud blush by calling the interviewer a “complete intellectual hobbyist.” He continued his epic screening episode by telling the reporter, “You are a journalist. Would you like to compare your resume to mine? As if he wasn’t a professor of Torts who had just tried to explain epidemiology to the National Institutes of Health.
But that’s the whole problem with the university legal complex. Epstein always uses the credibility of his law school to speak out on things he doesn’t understand, from climate science to border politics. Positioning law professors as public intellectuals isn’t necessarily a bad thing – many issues include legal angles – but when law professors cross that line by gushing with impunity on topics far beyond their expertise real, we end up with this kind of dangerous nonsense.
Epstein deserved the roast that he resumed in March 2020. But then the world moved on and let him continue to pontificate from his perch. The idea for this article came to me after seeing Epstein appear as a panelist in a discussion about repairs the other day and I thought, “How does someone invite this guy to talk without talking?” Mark him as the guy who said COVID would only kill 500? people?”
Defining people by their biggest mistakes isn’t always the right decision, but it is the kind of disastrous mistake – caused by clueless pride that was evident at the time to everyone outside of Epstein’s ideological bubble – which no one should ever forget.
Earlier: NYU law professor loses his shit after reality does not conform to his ‘Darwinian economics’ coronavirus models
Joe Patrice is editor-in-chief at Above the Law and co-host of Thinking Like A Lawyer. Feel free to email any tips, questions, or comments. Follow him on Twitter if you’re interested in law, politics, and a healthy dose of college sports news. Joe is also the Managing Director of RPN Executive Search.