I’ll have to admit at the outset, here, that I’m always a little bit skeptical whenever someone comes out of the woodwork with their own rogue scientist story. You know the kind, the lone oncologist who was fired from his job and stripped of his medical license and now he swears up and down to have the cure for cancer, or the rogue YouTuber who vlogs every day to spill the secrets of a certain industry, swearing forever that there’s a coverup requiring thousands upon thousands of people being in-the-know, duping unwitting victims em masse.
Fortunately for us, these tales are more often fiction than fact. Life is usually much more mundane and ordinary than one would take from the news articles that gain traction in the social media age, especially national media.
Anyone remember the days of the rather boring local media? Community stories about food drives, helping hands, fire departments saving lives, and so forth? You know, things that related to your everday life and the communities we live and work in?
Well I, for one, still consume local media when I can.
And one local story that’s gotten a bit of attention recently is the story of Rebekah Jones, the rogue data manager who was fired by the State of Florida for creating her own website using publicly available data on COVID-19 statistics. Jones was a manager of the Florida Department of Health at the time of her dismissal.
The State hired her to create a dashboard for the Department of Health. She claims the State then asked her to juggle some numbers and she pushed back on the grounds that the findings shouldn’t be manipulated one way or the other. The State continued to pressure her and so, while she obliged, she also took it upon herself to recreate the website dashboard for COVID using her own numbers on May 5th of 2020.
In order to understand this, we need to understand that moment in Florida pandemic history, a time when President Trump and Ron DeSantis were itching to re-open the recently closed economies back in the late spring and early summer of 2020.
It was early May and the Republican Party was following the President’s lead and downplaying the severity of the virus in order to keep market faith at an all-time high, likely to not ruin the President’s bid at re-election. Jones released the alternate data claiming the state was manipulating data on May 15h, having published it since May 5th.
To put it bluntly, she was obstructing the political aims of the state Republican Party in the name of scientific integrity. Then it was all about reopening to save the small businesses, theme parks, and tourist industry that’s the lifeblood of Florida’s economy. In the subsequent months, the data was referenced many times in the push to reopen the economy to full capacity.
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis is still adament about Florida remaining open and not shutting down businesses or schools no matter what happens. He’s also put legislation in place that he claims will nullify any local fines issued for non-compliance of mask ordinances.
It was during this time that Jones set up her own website and began tracking Florida’s COVID-19 data herself. She did so because she said the DeSantis administration had asked her to lie and make the outbreak seem much more benign in the state than it really was.
Jones, therefore, thought the only ethical thing to do was to use the publicly accessible data and, rater than subverting the state’s guidelines of what they weere asking, instead create her own site with the accurate facts.
Predictably, Liberals took her story and ran with it as gospel, while Republicans branded her with a scarlet letter. Both sides chose to use the story to fit their narratives in a manner that I’d say was premature, long before all the facts were in.
And now, state police have raided Jones’ home in Leon County and she claims they were armed with guns drawn. As if it were a raid on the home of someone who’d already exchanged fire with officers and was barracaded inside of a fortress or something.
The police weren’t there to make any arrests, however, and they seized several electronic devices that they claim were used to illegally access government networks. To quickly reiterate, Jones’ database contains data taken from publicly available coronavirus data. She claims the point of the raid was to intimidate her and strip her of her ability to continue to bring the world accurate COVID-19 data.
But why would she need to access secret state databasese if she utilized publicly available data to run her database? And she allegedly only sent a text to foremer coworkers in a group chat? That was the infraction?
All of this makes my head spin. On the one hand, I’m usually skeptical of the disgruntled former employees, especially when they aren’t high-level employees and don’t have a long track record of positive employment spanning back to the dinosaur ages. I’ve seen way too many people take out a difference of opinion on an entire company with a scorched earth policy of burn it all to the ground. Personality conflicts are nothing new and can get quite ugly.
On the other hand, a lot of third-party evidence supports Jones’ story. Take back in June when she first went public. She did so saying that the state was forcing her to doctor the numbers to make the pandemic look more mild than it really was. But she wasn’t the only one coming to this conclusion. Other investigations turned up the same conclusion independently of Jones.
The state also said afer her firing that she had a background in geography and thus didn’t have the requisite training to be able to do the job in the first place. All of this begs the question of why she was hired in the first place, if that’s the case. What doe that say about the people in charge?
It also raised the ire of many scientists, the people doing the work and with the training (as opposed to politicians who don’t), with the American Association of Georgaphers reaching out to Governor DeSantis with a signed letter disagreeing with the scrutanizing of her credentials and saying that “georgraphers aren’t scientists”, quote:
How states and localities reopen in the coming months will define how we, as a nation, are remembered for the COVID-19 pandemic. The notion that geography is not a science demonstrates a narrow understanding of the discipline. Worse, it reflects a profoundly worrying perspective from a public official, since geography — specifically, how places and people are connected and interact with each other — is inherent in crafting strategies that will restore everyday life. Location-based public health data is the most critical factor in implementing reopening plans. Citizens are placing full trust in our elected officials to guide and protect us, and making these policy decisions with inattention to geography could have fatal consequences.
The real thing that lends credibility to Jones, as opposed to other whistleblowers who tend to go against the grain of specialists in their respective industries, is who she’s arguing against. In this case, it’s the government of the State of Florida. Why does this matter? Because I don’t expect the State of Florida to know as much about the COVID data than the very designer of the state website that they initially hired to handle that data.
I don’t ever expect politicians to know more about specialized science than the specialists themselves.
It’s just like the theatrical and astonishing Republican disagreement with the overwhelming science that suggests that climate change is an anthropogenic phenomenon. I always suggest that people ask themselves, “Who do I think knows more about climate science, politicials or the scientists on the ground?”
I think the answer should be clear that someone trained in a field would know much more about that field than a third-party politician who is dependent on their skillsets in order to understand the subject. And I think the same principle applies in this case.
It’s one thing when a ferverant YouTuber takes to the vlog and swears that all of the other independent scientists, in independent countries, doing independent work, with independent funding, often speaking different languages, are all in one a big grand conspiracy that racks up a total of 100,000+ members or some such.
It’s a whole other thing when a specialists comes out and claims that the state didn’t like their findings and asked them to make the data, the science, fit the political ambitions of those in power. That’s a whole different moment.
It’s one thing for a lone wolf to challenge an entire body of established evidence, it’s another thing for them to challenge (with their evidence in hand) powerful political entities who can only smear and intimidate.
It’s all still speculation at this point, but if I had to lean one way or the other right now, while I’m still skeptical, I’m leaning much more in the direction of Jones’ side of the story. The data used to create her own dashboard was publicly available, she had no need to access information that the State is claiming she illegally accessed, and after she was fired, the State’s data was found to have the very same discrepancies she said they were trying to force on her during independent investigations. It seems she’s likely telling (mostly) the truth.
Could she be telling the truth? I think time will tell.