Public Intellectual (2021)

Prof. Dr. phil. Dr. h. c. Julian Nida-Rümelin

The BigBrotherAward 2021 in the category “Public Intellectual” is awarded to the philosopher and vice chairperson of the German Ethics Council, Julian Nida-Rümelin, for his untenable claim, repeatedly made in public, that “data protection” had hindered the fight to contain the Corona pandemic and was responsible for thousands of deaths.
padeluun am Redner.innenpult der BigBrotherAwards 2021.
padeluun, Digitalcourage

The BigBrotherAward in the category “Public Intellectual” is awarded to philosopher and vice chairperson of the German Ethics Council, Prof. Dr. phil. Dr. h. c. Julian Nida-Rümelin, for his untenable claim, repeatedly made in public, that “data protection” had hindered the fight to contain the Corona pandemic and was responsible for thousands of deaths.

Now, of course, the discord surrounding the fight against Corona must find an echo at the BigBrotherAwards. It took me quite a long time to settle on a specific award winner. There is a lot that might be said about both sense and nonsense in Corona politics – and unfortunately, there are a lot of people who do. I’ll get to that later.

But first, let me state my grounds for the ire which Mr. Nida-Rümelin has inspired in me.

He expressed, and has repeated the notion that (in a nutshell) “in Germany, data protection stood in the way of a decent Corona warning app. Quite different from South Korea, where thanks to apps without data protection they got a super grip on the pandemic.”

The journalist Markus Beckedahl calls this viewpoint a “talkshow myth”1. It transpires that the app in South Korea is used mainly to ensure that quarantine is upheld, rather than to trace back and break chains of infection. And blogger Linus Neumann, who has actually stood right in this spot and held a laudation himself, adds2: „The South Korean app had a grave data leak at the end of July, and South Korea is currently fighting the second wave. An outbreak in August was controlled successfully – with a lockdown. So not even this ‘success’ could serve as a factual basis for Nida-Rümelin’s claims.”

In his blog3, Linus Neumann also gleefully shreds other claims by Nida-Rümelin.

What is it that drives an ostensibly intelligent man such as Nida-Rümelin to hold forth on television, in radio shows, in newspapers about how data protection was “responsible for thousands of Corona deaths”? How small must his great mind be, that it does not even whisper a warning to him before he spouts off such blatant stupidity to the world?

Mr. Nida-Rümelin is a philosopher, politician, former Cultural Minister of State, vice chairperson of the German Ethics Council, where he serves as press contact for digitalisation.

As early as May of last year he held forth on the radio channel SWR14. We studiously ignored this for the last BigBrotherAwards in September 2020: „Don’t make stupid views famous.“ Unfortunately, the thinker Nida-Rümelin did not use this chance to think. Come December 2020 and the entertainment television show “Anne Will”5, he repeated his false rallying cry against “data protection”.

And then, in March 2021 – when all the facts he had drawn upon had long been refuted – he spread his alternative opinions again, this time via the German press agency, dpa. That’s when I really thought: Oh, philosopher, if only you had kept your silence …

No, Julian Nida-Rümelin and the rest of you “anti-data-protection” apologists: data protection does not kill. Data protection is the delicate membrane that shelters us from the barbarism of governmental and commercial encroachment.

Data protection, respectively ‘informational self-determination’ respectively ‘people protection’, which the Federal Constitutional Court in 1983 derived from the first two articles of the German constitution, a worldwide motor for innovation since the GDPR has come into effect, is a subject matter almost unrivalled in its need for educated philosophical thinking, because this damned digital networked world just does not compare to hammers and nails and cannot be explained using mechanical models.

In the past four decades we have deconstructed our representation of the world and our communication about it into zeros and ones. These are fluctuating currents potentially copied in millions and billions of places at once, up into near-Earth orbit and the universe – without this being at all noticeable at the source.

What this means for human existence is something that neither you, Mr. Nida-Rümelin nor the other numbskulls who are currently passing one digital pro-terror law after another, have come even close to fathoming. This is something that one must think about, before interrupting the grown-ups. This is where one listens when the grown-ups are speaking. This is where it is necessary to apply reason, if one wants to help society along.

(I must ask you to excuse the arrogance of the preceding sentences. They arise from my despair.)

The digital protection of people and society requires precision.

Yes, I am rephrasing the term “data protection” to improve comprehension. Data protection does not refer to data needing to be protected – that would be data security. It is people and society who need to be protected.

So, once again: The digital protection of people and society requires precision.

The digital protection of people and society requires educated thinking.

The digital protection of people and society requires philosophy.

This does not think itself between hors d’oeuvres and an interview.

I have expectations toward a philosopher who is educated and who educates. I expect him to do better than some random conspiracy dweeb who trumpets unreflected nonsense into the world. Or am I asking too much? Has my dangerous half-knowledge of Platon’s Dream of a rule by philosophers clouded my mind? Is that why I am deeply disappointed and disillusioned? In the face of what appears to be an elite of thinkers who do no more than fire off half-baked platitudes?

In no way do I support or intend to feed anyone’s burgeoning hate of intellectuals. On the contrary.

Naturally it is a philosopher’s profession to proclaim far-flung theses. However, this also means to engage in discourse, have those theses tested and attacked, and to learn from the exchange. And what was learned must then be constructed into a new thesis. And then, when one has firmed one’s thesis in many tedious and inspiring discussions, only then does one take the stage and deliver into society that which advances society as a whole. One does not rush center stage and repeat stupid claims for more than a year – especially as the facts that underwrite them are utterly refuted, one by one.


And now I ask myself what makes me different from Mr. Nida-Rümelin (apart from the fact that I claim the profession of an “artist”). I too stand on stages of a certain size, and postulate insights. And, though I would prefer this not to be true, I am also just an older gentleman, who becomes very angry now and then, and feels the urge to express and share my ill-humour with others – the objective being to attain improvement.

When I look around the Corona discussions, I see a cacophony of many gentlemen and a few ladies who want to bombard us with their insights and opinions with the force of the media they use. Open the schools? Yes! Close the schools? Yes! Lockdown? That’s not a lockdown! Close everything! Open everything up? Spahn (the Minister of Health) is doing it all wrong! Data protection stinks! The Luca App is a scam! You’re gendering wrong! IP addresses are not personal data! Yes, they are! Corona is a collusion by the World Economic Forum. They just want to get ID2020 passed. And make billions with vaccines. Putin is a perfect democrat (a quote from former German chancellor Schröder). Assemblies are categorically forbidden. I meant that satirically!

Julian Nida-Rümelin took part in this cacophony as a thinker. To put it bluntly: he was not helpful.

Should I take pity on him, show compassion? Let me try. Here we stand, poor fools that we are, and without any warning – no thunder, no lightning, no rain of ashes – a pandemic breaks out. We can’t smell or taste it. We can’t heroically cast ourselves into the flames to save women and children. Our destiny is to step aside and make way for the experts.

He and I are no pandemic experts.

That’s why nobody is interested in us. We are not in demand. All I would have been able to tell people is: I have some friends who work as scientists, they understand statistics, and they told me at the beginning of the pandemic: hunker down, lock yourself away. At least until we have more information.

And then you find a bit of time to read the infection protection law (Infektionsschutzgesetz). You then understand the official mandate of the RKI (Robert-Koch-Institut, the federal agency responsible for disease control and prevention). You suddenly get the difference between disaster control and citizens’ protection. You learn that disease control is a question of federal states’ law. And then you discover that the public health departments are totally unequipped to handle a pandemic. That many years of law-making have passed without making any preparations for a pandemic. While at the same time, one moronic law after another was passed for the fetish of “more security”. In the public health departments, people sit with pencil and paper, fax machine and rotary dial telephones, and they are simply overwhelmed by the blizzard of information and demands. We are looking at a minimum of 30 years of governmental failure. And then add to that the infighting around who should be the CDU party’s candidate for chancellor in the upcoming elections, which was not helpful. With this power play going on, it was never clear which measures actually made sense and which were only due to cock-fighting …

But data protection is what’s at fault? Seriously?! Come on!

I don’t know if anyone in this room has been to a demonstration of Corona-deniers. I have. I pocketed my press ID, put on my medical mask, and I spoke to many people there. People like you and me. People that I can imagine seeing at one of our own demos. But I also saw people who lacked the mental guardrails to be autonomous. Who are so unsettled by what they think is corruption, by this sledgehammer lawmaking without sense or reason, that they grasp at the nearest and cheapest alternative explanation.

I can’t really blame them. Especially since more and more professional confounders are coming out of the woodwork, and now it is not only foolish wise people but also nasty smart people who are playing up the confusion. Now, some people there are completely lost, but a majority are sincere about their convictions and their doubts and the “alternative” information they have ingested. These are the people who have been abandoned by those who are paid to think. They have been cast into the social hateworks and exposed to their structural populism6. Abandoned not only by Mr. Nida-Rümelin but also by the other gentlemen (and ladies) of his calibre.

And this is why we introduced the category of the “Public Intellectual” – because we really, urgently need people who can think and show the way for the rest of us. How bitter it is that people like Mr. Nida-Rümelin shamefully betray this mandate and opt for cheap populism.

During this cursed Corona pandemic, many who suffered the requisite limitations of freedom or ruinous financial losses may have said one thing or another which they would not have said with a clear mind. To these people, we must show compassion. To the actors (a group of prominent German actors that posted misguided video statements, then had to hastily declare them as satire) who are now ashamed of their comical actions. To the “Querdenker.innen” (‘alternative thinkers’, a name assumed by Corona skeptics) who made a few unscrupulous hate trolls rich. And who did not realize that for a while, their faculty of reason led them astray. To you all – and also to Mr. Nida-Rümelin – I would like to shout out: Just because you said something once does not mean you have to keep repeating it. It is possible to realize that what you said was wrong.

In this spirit: Congratulations, Julian Nida-Rümelin, to the BigBrotherAward 2021.


padeluun am Redner.innenpult der BigBrotherAwards 2021.
padeluun, Digitalcourage

About BigBrotherAwards

In a compelling, entertaining and accessible format, we present these negative awards to companies, organisations, and politicians. The BigBrotherAwards highlight privacy and data protection offenders in business and politics, or as the French paper Le Monde once put it, they are the “Oscars for data leeches”.

Organised by (among others):

BigBrother Awards International (Logo)

BigBrotherAwards International

The BigBrotherAwards are an international project: Questionable practices have been decorated with these awards in 19 countries so far.