#60: How We Know that the New Coronavirus Is a Real Threat

There are all kinds of stories out there claiming that the threat posed by the New Coronavirus (Covid19 / SARS-CoV-2) would not be real, and that everything is a big global conspiracy for some typically unspecified sinister purpose. Allegedly, the tests are said to be meaningless, and even if there was a threat, it would be marginal, comparable to a seasonal flu. Third, even if there was a threat, it would be dangerous only to the elderly and those that are already vulnerable, and that this would just be one of the normal risks of life, and that we cannot risk the fates of young people for the sake of protecting those allegedly close to death anyway.

How to answer this? If you try to argue with such positions, you may not get far with calling them conspiracy theorists, (Cov-)idiots, or any other insult that you may think helpful. It’s not helpful. In my experience, such positions exists due to an actual and serious concern about the present dangers of lockdowns, about the lives of children, the fate of our economy, the fates of elderly suffering and dying in silence in hospitals, rehab facilities, hospices and retirement homes, and the isolation enforced on grandparents from their children and grandchildren. Additionally, there are perceived threats to the freedoms of speech, of assembly, of protest, etc. All these concerns are real. They are not trivial, they need answers and not ridicule.

The reason that people may have to frame their concerns in conspiratorial ways may well be that these concerns are not taken seriously, not even in part, and that scientists and politicians are horrible at explaining the reasons for the preventative measures taken.

Let me say that first, I am not a medical doctor, I have no degrees or experience in virology, epidemiology, or public health when it comes to matters of disease prevention. I am an interdisciplinary cultural/social/political theorist and historian, with a specialization in humanistic gerontology (or age studies). This is important. Everybody should know their limits. I can tell you something about how people have historically and presently thought and conceptualized their lives, how societies function, how people have been thinking about politics, and how all this may have influenced also how we think about matters of health, life, death and the beyond. I am concerned, for instance, about how people think and feel about aging and old age, and not about the biology of aging.

If I were to say anything medically about Covid19, I would have to research information online. I can do that, but – despite all my academic training in the disciplines mentioned above – I am not trained to evaluate medical information. If I were to research this data on my own, I would certainly display all the symptoms of a first-year medical student: everything would be so overwhelming that I would basically believe everything, and probably display symptoms. There is a reason that medical practitioners and researchers study for many, many, many years, and have to conduct guided research on their own and/or practice medicine for yet many, many more years before finally being able to be considered fully trained. Science may be accessible to anyone, but it requires all this training for a reason. It is complicated, oftentimes counter-intuitive, and laborious.

Furthermore, when it comes to new or unsettled science, you will always find scientists who disagree with the majority opinion; there may even not be a majority opinion at all. This can be even more confounding to a lay audience, and to evaluate frontier science should be left to the experts, and the safest bet is to trust the majority opinion, especially if it comes from researchers and practitioners from around the globe. Yes, the Chinese government initially withheld necessary information, and this was relevant in the initial phases of the pandemic. But by now, we – that is, the experts, but also all of us if we have been paying attention to the news – we all know much more, and we do not anymore rely on the Chinese dictatorship to tell us what’s going on. Even the World Health Organization (WHO) by now seems to have learnt from their mistakes. If experts from countries with governments that seriously do not agree on anything else can agree on Covid19, that agreement should not be underestimated. No matter who you ask, experts from the EU, the US, from Israel, from Canada, from Mexico, from Russia, from China, from Iran, from Saudi Arabia, from India, from Pakistan, from Australia, from Nigeria, from South Africa, from wherever you could possibly think of, if all of them agree, then we should listen intently.

Thus, 1., as laid out before, a global conspiracy is really not likely to happen. The Bill and Melinda Gates has been very much interested at fighting at diseases around the globe, and have frequently warned about the dangers of a coming pandemic. The likelihood of that happening has been, and continues to be, extremely high. After H1N1, SARS-1, MERS, yet another virus transmitted through the respiratory tract was likely to emerge, and any betting person would have assumed it could be a Coronavirus. There is nothing sinister about preparations such as the Pandemic 201 scenario conducted just last year. Also, Covid19 will not be the last Coronavirus to haunt us. We keep bothering nature, and nature will bother us back.

2., the tests are not perfect, but they have been shown to be a good predictor, and I would seriously follow medical and scientific advice. Not a single country benefits from rising infection numbers, from hospitals overburdened, from people dying prematurely. There have been very clear numbers about Covid19 actually killing people, or about hastening mortality – which is the same thing. If a person would have lived longer without a Covid19 infection, then the virus contributed to their death, case closed. Any speculation on the order whether a person died “with” or “from” Covid19 is irrelevant sophistry.

3., masks work, distance works, and airing out works. Independent experts have shown so. Yes, it seems that older people are more at risk. Some of them die close to their life expectancy at birth. But that is a misleading value. If the “life expectancy at birth” is 80, that means that a baby born now will have a chance to live till 80, statistically. But there is a different value also. If a person is currently 80, they still have 10-15 more years life expectancy at 80. If they are 90, they could actually grow to be over 100. This may sound confusing, but again, it is for the experts to decide. Now, who is to decide which life has value or not? Are we seriously considering senicide, the killing (or “letting die”) of the elderly? We are speaking actually of people older than 50 or 60. These are people who still fulfill many social functions, and they also, by the way, have a right to live their life.

Some people are uncomfortable with restrictions like masks and distancing posed upon children or younger people, assuming their risk of dying would be less. We don’t quite know whether this risk may actually climb, as it did during the Spanish Flu, and we also are seeing severe consequences to infection with Covid19, including neurological damage, and possibly permanent impairment of functions of several organs. This disease is new, and from all we know, very serious. It is much worse than the flu (which can be deadly also, but less so). And if it comes to preexisting conditions that may affect whether you survive or not, whether you recover with still much damage or not; we all have such conditions probably, whether we know it or not.

The discomfort or psychological damage of people is serious; but long-term illness or even death are worse. If in order to protect those that need protecting we all need to limit our normal activities, than this is what we will have to do. We have to do that smartly and with as much consideration for all of us as possible, but if we are to survive this as human beings, wearing masks and distancing and airing out are really not too much to ask.

We know that the threat is real because the majority of scientists and experts agrees. Should that agreement break down completely, we can reconsider. But for now, this is real, and we need to act accordingly.

#57: What Is Science?

We are living in a world where people expect easy answers, quick soundbites, witty tweets, and individualistic, even solipsistic and narcissistic approaches to the big questions of life. It is your feelings that matter, not those of most people; it is your thoughts, not those of others; it is your desires and needs, not those of others; and it is your world view that counts, not those of others. There is legitimacy in this, of course, as a corrective to totalitarian approaches to human existence, and to conformity, mass culture, and to the every overbearing and overeducated academic trying to lecture you about what to think and do.

But there are things in this world that are real, that are not bowing to our wishes, and that are not depending on anyone’s point of view. We may be able to interpret the world differently, but the world still exists. Reality is real. How do we know? It’s called evidence. It can be proven by different people from different backgrounds and perspectives, using different methodologies, all arriving at the same result. No matter how you look at the sun, you cannot deny that it is a gas giant powered by nuclear fusion, heavy enough to exert enough gravity to have all the planets and dwarf planets and comets and asteroids and whatnot perambulate around it in their respective orbits, Earth being one of them. We can measure the distance from us to the sun. We may measure it in miles or meters or astronomical units or light years or parsecs, but it is always the same distance. We may paint the sun with a smile and rays, but that’s just artistic license. We may believe we can appease the sun by praying to a Sun god, but the astronomical object does not care. No matter what we puny humans think, the sun exists with or without us. We can even send a probe up to the sun and receive data for as long as the probe is still functioning. It is not a figment of our imagination, not up to discussion whether it exists, we have evidence, it is there. Science is about evidence.

We know about the sun from our own visual observation, but that might be misleading. Our eyes and brain are well able to conspire against us, so that is not enough. We need a second opinion, maybe a third, or an nth. Science is about collaboration. No single scientist represents all of science. Single scientists can and do disagree regularly with the majority, and in some rare cases they have managed to change the outlook of science to the former minority view. But this “paradigm shift” is a rare event, and it is oftentimes misunderstood.

Einstein has not overturned Newton. The theory of relativity answers questions about typically big objects at insane speeds, all of that not applying to life on Earth, where Newton and Leibniz still rule. Quantum theory, conversely, looks at ridiculously small objects. In important ways, Relativity and Quantum mechanics have indeed modified Newton, but only by helping us realize that Newton’s mechanics are just a special case scenario, which is still nevertheless valid. Maybe one way to explain this is to use three tools for seeing. If I use a microscope, I see very small things very well. If I use a telescope, I see very big things very well. If I just use my in-built eyesight, I see my normal surroundings very well (with or without the aid of glasses). For each special case, we need a different tool, but that does not mean the world has changed; our understanding of it has grown and re-contextualized things, but if objects fell to Earth with an acceleration of g=9.81 m/s² (approximately), they will still do so once we know of Relativity and Quantum Mechanics. Relativity now may tell us if the object, rather than falling down, sped up to almost light speed, the object would experience time differently. This effect is measurable if you take two atomic clocks, one on the ground and one on a plane, or one on a plane going east, the other on the plane going west. The clocks will not be in sync after their travel. But that’s not quite everyday experience, and for most of us, Newton still stands as normal. If we all lived on spaceships traveling close to the speed of light, Newton would be the special case for a special circumstance, but still be valid there. Scientific revolutions typically do not turn over everything, but they expand our knowledge and methodologies in exciting ways.

If you use science to predict something, you need an experiment, which will lead to some conclusions that will help you advance your hypothesis. Conversely, you can also say how you could predict that your experiment could fail by laying out how you could falsify your thesis. Your hypothesis is that the Earth revolves around the sun. How could this stand up to falsification? By not standing up to the evidence. I am not a physicist (although I some time ago tried to be), so I will no pretend to know the answer, but I know that physics can tell us very clearly how we know that the Earth revolves around the sun, and not the other way round.

Finally, science is not a cult of the initiated. As pointed out by the great Neil DeGrasse Tyson, anybody can learn it. It is not an elitist institution. You can learn math, you can learn physics, geography, astronomy, and figure it our yourself. There is no secret scientific cabal, there is just a group of people doing science together, making sure to find out how to agree and disagree with each other in order to move scientific knowledge further.

If there was a new disease striking our planet, scientists would be working hard to figure out what it is, how to deal with it, and how to stop it from harming us all. They would be doing this as a community of people that will always try to falsify their work, to disagree with colleagues – respectfully – and agree eventually and form a consensus opinion once the evidence is overwhelming, hypotheses have been proven and a theory – which is the general consensus assumption of how a specific thing works – can be formed.

It is true that there can be hundreds of scientists on one side, and a single scientist on the other, and the lone truth seeker wins the argument. Ironically, scientists would be happy about such an occurrence, as frequently pointed out by Richard Dawkins, because it would advance knowledge and science. There is no “alternative” science, there is no “outlaw” science, there is just science.

Scientific knowledge is not fixed. The basics will stand, probably, but at the margins, where there are new puzzles, new information, new discoveries, things are always in flux. Asking a scientist why they changed their mind would be like asking a driver why – rather than keep driving straight – they followed the road when it turned into a curve. You follow the evidence, develop your hypotheses, either prove or falsify them, reevaluate your hypotheses and theories, and move on till it works, and it does work: E pur si muove.

#24: Conspiracy Thinking is Not Critical Thinking

This seems to be the age of conspiracy theories. What is a conspiracy theory? It is the belief that specific, if not all, major problems in the world are caused by a conspiracy of powerful people that secretly pull the strings behind your back. A select few have allegedly seen through this scheme, and are now desperately trying to enlighten the world about the truth they have just uncovered. It is, if you want to say it in post-modern terms, the grand narrative of all grand narratives. The one tale to explain it all.

If you listen to people believing such theories, they will all tell you that they are critical thinkers, thinking for themselves, researching the truth, for themselves, coming to uncomfortable conclusions that set them up against the rest of the world that is still falling prey to the conspirators.

On a certain level, this does seem like a familiar description of critical thinking. Has not every revolutionary been someone who has stood up against the world, against established opinion? Is not the basis of all social criticism the assumption that, to quote Marx in his 11th Thesis on Feuerbach, while philosophers have explained the world, the point is to change it? Does he not call for a ruthless criticism of everything existing, as in his letter to Ruge? Does not Kant call to dare to think on your own – Sapere aude? Are there not enough calls in philosophy, media criticism, and activism to question the order of things?

The key aspect of criticism here, though, is that criticism never ends, it never stands still, it never stops. It is not a tool to unveil some big conspiracy, to find the big answers for all or at least for major problems – it is an ongoing practice, a state of mind, something that should be immanent, meaning embedded into our ways of thinking, and into our structures. This is the definition of science, where every step may lead somewhere new, but never somewhere finite. There is always something new around the corner if you keep looking.

This is what makes true criticism, true science, so frustrating for many if not most people, apparently. In order to live, we seek stability, but in order to advance, we need change. If scientific answers keep changing depending on new data and new theoretic insights, that leaves many people displeased, especially if the expectation towards science is that it provides answers, that it provides closure. A scientific answer is always temporary.

What is even more frustrating, even religion does not provide closure here. That may seem to be a perplexing statement. Is not religion about finite answers, about eternal truths, about stability in your life? Not quite. Yes, religion talks about eternal truths – but they are only available for eternals themselves. The key definition of the divine is that it is not accessible to us mortals. God (or divinity) is that which is always greater than our understanding; greater even than our possible understanding. This is not an “god of the gaps” argument, it is the one consistent definition of the divine throughout all religious schools of thought. God is the sublime which dwarves us, which overshadows us, which we can never reach, but should always strive towards; it is the eternal truth, and the purpose of religion – quite like science – is to reach that truth while expecting human fallibility and imperfection. Every religion contains the tension between the struggle for meaning in life, the promise that meaning is out there, and the strongest of all caveats that we will never understand it in our physical lifetime, but that we need to keep trying, and we need to keep failing, and that this is ok – for if we were to understand this, we would be like God. Our religious knowledge is only temporary.

The belief in having gained some grand, even final insight is the core of conspiracy thinking, of misunderstood science, and misunderstood religion. A true scientist, just as a true religious believer, knows that doubt (in your own ability to finally understand everything) and faith (in the need for the search for truth, and the belief in the existence of truth) belong together. The true attitude characteristic of both science and religion is humility. Everything else is pretension.

Conspiracy theories do not function like this. They misapply critical thought and apply magical thinking. They see truth in patterns that they create themselves, they see devils at work, and their guiding question is always “cui bono” – who benefits, which leads to witch hunts, scapegoating, and a magical belief in potions, false prophets, and false promises to let the initiates see the truth, finally.

This is not critical thinking, but the opposite: the uncritical acceptance of a final truth. Science and religion believe that “the truth is out there,” but they know that we will never know the complete picture and will have to have faith in the procedures that lead us on the right path (which is why, on The X-Files, Mulder is lost without Scully, and vice versa). Conspiracists believe they know the final truth, stop criticizing it once they believe they have gained it, and need everybody to believe the same. This is not criticism, it is humbug.

#16: Coronavirus and Democracy

We all make mistakes. It is a strength of open societies is that those mistakes will eventually all be ruthlessly and painstakingly revealed, so that we can effectively correct our course and improve our response to crises. This openness, while revealing all the uncomfortable messiness, may seem like doing open-heart surgery with cameras rolling. But that is not a bad thing. It is the only thing that can eventually reinforce societal trust and the consent of the governed.

The purpose of Democracy is not just to change the leaders by democratic vote. It is the best way human societies have discovered that allows such consent to be created time and again without creating the upheaval that a change of leadership regularly creates in non-democratic societies.

With regards to Coronavirus, there appears no single country that has not made a series of mistakes. Typically, there has been denial – it can’t possibly get here. Then, there’s been hand-wringing about what to do, and quite legitimately so. The current voluntary economic restrictions are painful, and have to be weighed against the consequences of the virus. Some governments and leaders have tried to be both hopeful and admonishing. Still today, no single country’s approach really seems to align well with the others, even if it comes down to counting and attributing cause of death (Did someone die because of CoViD19, or with CoViD19 in in addition to other conditions? How do you measure the specific impact of the virus?). It would certainly have helped to have global guidance on that, but I guess this is what happens.

Sadly, every crisis means that the entire world is a collection of different laboratories independently having to solve a problem, with some collaboration. It would have been helpful if China had been honest and transparent, and if the WHO had been less independent in its judgements. Taiwan knows well what to think of them both. That does not mean we don’t need global coordination either, but it needs to be improved.

Once this crisis is becoming more manageable, it will be the open society approach that will prove to be the only one to tackle such problems in the future. Both democracy and science thrive on open confrontation, on honesty, on transparency. They also thrive on convincing people to opt into the right approach, out of their own capacity for reason, rather than on forcing them to comply. If people are not given the choice to do their part to help, but are forcibly locked indoors, or held against their will in horrible conditions, they will rightfully rebel. But if they are convinced, by reason and science, to do what needs to be done to solve this problem affecting us all, they may just do the right thing quite on their own. Democracy believes in citizens, not subjects, it believes in treating people as grown-ups, not children. It is by far the more sustainable approach. At least I hope it is; I don’t think I would like to live in a world where this would not be so. Wash your hands.