I am quite amazed to see people floundering in the present crisis, as I find myself doing so myself. We are victims of propaganda and half-truths, even to ideologies and discourses that are hardly more sophisticated than those of Goebbels in the 1930’s. I don’t have doctorates in microbiology and epidemiology, but I do think I have a reasonably logical mind formed by studying philosophy at university and taking an interest in the subject over the years.
What is science? Philosophically, it is certain knowledge derived from premises that are trusted to be reliable and obtained by rigorous logical reasoning. In the natural sciences, knowledge is obtained through a theory being subjected to a controlled experiment with repeatable results. If it works reliably, then we can count on the knowledge thus obtained and take appropriate action. I have never hidden my scepticism about Foundationalism, but this is an Aristotelian definition I was taught at university in Rome. Aristotle divided science into three categories, each with three subdivisions. In this attempt at producing a theory that would be totally objective and represent truth, we find ourselves in the domain of knowledge (epistemology). Scientific knowledge would bear upon matters whose principles do not change. It is Foundationalist, working rationally from principles or starting points (Ἀρχαί). We also have a hand in metaphysics and the reality of Universal Ideas.
Whether we are foundationalists or anti-foundationalists, use only logic in our reasoning or whether the creative imagination has a role to play, some of us are deeply distressed by the current crisis and how it is being politicised and made into ideology. I noticed this very early on when some of those calling themselves scientists seemed to be no further advanced than plague doctors from the seventeenth century! There is even debate about the use of masks and other devices for quarantine isolation to slow the spread of infection. The old bird beak was a kind of crude mask even if it served only to spare the wearer from the atrocious smells of biological decomposition!
This is not the only use of the word “science” to hide a thinly veiled political ideology. I have noticed the shift from “global warming” to “anthropogenic climate change”. If pollution in the atmosphere and related environmental problems are the subject of empirical science, why is it all so political? The same questions are asked about SARS-CoV-2 and the frequent observation that it is caused by man disrupting the natural environment for profit. Perhaps mankind is the disease, and the virus would be the cure. Get rid of a few million “useless eaters” without anyone having the legal or moral responsibility and guilt for it, and there’s the solution to the scourge of intensive farming. How convenient that among all the places where people have to work, there are new clusters of infection in slaughterhouses and meat-processing plants! How convenient an explanation!
If it were to be pursued empirically, viruses do not attack their human hosts on the basis of political ideology, but on that of purely biological parameters. Why the contradictory disagreements between scientists like Dr Neil Ferguson and Dr Gupta (Sunetra Gupta: Covid-19 is on the way out)? Is it science or unproven theory coming from speculative people with scientific qualifications? One might be a veterinary surgeon by virtue of having a BVSc and MRCVS qualification and speculating about animal pathology. It is another thing to apply a diagnosis and treatment to cure a sick or injured animal. Does the government lock down the population for the years it would take to come up with a vaccine, supposing such is possible? Is the virus on its way out as we would dearly wish? Which expert is more likely to be right?
In the USA, the division between “get back to work” and “lock down until vaccine” is more radical and angry than here in Europe, where it all seems to have morphed into the “Swedish model” (no strict lockdown but relying on people to take precautions and be careful). The contradiction between the two points of view is fodder for the sensationalist press, pumping out the stuff that confuses us if we bother to pay any attention. As a result, we often become cynical and go into denial – as those who decide that sunbathing on a beach is safer than cramming into a metro train to go to work! Incoherence is offensive to most of us.
The virus does not distinguish according to politics, but prefers crowds of people, especially in metropolitan cities. That’s nothing new. So did the plague in 1660’s London! Those who are generally for continuing the lockdown are in comfortable housing on the coasts or in the countryside. They often have no problem working from home and keeping the money coming in. Not always. I work at home but my upstream clients don’t – so the orders have dried up. We can only hope that things will improve as we convert to the Swedish model from full-blown 1984 with curtain-twitchers and police drones checking on people committing the heinous crime of walking the dog along a country lane. The attestation papers (in France) are behind us now, but we are still not allowed to travel more than 100 km without a serious reason. All that seems reasonable, since we are still blind without a reliable testing / isolating system and most of us can live without hopping on planes to exotic places where we don’t speak the language!
The feelings are less vocal in Europe than in America. We sometime find the attitude saying something like “My father died of Covid-19… How dare you enjoy the nice warm spring on the beach or in the mountains?” Should we all be shut in to mourn the dead? Those who have lost loved ones will react angrily, which is understandable. How far do we go one way or the other? Ideologically, the feeling can go as far as saying “To hell with the economy! We have to eradicate the virus!” That is easy for those who live in comfortable homes with gardens and jobs at home, less so with a large family crammed into a small flat and who have run out of money and have no work. The lefties might rejoice in the drastic reduction in carbon emissions due to reduced road vehicle and air travel. The environmentalist might celebrate the virus as an example of the planet healing itself.
I have come across opinions like the right-wing being more religious than the left – and that the lack of religious belief makes leftists more inclined to catastrophic predictions, of which those surrounding a global pandemic are only one form. Predictions that natural resources would be exhausted within ten years and that human population growth is exponential (like the virus) are almost a “secular eschatology” like the constant theme of the Parousia or end of the world in Christianity and other religions. It is an interesting theory. We need to keep an open mind. However, religious believers would have more of a notion of hope compared with the nihilism of atheists. Perhaps the difference is there.
Does science help to clarify these ideological differences? The trouble is that many experts are in someone else’s pocket. Let the experts decide according to their theoretical models and no politician is to blame for an intrusive and centralised government, making one size fit all. The transition from government elected according to democratic and business principles to the dark bureaucratic “archon” is particularly to be noticed in the USA and the UK, but also in continental Europe. This is the fodder of the conspiracy theory and our collective archetypes of European Fascism and Nazism, and of dystopian novels like those of Orwell and Huxley. Here in France, the police has retreated to its normal functions other than making sure we don’t drive too far in our cars.
The more Socialist opinion, as prevalent in much of Europe, advocates the financial help of those who have lost their livelihood (as I have been getting in France). The agenda à la Green New Deal is there too. I sympathise but if there is a viable alternative to putting billions of human beings on trains to concentration camps and gas chambers! The problem is there. Could it be that a virus is a perfect crime? You can kill lots of people and not be guilty of murder or crimes against humanity! You escape the gallows! That might sound paranoid and excessive, but we are caught between a rock and a hard place.
I think we can try to begin with science and impartial knowledge, not only in the domain of microbiology and epidemiology, but also in anthropology and sociology, also in economics. The problem in America is the wider opposition between conservative capitalism and socialism than in Europe. I recently read that “only about ten percent of published scientific findings turn out to be reproducible“. What’s wrong? Is ideology or financial interest being touted as science? Then is is not science. Theories about cholesterol, the benefits and risks of certain foodstuffs, are forever shifting. Nothing is tested out and proven conclusively before being called science. Theory is not science!!! Currently, they are debating face masks, and that is nothing new. They were used (or not used) during the Spanish Flu a hundred years ago.
Modelling, like that of Dr Neil Ferguson, has been found to be far off. Those models motivated political authorities to impose lockdowns. The death rate everywhere in the western world, together with large numbers of people left maimed for life, are appalling – but lower than what was anticipated even for a first wave. Mathematical modelling to predict the future often relies on suspect data. It is not science, any more than the theories concerning global warming and climate change.We may be worried about a second wave, but are we going to lock down again in anticipation? Anyone offering to pay?
I would not like to have the responsibility of a head of state, as they balance lives against their country’s livelihood and the very health and well-being of citizens. We are blind, playing games with something we cannot see or even detect in the population at large. We have no science! To what extent is it our shared responsibility, given that too many people couldn’t care less beyond their immediate pleasures? How much authoritarianism are we prepared to accept? Where can we sit on the spectrum of compromise between the extremes?
I try to observe current developments by way of comparing sources of information and where they converge. Even then, we are fighting for some intelligence and something that makes sense, something that isn’t immediately rejected from our minds as half-baked bullshit.
The word science is often a red herring, something to impress uncritical minds. Does science have to be knowledge of total certitude? Is any degree of doubt acceptable? I mentioned the other day reading a New York Times article contrasting the healthy scepticism of scientists and the certitudes of politicians and pundits. Many scientists are indeed quacks motivated by fame or money rather than intellectual integrity. We live in a dangerous world.
I don’t have all or even a tiny amount of the data to make a scientific judgement. However, I do have a reasonably critical mind and a sense of logic, being sceptical of any claim of two contraries being true at the same time. Perhaps I will be told that the future is a boot stamping on a human face forever, to quote the chilling epilogue of Orwell’s dystopia. Then life is not worth living. If truth, beauty and goodness are banished, then it would be better to be elsewhere than this world. The living would envy the dead.
Again, I appeal to critical thought, integrity, hope, the intrinsic value of human life and dignity. This is possible through Christian spirituality and philosophy, the light beyond the Plato’s cave of our political ideologies.