Me: You look distressed.
World: I feel terrible.
Me: Hmmm. What sort of terrible?
World: Same, same but worse. Tests. Lockdowns. Curfews. Fear. Good people doing strange things.
Me: Well, maybe we need to do difficult things to cope with this Covid thing…
World: I feel like I told the doctor I had a headache so he hit me in the face with a sledgehammer. I said, ‘that hurts,’ so he did it again.
Me: Well, Covid is more than a headache…
World: For most people it is less. Surely we have to do something, but the evidence is that tests, lockdowns and curfews don't change rates of infection, sickness or death.
Me: Is that perhaps a bit …
World (interrupting): False positives. Asymptomatic positives. Peru. Sweden. And how can a virus tell the difference between a pub and an office?
Me: I think…
World (interrupting): Good. So as well as thinking, do some googling. All the information you could need can be found with an internet connection and an open mind. Lockdowns are justified by projections about what might happen but I am worried about what is already happening. Anyway, I didn’t come here to discuss facts with you. I came because I am more depressed.
Me: I’m sorry to hear that.
World: People don’t trust each other… they don’t even trust themselves. Governments don’t trust their citizens. Citizens don’t trust their Governments. Societies, whole civilisations, are decaying right now.
Me: What on earth – sorry – what do you mean?
World: Back in the 1970s a man called Jerry Mander (there’s a name for you) wrote
“One major result of modern science has been to make people doubt what they would otherwise accept as true from their own observation and experience.”
Everything has a cost, including scientific advances. The more people rely on scientific expertise the more they overlook the significance of their own, immediate life.
Me: Are you having a go at science?
World: No, no. Science is wonderful – or at least good science and good scientists are wonderful; but sadly, they are the minority. For example, lots of scientists are looking at facts and projections and believe they have an adequate understanding of the situation. They believe they can control a virus. They have no idea how little they know.
Me: I have a little sense of how little I know.
World: You are not a scientist.
Me: I’m not even an academic.
World: Good. Mind you there are plenty of good academics and scientists, and doctors who have already published plenty about the human capacity for self-delusion. Unfortunately the deluded don’t realise they need help.
Me: How do you know you are not deluded?
World: Do you know Factfulness?
World: It is a book about me, or more precisely about ten reasons why people are wrong about me. Hans Rosling was writing it up until the day he died. He spent more than twenty years teaching people at the highest levels of Government about ten widespread patterns of erroneous thinking (he calls them ‘instincts’) which systematically distort human understanding.
Me: It sounds very interesting.
World: It is. It is a great book, and yet it comes with an appalling irony…
Me: Which is … ?
World: In fact two appalling ironies. Firstly, it was published in 2018. It sold thousands and thousands of copies all around the world. And yet today, in 2020, nine out of those ten patterns of misunderstanding are dominating the responses to covid-19.
Me: Are you serious?
World: That is not the worst irony.
Me: It’s not?
World: On the cover of that book is a testimonial from Bill Gates. He says Factfulness is,
“one of the most important books I’ve ever read – an indispensable guide to thinking clearly about the world.”
Bill is one of the very few people in the world with the power to bring a positive influence to bear on the current madness. He has read and recommended the book. But he has still fallen into the errors that it describes.
Me: What are they?
World: Oh for goodness sake! Google ‘Ten instincts in Factfulness.’ You people are so absurd! You let the internet destroy your societies and you still want to be spoon-fed when two clicks could actually get you some useful information. Better still, get the book and read it. And if you bump into Bill Gates tell him to read it again.
(The world was a bit short-tempered here and it is helpful to see how Rosling's ideas are relevant so if you want to cut to the chase I have written a gloss on how they relate to Covid and you can find it here.)
Me: But why do Bill Gates’ mistakes bother you?
World: Because he could make a difference. Millions of people are caught up in this delusion. They are not thinking clearly about Covid-19 and Rosling spells out very clearly the errors they are making. The upshot is they are not free to make their own decisions about their own safety, nor to decide the best way to help other people. People have lost control of their lives.
Me: Hang on a moment – let me see if I’ve understood you. You are telling me that Covid-19 is not a big problem and the real problem is that most human beings don’t realise how badly they misunderstand their situation?
World: Yes. You could say they don't realise the limits of what they do correctly understand, and they don’t understand the cost of losing their freedom to make their own mistakes.
Me: So what makes you think you know better?
World: Common sense and personal observation. And facts. But I’m not alone. Plenty of people other than Rosling have described this problem. Throughout history brave individuals have been trying to help their deluded fellows. It rarely ends well.
Me: People don’t like to be shown their errors.
World: That’s an understatement. The global economy is being trashed, millions of lives are blighted and millions more lives will be ended because a few “important” people are too foolish or blinkered or grandiose or cowardly to admit they have made mistakes.
Me: But the alternative was thousands of deaths and the virus ….
World: I’m not here to argue about facts. Just look up overall mortality and the average age of death of Covid-19 fatalities.
Me: So you and Hans Rosling and who else ..?
World: The Buddha. Jesus. Quite a few others...
Me: You think there is a religious aspect to this?
World: No. That’s a misunderstanding right there. I don’t think it is fair to blame them for religions. The worship, the obsession with the afterlife, the fear, the guilt, the rituals, the institutions and superstitions – that all came later and it’s mostly bullshit. Those two were just walking a spiritual path and they invited others to join them. A true spiritual path is practical. It is a way to live a more rewarding, functional and equitable life right here, right now.
Me: Do you have a spiritual path?
World: I’m not walking it right now. I’m too depressed. Or angry.
Me: Will it get any worse?
World: It probably will get worse. Part of me is still in denial. When the destruction and the pointlessness are undeniable it will be far too late and no one is going to be happy.
Me: Why does all this bother you? Civilisations come and go. Egypt, Persia, Greece, Rome, Byzantium... they all had their day then they fell. Maybe this is the end of the American Empire and the beginning of the Second Chinese Empire.
World: Maybe it is the same old stuff, but it still hurts. And people still suffer. I feel as though there are different people inside me all pulling in different directions.
Me: Well… there are. You are the world. There are about seven billion different people living in your embrace.
Me: But, on a smaller scale, we are all like that. All therapy is really family therapy. We are all challenged on the outside by our families, and on the inside to get the different parts of ourselves to work together.
World: I can’t see it working out. That’s why I’m so depressed. The people in charge have caused so much damage and I don’t think they have the courage to admit they were wrong. So they will carry on with their impossible mission until they find a vaccine that gives them an excuse to stop.
Me: You think vaccine will fix it?
World: No, no. I think they will find a vaccine that appears to do some good, but after being distributed it will be shown to cause damage. Then at last they can stop, because they can say, “We tried our best but it is just too dangerous”. So they can save face and it will be safe to blame the pharmaceutical companies because they have already indemnified them from liability.
Me: That’s quite a bleak thought…
World: Here’s another quotation from Jerry Mander. I carry it around just in case I need to quote it in therapy.
“This society upholds a fierce technological idealism. We believe we can get the best from a given technology without falling into worst-case scenarios… We maintain this idealism despite the fact that we have no evidence of technology ever being used at an optimal level, or even being sensibly controlled. This is certainly true of automobiles, which have virtually destroyed the natural world; and of television, which creates a common mental denominator … Most technologies are actually deployed in the manner that is most useful to the institutions that gain from their use; this may have nothing to do with public or planetary good.”
He wrote that in 1991.
Me: Who is Jerry Mander?
World: He was a partner in the most successful advertising agency in California in the 60s. He came to realise that television is a medium that distorts our understanding so in 1977 he wrote, “Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television”.
Me: Hmm. That wasn’t a great success.
World: It’s a shame. But you know historically TV was just a stepping stone to the internet. And the internet has facilitated this catastrophe. It distorts public discourse, a bit like TV but worse.
Me: Do you really feel it is that bad?
World: Worse. There is a lot written about it elsewhere, but look at it this way. In The Wisdom of Crowds James Surowiecki shows how large groups of people can make excellent decisions if they are diverse, independent and de-centralised and their output is aggregated. The internet does exactly the opposite. It amplifies homogeneous, extremist groups, it undermines independent thinking, it centralises opinion, it stigmatizes deviation from orthodoxy and it facilitates conflict rather than aggregation. The net makes us a very unwise crowd indeed.
Me: Do you see a way out of this?
World: I thought that was your job. You're the therapist.
Me: Well, I try to help people who want to help themselves. I can’t change societies. However if lots of individual people change, then they change society.
Perhaps I can help a tiny, tiny bit. Then it is up to you.
World: OK. Help me.
Me I’m sorry. Our time is almost up. I have one small idea I can share with you next time if you wish, in the meantime perhaps I could leave you with a question to bounce around your seven billion people.
Me: What is the smallest perceptible step you could take towards seeing what you have in common with people you disagree with?
World: hmm. That’s all?
Me: Yes. That's all. I’m sorry I have not given you more today.
World: That’s ok. It’s a relief just to talk sometimes.
Me: Do you know what is the most important thing about therapy?
Me: It is not what happens in the therapeutic hour. It is what happens in the other 167 hours of the week.
World: Well thank you very much. Not. See you next time.