#34 Beware the Old Normal
Updated: Mar 4, 2022
Some covid-related restrictions are being lifted in some places and we are now well into revisionism and cover-ups. Our Governments can be profoundly grateful for the gift of distraction from Vladimir Putin. Sadly, whatever the outcome in Ukraine, most of the developed world is still in deep, deep trouble.
The last two years have revealed unequivocally that our greatest problem is not Covid, it is not even the disastrous response to Covid, it is the underlying state of our societies. In brief:
Our institutions are largely dysfunctional
Our leaders are at best incompetent
The majority of the global population are misinformed and disempowered - and too many are depressed.
It is strangely difficult to accept these facts in spite of all the evidence supporting them. We all know so many good, kind, intelligent people. Surely they cannot all be caught up in such a disaster? Sadly they are. We are. All of us, all over the world, over and over again, have given the benefit of the doubt to institutions which no longer deserve it.
It is more comfortable, from a certain distance, to imagine that all is well. In the UK, if you have nothing to do with the police, it is easy to think that overall they are must be doing a good job. If you have nothing to do with the NHS you can see noble doctors and brave nurses, but you do not see the endless paperwork, and time-wasting, and patients dying on waiting lists.
An illuminating comparison is with journalism. In general we tend to think of it as informative. Think now of topic which you know well and recall the last time you read or saw an article about it. Ninety nine times out of a hundred the piece was misleading or partial if not downright inaccurate. That statement is true for every person, for every topic. The same relationship pertains to state institutions. It only looks good if you don’t know too much about the topic.
1 Our institutions are largely dysfunctional
In the UK our state institutions used to have a modicum of integrity. Now bureaucrats, busy expanding their empires with the imposition of ever more gratuitous policies, have lost sight of the central purpose of their organisations.
The Metropolitan Police fails to prevent knife crime which disproportionately affects people of colour, yet it finds time to promote anti-racism. The NHS employs overpaid diversity leaders and suffers from a chronic shortage of midwives. The Church of England locked worshippers out of its churches to become a cheerleader for the Government. (Actually the whole messy, disruptive Christian project would have been avoided if only Archbishop Welby had been around in Judea to tell Joseph to bring his family back from Egypt and assist Herod with his excess children problem.)
Big Pharma has done nothing unprecedented or unusual over the last two years. The only difference in their activities is one of scale. Once upon a time they busied themselves seeking cures for sick people. In recent years they came across the bonanza of preventative medication for healthy people. Drugs like Zantac and statins have made them billions. However never before in history have they been offered the market of the entire population of the world and the chance to make them repeat customers. When Christmas comes 365 days a year, what can we expect them to say other than ‘thank you’? Their dysfunctionality impacts patient care not profit.
The promotion of expensive vaccines instead of cheap, effective, generic medicines is not an exceptional incident. It is the normal modus operandi of Big Pharma which suborned our institutions many years ago. Certainly the safety testing process of the Covid vaccines was speeded up, but that was largely at the behest of foolish politicians and at the price of immunity from liability for the pharmaceutical companies. Big Pharma has absolutely no incentive at all to change course.
Perhaps our academic institutions remain bastions of integrity and impartial enquiry. Perhaps not. In the UK, with a few noble and brave exceptions there has been a deathly acquiescence. In the USA, MIT contrives to refuse a platform for an open debate to a man who gave them two and half million dollars.
How have our universities sunk so low?
Firstly, while universities were massively expanded in size and number over the last three decades the pool of qualified, experienced staff did not magically expand as well. Hence low quality academics found themselves rapidly promoted. Since they are now professors they tend to assume they must be very clever.
Secondly, all over the world universities and individuals are rated in proportion to their published research output. This distorts the incentive and hence the quality of research. Goodhart’s law applies:
"When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure."
Thirdly, the mindless drive towards publication has had the effect of deepening the silos of research. Even inside specialities there are multiple silos. Too many people write too much about too little. Generalists and experienced practitioners have been side-lined.
Fourthly, woke politics, social media and a massive expansion of ancilliary welfare staff have politicized and stifled debate.
Fifthly, money and expediency have suborned research. When the Wellcome Trust, the National Institute of Health (in the USA) and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation control a huge percentage of scientific funding, academic science does what they want it to do.
2 Our leaders are at best incompetent and at worst a lot, lot worse…
When we admit that our public institutions are systemically incompetent we must recognise that those who run them are also inadequate. “Elites” is one of the many misnomers of the last two years. Few of these people have anything other than power that makes them elite: no great insight, no great skills, no deep understanding, no sense of honour, no sense of responsibility.
Few senior politicians nowadays have serious experience in business. Most are careerists who are simply the most ambitious and lucky players in their party. Indeed a certain degree of stupidity and a vast amount of vanity are positive assets to politicians. If you feel compelled to react quickly to every crisis it does not help to have an understanding of the complexity of a situation. It does help to feel that you are very, very wonderful.
It is even more advantageous to be a simplistic monomaniac in a world where discourse and policy are constrained by the limitations of the dominant media. Government policy is hugely influenced by the requirement for soundbite communication. Nothing subtle or nuanced or contextually sensitive can survive. It has to fit into a slogan: Hands, Face, Space. Net Zero. Build Back Better. The medium wags the dog. It is telling that two of the more successful recent politicians are Boris Johnson, a journalist, and Donald Trump, a one-man brand.
Claus Schwab is not a great man. He is a canny operator who came up with the clever idea of an exclusive forum for the rich and powerful. However like Biden, Trudeau and Johnson he is widely despised and detested amongst his peers.
Most billionaires are fortunate, greedy and astute. That is a formidable combination for accumulating great wealth, but it does not necessarily produce wisdom.
If we are honest we have to say that our leaders are at best foolish, at worst incompetent, cowardly, mendacious and corrupt. It could not be more clear that they have failed to understand the situation and the science. They have failed consult adequately. They have failed to ask obvious questions, to question their own actions or to admit the possibility they have made mistakes.
In a wider circle we can see that there are vast numbers of deluded and error-prone academics. Neil Ferguson is the perfect player in the old normal. He is a re-purposed academic who is consistently and reliably wrong but in the most lucrative and politically expedient direction.
It seems that he really is limited enough to believe his own modelling, so we can scarcely blame him. The people we really must blame are those in the Government and media who have continued to promote him, to pay him and to listen to him after his decades of inaccuracy.
I have a small but telling experience of the practical incompetence amongst academic researchers. I was working on a piece of deliberative research which required us to gather unprompted data. The academics appointed to monitor the whole process (several of whom were professors) wanted to administer a questionnaire to assess baseline attitudes before our first engagement with respondents. When challenged they did not realize that their questionnaire would preclude gathering unprompted data.
The selection of experts for official positions is usually sub-optimal. On the whole, truly talented individuals are busy researching, teaching and living up to their talents. It is mostly the second, or third, or fourth rate “experts” who have the time or inclination to sit on Government advisory boards.
3 The majority of the global population are misinformed and disempowered
Mattias Desmet’s work on mass formation offers a plausible explanation for the bizarre acceptance by the majority of the world’s population of vast economic destruction, loss of personal liberty and contact with loved ones, and absurd misrepresentations of science and public health.
There are many arguments, for the most part feeble casuistry, taking issue with Desmet’s analysis. However the minutiae of mass formation are not the most significant issue.
The truly terrifying problem is that by February 2020 the four pre-conditions of mass formation were well-established all around the world. Huge numbers of people,
lack social bonds,
experience life as meaningless,
suffer free-floating anxiety and
experience frustration and aggression.
Robert Putnam’s analysis in 2000 turns out to be broadly true. The wonders of television, and latterly the internet, have come at a cost.
Commentators have lamented that the errors of Government and ‘the Science’ will lead to a breakdown of trust. We should not lament this at all. On the contrary, we should celebrate. We are right to distrust Governmental, medical, educational, corporate and trans-national institutions.
Science is not a unified repository of truth. Indeed science itself says so. A famous and widely cited scientific paper is titled, “Why Most Published Research Findings Are False.”
It follows that if you follow the science you should be very wary of following the science.
But if we cannot unquestioningly trust what is published, surely we can trust the experts, for example the editors of the world’s top medical journals?
Let’s see what they say:
Richard Horton, editor of the Lancet, declared,
“Much of the scientific literature, perhaps half, may simply be untrue.”
Richard Smith, for 25 years the editor of the British Medical Journal, stated:
“most of what appears in peer-reviewed journals is scientifically weak.”
Dr. Marcia Angell stated,
“It is simply no longer possible to believe much of the clinical research that is published, or to rely on the judgment of trusted physicians or authoritative medical guidelines. I take no pleasure in this conclusion, which I reached slowly and reluctantly over my two decades as an editor of the New England Journal of Medicine.”
As for trusting politicians… well, how about, “three weeks to flatten the curve”?
The Threat of the Old Normal
Sooner or later, as the extent of the damage becomes clear, our politicians and institutions will promise, while carefully evading responsibility,
Maybe the lockdowns will never happen again. But unless real change happens they will soon do something different but equally stupid, and once again malign forces will take advantage of the crisis to increase their power and wealth and, in Putin’s case, territory.
The evil around us is mostly, as Hannah Arendt named it, banal. People are following orders and conforming to mainstream advice. The science-free masks and lockdowns, the ineffectual and risky vaccines, and the gross authoritarianism are all frightening.
Yet after all these disasters not a single leader has been brought down, not a single institution has been closed. Our experts and our politicians do not want to learn any lessons from the last two years. They want to carry on just as before. Business as Usual. The Old Normal.
The old left-right political conflict is now a charade, no more than a smokescreen for the real situation which is the largely unconscious oppression of the people by technocracy.
The technocrats will be delighted if we fall for the deceit of the old normal. Life will be almost the same, but with another layer of bureaucracy, constriction and cost. And the old winners will be the new winners and Joe Public and John Doe will be a little more controlled, a little more docile and a little more pathetic.
The truth is that successful Governmental initiatives are now a rarity. Too many authorities fail to understand their problems correctly, and then impose inadequate, simplistic solutions. Government and public sector bodies are now more oriented towards self-promotion than prompt, efficient service to the public. They are ably supported by mainstream media who routinely report their naïve plans and grotesque self-justifications uncritically.
All of this was implicit in the very first piece I wrote about this catastrophe even before the first lockdown was imposed in the UK. We have lost our psychological herd immunity.
Sadly everything I have written since also remains relevant and true. Unlike the impassioned and self-righteous defenders of masks, lockdowns, social distancing and vaccine efficacy I really, really wish I was not right. But I am. It is time to face honestly the profound dysfunctionality of our authorities and institutions. They no longer deserve to be trusted.
We face three big questions:
The most obvious is how can we educate our children, police our streets, maintain our cities and help the sick and the needy when our organisations are so dysfunctional?
Just as pressing, but less obvious, is how can we help the millions of good and competent people trapped inside those malfunctioning institutions to free themselves - or to stay and be free to do a better job?
And if we contemplate these problems can we do anything practical, or must we content ourselves with making grandiose plans and vague appeals to valour or compassion as we sink slowly, quietly, sadly back into the sickness of the old normal...?
The situation is dire, but it is not unprecedented. In my next blog I will seek help from our practical and successful predecessors to navigate the turbulence ahead.