Dr Hugh Willbourn
CC4 & LSS2 We can do better than 'Follow the Science'
Updated: May 16, 2020
[I was hoping to keep the two strands of this blog separate but the global response to Sars-CoV-2 is a perfect example of how we are undone by flaws buried deep within our thinking. So this post serves as a commentary on the Covid situation and an introduction to the greater problem that we face.]
Throughout the Covid-19 episode, the dominant force in Government policy, in science, in the media and in the public response, is misunderstanding.
The vast majority of policy makers and commentators demonstrate lack of insight, lack of discernment, poor grasp of context and a deficient sense of proportion. The deaths caused by Sars-CoV-2 are just as sad as every other death, but no more so. The scale of almost all Governmental reaction, the media hype and the public fear is out of all proportion to the real dangers. The greater threat that we face is not the virus, but our own collective misunderstanding, which threatens our future just as it has created so many catastrophes in the past.
DON’T FOLLOW THE SCIENCE
[If you are already bored/over/disinterested in 'the science' scroll down to "Is there hope?]
Let us start by exploring whether “follow the science” is a meaningful or adequate policy.
1. “The science” is a misleading generalisation. It implies some sort of coherence and the phrase as a whole implies that it offers a clear, followable, direction. Science is necessarily not a coherent whole. It is a method in which one posits an hypothesis and attempts to prove it. Scientific findings are those claims which as yet remain un-dis-proven. If “the science” has any meaning, it means “an ongoing process of revelation through exploration and experiment.” That does not necessarily yield a clear, followable direction.
2. It turns out that the particular science that the Government chose to follow was the modelling of Professor Ferguson. There is no good reason to class modelling as science. Models posit an hypothesis, but do not test it. In the case of Professor Ferguson, his previous models, when tested against reality, were shown to be tragically inaccurate. So even if we are generous enough to grant that modelling is ‘science,’ Professor Ferguson’s modelling is of the lowest possible quality.
3. The failings of Ferguson’s predictions were already the subject of several scathing reports, and yet he still sat on, and exerted great influence upon, the SAGE committee.
4. The members of SAGE, the committee with the stunningly inappropriate acronym, that nodded through Professor Ferguson’s alarmist claims are all scientists. In concurring with Ferguson they demonstrated the pointlessness of the committee and their shortcomings as scientists.
5. The failings of Ferguson and SAGE should not surprise us. Dr Andrew Wakefield and Dr Ancel Keys were also scientists. The disastrous consequences of Wakefield’s work were not exposed by scientists but by a journalist. Professor John Yudkin was a scientist too, but was dreadfully treated because of his opposition to Ancel Keys’ erroneous findings.
6. There are many, many more instances of poor quality science and unintended consequences in this sad situation well detailed elsewhere.
It follows that “following the science” is either meaningless or mindless. However this is not an anti-science rant. Good scientists are of great value.
Good scientists are cautious, open-minded, careful, circumspect and also intuitive, creative and imaginative. They recognise the limitation of their methods and the constraints on application of their findings. They know very well that peer review is not a magic pill, that the rating of Universities by research published falls foul of Goodhart’s law and creates perverse incentives, that orthodoxy has no intrinsic value and that the vast majority of papers published in journals have nugatory value. As Dr Seamus O’Mahony put it,
“The most important thing I learned during the three years I spent as a research fellow is that nearly all papers in medical journals are dross.”
The point is not that all scientists are bad, but that the world is complex and science alone is an inadequate guide because science is an activity practised by human beings and human beings are fallible. In spite of its glorious history as the pursuit of knowledge of the natural world, in the 21st century the overwhelming dominant feature of science is that science is a career. Careerism drives multiple distortions and science is riddled with systemic biases. Good scientists know this.
RECENT SCIENCE RHETORIC Science has been particularly misunderstood, and hence mis-represented, in recent times by well-intentioned environmental campaigners.
“The science is settled” misrepresents the situation given that a lively debate continues, between scientists, about many components of the climate. It fails to reflect that disagreement is intrinsic to the process and progress of science. It is also used to imply that people who disagree with orthodox views are either not scientists or have ulterior motives. There is plenty of evidence of corporate interests advancing their own agenda, but it does not follow that all dissent is valueless.
A variation on the same theme is the argument from consensus, “97% of scientists agree...” Setting aside the dubious percentage, this argument has no logical merit. Scientific questions are not settled by consensus but by experiment and reason. The boiling point of water at sea-level is not a matter of consensus. It is a fact and it is verifiable by experiment.
The persistent use of the ‘consensus’ and ‘settled’ arguments is dangerously counter-productive. These claims generate resistance which precludes the rational discussion of the complex indicators of climate change and the sensible response to them. They have also popularised a notion of science as monolithic and correct, and opinion dissenting from the orthodox as venal or stupid.
These tropes generated within the climate debate lend themselves to the pandemic panic. Environmentalist campaigners persistently warn that their models predict a catastrophe, and insist their complex modelling techniques are robust. So when another model predicted a different catastrophe its predictive ability was not questioned as it should have been, and the fear of climate catastrophe provided an amplifying template for fear of Covid-19.
Is there hope?
The alternative to “Follow the science” does not have to be mediaeval superstition nor bat-shit crazy (oops) internet conspiracy theorizing. A good start would be the mindful, critical use of science to inform decision making.
The very last thing we need are more policies and protocols. They have been the bedrock of the current errors. In philosophical terms we face a choice between Kant and Solomon.
Immanuel Kant was famous for seeking a rational foundation for morality. In his day Reason was the Great New Hope, rather as Science is now. In both cases the Great New Hope was destined to deliver rather less than was desired. A central element of Kant’s moral philosophy was his Categorical Imperative:
“Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.”
This precept is not only impractical, (how could I have time to consider all possible situations and choose a suitable action?) but pointlessly grandiose. There are no two situations that are identical. Any action repeated regardless of context is necessarily less than wise.
Solomon on the other hand is famous for his judgement. He had to make a difficult decision. Two women laid claim to a single baby. One claimed the other had stolen her son.
“Cut the baby in half!” decreed Solomon.
The woman whose son was alive was deeply moved out of love for her son and said to the king, “Please, my lord, give her the living baby! Don’t kill him!”
But the other said, “Neither I nor you shall have him. Cut him in two!”
Then the king gave his ruling: “Give the living baby to the first woman. Do not kill him; she is his mother.” 1 Kings 3:26–28
Note that King Solomon’s wisdom did not establish a fact. There is a possibility, in spite of the King’s word, that the woman to whom he gave the baby was not his real mother. However his judgement was wise because she was definitely the one who cared most for the baby’s welfare.
Solomon did not have a policy of bisecting babies nor did he “will that it should become a universal law”. He was pragmatic and principled. He understood how people react and his intervention forced the revelation of the most loving woman. He was guided by principles of care and justice.
Principles are like points of the compass. They are outside our immediate experience but they can guide our decisions. Unlike policies or protocols we do not seek to instantiate them in the world.
How can we be more like Solomon and less like Kant?
How do we find good principles and gain useful experience?
There is a very, very long answer to these questions, but let us start with some options that are directly accessible for all of us.
LET THEORY INFORM BUT NOT DETERMINE DECISIONS
First of all we need to cultivate a much more sceptical relationship to abstractions whether broad, like ideologies, or narrow, like theories. Instead of more theories we need better insight and understanding. It takes a particular effort to acknowledge how little we understand. This is in part because we share the arrogance of every age. We can see that our ancestors didn’t understand electricity, or quantum mechanics, or statistical analysis, and we illegitimately infer by contrast that we, on the other hand, have perfect understanding. We may admit there is much that we don’t know. We admit less frequently that much that we think we do know, is wrong.
FESTINGER, FRANKL AND HEIDEGGER
At the foot of blog CC2 about the contemporary relevance of Leon Festinger I promised I would explore further why people find it difficult to admit they are wrong, and give up their beliefs in the face of clear disconfirmation. One cause of this unwillingness is that, pace Victor Frankl, Man does not search for Meaning, man is condemned to meaning. We cannot escape it. We always and at all times understand ourselves and our world. To be human, as Heidegger showed us almost a hundred years ago, is to be always understanding, always having some emotional attunement and always having to decide. You can verify this by observing your own experience, but there is some extraordinarily insightful philosophy beneath the last sentence. Ask me in the comments if you want me to go into it.
We project understanding onto the world in order to understand it, and sometimes we are just wrong. We must make meaning, but there can be no guarantee that the meaning we make is correct. This means that at the root of our existence is uncertainty.
Uncertainty is a challenge and often uncomfortable. A common reaction is to place our faith in, and attach our identity to, an ideology, a cause, a religion or some other abstraction which offers a plausible explanation of our situation.
When people put their faith in such an abstraction they are doing far more than ‘holding an opinion.’ Their faith provides certainty at the basic level of their being and hence there is a strong tendency for it to become a part of their sense of self. Thus they become very strongly attached to the cause in which they have placed their faith and people naturally defend what they feel to be essential to themselves with great vigour. There is more to be said about how our sense of self and our thinking can become possessed by abstractions. Let me know in the comments if you would like me to address it further.
To let go of faith in an abstraction means admitting to yourself that your self is less fixed and less certain than you believed. This is what you are doing if you are taking the red pill. Even though it is ultimately liberating, it is a scary process.
The advantage of embracing uncertainty is that it opens us to deeper learning from our experience. If we renounce the assumption that we already know what is going on and accept that we may not understand, we may learn more. Those who seek evidence to support pre-existent theories limit their perception.
UTILISE EMOTIONAL UNDERSTANDING
N.B. By ‘emotional understanding’ I do not mean the concepts popularised as “Emotional Intelligence” which essentially puts emotional sensitivity in service of rational ends. That can be useful but is a limited approach to the potential of the emotions.
At the level of formal education and collective discourse we need to stop misrepresenting our emotions. Emotions are not just random internal weather, nor a simple stop / go signal. When appropriately developed they are an acute and sensitive form of perception. Outside formal education much experiential learning is emotional. It is a matter of feeling which has nothing to do with sentimentality. For example it includes the sensitivity which informs the practice of master craftsmen.
Just as a child needs to develop his or her intellect through education, so too we need to develop our emotional understanding. We need to go beyond rejecting or being possessed by our feelings and ‘unfold’ them so that each one reveals its deeper message. This is a challenge so rich, so subtle and so protean that it is impossible to capture or codify in prose. Nonetheless as some indication of what I mean there follows a very basic, simplified example.
For example, I read a certain news article and I feel angry. In itself that does not tell me much. I must feel this anger and ask myself, ‘why am I angry?’ I realise I am angry because the article is making assumptions I believe are unwarranted. I realise that I am frightened that these assumptions may be widespread. Beneath my anger lies fear. But why am I frightened? What is threatened? I fear losing the company of insightful friends and the freedom of a peaceable and rewarding life. Beneath my fear lie the values I hold dear. Now I can see that rather than be taken over my initial response I can transmute it into the motivation to promote my values of peace, freedom and good company.
The recent vogue for safe spaces and trigger warnings is not merely misguided, it is destructive. In avoiding painful feelings people are cutting themselves off from the very material they need in order to develop their understanding. They throw away all their own teaching material. Emotions are part of our intelligence. If we fail to develop our intelligence we make ourselves stupid.
By emotions I mean far, far more than affection, love or hate. I mean the felt-sense that we have all the time which is our sense of ‘how things are with us.’ This is the attunement that Heidegger shows us is a fundamental part of our being. It is often difficult to put this feeling into words, but that does not mean the feeling is not precise, merely that our language lacks an exhaustive vocabulary.
Emotional learning is experiential. It is subtle. It is exquisitely context sensitive. It leads to insight and to seeing the world more clearly, but it cannot be summed up on paper, nor can it be reduced to a theory or algorithm. We appreciate poetry and art greatly when they capture accurately just a few slivers of our emotional realm. The more we learn from our emotions, the more clearly we see the world and the more circumspect we are about theories and abstractions.
There are very many wise people around us with decades of experiential learning, though sadly very few in positions of political power. How can we find them?
“By their fruits you shall know them” (Matthew. 7:20).
We must look past labels, titles and institutional authority and examine the real, observable effect of the actions of individuals upon the world. When you find such a wise person, listen to them.
These ideas are not new, but they are easily forgotten. Here are a couple of quotations from Ludwig Wittgenstein who died nearly 70 years ago; (Culture and Value, 1980 pp. 5e & 36e)
“Man has to awaken to wonder — and so perhaps do peoples. Science is a way of sending him to sleep again.”
“People nowadays think that scientists exist to instruct them, poets, musicians, etc. to give them pleasure. The idea that these have something to teach them — that does not occur to them.”
Philosophy geeks will note that the first quotation has a remarkably Heideggerian ring. Two philosophers at the height of very different traditions appear to be heading in the same direction…
BEWARE OF THE INTERNET
I cannot begin to address all the issues created by the net, but some are so pertinent that I must touch on them now, however briefly. The internet, like television before it, and like printing before that, is a technology which has systemic biases. It distorts our collective discourse and our individual views of the world. Much has already been written that does not need to be repeated.
Apart from the well-documented dangers of addiction, social media bubbles, grooming and toxic content it is worth noting in this context the following issues:
Everything on the internet, including this post, is edited. The internet does not show us life-as-it-is but life-as-edited. We can never see what was edited out.
The middle ground of every debate is vastly un-represented on the internet
The internet is a very far-reaching, extremely narrow and wildly labile context
Hence, like a dynamic hall of mirrors, it fosters distortion and disproportion
The internet, like television before it, thrives on controversy and simplification, hence complex issues tend to be reduced to crude and inaccurate polarisations – in this case “science” v. “covidiots”
Just as cars facilitate road rage, the interpolation of screen and keyboard facilitates emotional incontinence. One of the kindest men I know is, online, a repellent bigot
Avoidance is an ordinary human failing, but the net makes it too easy to click away from challenging ideas and back to our own bubbles
The internet amplifies peer pressure, and the more time one spends online, the greater the pressure. Scuba divers know that atmospheric pressure increases by one atmosphere with every 10m of depth. A similar scale for time online and peer pressure would be useful, although I suspect it is an exponential function
The constraints of texting and editing online reduce emotional subtlety. This is the opposite of what we need and exacerbates the emotional problems touched on above
The net makes it easy for superficially attractive ideas to spread and painstaking, thoughtful criticism to be overlooked
The internet is, above all, outrageously noisy. The whole world has a platform and it turns out that we love telling each other what to do. Almost everything online is partial, repetitive or rubbish. Everything must be read critically including this blog
The vast amount of ‘helpful’ instruction online undermines our own authority and inflates the authority of the famous.
I am well aware that the internet of which I am so critical is the forum on which this is posted. However it is a route to an audience hence as I say in LSS1, the Devil is my Tailor. The challenge for us all is to harness the benefits of the net and minimise the harms. There is far more detail and depth to be explored on this issue. Again if you want it, let me know in the comments.
Conclusion – for today
UK Government policy on Sars-CoV-2 as on so much else is an incoherent, unscientific, unjustifiable mess. It adds insult to injury to be told to “use common sense” when it is so manifestly lacking in Government.
The problem lies not just in immediate incompetence, but in a deeper misunderstanding of ourselves and our world. We have excessively prioritized policy to guide our actions because we have collectively placed our faith in abstractions to explain what underlies social and natural processes. Abstractions never lie beneath reality. They are projected on top of reality as a means of analysis. By their nature abstractions exclude data.
Abstractions can be informative but a good decision requires a richer and deeper contextual understanding than can be furnished by abstractions alone, however sophisticated. A person who reads abstract analysis but also perceives the dynamics and potentials of a situation – it does not matter whether we call their means ‘intuition’ or ‘felt-sense’ or ‘emotional sensitivity’ – will always have an advantage over the person who uses abstract analysis alone.
This sounds philosophical and complicated. In practice it is not. Many able people from surgeons and writers to builders and mechanics use this way of decision-making every day. We must all learn from them.
An immediate step to mitigate the current disaster would be delegate authority in hospitals to hands-on practitioners, away from the policy and measurement-driven (remember Goodhart’s law) managers. Good decisions require agents to wield authority in their own immediate domaine. Doctors, nurses and front-line staff may not make perfect decisions every time, but they will make better, experience- and context-driven decisions than office-bound policy makers.
If good sense and good fortune prevail the lockdowns will soon unravel. Authority must be delegated back to front-line practitioners. Rather than ‘follow the science’ we must encourage a process of context-sensitive, experiential learning yielding understanding ever open to revision founded in a broader, deeper world view which includes, but is not limited to, relevant scientific findings, read with an appropriately critical eye.
In the longer term, we must remedy our collective failure to support an adequate level of emotional education and understanding.
If we continue to follow Kant, we go to our doom. We must find a Solomon in our midst and the Solomon within ourselves to lead us to sanity.