• Dr Hugh Willbourn

CC5 & LSS3 Why did we make these mistakes?

As the UK moves into semi-un-lockdown and ongoing economic collapse it’s a good moment to ask, “Why did that happen?”

In CC2 I explored Leon Festinger’s conditions for believing in failed prophecies. In this post I point towards a fundamental cause of the lockdown.


The UK Government:

· Turned a policy to prevent the overwhelm of the NHS into a battle to control a virus

· Goaded the public into paranoia

· Failed to plan a sensible exit strategy.

All of these, and many other failings are well-documented elsewhere.


Mainstream and social media whipped up a storm of horror stories, sensationalism and sentimentality. Dissent from the orthodoxy of apocalypse is censored. Every time more data is published most platforms present it in the worst possible light and large sections of the UK media add to the confusion and fear with their own anti-Government agenda.

The Public

Years of research have taught me that people around the world are largely kind, sensible and astute when considering their immediate life circumstances, but they routinely misread information leaflets, misunderstand statistics, and over-simplify or shy away from complex arguments. Misunderstanding of abstract concepts is ordinary.

Quantitative research shows a majority of the UK agrees with lockdown measures. (If some noble person wishes to commission qualitative research to understand what lies beneath this, we would love to do it.)

Perhaps people concur with Government directives because they don’t believe so many important, powerful and well-intentioned people could be so wrong. Those who have direct, personal experience of working with Government know all too well how wrong they can be...

Perhaps people hold academics and scientists in high regard. There are some brilliant academics and scientists but believing that all scientists and professors are worthy of respect is like saying,

“Lionel Messi plays football. My son plays football. Therefore my son plays like Lionel Messi.”

In the same vein of bad arguments:

  • many people elide the distinction between reducing the rate of infection and reducing the absolute number of infections

  • many people elide the distinction between “a danger to the sick and the elderly” and “a danger to me and my children.” The first danger very small, the second is infinitesimally small.

Is there anything these failings have in common?

So now, rather sooner than I expected, we need to explore the bizarre discovery I alluded to in post LSS1. Something happened, thousands of years ago, which began to change the way we think. To be more accurate, it gave us a new way of thinking. That something was the invention of the phonetic alphabet, which made possible unlimited, flexible and accessible literacy.

Those who have studied the effect of literacy treat it as an expansion of our cognitive capacities, as indeed it was. It is less well recognised that it also brings a subtle distortion of our thinking. The distortion is neither precise nor predictable, it is just a set of tendencies. Its unfortunate consequences are often observed but they are rarely traced to their origin. The benefits of literacy far outweigh its disbenefits, but that does not mean that we can afford to ignore the latter.

How does literacy affect our thinking?

Firstly, writing turns the event of speaking into the fixed form of text. The advantage is that we can preserve ideas and share them widely without distortion. The disadvantage is that it encourages the fallacy that truth is essentially fixed, rather than essentially the revelation of what is real (which may or may not be fixed). That might seem an obscure and unimportant philosophical point. It is not. During the coronavirus saga, for example, the Ferguson modelling assumed for no good reason that all sorts of variables, such as susceptibility to infection, were fixed. The assumption of fixed truth in lieu of true variables is not just a modelling issue but a ubiquitous default. It is indirectly encouraged by the fixity of written text.

Secondly, writing makes abstraction easier. For example, we can take an abstract notion such as safety, and classify possible actions as “safe” or “unsafe.” Initially this may be helpful but inevitably (because reality is flux and reacts to every input) it will generate unintended consequences. Andreas Lubitz was able to fly a hundred and fifty people into a mountain because the reinforced cockpit door mandated to enhance safety after 9/11 prevented the captain from stopping him.

In the current saga the UK Government abstracted a single factor, the transmission of a single disease, from the healthcare of the nation and turned the health service and the country upside down in attempting to control it.

Thirdly, writing makes unemotional description easier because it does not carry the tonal inflections of the spoken word. Thus in a most subtle and indirect way it diminishes the transmission and significance of feeling. This is just a possibility, not an inevitability, but literacy offers us a gentle encouragement to reduce our emotional engagement, and permits us to substitute ideas about emotions for real feeling.

The Government’s panicky reaction to the Ferguson model demonstrates emotional immaturity: panic, credulity and a lack of both courage and authority. A wiser cabinet and a wiser prime minister would have consulted more broadly and questioned the value, viability and proportionality of such an enormous undertaking to control a single, mostly harmless, virus.

Clearly the impact of literacy lies beneath far, far more than the lockdown, and these notes and examples just scratch the surface of its consequences. It is a vast topic. Many people are so grateful for the benefits of literacy that it can be hard to see that it has any negative consequences at all. However there is an entire field of scholarship behind these remarks should you wish to delve deeper. I am also well aware of the irony, and difficulty, of writing about the failings of writing.

What got distorted?

If I am claiming our thinking has been distorted by literacy, what, you may ask, did we have beforehand it got distorted?

Walter Ong called pre-literate thinking and expression ‘orality.’ Speech is evanescent, it always happens in a particular context and always carries some emotional tone. Hence, where literacy-based thinking tends towards fixity, abstraction and objectivity, orality-based thinking is dynamic, contextual and heartfelt. The organising principle of orality is utility.

In the 1930s Alexander Luria conducted research amongst non-literate people Uzbekistan and Kirghizia:

“we had no luck in getting these subjects to perform the abstract act of classification. ... they operated on the basis of ‘practical utility’, grouping objects in practical schemes rather than categorising them. When we referred to a generic term they could use to designate a distinct group of objects, they generally disregarded the information or considered it immaterial.”

When, for example, a researcher showed a picture of three adults and one child and said, “Clearly the child doesn’t belong in this group” the reply was as follows:

“Oh but the boy must stay with the others! All three of them are working, you see, and if they have to keep running out to fetch things, they’ll never get the job done, but the boy can do the running for them … The boy will learn; that’ll be better, then they’ll all be able to work well together.”

Luria's respondents were intelligent and capable but they actively rejected abstraction.

From the late 1970s Daniel Everett spent the greater part of thirty years living with the non-literate Pirahā in the Amazonian jungle. His research focussed on linguistics rather than literacy, but it reveals central place of utility, and the irrelevance of abstraction, for the Pirahās. In Everett’s words,

“The Pirahās are firmly committed to the pragmatic concept of utility. They don’t believe in a heaven above us, or a hell below us, or that any abstract cause is worth dying for.

They have no craving for truth as a transcendental reality. Indeed the concept has no place in their values. Truth to the Pirahās is catching a fish, rowing a canoe, laughing with your children, loving your brother, dying of malaria.”

Everett came to realised that the Pirahās benefited from the absence of abstraction. He observed that, though their life was harsh, they had great contentment and happiness. He writes,

“I have never heard a Pirahā say that he or she is worried. In fact, so far as I can tell, the Pirahās have no word for worry in their language.”

A contemporary native American, Oren Lyons, the literate heir of a non-literate tradition, explained another benefit of orality to Jerry Mander,

“We really don’t have the kind of specific rules or laws that you have. Nothing is ever written down. …. If you write the rules down, then you have to deal with the rule rather than figuring out what’s fair. We’re interested in principle. The principle is to be fair. … We have all the problems any community has. When one member intrudes on another, we have a situation. We meet and just keep talking until there is nothing left but the obvious truth, and both families agree on the solution.”

An approach to the Coronavirus that paid more attention to immediate experience, to utility and to the principle of trusting the real, practical experts would have entrusted medical decisions to clinical staff, some of whom would soon have identified (as they did) those most at risk and the dangers of nosocomial infection. This would have lead to the protection of the elderly and the sick, and the natural spread and attenuation of virulence of the virus in the rest of the population.

Common Sense

Of course we could just say that the architects of lockdown lacked common sense. That is easy to say, but it is frustratingly difficult to explain precisely what 'common sense' entails.

I suggest that common sense is contextual-grounded understanding, sensitive to both feeling and the dynamics of life: in other words well-developed orality-based thinking.

All of us have both orality and literacy-based thinking available to us all the time. However the dominance of literacy in education has led us to overlook the vital importance of non-literate understanding. With our text-based education we expect to be able to sum up, to organise and to disseminate all important knowledge in writing. We imagine we can create manuals or 'best practice' or 'expert systems' and fuzzy algorithms and so on and on. But common sense cannot be captured and delivered in a text. It is quintessentially context-specific. We lose it precisely when we seek to write it down or capture it in a program.

Orality-based understanding advances through apprenticeship, narrative and experience. The painful, embarrassing and challenging path of educating, and being educated by, our own emotions is a long, strange journey indeed. It is also the process by which we learn to see the world around us more clearly and more deeply. To think ‘better’ in orality is to attain some mastery in life, and some mastery over oneself.

We use literacy to educate our heads, but we use orality to educate our hearts, and we need both to have a decent chance of navigating the world successfully.

Every point I have touched on here could be debated at great length, could be explored in much greater depth, and has a daunting multitude of implications and consequences.

I have focussed on the Corona lockdown because it is such a clear and topical example of the problem. I have focussed on writing because it is the fundamental technology of modernity. However, all the consequences, both good and bad, of writing are magnified, accelerated, augmented, reshaped and turbocharged by the internet. That is a topic for another day.

What can we learn from this debacle?

Returning to the Corona Cock-up our collective and Governmental thinking was too narrowly focussed on a single aspect of a single threat and lacked emotional insight, context sensitivity and dynamic responsiveness. The Government behaved as though it was compelled to have a policy.

We lost sight of common sense. The wisest course of action by the Government, and the WHO, would have been to trust doctors to do their job and leave it at that.

The lockdown is no more than the latest in a very long line of mistakes. This situation is more destructive than others simply because we can now enact foolish policies with unprecedented speed, reach and technology.

It is time to restore a balance in our education, in ourselves, in public discourse and eventually in Government. At the moment too many emotionally immature voices and narrow academic views are too influential and very many sensible people don't get involved. As a result the sane, the sensible and the unsure are under-represented.

I will go hunting for practical solutions in a future post. In the meantime, I note that all around us are many balanced, thoughtful people who are regularly contributing to the common good. You can know them not by their politics or proclamations or qualifications but by the effect they have on those around them. Look very carefully. The right action at the right time averts drama so it is not always easy to see a wise person. Seek out these people and learn from them. Ask them to speak up. They are the lights to guide us through the storms ahead.