WN: I recently posted an article about David Cayley. There have been a few others. So I will not repeat what I have shared earlier. Except: he is arguably one of the most informed thinkers in Canada–and across multiple disciplines.
I’ll highlight the second reflection that Cayley did on his website. That and the earlier one, Questions About the Current Pandemic From the Point of View of Ivan Illich, are hugely helpful to make sense of this historical, kairos, moment. For me, they mean a slowly ruminating (re)read. And they are long. . .
The first excerpt below references the first reflection.
I’ve left the clickable footnote numbers as are, but I also have added the same footnote, beginning at 1, immediately after (small superscript). Any of the former takes you to the essay. The latter are done in case the others become inaccessible. . . . And all books adduced are clickable on this website.
In early April I posted an essay called “Questions About the Pandemic from the Point-of-View of Ivan Illich.” It was written mainly to clarify my own mind and to share my thoughts with a few like-minded friends, but, thanks to the good offices of Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben, who reposted my essay on Quod Libet, a site where he blogs, the piece was widely read, reproduced, and translated. Since then I have been asked a number of times whether I have changed my mind about what I wrote in April. No. But I have continued to reflect on the meaning of what has overtaken us. One result is an article that I wrote for the Oct. issue of the Literary Review of Canada, which is available at: https://reviewcanada.ca/magazine/2020/10/the-prognosis/.1 Here are some further reflections:
In an earlier essay, I tried to explain why a policy of total quarantine, the so-called lockdown, could gain wide acceptance, despite its being highly destructive of livelihood, social morale and, ultimately, public health. How could people even countenance a term like lockdown, with its overtones of imprisonment and total control, let alone coming to think well of it and condemning and shaming its violators and critics? My argument was that societies like Canada had, for a long time, been “practicing” – we’d already turned the concepts on which our pandemic policies have been founded into common sense. These concepts include risk, safety, pro-active management, science as a mighty oracle speaking in a single authoritative voice, and above all, Life, as a quantum to be preserved at all costs. Gradual naturalization of these concepts has made the policy that has been followed seem so rational, so inevitable, and so entirely without alternative that it has been possible to freely vilify its opponents and largely exclude them from media which might have made their voices politically influential. But knowing this doesn’t make it any easier to swallow. What has come into stark relief during the pandemic may have been already latently there, but to see it actualized as the outline of a new social order is still a compelling and somewhat frightening experience. It seems worthwhile, therefore, to look further into what the pandemic has revealed and brought to light.
…This pattern has continued – most recently with the Great Barrington Declaration. This was a statement, issued on Oct. 6 by Martin Kulldorf, a professor of medicine at Harvard, Sunetra Gupta, a professor of theoretical epidemiology at Oxford, and Jay Battacharya of Sanford, whom I introduced a moment ago. 2 Their statement deplored “the devastating effects on…public health” of the present policy and advocated “focused protection” – a policy of protecting those at risk from COVID while allowing everyone else to go about their business. In this way, they reasoned, immunity could gradually build up in the healthy population, without endangering those who are particularly vulnerable to the disease.
How could people even countenance a term like lockdown, with its overtones of imprisonment and total control, let alone coming to think well of it and condemning and shaming its violators and critics?
A little while after the Great Barrington Declaration was put into circulation, an article by a British immunologist and respiratory pharmacologist, Mike Yeadon, provided reason for hope that there might already be much higher levels of immunity than is commonly supposed.3 Yeadon is a veteran of the drug industry where he directed research on new treatments for respiratory infection and eventually started his own biotech company. He argued that, even though SARS COV-2 was “novel,” it was still a coronavirus and, as such, substantially similar to other coronaviruses. By his estimate, up to 30% of people may have possessed “reactive T-cells” capable of fighting off SARS Cov-2 infections when the pandemic began. This is startling information, because it shows that the hypothesis from which all governments began – that all were equally vulnerable – was quite wrong. In support of his theory Yeadon asserted that “multiple, top quality research groups around the world”4 had shown that such cross-immunities between coronaviruses are real and effective. His second move in this article was to try to establish how many people had been infected so far. This he did by reckoning backwards from the so-called Infection Fatality Rate (IFR), or the percentage of people who have had the disease who die from it. (If you know the percentage who have died you can derive from it the total number infected.) Here he relied on the work or John Ionannidis – he of the “fiasco” warning mentioned earlier – who had recently published in the Bulletin of the WHO a peer-reviewed meta-study – a study surveying other studies – in which he estimated the infection mortality rate of COVID-19, arriving at a median figure of .23%.5 (This figure falls to .05% when deaths among those over seventy are excluded.). Applying Ioannidis’s estimates to the British population, Yeadon calculated that up to 30% of the British population had probably been infected. Combining his two numbers – those with prior immunity and those with immunity acquired during the pandemic, he concluded that herd immunity was probably in sight.
The positions taken by Yeadon and the Great Barrington epidemiologists have been echoed or anticipated by many other health professionals. On September 20, a group of nearly 400 Belgian doctors, supported by more than a thousand other health workers, published an open letter pleading for an end to “emergency” measures and calling for open public discussion. 6 Ten days later more than twenty Ontario physicians sent a comparable letter to Ontario Premier Doug Ford. Whether all these people are “right” is not the question I want to raise here. Since only time will tell, and even when it does, probably not definitively, I don’t even think that’s the proper question. Better questions might be: is what they’re saying plausible, is it well founded, is it worth discussing? Science supposedly works by a patient and painstaking process of eventually getting things right by first being willing to get them wrong and then comparing notes in the hope of finally arriving at a better account. But what we have seen during this pandemic is something quite different: the strange spectacle of governments and established media trumpeting their attachment to science while, at the same time, marginalizing or excluding any scientific opinion not in agreement with their preferred policy. This is striking in the case of the discussion, or lack of discussion, of herd immunity – a natural fact which has somehow been vilified as a heartless “strategy” recommended by those who don’t mind seeing a lot of their fellow citizens killed.7 (In case this seems extreme I will provide evidence when I come to my discussion of media.). This began in March when the British government were held to be following a policy of herd immunity and immediately shamed into introducing the same stringent lockdown imposed by all comparable countries, with the qualified exception of Sweden. (In the face of this shaming, the British government denied that it had ever had such a policy, so whether it did or not remains moot.) The same arguments have recently been brought to bear against the Great Barrington Declaration.” There was, for example, “the John Snow memorandum” in which a group of doctors denounced any “management strategy relying upon immunity from natural infections.” This memorandum haughtily declined to mention the Great Barrington Declaration by name, as if even mentioning would give it an undeserved dignity, but was clearly a response to it nonetheless.
Three points stand out for me in the positions of the Great Barrington signatories. . .
This is a glaring issue. The course of the epidemic in different countries is almost invariably ascribed to the policy followed by its government: Jacinda Ardern saved New Zealand, Donald Trump sank the United States, the scientifically minded Angela Merkel brought Germany through much more safely than bumbling Boris Johnson did in Great Britain, etc. This overlooks a huge amount that is not in the control of politicians – New Zealand is comprised of two remote islands; the United States suffers from epidemic obesity; populations differ in their habits, susceptibilities and even their genetic makeup. Anyone who tries to understand why they caught a cold when they got a cold and why on another occasion they didn’t while someone else did will recognize an element of mystery, or at least obscurity. We don’t know, and yet it currently seems obvious to everyone that a straight line can be drawn from policy to the pattern of COVID infections.
But the main question here is why there has been no discussion of the public health implications of the policy that has been followed. I will try to answer this question as it touches on various institutions, notably media, but first I’ll continue with my discussion of science. This word is, in my opinion, a source of fatal confusion. The basis of this confusion is that the term functions at the same time as a myth and as a description. Words possess denotations – the objects, real or imagined, at which they point – and connotations – the cloud of associations and feelings which they generate. The word science, in everyday talk, is all connotation and no denotation – the crucial attribute of those verbal puffballs that German scholar Uwe Pörksen calls “plastic words,” and Ivan Illich “amoeba words.”8 It points to no agreed object – there are so-called hard sciences, and therefore, by inference, soft sciences, observational sciences and mathematical sciences, historical sciences and experimental sciences – and it possesses no agreed method. One often hears of “the scientific method” but even the most cursory survey of the philosophy of science will yield multiple competing accounts of what it might be. Because of this the word science, when its meaning is not further specified, functions as a collage of meanings whose rhetorical purpose is very often to induce nothing more than a radiating field of positive connotations. It is, in in this respect, what French theorist Roland Barthes calls a myth.9 Myths, according to Barthes, “naturalize” the phenomena they aggregate and summarize. In the case of science, a diverse, heterogeneous, and sometimes internally contradictory phenomenon is smoothed out and compressed into an apparent compact and consistent object which can be then made into a social protagonist and a grammatical subject: science says, science shows, science demands etc. An actual history, with all its twists and turns, has been replaced by what appears to be an unproblematic natural object – intelligible, obvious and at hand.The result is that the myth obscures and absorbs the actual object(s). Actual sciences are limited and contingent, conditional and conditioned bodies of knowledge. These limits are of various kinds. Some are practical: evidence may be contradictory, insufficient, inaccessible, or impossible to obtain without exposing the subjects of the research to some unacceptable harm. Some are limits in principle: ignorance expands with knowledge, reductive methods will necessarily fail to disclose the reality of the whole phenomena which they disassemble analytically, all scientific procedures rest on philosophical pre-suppositions which cannot themselves be put in question and so on. During the last century, philosophers, historians and sociologists have undertaken many studies of what one of those philosophers, Bruno Latour, calls “science in action.”10 They have attempted, as historians Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer have written, “to break down the aura of self-evidence surrounding the experimental way of producing knowledge.”11 Through this work a detailed picture has been built up of what is involved in producing and stabilizing scientific facts and then, as Latour says, “making them public.”12 I tried to give some idea of the range of these new images of the sciences in an epic 24-hour Ideas series called “How to Think About Science” that was broadcast in 2007 and 2008.13 That these images of the sciences are of a constrained and situated object in no way undermines or denies their precious achievement in building up bodies of knowledge that are based on public and contestable evidence.
But the main question here is why there has been no discussion of the public health implications of the policy that has been followed.A realistic image of the various sciences as they are actually practiced is a necessary foundation for political conversation. The myth of Science on the other hand is utterly corrosive of politics insofar as it supposes a body of immaculate and comprehensive knowledge that renders politics superfluous. I do not think this is an exaggeration. Again and again in the last year I have listened to political statements that present Science as a unified, imperative and infallible voice indicating an indisputable course of action. The implication is that knowledge can replace judgment. But it cannot – because knowledge, as I have argued, is limited both in practice and in principle. Moral judgment is unavoidable, and is the proper domain of politics. To institute a lockdown which protects that part of the population able to shelter at home, while exposing another part to the harms that follow from lockdown, involves a political judgment. To disguise it as a scientific judgment is, in the first place, deceitful. At the time the decision was made no evidence whatsoever existed to support a policy of mass quarantine of a healthy population. Such a policy had never even been tried before and, even after the fact, is not really amenable to controlled study in any case. But more important was the moral abdication that was involved. Instead of an honest evaluation of the harms avoided and the harms induced, the public was told that Science had spoken, and the case was closed. The politicians and the media were then free to rend their garments and tremble in sympathy over all the harm the virus had done without ever having to admit that much of this damage was politically induced. Where there was no science, the myth of Science became a screen and a shield behind which politicians could shelter themselves from the consequences of decisions they could deny ever having made.
The myth of Science on the other hand is utterly corrosive of politics insofar as it supposes a body of immaculate and comprehensive knowledge that renders politics superfluous.
Please click on: Pandemic RevelationsFootnotes
- This article is so challenging and important, that I have posted about it here: The Prognosis.
- Jutta Mason has made a compendium of links to these various open letters, pro and con, on the website of her Centre for Local Research into Public Space (CELOS). Both the Ontario and Belgian doctors’ letters can be found there: https://www.celos.ca/wiki/wiki.php?n=BackgroundResearch.Covid19Quarantine
- Andrew Coyne, “Herd Immunity is a great strategy is you don’t mind millions of dead,” The Globe and Mail, Oct. 27, ’20, D2
- Uwe Pörksen, Plastic Words: The Tyranny of a Modular Language, Penn State Press, 1995; Ivan Illich and Barry Sanders, ABC: The Alphabetization of the Western Mind, Vintage, 1988, pp. 106-107.
- Roland Barthes, Mythologies, Paladin, 1972
- Bruno Latour, Science in Action, Harvard, 1987
- Steven Shapin, Simon Schaffer, Leviathan and the Air Pump: Hobbes, Boyle and the Experimental Life, Princeton, 2011, p. 13
- Making Things Public: Atmospheres of Democracy, ed. Bruno Latour, Peter Weibel, M.I.T., 2005
- Broadcasts here: http://www.cbc.ca/radio/ideas/how-to-think-about-science-part-1-24-1.2953274; transcripts here: https://static1.squarespace.com/static/542c2af8e4b00b7cfca08972/t/58ffb590db29d67edabd4e26/1493153189310/How+To+Think+About+Science.pdf. See also Ideas on the Nature of Science, ed. David Cayley, Goose Lane, 2009