Saturday, April 25, 2020

Relearning How to Think in the Time of Coronavirus

Among the casualties of the coronavirus: thought. People seem unable to think straight, to reason, to draw relevant conclusions from the data available.

Besides, everyone has become a prophet. Everyone has a model that predicts the future. And everyone insists that his model is a scientific fact, because it was produced by a computer.

Shades of the environmentalists railing about some computer model that established as a “scientific fact” that the world was going to end in a decade, unless we repeal the Industrial Revolution.

When listening to experts touting facts it is always a good idea to recall the truth enunciated by the twentieth century’s greatest philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein. To wit, there is no such thing as a fact about tomorrow. We have predictions, we have hypotheses, we have prophecies. Until tomorrow dawns, they are not facts.

To promote the good cause of rational thought, I offer some words from Roger Kimball, just published in The New Criterion. I like Kimball's observation that, of a sudden, everyone is now a budding epidemiologist:

As we write, in mid-April, the country is still struggling to get its bearings. We are all of us disoriented, wandering about in a veritable hall of distorting mirrors. Almost every datum comes to us festooned in garlands of static. Information bleeds silently into misinformation, which often comes back to us, trussed up, as disinformation.

Have you noticed that, quite suddenly, everyone is a budding epidemiologist? Some wag said that graduates of the storied École normale supérieure “know everything. Unfortunately, that is all they know.” So it is with our newly minted epidemiologists. 

Apodictic declarations come thick and fast, only to be contradicted the next day, sometimes by the same sources, by successor apodictic declarations. Where did the virus come from? A Chinese “wet market.” A Chinese level-four biological lab. The U.S. Army. How contagious is it? Not very. Prolonged, close-range contact is necessary. You can get it by touching a doorknob that an infected person has touched. You can get it by walking past an infected person and breathing the air around him.

If you think it’s difficult to get a handle on the virus, look at how difficult it is to get a handle on facts. Especially where the facts change from hour to hour, from day to day:

How dangerous is it? Less dangerous than the seasonal flu, especially if you are under eighty and in good health. Much more dangerous than the seasonal flu. Unless drastic measures are taken, 2.2 million will die in the United States alone. Even with drastic measures, expect 100,000 to 240,000 fatalities. Moreover, the U.S. healthcare system will be overwhelmed. Patients will be stacked up like cordwood in hospital corridors waiting for ventilators that do not exist. It is an event “unprecedented” in our history, a “war” against an invisible but insidious pathogen that requires total mobilization.

We were assured, on the highest scientific authority, that we were heading into one of the worst weeks in American history:

Nevertheless, what was to have been one of the “worst weeks in U.S. history” has passed with good news: there have been fewer hospitalizations than predicted as well as a leveling off of fatalities. At one point, New York State predicted it would need 140,000 hospital beds to deal with the onslaught. As we write, the number is about 18,500. A few weeks ago, Governor Cuomo said he would need “30,000” ventilators. He didn’t, and he is now actually giving some away to neighboring states.

The situation on the ground is not so much evolving as mutating. As part of the multi-trillion dollar federal package to battle the economic effects of the epidemic and the measures taken to combat it, hospitals will get paid 15 percent more if a Medicare patient is classified as having “a principal or secondary diagnosis of covid-19.” Expect to see many, many more such diagnoses. Distinguishing between legitimate covid fatalities and merely nominal ones will be a future statistician’s nightmare.

Expert opinion has ebbed and flowed, with the tides:

In January, some of our most reputable experts were urging caution about excessive caution: the coronavirus represents a “very, very low” threat to the American people, they said. Get on with your life. Yes, pay attention, wash your hands, but don’t worry. As late as March 9, we were told on the highest authority that “If you are a healthy young person, there is no reason if you want to go on a cruise ship, [not to] go on a cruise ship.”

By mid-April, on the new advice of such experts, much of the country was locked down, and large swathes of the economy were shuttered. Restaurants, bars, and clubs: closed. Schools and colleges: closed for a few weeks, then for a couple of months, then for the entire semester, maybe until 2021. The ordinary business of life petrified. 

Everything deemed “non-essential” by the lucky people whose own positions exempt them from being declared “non-essential” was twisted shut, like a faucet.

In many places, one is not allowed to appear in public unsheathed with mask and gloves. Sales of hand sanitizer have soared. One governor banned gatherings of any size in any place and forbade people to travel between their own residences. 

Elsewhere, a young man who dared to board a bus without a mask found himself beset by no fewer than seven policemen who dragged him from the conveyance. In Raleigh, North Carolina, a group of citizens gathered to protest an executive order issued by the governor. Local police ordered the protestors to disperse, claiming that “Protesting is a non-essential activity.” The First Amendment was unavailable for comment.

Enjoy reading the rest of the article.