If only I wasn’t a commitment phobe

18 May

Science matches theories with evidence and attempts to falsify them, so they can be refined to better match reality. A theory from a group of scientists is just that: a theory. Believing the opinion of that group without critical verification is just that: a belief.

Dr John Lee in The Spectator, April 12, 20201

A Brit friend of close to fifty years, who’s lived in Barcelona since Franco checked out, called the other night. He’s depressed. You’d be depressed too, in his shoes. Lockdown is more severe in Spain. Not that he, more Catalunyan than the Catalunyans, regards himself as living in Spain.

But he’s subject to Madrid laws. Which on lockdown, with an eight hundred euro fine for being out without a narrowly defined purpose, he grudgingly supports. In his sixties, with respiratory issues, he has a daughter working as a frontline carer in the city’s biggest hospital. She tells him no one has seen the like of it. Services cut to the bone2 are at breaking point. Without lockdown to flatten the curve, he in turn tells me, capacity to respond would collapse.

Maybe it would at that. But whenever I open Facebook I’m met by serial posters telling me The Science supports their view that Lockdown Must End Now.

Maybe it should at that. But several things strike me:

  • As noted in other posts on Covid-19, and on Syria, uncertainty on important matters begets quasi religious polarisations.3 Humans aren’t good at accepting that we don’t know, and non scientists now wrap themselves in the cloak of science much as earlier generations claimed to have God in their corner.
  • A corollary is the gratuitous abuse – as yah-boo idiots and scaredy-cats – of the false idolaters of the Wrong Faith. Of agnostics too. I’ve been accused of failure to commit. My crime? An insistence that any firm position, either way, on Covid-19 as overstated has insufficient evidential support4 and is an act of faith. Or akin to soccer tribalism.5
  • Widespread epistemological naivety. One manifestation is a confusion of science with the opinions of scientists. The two are quite different even where there is widespread consensus of (relevant) scientific opinion. Here we don’t even have that, but that does not stop True Believers posting endlessly the views of scientists who share (or whom their selective skim readings lead them to believe share) their faith. Posting the views of such scientists is a good thing and I do it myself, here and here for instance. As is calling out censorship. Follow the second of the two links just provided and you’ll see that the video of Knut Wittkowski, epidemiologist of first rate credentials and a critic of lockdown, has been taken down by Youtube Thought Police. Whatever our views on lockdown and Covid-19 severity, we should all cry foul. But what of the Wittkowski fans who ignore equally credible epidemiologists of opposing view? That’s not in the same league of infamy, I’ll grant. For cherry-picking of evidence and reasoned opinion to cause alarm, as distinct from mere irritation or amusement, it must be done by the powerful. Those I have in mind are not powerful. Nor are they savvy evangelists, else they’d use a different pulpit. (I’d liken their chances to those of a Man U fan urging City followers to switch brand.) FB is for preaching to the choir, not for winning hearts and minds. Least of all by recycling, with little or no critical input of our own, the musings of those we currently champion.

Like my Barcelona pal I find myself, if not exactly depressed, a tad dismayed. I suppose I could blame lockdown, but doubt that’s accurate. I’m not adversely affected, you see. On a modest but adequate pension, I’m for the foreseeable future financially secure.

And socially? I’ve grown introvert with age. The things which give most satisfaction I do alone. I walk, write, take photos, read and watch telly. Occasionally I do a jigsaw.

Sure, the household shop takes me longer, and once in a while I lament the days of breaking up a walk with leisurely pint in idyllic pub. But that’s the extent of it, and I remind myself that even in the UK there are those – the precariat in particular – who are paying a higher price.

As they will in the event, heaven forbid, of Lockdown-is-Madness devotees being plain wrong. With a return to work looming …

For what it’s worth I suspect lockdown will end soon because that combination of hit to capital, and divisions within the scientific community, will make the case for ending it irresistable. That would not, from a people’s safety perspective, make it right (or wrong) to end it … simply that, as always, the voice of profit carries the greatest weight.

Steel City Post, Science for the righteous

… those at risk will be the poor and marginalised. Not for them the virtual workspace, the car or cycle ride down leafy lanes. They will have no option but crowded public transport to and from crowded workplaces. They’ll be hardest hit, too, by the fallout should the economic price – I’ll not insult your intelligence with potential mortality rates – of a second wave prove greater than that of lockdown.

Fear porn? I think not. In any case, as with other accusations currently in vogue, little boys in glass houses really shouldn’t throw stones.

So what have I to be dismayed about? Just the divine gleam of folk who don’t know enough to have one tenth of the certainty they claim .. the naivety of those who can’t tell science from the opinions of fallible experts .. and the strawmannery (not always or even usually intentional) of those who declare, as if laying down the ace of spades, that “eighty-five percent of those who get Covid-19 suffer only mild illness”.

On that last, Stephen Gowans – Syria watcher and author of Israel: a Beachhead, reviewed by me last July – has this to say. I offer it not because Gowans is an expert, nor because I share his certainty on the matter at hand. I offer it because he has a valid response to the “no big deal for most of us” school:

To be sure, the overwhelming majority of those infected won’t die, and the fatality rate is miniscule, but a miniscule fraction of a large number (the world’s 7.6 billion people) can be surprisingly large. Only 3% of the world’s population was killed by the Second World War, but we would hardly blithely accept a reprise of that conflict simply because most of us would make it out alive.

May 16: If you think lockdown worse than the disease …

And the antidote? I’m reading up on what is, and what is not, known of SARS COV-2. (Here’s a current sample.) On what is, and what is not, known of the epidemiological implications. And on what is, and what is not, known of the economic consequences of lockdown, versus those of its premature ending. (Here’s an especially daunting current sample.)

It’s hard work though. Jeeze, if only I wasn’t such a commitment phobe …

* * *

  1. Two comments on this Spectator article. One, Dr Lee is sceptical of lockdown (his choice of a rightwing outlet may be significant) but his point in the passage I quote applies regardless of our position on lockdown, and the theoretically separate but in practice closely entwined matter of CV-19 severity. Two, he points to the principle of falsifiabilty. All knowledge is provisional, and the best we can say of any theory is that it has not yet been proved wrong. We hold science in high regard because its claims – if x + y then z – are ‘courageous’. They can in principle be falsified, while in practice a competitive scientific community will be trying hard to do just that. (Actually this is an oversimplification and an idealisation. In practice venality, egomania and the inertia of inbuilt conservatism can play out, not least through peer review, in ways that delay the emergence of truth.)
  2. On top of ‘austerity’ there’s venality and vindictiveness in such as the diverting of resources like the PPE sent months ago by China, with which the city has a history of cordial relations, from Barcelona to Madrid.
  3. To be clear, western media consumers are being lied to over Syria, as they were over Yugoslavia, Iraq, Libya and Yemen. But there is doubt on the nature of the Ba’athist government in Damascus. Polarisation of the kind discussed here tends to push those with an interest in Syria into an either/or corner. Assad is evil incarnate or a saint.
  4. I used to think the truth on Covid-19 would out sooner or later. Now I suspect there’ll be enough complexity to afford endless wriggle room for devotees of every stripe.
  5. I’ve nothing against soccer tribalism, except where it gets violent or where “my team right or wrong” moves into arenas where non partisan assessment of hard evidence and reason – all of it, not cherry picked factoids and opinions – is required.

8 Replies to “If only I wasn’t a commitment phobe

  1. It’s not being locked down that depresses me. As a self-employed person who works at home, the only real difference is that the Rums, usually downed at the corner bar in the company of my cronies are, for the foreseeable future, out of the question. And I can have these on the balcony and chat on the phone. Oh. There’s no Barça or Blades, which in a way is a relief. And I can’t get down to the boat. But somebody turns the engine over and washes it twice a month.

    As you know, I too have lots to occupy my time what with the guitar, cooking and swatting up on English lest I forget… And I have plenty of work. Somewhat less, but still plenty.

    The city is much more pleasant than usual. None of the 30,000,000 tourists who pass through every year are here. That’s a massive difference for the better. I hope they don’t come back. Please ask your readers not to come. There is hardly any traffic. That’s another. It’s quiet. You can watch and listen to the birds. So my circs aren’t desperate or even disagreeable.

    No. It’s the way the whole situation is leveraged by the unscrupulous that gets me down. That and the cavalier attitude of many people towards the very slight relaxing of restrictions. It seems a lot of people care less about the progress made in reducing the rate of infection than their own political, business or personal profit. I’m not referring to desperate shop or bar owners. Witness the parties in Madrid whipping up popular feeling using lockdown as a weapon; the recentralisation of political power to Madrid; the megacompanies handing out dividends and queuing up for handouts while laying off workers; the people thronging to the beach and exercising in groups as never before… I’ve never seen so many people exercising at once. Or thronging the streets in groups.

    Anyway. It’s not the lockdown in itself. It’s the lies, manipulation and lack of solidarity.

    • Well said, mate. Sorry if I misrepresented you.

      In my award winning post, Walking the Erewash, I wrote as follows:

      What does bother me, halfway along [an enclosed and narrow railway footbridge] is the appearance at the far end of a young man on a bike. I call to him that I’ll get a move on but he’s not going to wait. Of necessity, as our paths cross, he’s less than a metre away.

      “I don’t believe in that distancing crap.”

      I too have my doubts, though I’m less scathing than him of flattening the curve. But he’s young and fit. I’m in my sixties. More important than either, it seems the height of uncouth to inflict on others the fruits of our grasp of epidemiology, encyclopaedic though it may be.

      “It’s not just about you though, is it?”

      I can’t swear I didn’t call his act arrogant. I know he told me to fuck off, and not just the once …

  2. Hi Phil,

    Apologies if I’m one of those (as I suspect I am) who have accused you of a ‘failure to commit’. And further apologies if I’m one of those ‘cherry pickers’… But then I guess that’s what a lot of us do, much of the time: try to weigh up the evidence as we see it; combine that with our gut instinct / intuition; and then share opinions of those who, we believe, have come to similar conclusions as ourselves (but whose relevant expertise or style of expression surpasses our own). So, yes, I plead guilty to cherry picking.

    I also, though, have respect for those who are also continuing to question, and who won’t come down on one ‘side’ or the other. Caitlin Johnstone is one of those (I confess to having tactfully goaded her for it once or twice), and so, I believe, is the mighty John Pilger.

    All I can do is reflect what I feel is true (for me) as that is my own path to authenticity and good mental health.

    But thanks for another thought-provoking article.

    • Hi Steve

      No apology required. It’s true a FB remark you made (while drunk if memory serves!) stayed with me long enough to inspire my title and closing shot. But the sentiment I address is widespread. Our species tolerance of uncertainty on things that matter is low, and I do mean “our”. As the saying goes, when we point one accusatory finger at others we have three pointing back at ourselves. (This is literally true: try it. The thumb stays wisely neutral!) I’ve been quiet for a while on CV-19. I’m comfortable with not taking sides on insufficient evidential basis, but castigate myself for not committing – yes, not committing! – sooner to engaging with some at least of all credible sources and such evidence as I can take in.

      (For its detailed assessment of the virological and epidemiological state of current SARS CoV-2 knowledge I recommend this. I find its substantiation by empirical data impressive, but more impressive still is the scrupulous attention to degrees of certainty we may validly accord the conclusions we draw. That’s what I call good methodology (and by extension, good epistemology). On economics my view, which I’m guessing you share, is of a discipline fundamentally compromised by ideological inability to grasp the origins of profit. But what at its best it does well is measuring and modelling, the latter by according probability factors to limited and flawed data inputs. That’s why I’m ploughing through this, though it has more graphs than Hawking’s Brief History of Time, and every one of them makes my head spin!)

      As for you personally, we are in agreement on far more than we differ. On this particular I’ve found you – and many other friends – overly certain and a little excitable. But if you’ll forgive my playing the age card, these are hardly damning indictments, and are amply compensated by a good heart and levels of energy I simply don’t have these days. In you these are matched by unusual and unfailingly courteousness. The tone of your comment here testifies to that.

      Not so long ago in real time, but a couple of aeons in CV-19 time, we agreed that a face to face meeting over a pint would be a good thing. I look forward to that, when circs permit.

      In solidarity,


  3. One of the many problematic issues here is this is not just a theoretical debate between different scientifically based models. Real time decisions have to be made which will have their own consequences. Such decisions – at least in theory and in some places in practice – will be based on previous known and recorded experience of similar events.

    One of the early articles the author of this blog linked to relied heavily on recorded data and models of the ‘Spanish Flu’ a century ago for example, comparing the increased mortality rates in locations which failed to introduce social distancing measures etc or lifted them too early.

    Point being that whatever decisions are made are not just based on recent scientific or other experience and models but also previous experience of similar occurrences. And either way lives depend on those decisions.

    Whichever way a decision goes is not going to please or satisfy everyone simply because people being people have differing priorities (often at different points in their lives) and different circumstances.

    There are a number of issues which occur in present circumstances.

    The first is the assumption that decisions, at least in the UK, are based on “The Science.”

    This assumption has certainly animated some odd bedfellows on the political right and the libertarian “left” who seem to take Government announcements at literal face value given that the critiques seem to attack the science, offering up different science based models, and assume no politics whatsoever has played any part in decision making.

    I’m far from convinced the available evidence supports such assumptions. The apparent “about face” from the “culling the herd” policy of the UK Government under Johnson took a full week – from a partial half hearted set of restrictions introduced on 16th March to the current supposed draconian “lockdown” a week later on 23rd March – with totally inadequate systems and measures to enforce the supposed policy effectively.

    As previously noted they had to be dragged kicking and screaming to that apparent about face.

    Ports of entry were, and still are, allowing unfettered travel into the UK and onwards with no containment and tracing protocols. The financial assistance for those most impacted was and remains slow, bureaucratic and half hearted. At the same time public transport was drastically cut (for obvious health and safety reasons). Both of which contributed to scenes of packed commuter transport and workplaces as some groups, such as construction workers amongst others continued earning the money desperately needed in an employment market context in which most people live from wage packet to wage packet.

    Add to this the inadequate practical support in terms of PPE and similar equipment; amount of testing (the number of daily cases in the official data is dependent upon the limited number of tests carried out and in no way reflects the actual number of cases*); the deliberate emptying of hospitals into care homes to hide the true figures; and the crude propaganda techniques utilised to divert attention from this apparent ‘failing/inefficiency’ on the part of Government – from weekly clap fests for NHS and care staff (from many voters who voted in policies designed to destroy the NHS only a few months ago) to acquisitioning wartime nostalgia.

    Even the Imperial College model, alleged to be the sole criteria upon which decision making was based, factored in only 50% of the populace adhering to any kind of strict lockdown. And despite the obvious high profile cases of police over zealousness featured on SM (which has existed and featured for years prior to this) most people and cases of ‘breaching’ the supposed draconian lockdown go unnoticed (If there was a reward system for reporting such breaches I doubt I would be far from alone in being richer than Creosote by now).

    Alert observers at the time of these decisions will have noted the (quickly disappearing profile) reports of Johnson’s telephone call with Macron in which the French leader allegedly threatened to stop all traffic into and from the UK – which the Dutch (Rotterdam being the major deep port transit point for much of UK supply chains) would no doubt have followed – if the UK Government did not change policy direction from its let it rip through the populace approach.

    As a result it is a valid observation to make that in terms of practical effect the Government has only appeared to change direction from its politically inspired approach of “herd immunity” underpinned by a culling of the “economically inactive” based on a eugenics agenda. Certainly those most impacted have and will remain the growing precariat both in health and economic terms even in the coming period in which a so called “official” easing of restrictions generate a further wave of cases which previous recorded experiences tell us will occur.

    For sure, the Government have been inefficient and ineffective in every regard. However, the result of that inefficiency and ineffectiveness, along with the many associated failings (including the current premature easing of restrictions), has a practical outcome congruent with the initial political decision to pursue a culling policy. Publicly “blaming” ‘The Science’ whilst not putting in place adequate systems to effectively and practically support the apparent change in policy has everyone arguing about “The Science” rather than focusing on the actual outcomes.

    Much like the three cups and pea game which is also all about distraction.

    The second issue concerns the assumption being made that the collapsing economy is exclusively down to the response to the viruses/pandemic. Again, in terms of the UK/US much is made of the Q1 figures. However, certainly in those two economies the economic impact of the measures introduced will have had only a small impact on the Q1 figures – unless one is going to adopt the argument that all the losses occurred in the last few weeks of the Quarter?

    Certainly, the dire figures for Q2 and beyond will be largely the result of the economic measures taken around the world to mitigate the mortality rate and impact on health systems of this virus. Although it has to be pointed out that the impact of further spikes will also increasingly feature even if those spikes are ignored in terms of further lockdown measures. Simply because the resulting mortality rate will adversely effect the economy in various ways from key workers voting with their feet through to consumer confidence and disruption of supply chains in a JiT global system – and that’s before we factor in a no deal Brexit.

    The point being that the Q1 figures suggest an economy already in trouble as a result of years of attempting to maintain over inflated bubbles based on fiat money being thrown at the already over stuffed coffers of those who can never have too much. For these and a number of related reasons the end of the economic pier show was only a matter of time and the response to the virus merely hastened along the inevitable.

    * I doubt I’m alone in personally knowing of cases of individuals who have suffered from the symptoms of this virus and who have self isolated who will not appear in the official figures simply because hey have not been tested.

    As a result it seems futile to focus entirely on “The Science” when the data is so corrupted.

    For example, the data from China suggested a 4.7% rate of cases requiring critical care. The officially released UK figure for this, every single day for nearly seven weeks, has been stuck at 1559 despite the increase in tested cases reported at the same time. The only plausible explanation for that is that the Government are, through the NHS management, deliberately not putting critical cases into critical care. Some evidence exists of this being the case given the number of reported cases released into care homes with inadequate PPE kit and other necessary systems, to prevent further infection and mortality outside of hospitals and official figures.

    Of course, it may be that the Government in the UK cannot be bothered to collate these figures. Certainly the closed cases metric, which has two outcomes – recovery/ release or death – is worrying simply because from when I commenced collating a sample of this metric on March 29 up until 13 April the UK survival rate was the worst on the planet – reducing from 10% recovery/90% mortality to 1%/99% in less than a fortnight.

    Since 13th April the UK Government have not released any figure relating to the number of cases who have recovered in hospital. The only other Country in the World who has followed suite (several days later) is Holland (who have only around 5.5k deaths compared to the 36k + of the UK. Again, either the UK Government can’t be arsed to collate that figure or it’s so dire that they don’t want to draw attention to it so don’t bother.**

    ** For comparison the USA is currently at 79% recovery/21%mortality of closed cases. France 69%/31%; Canada 87%/13%; Australia 98%/2%; Iran 93%/7%; Germany 95%/5%; China 94%/6%; Greece 89%/11%; Turkey 96%/4%; Iraq 95%/5%; and Ireland 93%/7%.

    Can’t recall off top my head the actual figures for the remainder of the 20 Country sample but the remaing seven (India, Indonesia, Spain, Italy, Portugal, Brazil and Poland) are all way above 50%/50%.

    • … the assumption that decisions, at least in the UK, are based on “The Science.”

      As it happens I wrote this afternoon to a friend on the question of an insufficiency of evidence to take a firm stance either way. I summarised my reasoning and concluded:

      Such uncertainty on such a high stakes issue is made vastly more problematic in a context where the clamour of capital for an early end to lockdown will, we can safely predict, become irresistable. That, as I’ve said more than once, doesn’t make such an outcome right or wrong. It simply throws a huge spanner in the works of an already daunting investigative challenge.

    • Dave, yours is a highly important comment to which my more immediate reply – made whilst busy on other things – was rushed and highly selective.

      I’ve taken the liberty – moderator’s licence – of editing the comment. Not to make any changes in wording or punctuation; simply to highlight in bold those passages I see as especially significant.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *