COVID 19 and Science Denialism

“Isn’t it sad that you can tell people that the ozone layer is being depleted, the forests are being cut down, the deserts are advancing steadily, that the greenhouse effect will raise the sea level 200 feet, that overpopulation is choking us, that pollution is killing us, that nuclear war may destroy us – and they yawn and settle back for a comfortable nap. But tell them that the Martians are landing, and they scream and run.” Isaac Asimov, The Secret of the Universe

As of today, May 20th, 2020, COVID 19 has killed 324,962 worldwide.  Almost a third of those deaths, 93,533, have occurred in the United States.  We are currently conducting what I call the Grand Experiment here in the States.  In spite of the unanimous opinion of scientists and doctors, we are opening the United States back up, giving the virus back vectors that allowed it to spread and quickly threaten to overcome both the healthcare system here in the states as well as other healthcare systems around the world.  In the interest of higher stock prices, we are willing to risk both American lives and the sure destruction of the economy if the virus gets out of control.

Donald Trump has called this effort a “war”.  His critics claim he is simply using hyperbole so as to cement his legacy as a “war-time” President. In this instance, however, I agree with him.  Invaders can take all forms and come at us in many different ways. It doesn’t necessarily have to be rival gangs of mammals equipped with guns, aircraft, and explosives.  It could be an invasive species of insect that preys on insects beneficial to our agriculture or, as with the Zika virus, the insects can transmit a virus directly. In the case of the Coronavirus which causes COVID 19, we are the carriers as the virus spreads throughout our environment. So this is a war in every sense of the word; our opponent uses stealth so it is invisible.  Science, until it develops a vaccine or a treatment, such as Tamiflu for the influenza virus, has given us clear instructions on how to slow down the spread and, when followed to the letter as the South Koreans did, even stop it in its tracks.

Most countries have recognized the seriousness of this Pandemic and followed the science.  Three countries, the United States, Russia, and Brazil have not.  We are about to experience the full force of the virus while Brazil and Russia are at the very cusp. While the United States still leads the world in the number of new daily cases, 20,289, Brazil is second with 16,517, and Russia is third with 9,263.  Brazil is poised to start passing the United States in many of the categories, the most sobering being new deaths each day.  It is interesting that all three countries are led by a self-proclaimed Strong Man who is quite willing to ignore the scientists and other experts and instead follow his ‘instincts’.

While I could write volumes on Putin or Bolsonaro, living here in the United States I am way more concerned with the consequences here.  Each day the internet is filled with right-wing websites, blogs, and social media pages vilifying the science and the scientists who are tasked with fighting this war against COVID 19.  Their recommendations are viewed as liberal assaults on ‘freedoms’.  The issue of wearing a protective mask illustrates this anti-science/anti-expert sentiment like nothing else.  It is as if there were Londoners during the blitz who refused to turn their lights off to help stymie the German bombing runs in the name of ‘freedom’. No one could be that stupid, you say?  Hold to that claim and I can guarantee the right-wing in this country will make a fool out of you. Even if a vaccine is developed, it is estimated that 1 in 5 Americans would refuse it.  Why you ask?  Because the anti-vax community has convinced them that this is a surreptitious way of introducing a microchip into people in order to track their every move.  This they tweet, post, and IM from their cell phones that they willingly carry around with them everywhere they go.  Mad, isn’t it?

“I have always found it quaint and rather touching that there is a movement [Libertarians] in the US that thinks Americans are not yet selfish enough.”
― Christopher Hitchens

There is an exception to this anti-science rhetoric by the right-wing.  One of the more common canards you hear is that modern medicine is hiding the cure for cancer and that all one needs to do is a search on Google and YouTube for both the proof of this claim and, more importantly, for the myriad of cures that are out there. One of my favorites is German New Medicine which claims, among other things, that “mainstream medicine is regarded as a conspiracy promulgated by Jews.”  You can find out about it and others here.  There is a notable exception to this narrative about cancer and the medical community. It happens when they or a loved one gets diagnosed with the disease.  Gone are the posts about the nefarious medical mafia and their schemes.  Suddenly we are all extorted to pray for the doctors so God will guide their hands and to pray for the unfortunate victims.  They sit silently in front of the cancer surgeons, oncologists, and radiologists, mouths shut, hanging on every word. “We must pay close attention and do what we are told by the experts in order to beat this terrible disease.” But what about the coffee enemas?  “Shut up, you are not a doctor!”  Sorry, I was just repeating what you told me a few months ago.

You can cut the hypocrisy with the same knife the surgeon uses to remove the cancer.

The Greatest Discovery Of All – Part 1

I’ve often posed the question to people, “What do you consider the greatest discovery in our species’ history?”  The answers are all over the board; all of them very good ones.  Many point to writing, some go even further back to the discovery of language.  Some point to our building skills, clothing, various monetary systems, and such.  Some will dive into science where there are a plethora of ideas all seeming to vie for the moniker of “Greatest Discovery”.  Darwin’s evolution, Semmelweis’s nascent discovery of antiseptic, the discoveries of anesthesia, vaccines, and the pathogen theory of disease are but a few that could be named. Astronomy would strenuously wave the flag as well, as would Physics and I could devote paragraphs delineating the many history-changing discoveries of both.

I’m sure the reader has thought of a number of things that they might offer as “the greatest”.  Let me ask the reader:  were the discoveries that came to mind discoveries about the world we live in?  Discoveries that changed how we lived, discoveries that lessened the suffering that for thousands of years seemed to be our lot?  I humbly suggest an answer that it was a discovery about ourselves, not the world external to us, that was the greatest discovery of all.

“The person who is certain, and who claims divine warrant for his certainty, belongs now to the infancy of our species.”   — Christopher Hitchens

Up until this discovery, certainty was a hallmark of our understanding of the universe and our place in it.  We only needed to ask the religious leaders of whatever land we found ourselves in.  We can even do it today.  Take any religious leader that you know.  Are they absolutely certain about what they know?  This claimed knowledge and the certainty of it were beyond questioning.  In the cases of religions that were in the position of making an offer no one could refuse, questioning this certainty would cost your life.  Not giving verbal assent to those certainties would cost you your life.  There are places in the world today where this is the state of affairs and in those places where it is not, the religious continually yearn for a return to those days and are actively working on making that happen.  The discovery that I would offer rejected that certainty and in its stead claimed to be certain of nothing and to know nothing about the world operated.  It was that seminal grasp of our ignorance when looking out at the universe we found ourselves in is what I would claim to be the greatest discovery of our species.  It was that intellectual cornerstone upon which all the future great discoveries depended on.

Can we pinpoint in history when this happened?  No, I don’t think we can and even if we could point to a specific example, I would suggest that this epiphany has happened many, many times, over many centuries and in many lands. It happens today. It is the driving force behind science and the search for truth. The understanding of how little we know about the universe lights in us a quest to fill that void with knowledge. This knowledge has turned our existence from what Thomas Hobbs called, “nasty, brutish and short” into the lives that we experience today.

More to come….

Review |Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow by Yuval Noah Harari

Homo Deus: A Brief History of TomorrowHomo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow by Yuval Noah Harari

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In this book the author delves into the perilous depths of predicting the future. Regardless of where you come down on the issues and his prognostications you will be thinking about this book long after you have put it down. The author takes two technologies still in their beginning stages, biotechnology and data processing coupled with ever more powerful AI algorithms and extrapolates the impact these two fields will have to economics, humans and the value of human life. The author uses a broad brush so the reader gets everything from the ‘rose colored glasses’ scenario to a bleak dystopian future chronicling the last days of the human race. One comes away with the impression that both scenarios are possible; it all depends on who gets their hands on the technology first and their subsequent ability to control it.

Of particular interest to me were the authors treatment of two subjects: free will and Humanism. Discussions regarding free will have become increasingly popular with a number of authors such as Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett recently releasing books on the subject. Dr. Harari’s treatment of free will is as good an introduction as I’ve seen to the subject. His treatment of Humanism is even better and, while I still have some issues with specifics he has forced me to rethink some of my assumptions and change some of my views. I would love to see Dr. Harari’s next book delve deep into Humanism. His historical approach to understanding a subject would work quite well with Humanism and add a great deal of value to the current discussions.

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Review |The Moral Arc: How Science and Reason Lead Humanity toward Truth, Justice, and Freedom by Michael Shermer

The Moral Arc: How Science and Reason Lead Humanity toward Truth, Justice, and FreedomThe Moral Arc: How Science and Reason Lead Humanity toward Truth, Justice, and Freedom by Michael Shermer

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This was an interesting read/listen. Shermer presents a number of arguments to show and explain the apparent correlation between the advance of science and the advance of our moral sensibilities. Having considered Shermer’s arguments I am still not fully convinced that it is the rise of science and reason that is informing and driving the moral insights of society and is the prime mover of ‘bending the moral arc’ as Shermer calls it. We have had science and scientific progress in any number of societies over the course of history; the Chinese and the Arab world are two that come to mind yet there was no corresponding rise in either the standard of living or moral sensibilities which mimic Western society over the past 100 years. While I would agree that science is a necessary condition for moral progress to occur I don’t think that Shermer makes the case that it is a sufficient condition.

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