The Tenth Millennium

Dune - SandwormWith Denis Villeneuve's adaptation of Dune having once again revived interest in the world's highest-selling science fiction novel, it is a worthy time to ponder the question of whether and how humanity might survive long enough to enjoy any kind of 'far future'. What kind of future life do we want? How might we prepare a path towards such a future? Which principles might we need to reach a worthwhile future together? All these questions can benefit from reflection upon the themes and significance of Frank Herbert's extraordinary science-fiction saga.

The story debuted in Analog magazine's December 1963 issue as the three-part serial "Dune World", and concluded the following year with the three-part "The Prophet of Dune" in the same publication. The collected edition - then entitled Dune - would go on to win the inaugural Nebula, and share the 1966 Hugo award with Roger Zelazny's "...And Call Me Conrad" (also later republished as a novel, This Immortal). Dune is a remarkable novel on many fronts, but considered from the perspective of world building it is especially notable for the creative manner in which Herbert ensures that human politics can provide the core to his saga by performing the opposite operation to most sci-fi writers: he imagines new technology in order to limit technology.

Dune is set in the year 10,191 AG, the tenth millennium after the founding of the Spacing Guild, which is generally taken to be roughly 20,000 years into our future. Herbert's interests in these stories are political, humanitarian, and ecological - but to tell the kind of tale he wishes to tell, he needed to ensure that a tale set this far into our imaginary future could still be grounded on humanity as we understand it today. This is a common theme in far future science fiction, but it is no means a given: H.G. Wells' 1895 novella The Time Machine is probably the most famous of the early flights of fancy to imagine a future for humanity that is not grounded in contemporary human experience. Wells projected the social circumstances of his time through the lens of evolutionary theory, and presents a future world where the child-like Eloi, descended from the Victorian upper classes, are preyed upon by the savagely bestial Morlocks, descended from the working classes. Political themes from Wells' day are transformed via scientific models into a new fictional setting.

Herbert takes the opposite tack to Wells, creating in his imagination a mechanism to preserve humanity as it is, so that his story can be about today's humanity for all that it is set in the far future. Pivotal to this process is the backstory of the Butlerian Jihad (not, unless Dune was even more prophetic than anyone previously thought, anything to do with Judith Butler). The Butlerian Jihad is a thousand year war against "thinking machines" leading to the zealously protected maxim that 'humanity must not be replaced'. This effectively removes computers, robots, and artificial intelligence from the world of Dune and ensures humans occupy all the key roles in the resultant society. The Mentat, or 'human computer', replaces the strategic role of computers. The Guild Navigators take over the complexity of space travel from computers. The Bene Gesserit take over social control from computers. In all cases, humanity is given centre stage, which means in all cases the political landscape is manipulated by the power-hungry.

Along parallel lines, the inclusion of the Holtzman Shield is a technological riposte intended to foil futuristic weaponry. High velocity projectiles cannot penetrate the shimmering blur of these shield generators (rendering conventional firearms obsolete) while futuristic weapons (lasguns in Herbert's world) cause a devastating nuclear reaction when fired upon shields - something that indeed happens during the escape from Arrakeen in the book, but that is elided in Villeneuve's adaptation. The result is that this imagined technology allows Herbert to set up a Feudal future universe where the vast armies of interstellar powers can still be required to engage with swords and knives, simply because a technological invention that the author has imagined serves the world building role of limiting the significance of future technology.

Dune should not be seen as an unprecedented change in the flow of science fiction, but rather a pre-meditated response to the previous generation of science fiction authors, often called the Golden Age of Science Fiction. Herbert's saga in this sense can be understood as a calculated reaction against Isaac Asimov's Foundation series, with both inspired by and underpinned by Edward Gibbon's 18th century history The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. The Foundation stories had also been first published in the very same magazine as "Dune World", but under its earlier title of Astounding - originally and revealingly titled Astounding Stories of Super-Science. Asimov's tales are the first to focus upon 'Galactic Empire' as a sci-fi setting, and the author consistently revelled in the unlimited power of scientific technique, especially by imagining a future social psychology so accurate that it can predict the future - at least until a mutant 'Mule' disrupts its presuppositions.

This imagined capacity of the sciences as future-tracking, as I have frequently pointed out, is not something plausibly possessed by any authentic scientific methodology - so much so that I might impishly dub such faith 'sci-dolatry'. This unwarranted fantastical power attributed to scientists has been stoked by science fiction for much of its two centuries of practice, and the trend is even more widespread today. The last few years have added a tragic irony to this unfortunate tendency, since nothing disrupts the ability of scientific work to inform decisions quite as much as premature certainty that the answers have already been revealed. It would be wrong to assume that scientific research didn't or shouldn't possess a pivotal role in informing political decisions - but it remains exceptionally dangerous to presume that politics can take scientific topics into its partisan realm without utterly corrupting them. Every attempt to do so destroys a scientific field's unique and collective capacity to assemble an objective description, which is to say, to uncover the truth of objects.

In its own way, this corrupting influence of politics on truth is at the heart of the parables central to Dune, and it is against Asimov's sci-dolatry that Herbert seeks to wage metaphysical jihad. Tim O'Reilly's 1981 book on Herbert's work quotes the author himself as he directly marks out his criticism of Asimov's Foundation:

History… is manipulated for larger ends and for the greater good as determined by a scientific aristocracy. It is assumed, then, that the scientist-shamans know best which course humankind should take… While surprises may appear in these stories (e.g., the Mule mutant), it is assumed that no surprise will be too great or too unexpected to overcome the firm grasp of science upon human destiny. This is essentially the assumption that science can produce a surprise-free future for humankind.

Throwing his gauntlet into the face of the Golden Age science fiction authors and their heirs, Herbert invites us to into an entirely different kind of science fiction, one that is much better suited to the needs of the present than its earlier rival. Far from Astounding Stories of Super-Science, Herbert's invitation is to ponder both humanity and non-humanity through clear scientific understandings without falling into the kind of decadent self-aggrandisement that marks the fall of both the historical Roman Empire and the future-historical Padishah Empire of Dune.

Nowhere is this invitation to think beyond the narrowed vision of sci-dolatry clearer throughout the Dune saga than in the role of ecology in the wider sweep of the books. The new field of ecology was gaining prominence at the time that Herbert was writing, and he had been commissioned to write articles about the subject that were instrumental in forming his thinking about Arrakis. On the one hand, Herbert realised that ecology entails the understanding of the interconnectivity of everything in any given environment. On the other, he recognised that the human attempt to steer processes for their own benefit comes with inevitable unseen costs. Thus, in the later Dune novels, the sandworms become endangered and even skirt the brink of extinction because the terraforming of Arrakis (the attempt to make it more Earth-like) destroys the desert and therefore disrupts the ecological balance.

Facing the challenge that Herbert's novels open up to us means thinking about the future differently. Whereas the world of Dune is conditioned by the narrative requirements of the story Herbert wanted to tell (as with any exercise in world building), our imaginary visions of our own far future are conditioned solely by the requirements we hold for those unrealised possible worlds. We can therefore confront ourselves with a question that flows inexorably from the story logic of Dune: what would we need to imagine in order for humanity to reach the Tenth Millennium?

If we say that civilisation (whether understood as cities, or as writing, or as both) dates back to roughly 3,200 BC, that would place our current time into the Fifth Millennium, some 52 centuries since civilisation begins. We are thus a little over halfway towards the one hundred centuries - a century century - that would bring us to the Tenth Millennium. What might we need to ensure that happens...?

This is a science fiction premise that bears some semblance of hope for a significant impact on the way we confront our political problems today. We face not only a rising factional distrust that threatens to overwhelm the narratives of human solidarity that inspired us just half a century earlier, but parallel threats to the very conditions of knowledge brought about on the one hand by the undermining of the open practices of scientific investigation, and on the other by a technocratic imperium that is laughably under-diagnosed whether we emblazon its banner with the name 'Big Tech', 'Capitalism', 'the West', 'the Global North', or indeed 'Sci-dolatry'. Arguing over the fault lines in contemporary thought is only making matters worse: we need to try to imagine a different way of coming at our collective problems.

To take on this sci-fi storytelling summons at its fullest extent is to ask more than just 'what if humanity's descendants survive the other half of this arbitrary temporal journey?' Such a vision is only to wonder whether our biological kin have another 48 centuries left in them, and in this regard even The Time Machine has already been there. But what if we up the ante. What if we are asked to imagine not only the survival of descendants of our own species, but the actual survival of this specific species, homo sapiens. What if we further ask how we might help ensure that this happens while keeping all the diversity of human existence we know today?

In other words, what if we were to try to philosophically unravel the world building exercise of Dune with an eye towards turning our imagination towards that least exercised muscle of the science fiction anatomy: utopianism. There is a danger in this word, 'utopia', in so much as it attempts to mark a rarely imagined 'good future'. What we need right now is not so much the fine details of any projected perfection, but rather a set of ideals that might guide us towards any possibility of future perfection. It does not even have to be perfect (it surely never will be). It would be enough to find some way of securing what is good now, such that we might still find that good in our imagined Tenth Millennium.

To begin with, our philosophical world building might benefit from establishing an opponent to spar against, just as Foundation sets the reactionary position of Dune. We have at least two options. Firstly, there are what we might call the extinctionists, who express the modest view that human extinction is inevitable. I'm sure that proposition is correct, but I join with the late Mary Midgley in suggesting that this inevitability is not some deep revelation but rather the most trivial of tautologies that has nothing to offer in respect of the important questions about how we should live. The extinctionists are not the enemies of whatever we might build in our imagination, though, they are merely realism's doom-appeasing offspring. They are people like German film-maker Werner Herzog who sees extinction as nearly unavoidable and somewhat imminent, without letting those beliefs undercut a desire to live for today.

Alternatively, we have the accelerationists. This term is often accused of crawling out of the dark corners Marxist thought, and there certainly is a history to tell there. However, I prefer to anchor this tangentially back to Dune via Zelazny's 1967 Lord of Light, where the term 'Accelerationist' first appears. There are so many fragmentary movements bearing this name, and nobody seems to agree what they are asking for, so I will simply take Zelazny's revolutionaries as the template: an accelerationist seeks to raise the pace of development for new technologies. They may do this because they seek a bizarrely mystical future salvation (such as the Singularity), or because they have fallen into some other kind of sci-dolatry, or they could be that subset of Marxists who schizophrenically believe that capitalism will certainly fail if we keep going like this, and therefore we should accelerate the collapse of civilisation in order to foster revolution. I don't find any of these positions convincing or appealing, but again, even the most reckless fools under this banner are not the enemies of what we might try to imagine, so much as they are Foundation to our Dune. Their mistakes might yet inspire us.

I propose to try to conceive of a third movement, a movement that does not exist and that need never exist, but that might through our imaginings give us another way to think about these problems. Following on from the Dune-inspired image of a Tenth Millennium, a century of centuries, I propose to call this phantasmal movement ascenturians, combining the theme of a hundred from 'centurion' and the fantasy of 'ascent' in the satisfyingly ludicrous sense appropriated by Jacob Bronowski in The Ascent of Man. The is pure teleology, that is, the ascription of purposes rather than causes, which is forbidden today. But our fictional ascenturians are invited to embrace this mythology for the same reasons that Mary Midley was forced to remark that the idea of purpose is not as dispensable as many have tried to insist. Arguing against Richard Dawkins' anti-teleological view of life, she wrote:

Dawkins’s claim that the universe contains “at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good” cannot be right. For it is obvious that our own planet - which is certainly part of the universe - is riddled with purpose. It is full of organisms, beings which all steadily pursue their own characteristic ways of life, beings that can only be understood by grasping the distinctive thing that each of them is trying to be and do.

The fictional credo of the ascenturians, these purely imaginary future people, is to seek to ensure that humanity - in all its diversity - will experience the Tenth Millennium together. What philosophical principles would such people want to consider? What attitudes to society and technology would they seek to foster? What images of equality or disparity might they evoke? These are the themes of ascenturian philosophy, utopian only in the sense that - quite unlike the extinctionists - they envision a future for humanity, and also - quite unlike the accelerationists - they do not place their bets upon provoking disaster in order to seek salvation.

This vision is dedicated to Frank Herbert's Dune, and is beautifully expressed in Tim O'Reilly's encapsulation of the science fiction author's guiding philosophy:

In the kind of universe Herbert sees, where there are no final answers, and no absolute security, adaptability in all its forms - from engineering improvisation to social mobility to genetic variability- is essential. Improvisation is the only security. It is not an absolute security, but relative. Life is always changing and demanding new adaptations.

Welcome to the limitless fantasy of the ascenturians, a joyous, optimistic, utterly unrealistic fiction of humanity arriving at the Tenth Millennium together.

Next week: Assembling the Future


Towards Peace

Lone TreeDear friends,

It's been rather a long social media break this time... partly, I have simply been too busy to attend to this side of my affairs, and partly I have not desired this kind of contact since it has not entailed much if any productive discourse recently, and so is merely aggravation and abuse, which I can understandably do without. But I cannot hide forever. There are matters at hand that need attending to.

What is coming up, you might reasonably ask...? Well, starting next Tuesday (11th January), a new five-part serial begins. Nicknamed "The Ascenturian Saga", it is not officially part of the Magical Science Campaign, but that campaign is not officially over either; rather, I see what is about to happen this year as a coda to Magical Science that is also its own mini-campaign on cultural disarmament. This will be followed in mid-February with my video debut as Doctor Multiverse: Renegade Philosopher on Diet Soap Media, about which there will be more anon.

All my philosophical projects this year are aiming at peace through cultural disarmament, and I have two specific fault lines I am targeting: the pro-vaxxer/anti-vaxxer fault line that fuels the nonsense, and the trans activist/lesbian feminist fault line that fuels the culture war. As ever, there are severe problems with aiming for peace in these particular battlegrounds...

For the nonsense, peace might potentially be obtained by putting the pro-vaxxers and the evidence-based medical research community back into discourse (the genuine anti-vaxxers are largely tangential to peace here, and were never truly the root problem). Alas, this is a path made excruciatingly difficult by now-ubiquitous censorship on these issues in both traditional media and social media. But because pro-vaxxers are emotionally committed to the sciences, being merely temporarily divorced from the research community and its essential disagreements as a consequence of the ongoing censorship, there is perhaps some hope for reconciliation here once the fear begins to subside.

However, since the nonsense has been turbo-charged by the blue-red fault line in the United States, the Senate Midterms are both an opportunity and an enormous risk. De-escalation without reconciliation will mean worse to come in the future... I hope to contribute in some small way to restoring medical discourse and thus the old ideals of clinical medicine and informed consent, and if that's not possible I will fall back to defending 'underground science' as long as is necessary. But I dread the harms on this path, which have already been horrific, particularly in Africa and southern Asia, although not for the reasons that are usually assumed by 'Westerners'.

For the culture wars, peace is hampered by the absence of recognisable spokespeople for the trans activists. This makes the hunt for gender armistice exceptionally tricky. On the plus side, the red-blue fault line is tangential here - this is a war fought internally to the 'left', although oft exacerbated by the tactless remarks made by denizens of 'red' States. I desperately wish for peace and a restoration of the Rainbow Alliance, but the attitudes of non-compromise that have grown up around this fault line make it exceptionally challenging to attain any kind of armistice now. But I could not live with myself if I did not at least try to broker peace here, although it will be walking upon a path of thorns to be sure.

Not everyone wants peace, alas, but such is always my goal. To that end, I leave you with a quote from Immanuel Kant's optimistic treatise of 1795, Towards Perpetual Peace:

One cannot expect that kings philosophize or that philosophers become kings. Nor is this desirable, for holding power unavoidably corrupts the free judgment of reason. Yet both kings and king-like peoples (those which rule over themselves in accordance with laws of equality), should not allow the class of philosophers to diminish or fall silent, but rather should have them speak publicly, for this enlightens the business of government, and, because by its very nature it is incapable of forming mobs and clubs, this class is beyond suspicion of being mere propagandists.

With unlimited love to you all,

Chris.


Where To Next...?

NewHorizonsPlutoCharonThere is one final post to run, then my Autumnal Social Media Break begins. It will run throughout November. In my absence, the robots will continue to share shiny things, but I won't be there to reply. You can still reach me through the usual email channels if you need me (via the ihobo contact link if you haven't emailed me previously).

I currently have no plans to run anything in December..

I am uncertain whether this current campaign is concluded... I presume it is not, as I have not yet written about Truth and Reconciliation, which I would expect to be the final bookend. Still, it might not be a bad idea to take a break. However, my work-in-progress serial, Rethinking Intellectual Property, is only half complete, and I can't reasonably go back to that until we have restored some kind of civil society whereby that discussion could have a meaning. But I have some half-developed ideas riffing on science fiction themes that might be a good place to take us in the Spring. Goodness knows we could use some fresh ideals about now.

If you can spare a moment to leave an encouraging message about my blogging while I'm away, it would mean the world to me. With my family 4000 miles away right now and no sign of the US Embassy getting even close to reviewing my immigration paperwork, I am in a rather lonely place. Even if I won't be reading these messages now, I would love to find something other than nothing here when I get back. Thanks in advance to anyone who leaves a supportive message.

I leave you all with my unlimited love and respect and, in half an hour, something to think about.


The New Sickness Unto Death

A reply to Chris Billows' blog-letter Everything Counts at Death as part of the Republic of Bloggers (15 minute read).

Frederick Goodall (1856) - The Sick ChildDear Chris,

It is a strange time to talk about 'sickness'... it seems as if only one kind of illness matters right now. A shame, because the sickness we are expected to focus upon is not quite the one I want to talk about in this letter. I shall do as required, though, and dutifully discuss that disease, or rather I will discuss the scientific problems concerning vaccination against that disease, and the political disasters unleashed in its wake. But what I most want to reflect upon in this letter is the sickness spoken about by the Danish existentialist philosopher, Søren Kierkegaard, the one that haunts every troubled heart, and brings great suffering upon all who fall prey of it. The 'sickness unto death', as he called it. It is spreading so far and so fast now, even my idealistic optimism is barely proof against this rising tide of hatred and despair. But I cannot submit to this. And neither, I hope, can you.

Firstly, I must thank you for keeping the Republic of Bloggers away from its final end with your blog-letter to me, Everything Counts at Death. I sometimes fear you and I are all that is left of this form of discourse, but I I suppose I could be mistaken. I also think it most strange that these days we have all but eliminated the exchange of ideas. Newspapers accept letters as comment, but they are not willing or able to promote discussion in that way; the news is happy to quote Tweets, but again, not able to promote discussion; academic papers... well, don't get me started. Why have we stopped talking? Perhaps because social media scratches the itch to respond all too well, but solely when we are angered by what we read. Everything else just glides by, ignored, or eliciting nothing more than a brief approving nod and perhaps a click of a 'like' icon. It is as if we are cultivating a world where engagement can only happen at the very places where mindful discussion cannot.

You are quite right, of course, when you say that I do pitch some positions precisely in the hope that somebody will engage - it appears, sadly, to be the only way to provoke a response - although I hope it is clear that the principle 'every cause of death matters' I wrote about previously is utterly heartfelt. If we can regain democracy - and alas, my faith wavers! - reigniting our ideals of equality will be essential, and this issue over causes of death is so enormous, on so many levels, not least of which would be the question of poverty that you wisely draw attention to. Could there be any greater contributor to human death? Could there be a topic more consistently brushed under the political carpet...? And it's an awfully lumpy rug these days.

I want to talk about sickness, but I shall come upon the sickness I want to talk about rather slowly, for reasons that I trust will soon become apparent. Rather, I want to begin with my immense sadness at what I have been reading about the situation in the Republic of Senegal, where an ill-advised lockdown policy led to a government power grab. Long-term lockdowns might have saved the lives of some Europeans and North Americans able to work from home (although even that isn't as clear cut as is often assumed), but they cannot possibly help those living hand-to-mouth, who are merely being ordered to starve to death and cannot plausibly comply. In Senegal, the imposition of lockdowns has achieved nothing except plunging the citizens of that great country even further into poverty while lining the pockets of the corrupt. As Mamadou Ndiaye laments:

There’s no democracy in Senegal anymore, even though Senegal was always singled out before as a strong African democracy. If you are one of them, you can do what you want. There’s no justice. It’s only in Africa that you can find a state official making millions.

Meanwhile, the New York Times and other 'Trusted News' providers run stories about the Paris-Dakar rally, or the shortage of COVID-19 vaccines in Senegal. How can this possibly be the story we should tell here? The excellent Our World in Data site that you justly praise can provide some bitter perspective on this lack of vision. At time of writing, Senegal had lost 1,855 of its good people to SARS-CoV2. Yet every year in Senegal, roughly 9,000 people (nearly five times as many) die from unsafe drinking water, nearly 17,000 people (more than nine times as many) die from causes related to air pollution, and nearly 22,000 children under the age of five (nearly twelve times as many) die from preventable pneumonia. We are somehow required to see Senegal as a 'country of interest' only in connection with COVID-19 vaccination (or motorsports)... this obsession with one specific cause of death is not only logically insane when it comes to nations like Senegal, but through the pointless imposition of lockdowns that its people could not possibly afford to pursue we have inadvertently shattered one of the few strong democracies in Africa.

Black Lives Matter, we are told... we are doing a rather terrible job of showing it.

Every expectation has now been upended by this monomaniacal fear of an infection that is certainly serious enough to warrant action, yet nowhere near dangerous enough to warrant abandoning democracy. If you had told me two years ago that black and Hispanic citizens of the United States would be denied public service jobs or turned away from restaurants in New York as unclean and unwelcome I would have thought you drunk on conspiracy wine. Yet here we are! A vaccination with excellent results at preventing hospitalisation and death but demonstrably weak at preventing infections is being made a requirement of participation in civil life, with the result that ethnic minorities are back to being excluded and reviled - but it's supposedly okay, because people aren't hating them for being black or (dare we say it, even in jest?) foreign, just for not aligning with medical strictures created at the behest of mostly white folks to maintain their preferred concepts of health and cleanliness by force.

Vaccine mandates are not a scientific measure, they are a political one - and the data suggests the unsurprising conclusion that attempting to force people to vaccinate risks counter-productively hardening their resolve to resist instead. The problem at heart is a lack of trust, a situation that is poorly addressed by simply demanding that people do as they are told. As Tiffany Green remarked of the effects of vaccine segregation upon ethnic minorities in the United States:

We can’t expect that medical systems who have earned the mistrust of many marginalized groups will now be trusted because of Covid. It doesn’t work that way.

Similarly, Liz Wolfe questions whether this authoritarian turn by New York mayor, Bill De Blasio's, is in any way helpful:

De Blasio's order will disproportionately exclude members of minority groups—including people who distrust the medical establishment, lack confidence in a new vaccine, or don't have time to take off work in the event of bad side effects—from public life... It is unclear whom de Blasio's order will help. The vaccinated already are well-protected from severe illness or death, even if they contract a breakthrough infection. Eradicating the disease entirely no longer seems like an option... If the idea is to give vaccinated New Yorkers peace of mind that they can socialize with minimal risk of becoming dangerously ill, they have that already thanks to the vaccine.

Advocates of 'vaccine passports' (and I fear you are one) verge upon being utterly disconnected from scientific process as they attempt to justify them. While the vaccines are not 'poison', as opponents of all kinds of vaccination decry, they're not miraculous either: they must be subjected to rigorous scientific evaluation just like any other medical intervention. The data from both Israel and Sweden confirm that vaccine efficacy against infection wanes substantially after about six months, while all the recent vaccine surveillance reports for the United Kingdom clearly show that the infection rate has been substantially higher here among the vaccinated than the unvaccinated, with large negative figures for unadjusted vaccine efficacy, in some demographics worse than -100%. That doesn't mean the vaccines don't work - they are still effective against hospitalisation and death - but it does mean the data doesn't support the logical premises of vaccine mandates.

We can no longer support the prior assumption that these vaccines are highly effective against spread (let alone more effective than natural infection, as the CDC bizarrely and falsely claimed), and we can no more expect to eliminate SARs-CoV2 with these vaccines than we can hope to eradicate influenza. Yet we are not permitted to say these things, because we must pretend that all vaccines are exactly the same, even though they patently are not, and we must maintain at all costs the (largely true) story that vaccines are safe, even though what makes vaccines 'safe', in the way we usually use that term, is the acquisition of long-term data about their safety. As Jennie Bristow cogently argued, acting rashly over new vaccines where only partial data exists risks driving up vaccine hesitancy for our successful childhood vaccination programmes that carry far greater community benefits. In this regard, diehard pro-vaxxers have become precisely that which they hate: spreaders of vaccine disinformation that risks discouraging life-saving vaccination programmes.

How did we leap straight to the imposition of these vaccines upon everyone, when we are still establishing the long-term safety and efficacy of these vaccines? Even the British Medical Journal raised an eyebrow when the FDA in the United States abruptly decided to declare 'these new vaccines are now approved', as if waving a magic wand to make the need for longitudinal studies disappear. Peter Doshi, senior editor at the BMJ was forced to remark regarding the draft proposal:

Prior to the preprint, my view, along with a group of around 30 clinicians, scientists, and patient advocates, was that there were simply too many open questions about all covid-19 vaccines to support approving any this year... I reiterate our call: "slow down and get the science right—there is no legitimate reason to hurry to grant a license to a coronavirus vaccine."

I am sympathetic to the terror people feel about this disease, a fear fostered by the irresponsible way the pandemic has been reported - some even mistakenly believe SARS-CoV2 is as deadly as smallpox. It's actually a hundred times less fatal, 0.3% versus 30% infection fatality rate. That doesn't mean this isn't a serious disease - measles typically has a comparable 0.2% infection fatality rate and we take that seriously - but neither does it mean we can avoid the role of evidence in both making and revising our decisions. We simply cannot afford to sacrifice good scientific practice to our fear, and like everything else in this miserably mishandled pandemic, we all swiftly jumped to our preferred conclusions early on and then proceeded to forcibly discount any and all evidence to the contrary.

We made this catastrophe together by shattering open scientific discourse through the same ugly, partisan politics that have blighted civic discourse for decades. If we could put a thousandth of the effort invested in denouncing our political opponents towards pursuing answers to the research ambiguities, we might have actually saved lives instead of just squabbling. Even now, rather than examining the data  and debating which policy changes might protect the vulnerable, some continue to exacerbate this destructive divide by falsely claiming that unvaccinated US citizens are 'overwhelming' hospitals. Yet at time of writing, Department of Health and Human Services data shows that only 15% of beds are occupied by COVID-19 patients, and the September JAIC report shows that in the crucial 65+ age demographic, 71% of hospital patients for this disease were already vaccinated (up from 60% in August). That's not evidence the vaccines don't work - the age group was 80% vaccinated, which skews the ratios. But it is evidence that demonising the unvaccinated is little more than hateful scapegoating.

As I argued in my piece for the AIER (an organisation I never thought I would be writing for!), slow science is strong science. When we rush our understanding, we get it wrong. And not just the scientific implications, we get the moral implications wrong too. We kick black and Hispanic citizens out of society because they did not panic in the way that white people required them to panic. We unjustly dismiss the loyal service of police officers and nurses even after they heroically bore the risks of the pandemic through their dedicated service to us. We declare that the only good people are those who react to a new medical intervention with an unquestioning zeal that goes far beyond the evidence.

Worst of all, we destroy democracy in Africa over a disease that is far, far more serious in the global north. In the countries where you and I dwell, people are lucky enough to live to be over 80 and thus die of respiratory infections in their sunset years, rather than dying from preventable pneumonia under the age of five like those 22,000 black children who die in Senegal every year, whose black lives apparently do not matter one jot. Millions of poor children around the world die like this, as much from poverty as from the pneumonia that actually ends their lives. There's more than one kind of sickness worth worrying about.

On a more pleasant note, I must say that it is a perverse pleasure to hear you write openly about being "a religious person". For most people I talk to, that phrase means "Christian", and most Buddhists I know shy away from using the term 'religious' for that very reason. Wouldn't want to associate with Christians, would we... they, after all, are the most likely US citizens to decline the opportunity to vaccinate against SARS-CoV2. That is partly why black and Hispanic citizens living in New York make up such a significant proportion of the unvaccinated, because these communities are strongly Christian, although I don't want to ignore those mostly-white Catholics who are being denied religious exemptions from these draconian mandates, despite clearly having a sound legal basis for asserting such an exemption. 'Freedom' is such a negotiable term in the 21st century; a 'plastic word', as Sinéad Murphy suggests 'Health' has become... it is a wonder anyone can use either term with a straight face any more.

As you know, I'm moving back to the United States - at least, I will be as soon as my papers come through, which could take another year. My family has already been there for two months, and I miss them greatly. But I can't help but worry about the grave missteps being taken by the great country they are now living in. I worry especially about these measures that segregate the unvaccinated, which feels like the most shocking thing the US has done to its own citizens in my lifetime. Given that these vaccines are less effective than natural immunity at preventing spread, and given how many people have already carried the infection, why would we institute such unjust measures rather than just encouraging the vulnerable to get vaccinated for their own benefit? As Stanford university health economist Jay Bhattacharya laments: "Businesses that exclude the unvaccinated are, in effect, discriminating against the working class and the poor who have already suffered through the disease." Have we not inflicted enough harm on those who live on the edge of poverty without this further indignity?

I have been vaccinated against SARS-CoV2; I never got the infection to my knowledge, and at my age of not-quite-fifty the data shows I stand to benefit from substantially reduced risks of death or hospitalisation. But even though I've had the 'jab', and encourage others to do so where the benefits are clear-cut, I will not be able to comply with these monstrous policies that discriminate against the unvaccinated as if they were unclean, rather than merely at greater risk of dying from one specific cause of death (and not even that, if they already carried the infection!). I have had to resign my position at LCAD in California since they have decided to segregate and I simply cannot support an organisation that has chosen to do so, not under these circumstances. How could I look anyone in the eye knowing that I had endorsed segregation? And how can I see this as anything but segregation when I look at the data for this disease and for these vaccines...?

You tell me that it is wrong to call it segregation, because it is justified on medical grounds. But if that is so, then doesn't it follow that if those medical grounds are shown to rest upon mistaken assumptions (as they do), we should indeed call it segregation? You also tell me that we've done this before - but when? When have we forced vaccines that were still untested long-term onto anyone, much less upon everyone - even children for whom the risk-benefit calculus for these vaccines is so far from reasonable expectations that it would ordinarily constitute a scandal? When have we ever compelled the healthy, rather than the sick, to quarantine, unless you count the Jewish ghettos of the Middle Ages? Even in medieval epidemics, those doors that were marked as 'harbouring the plague' were those that were actually infected, although then too some who were seen as different were unjustly persecuted and blamed for what was happening... Then as now, we are projecting our fear of the virus onto those who we mark as 'unclean' and trying to foist blame onto them for nothing more than holding different values.

I realise there are many who will vociferously object to the way I am characterising these issues - perhaps including you yourself. Indeed, we have already clashed on Twitter over these vaccines and over my insistence on using the inflammatory (yet apposite) term 'segregation'. I might even get banned from Twitter for sharing this, for all I know, since it most certainly disagrees with their chosen interpretation of the data, and that is a global censoring offence these days. But I invite all those who disagree with me, as I invite anyone and everyone at all times, to write to me, and to discuss this immensely difficult topic with me in a civil and thoughtful manner. Help me to understand why it is acceptable for white people in wealthy nations to enforce their inadequately-researched doctrines of public health onto the world in such a way as it excludes large numbers of black and Hispanic citizens from participating in their own society, forces loyal public servants with natural immunity to lose their jobs for no good reason, and destroys democracy in African nations that had previously shown such beauty and hope.

You talk about 'karma' in your letter... As you know, I like to identify as a Zen Sufi Hindu Christian Discordian, and the concept of 'karma' I follow comes not from my Buddhist tradition (Zen) but from the Hindu traditions. Karma for many Hindus is a straightforward concept of cause and effect. It does not even require a mystical element, although it is often afforded that dimension. When we cause harm, harm returns to us, not by straight roads, but through the web of causality that links all things together. Karma for me, and for some other Hindus, is not a positive concept, it is the damage we cause through our actions; harms that we seek to keep as small and inconsequential as we can.

My Hindu concept of karma dovetails with my Christian concept of sin through the writings of the philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, after whom my first born is named. Kierkegaard writes of "the sickness unto death", by which he does not mean infection, but despair, which is what 'sin' means to him:

When death is the greatest danger, one hopes for life. But when one learns to know the even more horrifying danger, one hopes for death. When the danger is so great that death has become the hope, then despair is the hopelessness of not even being able to die.

So it is superficial... to remark of someone in despair, as though it were the penalty of despair, ‘They are eating themselves up.’ For that is just what they despair of doing, that is just what to their torment they cannot do, since with despair a fire takes hold in something that cannot burn, or cannot be burned up – the self.

This concept of sin, not as transgressions against a cosmic law but as suffering and as self-inflicted suffering aligns with the understanding of karma I get from Hindu scripture, because of course the despair we inflict upon ourselves all too often becomes a despair we inflict upon others, most evidently with suicide. And this is what I am seeing everywhere now - a great despair we have inflicted upon ourselves that we seem insistent must be inflicted everywhere. The new sickness unto death. Alienation from our love for one another, the collapse of the mutual respect upon which democracy depends, and an explosion of bigotry and scapegoating so hateful that we now rejoice at the deaths of those who disagree with us, instead of weeping together at every tragic loss of life. We can no longer find the solidarity championed by Ghandi or Martin Luther King, the universal love that for both Hindu and Christian is alone deserving of the hallowed name 'God' (Brahman). This infectious hatred of others is a disease far more dangerous than COVID-19, since the virus only threatens us with death yet this other sickness entails the far greater risk of utterly destroying our ability to live together.

It's not fashionable to talk of God. And it is rarely fashionable to talk about God in ways that straddle traditions. But I have never cared much for fashion. What I care about is people, our planet that we share, and the future that we might build together. That's why I don't care whether people have one religion, no religion, or many religions. I only care about caring, and striving to avoid causing inadvertent harm through our attempts to care - the ever-present yet oft-ignored risk at the very heart of this crisis. So I let myself care about everyone, and I cannot and will not set a limit on that love, nor exclude some arbitrary set of people from the universal love that flows through me from nowhere or from everywhere, depending upon how you choose to see it.

This new sickness unto death is as great a threat to what matters as anything that came before. I must oppose it with the only weapon I can permit myself to draw: my compassion. It is my fervent wish that you and others will come to stand in solidarity with me as we form a line to resist the darkness that engulfs our world. Hope is still kindled in my heart, and perhaps in yours, and no doubt in others too. Let us stand together in love against every despair that threatens our capacity to live together in peace.

With unlimited love,

Chris.

Only a Game returns in the Gregorian New Year.


Five Choices (5): The Experts vs the People

Part five of Five Choices, a Philosophical Reflection on Scientific Knowledge

5 - Encaustic VioletWho can we trust to make the important decisions? We have a choice. One approach is to stand by the ideals of democracy and, one way or another, let the people decide for themselves. But what if they make the wrong choice? We could be committed to a terrible course of action causing immense harm to public health, political stability, or the ideals of civilisation. Can we afford to let that happen?

The alternative is clear - we can let the important decisions be made by whomever has the relevant expertise. The experts, having had the necessary training, are ideally suited to make decisions, and to abandon expertise would be reckless - especially in a time of crisis. But the nature of every emergency is that the facts are not always evident and prior training is no guarantee of insight into a novel situation. So we face the exact same risks here as in giving the decision to the people - what if the experts make the wrong choice? The risks here are no less grave than with the people, since a terrible mistake is just as disastrous when it is made the well-educated - and it may even be far worse, if only because of the tremendous difficulty experts have in admitting they made a mistake.

But it is here that all this construction of idealised choices as a rhetorical device comes to an end. As every pollster knows, we can mount options deceptively because every time a situation is simplified to a binary choice, we have necessarily abstracted away the context which gives that decision its true meanings. If we come at the question of who we can trust to make important decisions as a choice between either the experts or the people, it looks as if we have to side with the experts. But this is not in fact a choice we should ever face, for the way to get the people to make good decisions is necessarily to share with them the perspectives of all the experts, all of whom are also part of the people. There is no need to nominate a set of 'the experts' to replace the decisions of the people. We are all 'the people', no matter what expertise we possess.

When it comes to the important decisions, the only viable way forward is to discover ways to combine expertise with democracy - because we need expertise to help make difficult decisions, but we also need democracy to ensure accountability and legitimacy, for otherwise there can only be thinly disguised tyranny. Once we realise this, we might begin to appreciate that a crisis is not a time to abandon the people for a tiny subset of experts, no matter how comforting we may find the artificial certainty this provides. On the contrary, when the people cannot question expertise, the experts become as blind to the truth as any other despotic ruler, while the people robbed of discourse with expertise become a danger to themselves and everyone else.

Good decisions do not flow from limiting the availability of expertise, but from ensuring that everyone with relevant experience is allowed to speak. This requires that we not give in to the temptation of premature certainty (the risk of 'The Science'), that we never ignore the harms inherent to our tools and methods (the risk of 'technology'), that we do not eviscerate the immense complexity of good health (the risk of 'disease'), and most certainly that we do not undermine both scientific knowledge and civil rights by saying that anyone who disagrees must be silenced (the risk of 'censorship').

These five choices do not offer different visions of good scientific practice. They offer an understanding of what good scientific practice entails, and of the risks we face when we undermine the work of the sciences through our politics or our fears (if indeed those names refer to different things...). The attempt to make experts into a caste, a priesthood, robs expertise of the democratic foundation that alone can legitimise it. The experts and the people are not opposites at all, but one and the same thing. Only when we accept this paradox can we begin to discover how me might live together.

The opening image is a detail from an encaustic artwork of unknown providence. As ever, no copyright infringement is intended and I will take the image down if asked by the rightful owner of the artwork.