A Magisterium for Science
Which Deaths Matter?

Doom Propheteering

Contains discussion of death statistics that some people may find distressing.

Cheeseflick 2012 Chiwetel Ejiofor

Suddenly, the scientist bursts into the room and announces to the shocked townsfolk that a meteor, or an alien monster, or a terrible disaster is about to strike and everyone's lives are at risk! It is the rallying call to action that the heroes need, and those who do not listen to the science are doomed to die in the coming apocalypse. This classic element of early science fiction movies never went away - even in the last decade Hollywood released disaster movies with this implausible and wholly unscientific plot element in it. Consider, as one magnificently dreadful example, Roland Emmerich's 2012, in which the brilliant Chiwetel Ejiofor is utterly wasted as a geologist warning that a planetary alignment has destabilised the Earth's crust bringing certain doom in the form of every natural disaster that the CGI special effects team could render.

Yet of course, this entire tradition of the scientist as doom prophet is another manifestation of magical science, the mythological distortion of the complex work of the sciences into sheer wizardry. Authentic scientific work almost never uncovers such clear cut omens of disaster, and even when it does there are protracted (even boring) stages of discussion, disagreement, and diversification of research projects that takes place before anything can even be provisionally settled. This process typically reduces the warning flag from urgently critical to disappointingly vague - thus, the news that humanity had triggered the sixth major extinction event in the vastly long history of our planet became, once sanded-down through scientific discourse, the much less evocative, potentially misleading phenomenon named 'climate change'. I have never stopped reminding people that the climate aspect of our environmental catastrophe is very nearly the least significant aspect - but for reasons unknown, only this name travels, only this conveniently-disputable concept is permitted to occupy space in the news cycle...

If the legitimate work of scientists should not, in actuality, manifest as doom propheteering, we might ask what exactly can science tell us about death or disaster? In the context of 'death', the answer is 'enormous grisly details' - provided our interest is post-mortem biology, the psychology of grief, or the sociological aspects of dying. The field that has picked up the name 'thanatology' (death-science) expressly has these diverse interests. But what thanatologists cannot do is establish any meaningful position in relation to death. These meanings are up to cultures and individuals to establish either collectively or personally, for no science of any kind has the capacity to leap from studying a subject area to drawing a conclusion about what should or ought to be done without bringing in values that are not inherently scientific.

Yet there is a persistent illusion that this is not so, that a lone scientist can make a pronouncement in connection with death or disaster that carries the authority to issue commands in order to prevent the meteor striking or the apocalypse being unleashed - in other words, that scientists are indeed empowered to be doom prophets. As I reflected upon in The Power of No, Mary Midgley repeatedly stressed that our metaphysical devotion to the sciences permits bias to be smuggled in under the guise of technical expertise - hence there are great dangers whenever we think that the task of integrating scientific work into the political realm is just a matter of asking any arbitrary scientist what we should do. This is a problem that, from quite a different angle, has been much discussed by the French philosopher and sociologist Bruno Latour, and it is not easy to solve.

How do we encounter doom propheteering? It is not from the scientists themselves unless we too are a scientist, or at least engaged in the discourses of the sciences (and even then, the journal system forbids honest discussion unless we pretend to be something other than human animals). No, the scientists talk to journalists, who are always eager to find that story which cuts through the familiar into the sensational. Indeed, in the era of print newspapers it was widely acknowledged that fear sells, and in the era of online news the updated formula that fear generates clicks is fundamentally no different. Death and disaster are the lifeblood of the tabloid newspaper and its heirs, and even more so for the perpetual rolling news cycle, that ever-present circus where misrepresentation all too often masquerades as information.

What could be better for the ailing news industry than a chance to engage in doom propheteering...? But not, of course, on a topic that authentically matters, like the sixth extinction event we have caused and that will end us as a species if we do not take charge of the problem within the next few centuries. No, that's too dark; people don't want to read about that. Doom propheteering is akin to an armageddon cult in many respects: disaster should be just around the corner, but it must be preventable by certain rituals such that we can then be compelled into performing those rituals, which in doom propheteering involves somebody making money off the disaster. This, I might add, need not constitute a conspiracy theory - those who are partial to conspiratorial ways of thinking routinely overestimate the power and influence of elites, just as those who delight in denouncing conspiracy theorists routinely underestimate elite influence. Rather than a conspiracy, doom propheteering is merely the social dynamics of combining the fragmentary state of knowledge that exists in every live research topic with a profit-driven industry like the news whose toolbox includes a rapacious appetite for fear-mongering.

The trick to evoking fear, whether in fiction or non-fiction, is ambiguity. We must be uncertain in order to be afraid, and the best monster movies have traditionally concealed the monster for as long as possible in order to take advantage of the dread of the unknown we are all at risk from. But there must, of course, be signs of its presence. First and foremost, somebody must die. Not everybody, or the story is over (that's another reason why our home-made extinction event is only barely newsworthy). There must also be implications of threat - scratches on the windows, howls in the night, macabre blood tests that reveal who is infected... Fictionalised doom is a game about impending death; actual death is only a part of this game in so much as it serves to emphasise the idea that anyone could be next!

But this need for ambiguity in order to evoke fear has a surprising effect when it manifests through the news. Because once you have made people afraid in what passes for reality, there are no closing credits to come and tell the audience that the horror story is over and you can breath a sigh of cathartic release that the calamity didn't really happen. No, once you evoke fear in non-fiction, you provoke action. Thus when the news media stokes fears it directly or indirectly advances a political agenda, and almost always one that aligns with a commercial interest. For instance, when tabloid journalists write about immigrants 'stealing jobs' (usually without mentioning that these are the jobs nobody wants, like manual labour, or that never have enough applicants, like medical servitude), the editorial line will advance specific causes of action such as crackdowns on illegal immigration, calls for stronger identity paperwork, or a clean break from the regional political framework that was allowing our 'foreign' neighbours to take advantage of us, all of which bring money to some group that wouldn't have had it otherwise.

The combination of uncritical faith in magical science with the fear-mongering that is all but inherent to news media is a dangerous cocktail to drink - and this is especially so because when a legitimate scientific report (say, of a respiratory virus with high rates of transmission) collides with the near-automatic practices of doom propheteering in journalism, the result will be commitments to a specific way of thinking that then undermine the capacity for the sciences to operate, which is the state of pseudoscience par excellence. And this machine's gears lock together rather too tightly. A legitimate scientific concern becomes, through the words of journalists, a cause of panic, the panic requires decisive action to allay the fears evoked, and the decisive action - being politically fractious - destroys the conditions by which the original concern could be scientifically investigated. This cycle has happened repeatedly in the last half a century, although never as disastrously as in 2020.

An especially worrying aspect of 2020 was that doom propheteering was in no way constrained to the tabloids; even the supposedly-respectable broadsheet newspapers fell prey of it. In the UK, left-leaning news sources (perhaps because their staff were moderately science-literate) jumped on some of the early guesses as if they were dogmatic truth and thus fell almost completely into the state of pseudoscience, abandoning any willingness to report on the very real, very urgent ambiguities of the ongoing medical research. Meanwhile, some of the right-leaning news sources (quite beyond my expectations) became the sole places championing liberty and human rights, perhaps desperately trying to fill the ethical void created by the left's abandonment of its traditional post as the defenders of freedom. And almost no journalist whatsoever seemed able to conduct the core tasks this role traditionally entails: investigative journalism did not investigate, and the necessity of a context to every reported fact was apparently swiftly eliminated as a requirement in favour of maintaining a pernicious solidarity of half-truths at all costs.

Thus, for instance, the shocking situation whereby death statistics could be reported without any viable basis for comparison. I understand how journalists can write with compassion about the plight of families whose loved ones are on their death beds because of a nasty respiratory infection, but I cannot comprehend how they can do so without mentioning just how many other people have been dying from other tragic causes, even very similar causes that are mysteriously not even worth mentioning. Thus if somebody reports the grim news that more than a million people around the world died last year from such-and-such a cause, that sounds shocking and scandalous. But if that megadeath is caused by a respiratory disease and you do not mention that 3 million people die from these kinds of infections every year, that is doom propheteering and not journalism. It's barely worth me mentioning that nearly a million and a half people are killed by automobiles every year, because in the seven years I've been harping on about this entirely avoidable tragedy all I have encountered is denial and dismissal, and the fact that these deaths are wholly preventable via methods entailing far fewer social and health harms than any intervention attempted in 2020 never even makes it to the table for discussion. Doom propheteering is far more effective than evidence in every conceivable way, because manipulating our fear of death motivates us in ways that actual data on deaths or species extinctions cannot. It's sad that the Northern White Rhino just went extinct in the wild, but what can we do about that...?

Similarly, it sounds dreadful that deaths in the UK in 2020 were the worst they'd been since World War II. Surely that's an undeniable sign of ongoing doom! But this convenient soundbite referred to excess deaths (a measure of deaths over and above averaged mortality), and as the BBC correctly pointed out, once you take the age-standardised mortality into account, death rates in the UK were merely the worst they'd been since the 2000s. In actuality, if you look at the total number of people dying, deaths have exceeded those from any given year in World War II for every year since 1972, because of the growth in population. Not to mention that, quite counter-intuitively, the proportion of British citizens who died in the Second World War was far lower than people tend to think. From 1939 to 1945, the death rate in the UK was between 1.21% and 1.46% of its population. Last year, it was 1.02%, up (by one tenth of a percent) from the 0.89% average over the 2010s, and slightly up (by one twentieth of a percent) from the average death rate in the 2000s of 0.97%.

What's more, even acknowledging all these complexities will fail to take into account that excess mortality in 2020 included a significant number of deaths attributable to the lockdowns, especially middle aged people who died at home from heart disease, a topic British journalists have been especially gun-shy about mentioning. To question how SARS-CoV2 has been reported is not to deny that this is a terrible virus, nor to suggest that no action should have been taken... it is merely to admit an unavoidable concern that the reporting on this topic caused more harm than good. The news services have somehow maintained the dogmatic view that the actions we have been taking are about 'saving lives', even while they cost people both their lives and their livelihoods. Apparently, we are now so afraid of dying that even monstrous curtailments of liberty can be enacted as long as we say they are intended to save lives. It is a painful reminder that while in World War II liberty was prized above life, in 2021 the priority of these goods is now sadly reversed.

After reading Latour's Politics of Nature, I was quite won over by his arguments and concerns about the difficulties of bringing the sciences into a productive discourse with politics. Yet it is only over the last year that I have lost my reservations in suggesting that the problem might not be so much with politics as with journalism. That's because the news media has almost all the power when it comes to the mobilisation (or neutralisation) of the electorate, and politicians largely respond to the electorate since they lack the courage to actively lead them in any tangible sense. The journalists themselves often seem to intentionally ignore this power they collectively wield, perhaps taking it on faith that their professional ethics purifies what is published of all sin (for the broadsheets), or else (for the tabloids) taking a jaded view whereby there is nothing they can do about the way things are so they might as well toe the editorial line and draw a paycheque at the end of the month.

Meanwhile, scientists - as nerds like myself - are generally so delighted that anybody is interested in their research that they gladly go on record with any journalist, without almost a moment's thought about what that might trigger in terms of misconceptions or outright misrepresentation of what they have to say. The idea that the sciences are value-neutral (which I have already exposed as nonsense) sometimes fools scientists into believing they do not need to take responsibility for the presentation of their research in the media... this is not so. Rather, the risk Midgley warned about - smuggling political values under the flag of scientific neutrality - becomes all the more urgent the greater the chance that news media can engage in doom propheteering with what is being reported. In this regard, a journalist who propagates bias out of their zeal for science is potentially more dangerous than one who inflates a crisis for dramatic effect, since they are far less likely to ever admit that they have acted recklessly.

In the movies, the ultimate fate of the doom prophet scientist varies.... sometimes they provide a means of escape or victory but have to sacrifice themselves for it to work; sometimes they fall prey of the threat they warned about; sometimes, as with 2012, they are even allowed to live to see a happy ending. In the world around us, however, doom propheteering almost always follows the same path. If the scientists involved are few in number and are shown to be wrong, they will suffer censor or career-ending derision; if there are many, the matter becomes closed for discussion with a mere shrug and a meek admission that the research moves on. Yet the journalists who opportunistically elevate always-ambiguous research into prophecies of doom are insulated from any consequence save minimalist retractions of factual inaccuracy, tucked away in a corner of a page somewhere. I fully expect that the vast majority of journalists will remain resolute that their actions 2020 in were right and necessary, despite having zealously championed bantamweight tyranny under the banner of public health while fatally undermining the capacity for medical science to actually serve the goals of public health in any honest capacity.

I find it hard to contemplate the behaviour of British journalists over the last year and square it against the idea that these are the actions of a free press. Either the journalists have been prevented from doing their jobs by an editorial line that required them to align with government dogma, even while the government's position diverged ever further from what the research communities were still debating (in which case they were not free), or else the journalists of their own volition decided to act in this way (in which case I question whether they can be considered press rather than, say, propagandists). A free press may well be a necessary cornerstone for a free society, as it is sometimes argued. But if so, we no longer have a free society, because it seems that we do not have a free press. The journalist as a defender of justice and a seeker of truth is an ideal worth defending, and we urgently need journalists who can live up to this image right now. What we have instead is the toxic purveyor of fear that is the true face of the doom propheteer.


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