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.


Five Choices (4): Censorship vs Disagreement

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

4 - Encaustic BlueHow should we deal with misinformation? We have a choice. One approach is to accept disagreement, to let people share their perspectives even if they are wrong, and thus to tolerate arguments as an essential part of democracy and free speech. But if we do this, we run risks. People may be misled into doing things that put them at grave risk, or even that put everyone in danger. People may be incited into extreme acts that undermine democratic institutions. People might even be lured into hating their neighbours for their differences. Can we bear to undertake such risks?

We have a clear alternative: censorship. We can say that whenever the consequences are sufficiently severe, we are obligated to draw a line in the sand against disinformation and prevent it from being disseminated. We could form a media power bloc - say, a Trusted News Initiative - and get all the tech companies controlling social media, and all the major players in the journalistic media to agree to prevent the dissemination of misinformation. In short, we can unite the most powerful forces in communications technology to enforce censorship in order to prevent misinformation from being spread.

But this too carries risks. The nature of scientific process is built upon disagreements. Despite the simplistic orthodoxy of 'hypothesis, experiment, theory', the production of scientific knowledge is not a sausage machine that you simply crank the handle to reach conclusions. On the contrary, a fairer caricature of the process would be 'competing hypotheses, triangulation of evidence, validation of theories' - and in all three stages, disagreement is essential to success. In the absence of disagreement, we are in danger of drawing premature conclusions based on incomplete evidence, and thus treating provisional hypotheses as robust theories without the painstaking work required to assemble an accurate picture.

Applying censorship to active scientific research topics is not a way of defending scientific knowledge, it is a method of completely preventing its production. You simply cannot stop the spread of misinformation without knowing what the true state of affairs is, and you cannot know this without permitting the disagreements that allow the sciences to conduct effective research programmes. And given that every theory in the sciences is provisional until all objections are eventually resolved (a process that typically takes decades), there is never a viable point at which censorship could plausibly be in the service of scientific truth.

If you resort to censorship, you make it impossible to know the true state of affairs. As a result, people may be misled into doing things that put them at grave risk, even that put everyone in danger, such as prolonging widespread panic. People may be incited into extreme acts that undermine democratic institutions, such as reneging on civil rights agreements. People may be lured into hating their neighbours for their differences, such as whether or not they have taken a vaccine. Can we bear to undertake such risks?

Next week, the final part: The Experts vs the People

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.


Five Choices (3): Health vs Disease

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

3 - Encaustic GreenHow should we try to look after ourselves? We have a choice. On the one hand, we can choose health, and therefore try to find ways to maintain and encourage good health in all those we share the world with. This is the difficult process of finding ways to balance whatever gives us pleasure and enjoyment with whatever harms are associated with it. It is not a one-size-fits-all situation; even if I know that I need exercise, companionship, and sustenance, what works for me in this regard need not work as well for someone else. Living for good health means wrestling with situations as complex as humanity itself.

Fortunately, there is a far simpler approach to the problem of living: we can declare war on disease instead. If we call 'disease' whatever causes harm, the problem of how we should live becomes far simpler, since all we have to do now is minimise disease. Unlike good health, which requires us to think about humans in the context of their minds and lives, minimising disease seems amenable to a simple calculation - does this cause more disease, or less? If it causes less, that is the option we must choose. All other considerations can be rescinded, or at least brushed under the carpet - even the impact of this choice on other diseases is all too frequently ignored once the order to charge is given.

But this negative policy of disease is a chimera. Disease is always hiding in shadows, and it is never as clearly defined as when it is painted by those who insist we are obligated to wage war against the invisible enemy. 'Disease' is a book of names that is always open for additions, but the naming is not the problem. It is the presupposition of disease that we might question, for once we commit to replacing the problem of good health with the Sisyphean task of fighting diseases, every problem becomes deceptively simple. Here is another disease, what can we manufacture to fight this disease...?

Alas for proponents of this infinite medical crusade, good health is not merely the absence of disease. At best, limiting disease is a component of good health - and how great a contribution it might make we certainly shall not discover by treating disease as a war we are obligated to fight on all fronts. For unless a battle, a disaster, or an accident claims your life you will eventually die of disease - to think otherwise is merely to deceive yourself. As long as you approach the problem of life from the presumption of arresting disease, failure is inevitable.

There is another way: to choose to pursue good health and thus enter a strange and ambiguous world whereby your physical and mental well-being are yours to claim and discover. Paradoxically, committing to fighting disease is not a path to good health at all, but merely a means of escaping thinking about it. For as we always knew, disease is not another name for health, but rather its diametric opposite.

Next week: Censorship vs Disagreement

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.


Five Choices (2): Technology vs Sciences

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

2 - Encaustic YellowWhere should we place our trust if we wish to help humanity flourish? We have a choice. One path is to commit to scientific practice to give us means to evaluate our options for living. Through the laborious work of investigation, disagreement, and eventual consensus, the sciences give us means to parameterise the options available to us. We can, for instance, compare different treatments for a particular kind of cancer in order to determine what is effective in comparison to no treatment - and this latter option is much more important than we sometimes recognise, since from the point of view of scientific work, taking no action must always be compared to taking action if we want to be sure that the conclusions we are reaching are valid.

There is an alternative path - technology. We have tended to think of the relationship between science and technology as akin to cause and effect: first we conduct The Science, then we build The Technology. And there is some truth to this understanding, for revisions and expansions to our knowledge attained by the meticulous work of researchers do indeed open up new possibilities for creating tools. But technology, as Martin Heidegger realised, is not just a name for our devices but rather an enframing philosophy of instrumental means. We back-project the name 'technology' onto windmills and ploughs, but when we evoke this name today we are ordering the world to our purposes. Through our commitment to technology, all things become resources for our exploitation.

To think of technology and the sciences in tension feels strange, given how we have learned to view one as a consequence of the other. But if the core philosophy of the sciences is to patiently construct the truth of any situation, the core philosophy of technology is to produce superior means for exploiting all available resources - including humanity. Have you never wondered why so many organisations can name a department, without a trace of irony, 'Human Resources'...? The vital question becomes whether exploiting humanity and the world as resources can indeed serve human flourishing rather than, say, rendering it impossible. Technology offers us an alternative to human flourishing: ever greater technical power.

What does it mean to choose between technology and the sciences? It is the tension between exploitation of resources and answering questions about the effects of so doing. Thus if we choose 'technology' we can (for instance) claim that cars get safer as we add more safety equipment, whereas if we choose 'sciences' we can determine that 1.2 million people still die from road accidents irrespective of those modifications, while the environmental damage associated with their manufacture and operation remains unrelenting. If we choose the sciences over and above technology, we are obligated to look our cyclopean monster in its eye and can scarcely reach any other conclusion than that technology, far from saving us, has raised us up so high that we can see our own extinction from here.

Next week: Health vs Disease

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.


Five Choices (1): The Science vs Research

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

1 - Encaustic RedWhere can we turn in these troubled times for solutions to the difficult problems? When it comes to empirical matters, we have a clear choice. One option is to turn to researchers to conduct investigations, but this takes time. Experiments and studies require planning and execution. While laboratory studies can be completed in mere days, substantial trials take months - years for longitudinal data. Then papers must be written, submitted to journals, peer reviewed (often, alas, under highly manipulative conditions), and even after that the scientific community does not treat a matter as closed. Other researchers and theoreticians will respond to the initial reports and conduct further research, either in support of or in opposition to the conclusions drawn in the original paper. All in all, reaching a firm interpretation of the evidence can take years - in some cases decades. Scientific research is slow.

Fortunately, we have a faster alternative - The Science. The Science works on an entirely different basis, because unlike the meticulous investigations conducted by researchers, the Science is always by definition true. Therefore, if you rely upon The Science instead of research, you are never wrong, and do not have to face the time, effort, or aggravating disagreements that happen whenever researchers strive to reach viable interpretations of the evidence. Once you choose The Science over research, you simply reach a conclusion - either instantaneously, on the basis of prior theory, or rapidly on the basis of the early guesses - and magically your work is done! You have your decision, and far faster and more easily than if you had committed to the painstaking process of assembling the truth via the work of researchers.

Precisely because The Science is never wrong, errors are simply attributed to specific scientists, which is to say, to mere researchers, further increasing the conceptual distance between these two alternative forms of knowledge production. The sciences and their researchers are not only slow and messy, they must be the site of all mistakes, because The Science, by definition, is infallible. That's why it commands such vehement commitment from its advocates: unlike research, The Science is never wrong.

This ideological idol we have built over the site of research practice works so effectively to usurp and undermine scientific work that we can brazenly dismiss all claims contrary to The Science as belonging to "just some scientists". Regrettably, in the last year we have intensified the power of The Science by permitting - nay, insisting! - that everything contrary to The Science must be excluded as dangerous. The Science is threatened by those who disagree with it, because it is necessarily true and therefore beyond challenge. Yet haven't we seen this pattern before, in other institutions that claim authority, and decry contrary viewpoints as blasphemy? The Science seems remarkably similar to precisely that which is claimed to be its opposite...

Next week: Technology vs Science

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.


Prelude: Five Choices

A preface to Five Choices, a Philosophical Reflection on Scientific Knowledge

0 - Encaustic - BlackAt a time when we are told there are no choices, that what must be done is known and certain, it is impish - practically blasphemous! - to suggest we have choices. But we always have choices. What we often don't have are good choices.

In the short serial that follows, Five Choices, a Philosophical Reflection on Scientific Knowledge, I offer a series of five choices in how we approach the production of scientific knowledge.

Or do I...?

Reading each choice it may seem as if no reasonable choice is actually entailed, that if we accept my premises we must make the choice that, clearly, I am arguing for. And this is precisely the point - the trick, even. For given that on all five choices we already somehow chose the unthinkable choice, something must be seriously wrong with our collective thinking on scientific knowledge to have made not just one horrible mistake but five dreadful and ghastly mistakes.

And of course, the reason we choose the unthinkable choice in each case was precisely that it was not presented as this choice at all, but as another choice, a choice where there was no choice. An infernal alternative, as Isabelle Stengers and Phillipe Pignarre put the matter: "Wherever an infernal alternative is constituted, politics gives way to submission, and even those who resist may be trapped, that is to say, may define their opposition in the terms fabricated by the alternative."

If I am successful in reconstructing these non-choices as non-choices of another kind - of a kind that reveals that there always was a choice and we merely made bad choices and called them unavoidable, it may hint at a secret path out of the political labyrinth we have found ourselves imprisoned within. Only it is not much of a secret... it is so blindingly obvious that, incredibly, we did not even consider it an option. We could choose to uphold our prior ideals, ideals we have been told remain important even while we are instructed that they have been completely trumped (pun intended) by urgent crises that require us to pack them away until that jam-tomorrow moment when these self-inflicted amplifications of catastrophe are over.

Mary Midgley, as ever, saw the risks of such bizarre salvation narratives when they become falsely associated with the work of the sciences. Writing in 1992, she remarked:

Science really is a wonderful thing, and human beings really are wonderful creatures. But there are other wonderful things and wonderful creatures in the world as well. To exalt science properly is to show it in its place among them, not to send it off to an unreal, isolated pedestal among the galaxies. The true value of science is something that is only insulted by tagging it with the offer of pie in the sky. Nor can that offer restore the meaning to life, if indeed meaning is lacking. If it was wrong for religion to make capital out of offers of this kind, it is no less wrong for science to do so.

I stand ready to escape from the oubliette. I hope some of you will come with me.

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.


Manifesto for Welcoming

Unknown PaintingWhoever you are, be welcome.

I do not make this offer lightly.

There are some terrifying people in our world but I still extend my welcome to everyone who is able to talk respectfully, no matter who they are.

Even if I cannot bear your politics, or (worse) your tactics, I still welcome you to speak here - indeed, I want to hear what you have to say. Now, perhaps more than ever, we truly need to talk, because we seem to have forgotten how to do it.

I welcome with an especial warmth all the outcasts, the misfits, and the besieged; the metaphysical vagabonds, the ethical enigmas, and the wild and beautiful freaks who make this world wonderful without ever realising that they had this gift.

I welcome everyone who has made a mistake and not been able to realise it, or who came to understand yet could not bear the truth revealed. I greet with open arms all those whose world barely hangs together after suffering through all the distractions, lies, and confusion inflicted upon us by the powerful, the deluded, or the complicit.

I welcome all you desperate immigrants - legal or otherwise - whether you have fled from the ruins of a life that my nation or its allies intentionally or inadvertently bombed into oblivion, or are just hoping to eke out a life somewhere new. I have been - and am about to be again - an immigrant, but I have not suffered like many of you have since I am a white, English-speaking male, and can “pass” almost anywhere that the desperate pin their hopes.

I welcome the unvaccinated, these new lepers, accused witches, and despised untouchables who face segregation and hatred on all sides. All those with medical beliefs outside the majority I welcome, all those who are told they are vile by panicking hordes. They call you ‘anti-scientific’ with a sneer, yet ironically those who revile you still have (like everyone else, alas) quite a slender grasp of the complex puzzle box that even the simplest of empirical investigations represents. And even they, for all their ill-begotten hatred, are welcome here.

I welcome all those iridescent trans folks who are suffering still - even (especially?) all those outcast trans folks in the shady corners of discomfort who risk being abhorred if they admit that their own beliefs diverge from the party line. So too I welcome those lesbians and their allies who staunchly defend a regimented view of sex that is not my own, but that is logical, consistent, and clearly crucial to your understanding of being in the world. Whichever side you find yourself, whether in this heartbreaking culture war or any other, you are welcome here.

Please know that no matter how we disagree I will never tell you what you are obligated to believe about politics, medicine, sex, gender, patriarchy, God, the Goddess, hot dog buns, or anything else. Every 'ought' I speak depends upon the principle it follows from, but it is up to you and you alone to choose those principles you must follow. And whenever someone tries to silence, deplatform, marginalise, abuse, ignore, or demonise you - or anyone else engaged in peaceful discourse - I will always lend my support to your free speech, and the freedom of thought it defends. How could I do otherwise...?

I won’t say I don’t take sides - even journalists lie to themselves when they think they can play at neutrality - but I want to listen. I want to hear what troubles you, I want to know how others have marshalled pressure against you, and if you have been excluded I want to include you here, even (especially?) if you are not welcome elsewhere. Because nothing good comes from seeing other people as demonic. Even those grotesque dictators, those Nicolae Ceaușescu and Idi Amin who brutalised the innocent, they too were still human, all too human.

So, be welcome.

Be welcome whoever you are.

Be welcome whatever you believe.

Be welcome here for as long as you can talk respectfully. Yet even if you lapse into demon-scrying screeds, I will still forgive you. I must. For you are my sisters, my brothers, and everything in between and beyond.

Be welcome, and please, no matter how difficult it may be, no matter the extent of our pain, distrust, or fear, let us try to talk.

The origin of the opening image is unknown to me, but if anyone can identify it I will add the attribution. As ever, no copyright infringement is intended and I will take the image down if asked by the respective rights holder.


Galileo vs the CDC (AIER)

Trial of GalileoThe AIER has graciously run a piece I wrote entitled Galileo vs the CDC, which looks at the damage done to scientific process when we censor disagreements through the context of Galileo's struggle against institutional authority. I wrote this piece thinking it was unpublishable in the current political climate, so I'm very glad the AIER were willing to take it.

In effect, this piece is a spin-off from the current Magical Science campaign I'm running on Only a Game, and I must say its nice to have a philosophy of science piece run somewhere other than my own backyard. Here's an extract:

It is this schizophrenic clash between our faith in scientific methods and the unseen yet immense complexities we thus tend to ignore that lies at the heart of the key question we must ask about contemporary scientific research. Once we step beyond merely believing and begin to understand that the work of the sciences is much more fragile than we tend to expect, we may come to recognize that the institutional power that oppressed Galileo is as much a threat to assembling a true picture today as it was in the 17th century.

Check out the entirety of Galileo vs the CDC over at AIER.


Kicking Off

Kicking OffWhat a interregnum it has been this time... my last substantial post was on May 4th, which was more than four months ago. I've not gone four months without blogging since I started back in 2005. But now it's time to get back to the Republic of Bloggers before November rolls around and it'll be time for my Autumnal social media break once more!

  • Coming up on Tuesday, my Manifesto for Welcoming, the second intermission in the Magical Science campaign.
  • For six weeks after that, a short serial that constitutes Act III of the current campaign entitled Five Choices, a Philosophical Reflection on Scientific Knowledge.
  • Then, before the next break, a blog-letter replying to Chris Billows to bookend.
  • If anyone else sends me a blog-letter within this interval, there may be other replies too, although the odds feel stacked against that outcome.
  • ...I may also run some pieces over at ihobo.com if I get time to write them.

This is also my first snippets since 2016, five years ago. Can you believe this used to be a regular feature here? Of course, that was back when people followed blogs rather than blocking one another on social media(!).

Stay tuned for more nonsense starting on Tuesday!