Falsificationism – 2

For a fascinating and illuminating summary and debate on the competing suppressor and ripper arguments, consider the articles below from The BMJ (formerly the British Medical Journal but now known only by the acronym). The articles and responses are somewhat technical, but bear in mind that the BMJ website cautions us that it’s ‘intended for healthcare professionals.

This one summarises the opposing camps:


This one makes the case that’s there’s level of natural immunity to Covid-19 despite its ‘novel’ character (and it’s worth reading the ‘rapid responses’):


The suggestion is that the luckier amongst us may possess a natural immunity to Covid-19 (derived from experience of various strains of the common cold), that this may vary from one part of the world to another, and that in almost all populations the pessimistic assumption, that a herd immunity threshold of around 60% is required before the virus stops spreading, is false. The writer suggests that declines in rates of spread in some communities are a result of the herd immunity threshold being approached or reached already, not the result of suppression alone.

You would think that such a view might be amenable to falsification, in that, where the herd immunity threshold has not been reached, current rates of resurgence would reflect the prevalence of immunity. That makes it science!

So, it’s worth reading the ‘rapid responses’ to the main article. Some are supportive, some contrarian, but most are ‘scientific’ (though who am I to judge such a thing!). Worth noting that one of them discusses evidence to support the view that Vitamin D can help us ward off the virus and improve our chances if we get it. I’m taking it myself!

Overall, the consensus seems to be that it’s likely there’s some kind of natural immunity, to Covid-19, but whether that means the herd immunity threshold, initially and pessimistically modelled at around 60%, is as low as 20% is uncertain. Given the current resurgence, probably not.

The question, then, as to whether the rippers or the suppressors are right in respect of the science is unresolved for the moment (though how this question might be resolved is certainly becoming more clear). How ‘the science’ might then inform policy is a matter for political and ethical debate.

In the UK, Intensive Care Units are not yet overwhelmed, but their use will rise over the coming weeks, irrespective of lock-down levels. Would I bet my soul on letting the virus rip, in the belief that they won’t be overwhelmed due to our approaching the threshold of herd immunity, or in the belief that the vulnerable can be shielded? Probably not.


I’m not exactly sleepless with anxiety, but I’m ever more dismayed and confused by two competing theories about the virus.

There are those who cry, ‘Suppress, suppress’ whilst others insist we should ‘Let it rip, but protect the vulnerable’.

Both sides tout evidence to support their views.

The suppressors say that:

  1. If we let the virus rip then hundreds of thousands will die
  2. Our healthcare systems will be overwhelmed
  3. Young people will also get very sick
  4. ‘Long’ Covid is a serious risk for all
  5. Post-Covid immunity is not guaranteed
  6. It’s impossible to identify and shield the vulnerable

The rippers say that:

  1. The elderly and vulnerable can be protected
  2. Much of the population has a natural immunity
  3. The virus has ripped already and has done its worst, which wasn’t even half as bad as others predicted
  4. Herd immunity (even without the aid of vaccines) is the only way forward
  5. The damage done by suppression exceeds the benefit by far

Much of this is conjecture. If it weren’t, the issue would surely have been resolved.

The only facts we can be sure of are the simple historical ones about what’s already happened – that large numbers of people got sick and died, and that at various times in various places our health services were overwhelmed. Why that happened, what happened at the cellular level, or exactly how the virus passed from one person to another, and when, we still don’t know.

Policy makers claim they’re ‘guided’ by, or ‘informed’ by, the science. The trouble is, the scientists can’t agree on what ‘the science’ is. Some of them, I suspect, don’t even agree on what ‘science’ is.

But whatever the science tells us, what we do is also governed by what our principles are. If you’re a strict utilitarian you’d probably put the wider long-term welfare of the many ahead of the acute need of the few. But, in terms of guiding principles, my own view, and probably the instinctive view of the majority, is that we mustn’t allow our health services to be overwhelmed, even if that comes at considerably long term cost to wider society. The acute need for intensive care of those who would otherwise die at home, must be met.

Putting principles aside, what irks me about the suppressors and the rippers, is that you rarely hear them say what would prove either of them right or wrong. How exactly are we to decide between them?

One of the first books of philosophy I read before studying the subject at university was A J Ayer’s Language, Truth and Logic, a work of logical positivism that sought to show that the meaning of a sentence lies in its method of verification. Put simply, for a sentence to have meaning you’ve got to understand what would demonstrably have to be the case for it to be true. That leaves statements such as ‘God is Love’ or Blake’s ‘the tigers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction’ in a limbo of meaning and usefulness beyond the Kuyper Belt. (Hoist, as it were, by his own petard, Ayer could never explain how to verify his own ‘The meaning of a sentence lies in its method of verification.’)

You might wonder what that’s got to do with the virus. Well, I suppose verificationism can’t entirely be nonsense. Truth, at least of the kind promoted by rippers and suppressors, must have something to do with fact.

Digressing still further, hard on the heels of verificationism, at least in terms of the philosophy curriculum, came falsificationism, Karl Popper’s contribution to the philosophy of science. Whilst descriptions (though probably not of the ‘tigers of wrath’ or the ‘God is Love’ kind) are often made sense of through their correspondence to things we see or measure in the physical world, scientific statements, to be truly scientific, must be capable of falsification. They will never, otherwise, advance our understanding of the world. Scientific hypotheses must be capable of prediction, and susceptible to falsification, and rejection (or in most cases reasonable elaboration). Newtonian physics was useful (it’s still useful for most of us and easier to live by than relativity) but in the end it was falsified and improved.

And it’s said of three of the Big Theories of the 19th century – Marx’s, Freud’s and Darwin’s – that only Darwin’s is resembles a scientific theory. I’ve never grasped what could disprove Freudian explanation, though, to be fair, Freud and Marx mightn’t have claimed full ‘scientific’ status for their theories.

But that’s my problem with the rippers and the suppressors. They don’t sound like scientists. They sound like priests. They’re professing Faith rather than Fact. When do we ever hear them saying, ‘If this happens, then I’m wrong?’

How are we ever to decide between them?