Falsificationism

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?

6 thoughts on “Falsificationism

  1. Thank you for sorting this so eloquently and stating ‘out loud’ how confused and despairing we feel when we hear over and again this or that position conflicting position (often from the same mouth). Is it Fiddler on the Roof where the main character repeats ‘on the other hand, on the other hand……’ ?

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  2. Adam,i’m not as well read as you,but i’m confused too.I understand the need to keep people safe.I also know the need to keep the economy viable.So many people have lost their jobs,so many businesses have gone.The government aren’t looking after everyone financially,food banks are overwhelmed.I’m really at a loss to know what’s the answer.Peoples health is key,but how are they supposed to feed their children,pay their mortgage,or rent?i’m elderly,but worry about the future for our young families and businesses.

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      • Well maybe the answer is hidden in literature. If we just simply look at the meanings of what is a “suppressor” and a “ripper” hmmm look at this one for instance : A Ripper is an infamous nickname given to sadistic vampires who enjoy abusing, dispatching, and/or mutilating their victims. They usually have turned off their humanity, therefore simply not caring about their actions. Well now think of a suppressor. It’s hard to tell which one is worse but sounds like rippers are uncontrollable and we need “control” to some extent!!

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  3. I see that you’re wanting to look at this from a purely scientific point of view which is interesting and has been preoccupying me very much. There are things that aren’t quite clear. It’s unfortunate that you refer to the Focused Protection Strategy to provide herd immunity proposed by three professors from leading universities in Britain and America as the ‘let it rip’ approach which is the phrase used disgracefully by detractors from the ‘other’ side who just don’t want the idea discussed. It’s utterly dismaying that the pandemic has brought intellectual debate to this level of denigration and abuse. But I see that’s not your intention. It’s worth pointing out that getting enough natural herd immunity is far from a ‘fringe’ notion. It might well turn out to be the only way out if a vaccine proves either ineffective or can’t be produced in time. The snowflake generation’s insistence on this as the only solution is beginning to look increasingly vain and foolish. We have thousands of years of experience of dealing with viral pandemics all of which has been thrown away in pursuit of novel experiments – vaccines and lockdowns.

    In the UK it is not planned to vaccinate anybody under 50. So natural herd immunity is the only hope for them in any case! Absolutely massive ha-ha when you think of all the hatred heaped on Professor Gupta and others, including by government ministers who plainly have no idea what they’re talking about.

    The Great Barrington Declaration, in which the ‘let it rip’ strategy is set out, is nothing to do with the theory of pre-existing immunity, by the way.

    But your main point – about how scientific theories are proved or not…. I think this brings up something very important about how non-scientists view science and more crucially how leaders engage with it. People often preface their remarks with ‘research says… ‘ or worse still , ‘THE science says…’ The Government tried to reassure us in the early days of the pandemic that they were ‘following the science.’ This ought to have set alarm bells ringing and did in many quarters. Does science always provide us with the clear-cut answers we expect of it? Are theories always proved or disproved in some final way? Sometimes, but not always. Science is really a much more jumbled, ever-shifting affair just like most other fields of human enquiry. Some set great store by the system of ‘peer review’ which is supposed to provide a fail-safe guarantee that a paper is 100% correct. But it turns out that ‘peer-review’ is no more reliable as a method of quality assurance than the process of book reviewing is for published novels and non-fiction.

    This idea that scientists are a race apart, tied to some super-human standards of proof and evidence is not helpful. Non-scientists feel excluded and unable to make any assessment, especially when confronted with conflicting views, as most glaringly at present. Nobody in the Cabinet has a science degree nor do many in the media who frequently mis-report so-called scientific findings.

    For a start, right now in the midst of the storm, scientists are really just giving expert advice, based increasing of course on study of data and lab work. The parallel might be with the legal profession. You might consult a lawyer about something, but the ‘proof of the experiment’ would be in the court case if it came to that, or whatever settlement was reached. With the pandemic we haven’t got to that point and might never get to it.

    What I’m trying to say is that engaging with experts who know more than we do and making assessments of them is something we all do in everyday life. In court cases the jury frequently has to decide between conflicting expert witnesses. There should be a careful engagement with substance of course but many other factors are in play in deciding who to trust, who is credible. We choose between electricians, plumbers, cleaners, engineers, architects…

    You say you don’t envy leaders having to choose between differing scientific views. But they haven’t chosen. They haven’t even tried. Judging by the pathetically unscientific remarks of Hancock and Johnson, there’s not even an attempt wrestle with this problem. They have failed miserably in their responsibilities.

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    • I agree with much of what you say. I accept that I caricature the position of those who oppose massive suppression, but whilst the issue of natural immunity isn’t an essential component of the ripper view, it’s offered by some, at least, as one reason not to fear the full ‘rip’ approach. I have not studied the declaration you refer to.

      But, as you understood, my main point is about the ‘scientific’ status of what both the suppressors and the rippers have to say. Trust in their pronouncements would surely be earned if they could only clarify what would falsify their theorems, or force them to re-evaluate and extend them. For example, what level of resurgence would establish whether there is 20%, 40% or 60% of natural immunity? What level of decline in new cases, hospitalisations and deaths, would prove that various suppression mechanisms have worked? Both sides need to be more precise about what they expect and don’t expect to happen if their recommendations are to be trusted and preferred.

      And I agree with you entirely about the Government. They make no attempt to explain ‘the science’ at all and barely acknowledge that there might be alternative approaches.

      Even so, I am 70% suppressor, 30% ripper, if only because I think it likely that health services will otherwise be overwhelmed. That said, I have no idea which suppression methods work best and do the least economic damage. Something short of ‘full lockdown’ I would hope.

      Here in the Czech Republic ICU beds are nearly full, and they’re building a field hospital in my music room.

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