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:
- If we let the virus rip then hundreds of thousands will die
- Our healthcare systems will be overwhelmed
- Young people will also get very sick
- ‘Long’ Covid is a serious risk for all
- Post-Covid immunity is not guaranteed
- It’s impossible to identify and shield the vulnerable
The rippers say that:
- The elderly and vulnerable can be protected
- Much of the population has a natural immunity
- The virus has ripped already and has done its worst, which wasn’t even half as bad as others predicted
- Herd immunity (even without the aid of vaccines) is the only way forward
- 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?