During my internet travels over the past couple of weeks I stumbled across three takes on corona from well-known thinkers that highlighted a facet of the corona event that I have touched on in previous posts but which is now taking on increased importance given that events in Europe are escalating into new and very dangerous territory. The three thinkers are all self-confessed “rationalists” who have constructed a story about corona which is not only incredibly naïve but also dangerous. My first encounter with this story was a tweet by Richard Dawkins which read as follows:
“Ingenious scientists worked around the clock to find vaccines, with spectacular success. Will their noble efforts to beat the virus be defeated because of a new epidemic – new virus, a virus of the mind, the memetic virus of anti-vax propaganda spread by gullible fools?”
There is much to unpack in these two short sentences. Let’s start with semantics. Are these “vaccines“ really vaccines? By the old-fashioned definition of a vaccine they are not because they do not prevent infection. That used to be part of what it meant for a vaccine to be a vaccine and it’s also what the general public still thinks is meant by the term vaccine which is causing all sorts of cognitive dissonance at the moment. Because the “vaccines” do not prevent infection, on what basis can they be called a success let alone a “spectacular success”? The original dreams of reaching herd immunity have gone up in smoke. The vaccines have been rolled out on mass and yet the pandemic continues including in places such as Israel, Gibraltar and Iceland where uptake was as good as universal. Dawkins is always going on about how science is about empirical evidence. Where is the evidence that the vaccines are a success? And what are they a success at? They are not a success at getting us to herd immunity. The next best claim would be that they are a success at preventing serious illness but even that claim seems uncertain giving that any lasting protection seems to rely on booster shots. In the grand experiment that is corona, I would say there is little evidence for success so far and, in any case, we need to gather more evidence. The experiment isn’t over yet and yet Dawkins is already claiming victory. Or is he?
In the second sentence we find out that the supposed success of the vaccines is under threat but not because of any actual problems with the vaccine. No, it’s under threat from gullible fools spreading propaganda. The “virus” that threatens our ability to defeat the biological virus is a virus “of the mind”. How exactly could this virus of the mind stop the vaccine from working? Isn’t the whole point of science that it works whether or not you believe in it according to materialists such as Dawkins? If Dawkins means that the virus of the mind will prevent people from taking the vaccine, how would that negate the success of the vaccine given that we know herd immunity cannot be achieved via the vaccine? And, again, given the examples of Israel and Gibraltar where as good as universal uptake of the vaccine has not prevented further lockdowns, isn’t there numerous grounds to call the success of the vaccine itself into question?
The dichotomy that Dawkins sets up between the noble, enlightened scientists working tirelessly to save humanity and the fools whose ignorance will bring the whole thing undone has very little to do with the reality around corona and everything to do with the Enlightenment values of reason which “rationalists” like him ascribe to. The distinction between the men of reason (the Enlightenment was almost exclusively male) and the mob had been present ever since the start of the Enlightenment. Back when the Enlightenment was really kicking into gear, there was no universal suffrage, for example. Voting was an activity exclusive to land owners and the gentry. Even though the Enlightenment was ostensibly about removing the power of the state and opening up the “public sphere”, in reality the intellectuals congregated in closed societies in coffee houses and salons. The mob, the people who couldn’t see the light of reason, has always been a problem for Enlightenment thinkers because reason is supposed to be universal and yet there exists people who can’t be made to see the light. The Marxists resolved this by creating the notion of “false consciousness” a terrible affliction by which the working class were made blind to the superior reasoning faculties of their intellectual superiors. Nowadays, we don’t call it false consciousness, we call it conspiracy theories or anti-vaxxer. The underlying principle is the same. Thus, by invoking the dichotomy between “scientists” and “fools”, Dawkins follows in a tradition that has been around since the start of the Enlightenment.
This leads me on to the second “rationalist” that popped up on my computer screen in the last weeks; a snippet from Stephen Pinker’s new book called “Rationality”. Pinker is one of the most enthusiastic exponents of Enlightenment values and is the author of Enlightenment Now, apparently one of Bill Gates’ favourite books. Pinker’s new book on Rationality makes explicit reference to the corona event. In the precis for the book, Pinker states “Today humanity is reaching new heights of scientific understanding–and also appears to be losing its mind. How can a species that developed vaccines for Covid-19 in less than a year produce so much fake news, medical quackery, and conspiracy theorizing?” This is, of course, the exact same dichotomy as presented by Dawkins. The noble, rational scientists set off against the ignorant conspiracy theorists. Later in the book, Pinker would also echo Dawkins’ claim that the vaccines are a great success. For him, they represent a “glorious new achievement in the history of rationality” as vaccines “likely to end a plague” were being administered less than a year after the arrival of the plague. Again, we have semantic quibbles here. Pinker has no problem with calling them vaccines or accepting that we are in a plague. He does, however, at least appear to understand that the idea that vaccines could end a plague is new. This harps back to something that has been present in the corona event from the start, namely the idea that corona could be a “glorious new achievement in the history of rationality”. This was the dream of the “rationalists” right from the get go. But it was just that; a dream. At best it was a hypothesis and a scientist and rationalist should understand that a hypothesis needs to be proven before it becomes a fact. The dream that the vaccine could work needed to be tempered by the inherent risks involved and yet none of the so-called rationalists have ever acknowledged those risks at least as far as I have seen.
This leads me to the third and final “rationalist”, the Australian writer and founder of the Quillette website, Claire Lehmann. Like the other rationalists, Lehmann has been all on board for the vaccine since day dot. She has also become an apologist for the actions of the Australian government variously praising them and lately ignoring the more extreme measures taken. As Quillette is a popular site in the US especially amongst the libertarian and centre-right crowd and as the situation in Australia has become a hot topic among that demographic in recent months, Lehmann has found herself at loggerheads with her US readership who look on in horror as the Australia state governments have done things that would be impossible in America. Thus, Australia has found itself in a strange position of being vilified by the centre right in the US while also becoming something of a poster child for the “rationalist” cause by virtue of having a heady combination of low covid numbers and high vaccine uptake. In order to get there, of course, we have had to trample on the human rights of the population and it is this which Lehmann’s US readership have been up in arms about with particular focus on the Howard Springs “camp” in recent weeks. Lehmann has been happy to write off these human rights abuses as being a necessary element in the “success” of Australia’s response as measured by the low death count relative to the US. As with Dawkins and Pinker, Lehmann seems completely untroubled by how the death statistics were arrived at, how accurate the PCR test is or any of that. She is happy to take the numbers at face value and note that Australia is doing far “better” than the US. Of course, we already know what is in store for Australia. It is the same as happened to Israel, Iceland and Gibraltar. It is still too early to call Australia a “success” but that is what Lehmann, Pinker and Dawkins have done. If it does happen to “fail”, it won’t be the fault of the scientists but those pesky online fools who like to point out that locking healthy people in camps for two weeks without their consent is a betrayal of other Enlightenment values such as the concept of natural rights. Watching the state trample on those rights should have been at least a concern of so-called rationalists who claim to believe in the Enlightenment but apparently this is not the case.
The irony of all this is that the Enlightenment was supposed to be about removing the power from a small handful of people who claimed to be the sole repository of truth and wisdom by democratising access to the public sphere where everybody could have input. The internet is perhaps the ultimate expression of that and yet we now have proponents of the Enlightenment who lament the fools and conspiracy theorists poisoning that public discourse. All this while there are enormous problems with the accepted narrative on perfectly logical and rational grounds. It doesn’t seem to occur to the rationalists that their abject dismissal of reasonable concerns is precisely what is fuelling the “conspiracy theories”. The less we are able to acknowledge the real issues with the vaccine and with the government response to corona, the more likely people are to look for other explanations including that the government no longer has their best interests at heart. In the real world, there are trade-offs and simply ignoring the legitimate concerns and objections of people and pretending everything is a “spectacular success” is not a recipe for a functional discourse.
Of course, it’s worse than that. By invoking the dichotomy of the noble scientists versus the ignorant fools, the rationalists are now providing intellectual cover for what is increasingly looking like a genuine atrocity in Europe where governments now feel empowered to openly discriminate against people based on private medical decisions to the point of locking them in jail. Doesn’t sound very Enlightenment to me. Sounds more like The Inquisition. It sounds like exactly the kind of thing that the Enlightenment was supposed to prevent from happening. That is should be promulgated by people who advocate logic and critical thinking and yet have apparently applied neither to the corona event is all the more strange.
Pinker defines rationality as goal fulfilment. Rationality is a toolkit for achieving goals. The standard of rationality is therefore that which achieves the goal, preferably in the most straightforward way. So, we have a “pandemic” and our goal is to put a stop to it notwithstanding the fact that we have never been able to put a stop to a pandemic in history. We know that “vaccines” prevent the infection and spread of viruses. Ergo, the only thing preventing us putting a stop to the pandemic is the absence of a “vaccine”. Coming up with a “vaccine” to stop a pandemic is “rational” according to Pinker. Anybody who disagrees is by definition irrational. Could such a naïve, literal understanding of the world really be what counts for rationality in these people’s minds? I don’t see why not. Pinker’s book begins with a number of “trick questions” of the type presented in a logic 101 class. The kinds of questions that the average person always gets wrong because they are framed in such a way as to lead them down the wrong path. Rationalists love to get the “right answer” to such kinds of things just like the kid who always put their hand up in school dying to show the teacher how smart they are. The right answer to the pandemic question is the vaccine. End of story.
If rationality is goal fulfilment, who is setting the goals? In school, we know it’s the teacher and behind the teacher the education bureaucracy. The rational answer is that which pleases the teacher just like a good employee will give the “rational” answer which is exactly what their boss wants to hear. Is it rational once in a while to give the wrong answer just to see what happens? Is it rational to refuse to enter into the game of giving the right answer and thereby question the validity of the game? According to Enlightenment thinkers it is not. That is “postmodernism”. It gets into the messy business of power games and psychology which lie in the dreaded realm of the irrational. By definition, the irrational is chaos and disorder and so must be avoided at all costs. And yet even cognitive science has learned that it is the irrational that drives human behaviour. Decisions made on purely rational grounds are rarely followed through at the individual level and are often complete failures at the institutional level. People blindly following the (rational) means to an end without questioning the end is the definition of Kakfaesque and the whole 20th century provided ample evidence of what happens in those circumstances. Yet here we are in 2021 about to go down the same horrific path and we have the rationalists not only not questioning the matter but actively egging the whole thing on happy to scapegoat those with genuine disagreements. As any good rationalist should know, such scapegoating is an ad hominem fallacy. We appear to be right in the middle of another fallacy: the sunk cost fallacy of “just one more booster”. These are things rationalists might be talking about in more enlightened times.