Humans have a cognitive bias for linear functions. One of the ways in which this manifests is that we expect the magnitude of the cause and the magnitude of the effect to be equal. This expectation works well in everyday situations. If you throw a rock, the more effort you put into the throw, the further the rock will travel. The larger the rock, the heavier you expect it to weigh etc. Linear functions, or at least what we perceive us as linear functions, form the basis for everyday life. Much of science education involves teaching the student to overcome this bias and understand alternative functions.
As the corona event unfolded earlier this year, various experts, and even the Chancellor of Germany, who is, after all, a scientist by training, took to the media to remind us that pandemics need to be understood as exponential functions. We heard all about the R0, the doubling time of cases and the possibly explosive growth of infections.
Nevertheless, most of the media presented the corona statistics as cumulative graphs rather than as log graphs. The cumulative graph, of course, looks linear thus satisfying our non-scientific preferences. It also looks scarier. A feature that appeals to the modern media.
So, we like linear functions. We expect the punishment to fit the crime. We demand an eye for an eye. We want a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. And when the government takes an extreme measure like locking down civil society, we expect that this must be in response to a genuine, highly dangerous threat. Only the most dire situation could justify such an unprecedented measure, we think to ourselves.
It was this expectation that formed my initial confusion about the corona event back when it was still mostly taking place in China. China had shut down an entire city on hours’ notice. We heard stories about people being welded in their apartments and other extreme measures. The assumption would be that this new virus must be super deadly.
But even in the early days of the pandemic, this didn’t make sense. The statistics didn’t look that bad. The case fatality rate seemed to be between 1-2% and the deaths were mostly among the elderly. It looked like a bad flu virus.
I started to look for other explanations. I started to wonder whether there wasn’t some political crisis going on in China. Perhaps it was a political thing. Maybe a civil war was breaking out in Wuhan. Maybe it was the latest move in the US-China trade war. Or maybe the Chinese government was trying to cover up what was really a health emergency and the official statistics were wrong.
Slowly, like green slime dripping down a wall, the virus leaked into our lives in the West.
By mid-March, it still didn’t look that bad. Epidemiological reports based on the evidence available at that time were estimating around a 1% case fatality rate that would likely fall by an order of magnitude because that’s what always happens with respiratory viral pandemics. It was going to be bad but not astronomically bad. Probably a little worse than the influenza pandemic in 2017 that was estimated to have killed 1.25 million people worldwide.
Western governments at the time seemed to agree with this diagnosis of the situation. Our leaders pushed back against a rising tide of fear that was being fed by an increasingly voracious media. They tried to reassure the public that the situation could be handled without the extreme measures seen in China.
The PR battle lasted about two weeks. Then, seemingly in unison, western governments rolled over and we went into preparations for the lockdown. Neil Ferguson’s doomsday model was splattered all over the media and other models were found that predicted all kinds of awful outcomes. From that point right up until now there was nothing but wall-to-wall fear mongering in the media. The cool, calm, objective voices of the epidemiologists were drowned out by a growing tide of hysteria.
Around that time I decided to spend what I thought was going to be ten minutes investigating how we test for the corona virus. I am a trained linguist and worked briefly in that capacity before switching to a job testing software. So, I was professionally curious to see how the medical profession does its testing for something that was becoming a potentially world-changing event.
That ten minutes turned into several hours. I couldn’t believe what I was reading. The tests used to detect corona virus were much much weaker than I had expected. As I delved deeper, I learned that much of the testing around viruses in general was weak and flimsy. This eventually led me all the way back to the germ theory of disease. To Louis Pasteur and Antoine Bechamp. It seemed to me that the victory of the germ theory of disease, something I had learned in school and forgotten about since, was nowhere near conclusive. At best, viruses were an edge case in that theory. But more to the point for the current crisis, the test techniques just didn’t seem strong enough to justify shutting down society.
To get from the virus to the thing we actually care about – illness – requires a chain of inference and at each step in the chain there is ambiguity and doubt. The PCR test that we use to determine an ‘infection’ (like seemingly all of the testing around viruses, it doesn’t conclusively prove an infection) matches your sample against a somewhat arbitrary genetic sequence that a virologist thinks identifies a virus. The evidence that that genetic sequence actually identifies the virus is not conclusive and the evidence that the virus actually causes an illness is also not conclusive. Because of this, there is a chance that the whole chain is invalid.
In the next post in this series, I will go into more detail about the PCR test and how it has been the decisive feature of the corona event. This test became ubiquitous in the last two decades. The shift to it as the main method of viral detection coincided with the setting up of a worldwide influenza surveillance program run out of the WHO. It is this infrastructure and this bureaucratic system that sprang into life at the very beginning of the corona event to produce the ‘infection’ statistics that have become an everyday part of our lives.
Imagine installing a fire alarm in a theatre when you knew it would go off sometimes even if there was no fire. Is that a smart thing to do? No, it’s not. It might cause a panic and people would be injured or killed as a result. But that’s what happened in the last couple of decades. We constructed an alarm system of questionable reliability and accuracy. It has been waiting to go off for twenty years and this year it finally went off.
I have been in a state of denial about all this. Surely, I couldn’t be right. Surely, somewhere there were people doing proper testing that conclusively proved these things. I’m still hoping somebody can show me the light and restore my faith in the system.
However, as the corona event has panned out, I have realised that what I learned was true. I’ve seen experts on television admit they have no gold standard test for the corona virus. Leading health bureaucrats have openly admitted in the media that they don’t have any firm data on the proportion of false positives or false negatives (because they don’t have a gold standard test by which they could establish those rates).
The truly strange thing to my mind that is that nobody seems to be trying to hide these facts. In the minds of these public health officials, shutting down entire societies is apparently not a problem and the fact that the accuracy of the tests is unknown doesn’t even matter. It’s better to be safe than sorry. (Really? Does anybody feel safe at the moment? And I have a feeling we are going to be sorry about what we’ve done).
Even by the sketchy veracity of all this test data, the corona pandemic has not proven to be anywhere near the doomsday predictions given to us in March. In fact, it has panned out exactly as the epidemiologists said it would. The case fatality rate looks like it will end up about 0.1%. It looks like global fatalities will be less than influenza in 2017. Despite this now overwhelming evidence base, as of the start of July we are still in hysteria-mode. Particularly here in Australia (and especially where I live in Melbourne) where efforts to eliminate the virus are starting to fray.
Because I came to understand how the testing works very early on, my perspective on the pandemic has been very different to most people. For that reason, it might be that things I have noticed will be of interest. Or maybe the reader will think I am a crank. Either way, better to be interesting than boring.
I start from the proposition that the corona event is a kind of mass hysteria. It’s the kind of thing you see in groups of people quite regularly and the internet has made us all one big group now and allowed the hysteria to spread around the globe instantaneously. I assume the testing is weak and that the test data has never shown any evidence that corona was something to be overly worried about. Where evidence was shown, it was cherry picked edge cases that were never a threat to the general public but which were published time and again in the media and on social media with the effect of spreading fear and panic.
Starting from these assumptions, I draw some very different conclusions about what has happened this year. I’ll expand on these ideas in subsequent posts but here is an overview of what I see as the main points.
- Cargo-Cult Science: As a society, we are now in an era of cargo-cult science. The level of scientific and mathematical understanding among the general public appears to be woefully inadequate to make sense of a viral pandemic and the institutions of science, in particular in the biomedical sciences, have been corrupted by money and power. Even otherwise intelligent people failed to question the statistics they were being fed. It turns out that not a single statistic about the corona event can be taken on face value. “Infection rates”, “death rates”, “excess mortality”. All of them need quotation marks around them because they do not mean what they might mean at first glance. You have to take the time to understand how they are being measured. Then you have to put them into a historical context so that you can properly interpret what they signify about the health risk in question. The great Richard Feynman once said “science is the belief in the ignorance of experts.” As a society, we have swallowed whatever the experts told us and convinced ourselves it was science. That is not science. (Note: there were, of course, experts who got it right but we didn’t listen to them).
- The decline of traditional media: most people don’t have the time to spend understanding complex scientific concepts. That is where the media might have been able to help. But the traditional media has completely failed in what should be its main role of helping the public to make sense of what was happening. When we needed cool, calm, trusted voices we got hysterical fear mongering. The traditional media, now nothing more than a clickbait generator, completely failed in its ostensible job. Or, maybe it never was that way. Maybe the media was always just an extension of government. Maybe the media’s primary job here was simply to justify the government’s position. If so, they did a fantastic job. Scary good.
- The rise of social media: social media, which has been a big driver behind the demise of traditional media, allowed the lightning dissemination of fear and panic around the globe. I don’t believe politicians wanted to go to lockdown. I think they were forced into it by the growing hysteria. They knew they would be held politically accountable for each and every death which would spread via social media posts. Imagine being a politician and suddenly the public was blaming you for every death from influenza or rhinovirus? It would be absurd, but there wouldn’t be much you could do about it. The lockdown was politically necessary because it shifted the politics away from people blaming politicians to politicians being able to take all the credit for “preventing deaths”. In actual fact, there is prima facie evidence that the lockdowns caused more deaths than they saved.
- Economic decline: the pandemic represents a natural consequence of decades of economic decline. This is most obvious in the US where that decline has had significant political ramifications. In Australia, our economy has been running on real estate, immigration and higher education bubbles for a long time now. We deluded ourselves into thinking we had avoided the fate of other countries in the west. There is a story to be told about how that economic decline made us more susceptible to illness.
- Folk language vs the language of science: the question of whether the virus and the illness are “new” is of personal interest to me because it is a classic example of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis that I studied in my linguistics degree. That hypothesis is that language influences thought. In the case of the “novel” corona virus it certainly did that. It turns out that the whole idea of a new virus or a new illness is scientifically questionable but was extremely important in shaping the public discourse and the subsequent hysteria.
- The denial of death: our response to the corona event has been massively out of proportion to the actual risk. In that sense, it is a mass hysteria. Like all hysteria, it is driven by deep seated cultural and emotional issues. One of most important of those I believe to be a fear of death and actually a denial of death in Western culture. I’ll discuss this in more detail.
- Germaphobia, biophobia and divorce from nature: somehow humans survived for hundreds of thousands of years without even knowing that viruses existed. Ever since the discovery of viruses, it was noted that people projected onto them deep seated and irrational fears. Germaphobia is tied in with the denial of death (and therefore the denial of life).
- A Kafkaesque nightmare: if the corona event was a work of fiction, the author would be Kafka. It is in large part a bureaucratic nightmare driven by the influenza surveillance programs instituted by the WHO and the public health bureaucrats in various countries. Those programs set up the testing infrastructure and it is that testing infrastructure which has driven the hysteria. The corona event represents the ascendancy of virologists and public health bureaucrats at the expense of doctors and epidemiologists. I will explain this further.
- An epidemic of testing: In past pandemic alerts (SARS 1, swine flu etc), all the infrastructure was in place but the missing ingredient was the test. For the corona event we had a test far earlier than in past pandemics and that test drove the whole shebang. I’ll talk about that in the next post of the series.
- The age of abstraction: we all have an innate aversion to visible, tangible illness that is biologically hardwired. But the corona test and other statistics are all abstractions. The corona event was an abstraction layer on top of our biological aversion to disease. This is part of a broader tendency in modern society where abstractions rule. We care about GDP and inflation instead of actual wealth. We trade futures and ‘financial instruments’ instead of actual products. Now we worry about “infections” instead of actual illness.
One thing I will not cover in these posts, although I think it is arguably the most important thing anybody can do to educate themselves about the corona event, is the test techniques themselves. The best resource I have found on this is David Crowe’s website – https://theinfectiousmyth.com/
David passed away recently from cancer so I am not sure how long his site will stay up but the articles and the podcasts give a comprehensive look at all elements of testing for viruses including the establishment (or lack thereof) of an actual cause between a virus and an illness. His paper on the corona event is a great place to get an overview of his position – https://theinfectiousmyth.com/book/CoronavirusPanic.pdf
Another person who has done an excellent job explaining the testing is Andrew Kaufmann who has some great material up on youtube. This one in particular is a great starting point on the PCR tests – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8XST-nOgX-0
Note that both David and Andrew have some very alternative views on the subject of viruses. If you can’t get past that you’re probably not going to enjoy this series of posts. Having multiple explanatory frameworks is the norm in science. The fact that the germ theory exponents have out muscled the terrain theorists has less to do with science and more to do with politics as far as I can tell.
If you want to place eternal faith in the germ theory of disease that is fine by me but please don’t tell me that your position is “scientific” while mine is not. Science is about questioning assumptions, asking questions and challenging explanations. I hope you will challenge the explanations I give here and I welcome and encourage all constructive discussion in the comments.
All posts in this series:-