This week I was reading one of those classic media articles on ‘science’. It was of the exact type I identified in post 7 in this series. The headline was of the form “experts increasingly believe that X may cause Y.” Then you read the body of the report and, lo and behold, the experts are saying nothing much at all. There is no real evidence, just speculation. But that doesn’t stop the journalist writing an entire article that presupposes the speculation was true. The article in question, of course, was full of those lovely qualifiers I also mentioned in post 7 which get peppered throughout such ‘science’ reports: would, could, may, might have, could have etc.
What made this article stand out was not the rampant speculation or the use of the familiar hedging language but the fact that it had been shared on social media in such a way as to present the framing of the article as established fact, which it clearly wasn’t. The article wasn’t about the science of corona directly. Rather, it was about how the lockdowns had apparently led to a decrease in premature births. The speculation in question was that pregnant women who didn’t have to work are less likely to have a premature baby. That was the editorial framing and the person who shared the article assumed that framing to be true (again, there was no hard evidence it was just speculation).
Two things struck me about this specific article. Firstly, the argumentation was all but a non sequitur. The chain of reasoning was the lockdown led to women working less which reduced stress which led to fewer premature babies. That’s a long bow with a lot of moving parts. You’d need some detailed investigation to try and prove it but there was no such investigation in the article. The idea also doesn’t make a lot of sense even without that investigation. Were women really less stressed at the height of the corona hysteria while locked in their house worried about a super deadly virus running rampant? Of course, as I noted above, the scientists that were interviewed weren’t actually suggesting that. They simply noted the statistics were interesting. It was the reporter filling in the argumentation. It was the manner of that ‘argumentation’ which is important and leads me to the second point about such articles.
Such articles are a kind of social activism. It wasn’t just sloppy science. It wasn’t just misleading reporting. It was sloppy science and misleading reporting with a social agenda. It was that combination which struck me for the first time this week because the whole corona event has ties to different social agendas and, as I have tried to demonstrate in earlier posts in this series, is predicated on what could most politely be described as sloppy science. That’s why we hear about the ‘new normal’ or the ‘great reset’. So, this seemed like another of those microcosm-macrocosm examples. This relatively insignificant little article was a small example of a larger pattern that defines the whole corona event. In order to understand that pattern, we need to establish what I see as the three main categories of people in the general public as relates to their general disposition to the corona event. We will then see that the practice of tying the corona event to social goals is related to a specific group of people.
The first and, I think, the largest group are what I’m going to call – The Baffled – as I think this sums up their general attitude to corona. This group consists primarily of the working class and middle class; pretty much anybody in society that didn’t go to university. I don’t mean this as a comment on the intelligence of this group; anybody who paid attention in high school math and science, indeed anybody who can think logically, should be able to navigate the science around corona. I also think that these days the average uni graduate is dumber than the average non-graduate for a variety of reasons. The distinction here is not one about intellectual capabilities but more around cultural and individual perceptions of those capabilities. The Baffled decide in advance that they are not able to understand the science and so they don’t even try. For this reason, they don’t have any sophisticated opinions about the corona event. The Baffled may seem to agree with the official narrative but if you question them on aspects of it they will quickly throw their hands up in the air and exclaim that they just want it to be over. A fairly common sense position and one that you would think be shared by pretty much everybody.
A second group is The Dissenters, of which I am a member. These are the people who write long series of blog posts and wonder whether western civilisation is about to descend into a medico-fascist dystopia.
The third group are The True Believers, a term which captures the quasi-religious zealotry exhibited by its members. This is the group that upholds the mainstream narrative most vociferously. They are likely to be found on social media (and sometimes in real life) reminding people to wear a fucking mask and stay the fuck at home. For them, no price is too high a price to pay to avoid a death “from corona” although they are noticeably disinterested in deaths from any other cause. For this reason, if you raise the subject of the collateral damage caused by the political reaction to the corona event they will wave it away as irrelevant. Dan Andrews, the premier where I live and leader of the True Believer brigade in this state, is a paradigm exemplar of this technique. I could give numerous examples but one that was asked of him last week was quite a nice case in point. He was asked whether he cared whether any of his lockdown measures violated the human rights of the citizens of his state. He replied with something like “would they prefer to be on a ventilator in hospital”? This is both a non sequitur and also patently false on basic factual grounds (the overwhelming majority of the population has no risk of ending up on a ventilator but 100% chance of having their human rights violated by the lockdowns). But these are the kinds of ‘argument’ that are commonplace when trying to ‘debate’ with True Believers about the corona event.
The True Believers are, almost always, university educated and members of the salary class of society. Unlike The Baffled, this group thinks of themselves as capable enough to understand the science behind corona and usually has read enough to have formulated somewhat sophisticated arguments about why the mainstream narrative is true. All these arguments rely on an absolute faith in the PCR test and the results generated by it. There is also required an unwillingness or inability to put the statistics in a broader context, a problem seen in the article I referenced above and pointed out by the experts in that article. The lockdown, they said, was just one data point; interesting but certainty not definitive. More research was required. True Believers miss this subtlety. For this reason, they will read such articles and think they refer to actual scientific fact rather than speculation. In this way they betray a complete lack of scepticism and it is hard to avoid the conclusion that such people cannot think scientifically at all. Rather, they are live action roleplaying what it looks like to think scientifically by parroting canned positions presented to them in the media. In a way, this is not that surprising. The True Believers are highly educated and modern high school and university education is all about learning to regurgitate back what was fed to you. Attending university amounts to nothing more than spending four more years learning how to regurgitate the ‘right’ answer.
But recall that what was being fed in that article I mentioned above was not just ‘science’ but also a social agenda. In fact, such articles are really social agendas dressed up as science. Having women work as little as possible in the lead up to a pregnancy sounds like basic common sense to me. But you could, if you wanted, try and justify the position on moral grounds. Once upon a time, you might have justified it on religious grounds. But the article in question was using ‘science’ to make the argument. This is a common rhetorical trick because it means nobody has to take responsibility for the position. It’s not my moral position. It’s not me presenting a preferred political agenda. It’s ‘science’. You can’t argue with science. It’s the objective truth, after all. Thus, the common criticism made by the True Believers of others is that they are too stupid to understand the ‘science’. (Ironically, women not working in paid employment during pregnancy would once upon a time have been the default setting in our society and it was ‘progress’ which changed this state of affairs but let’s leave that uncomfortable fact to the side for now).
This pattern of tying the corona event to unrelated social and political issues is something I have seen a number of times this year and every time it happens you can be sure it’s a True Believer making the argument. One of the funnier examples from my home city revolved around a golf course in an inner city suburb where the local hipster/environmentalist residents were trying to argue that, as part of ‘covid normal’, the course should be opened up to the public. What has a viral pandemic got to do with a local issue about access to a golf course? Nothing at all. But these people apparently thought that tying the issue to corona would increase their chances of a favourable outcome. I saw another example where somebody was making the argument that a universal basic income would have helped solved some of the issues around corona by making people more likely to stay at home. A third was that X millions of litres of petrol would not be burned because of all the people working from home and not commuting the office, so corona was good for the environment. If the True Believers have become expert at dismissing any criticism of the lockdowns, they have also become adept at finding any flicker of positive news to try and justify them. (On the subject of corona and the environment, Cory Morningstar has an excellent article here showing the environmental fallout caused by all the trillions of single-use plastic masks that are going to be thrown away in the next years. Show it to a True Believer and watch them try and weasel out of that one).
The implication of the True Believer position is that the corona event will change society (for the better). Again, this is just the myth of progress rehashed. But it’s also begging the question. Why does society need to change? Is there any actual reason why the corona event should lead to permanent change? On current course, if you believe the official statistics and think they are comparable to past pandemics, corona is on track to be about as lethal as the Hong Kong flu in 1968. Nobody sought to change society back then. In fact, as I have already mentioned in past posts, people at the time didn’t seem concerned at all about the flu. At least, not in the media. The truth is, there’s no reason at all why we couldn’t go back to exactly how we were before. The fact that this idea seems radical has everything to do with the control of the dominant narrative by the True Believers. The idea of going back to normal is, in fact, the position of The Baffled. They might think that wearing masks is necessary but they get no pleasure in wearing masks and will be happy to cease doing so as soon as they can. The same goes for social distancing and all the other measures. But that is not the attitude of the True Believer. The True Believer wears the mask with a gusto that betrays a millenarian impulse.
This millenarian impulse is explicitly at work in the concepts of the new normal and the great reset and it is here where the cultural and philosophical differences between the three groups I have described above becomes explicitly political. The language used by the proponents of the great reset is the language of the True Believers. We hear how the corona event presents a unique opportunity to re-shape society. Indeed, one that may never happen again. Not only will the tyranny of local golf courses in suburban Melbourne be overthrown, but the entire structure of the world economy will be reshaped. Of course, this is also a complete non sequitur. Just like the non sequiturs that have been characteristic of the entire mindset of the True Believers all throughout the corona event. There is no logical, scientific or political reason for it. It is simply asserted. And it has been asserted time and again so much now that it has become the default position. However, it is only the True Believers who really believe it. The Baffled might go along with it to the extent that they can’t see how it will directly affect them, but they don’t believe in it. Thus, the official narrative of the corona event is a projection of, by and for the True Believers or, to say the same thing, the salary class. The delusional and surreal way in which the corona event has played out really does seem a kind of mental breakdown on the part of the True Believers and that mental breakdown has been projected onto the whole of society. This is the reason why it’s so dangerous. The most irrational party in a negotiation usually wins because the other side simply cuts their losses and give up rather than argue with them. Is Western society about to give in to a millenarian ‘new normal’? It seems like a real possibility.
And this is where the different politics in different Western nations suddenly becomes highly relevant to how the corona event will play out. Assuming we have the following groups: there’s The Baffled – Working Class, who are quietly hoping this will all just go away. There’s The Dissenters who are aware they are in the minority and watch on with mild horror as things unfold. And then there’s the True Believer – Salary Class who, although not a majority, have ownership of the official narrative and are highly motivated to see some kind of permanent reshaping of society. At time of writing we are about to see a US presidential election. Western European nations are going back for a second dose of lockdown. And, in Australia and New Zealand, we are waiting to be rescued by the vaccine fairies.
The big difference between these three (US, western Europe, Aus/NZ) is the Trump revolution has already taken place in the US. That revolution was a working class revolt against the salary class. Although, in theory, a similar revolt occurred with Brexit, I think Boris Johnson’s behaviour during the corona event betrays that he is not a Trump-like figure and that realisation is probably also sinking in for his supporters in the UK right now. The working class are the majority in all cases and so political action requires them to be either supportive of the measures in question or at least to not actively oppose them. That revolves mostly around whether you have a leader like Trump who knows how to mobilise that class which is exactly what he has done.
Given these dynamics, what can we expect to see happen politically from now on?
If, as I expect, Trump wins the election and the republicans also take congress, I think corona will cease to be a political issue in the US almost immediately. Trump has already maneuvered perfectly for just that outcome. I think if he wins he will sack Fauci immediately and take other steps to try and put corona back in the box. Whether specific states resist those efforts is another question but even if they do corona should settle down to become a local political issue and not a national one in the US.
Australia/New Zealand and western Europe are in very different places politically but the unifying element is that there is nobody trying to unite the working class against the corona measures. For that reason, it seems quite likely that the aspirations of the True Believer – Salary Class have a chance of being realised in those countries. What that looks like in practice is anybody’s guess. Mandatory vaccinations, vaccine passports and similar measures seem a real possibility.
I remember half joking way back in April that each country’s response to corona would define the political direction of that country for the next couple of decades. If I’m right, this means that western Europe, Australia and New Zealand are going to see the continued dominance of the True Believer – Salary Class at the expense of the working class while America may escape that fate.
Time will tell.
In a nice bit of synchronicity, the day after I wrote this post a link to a Lancet editorial popped up in my twitter feed. It is possibly the perfect example of exactly what I have been talking about in this post: the confluence of quasi-science and social activism. Here’s a quote to give you the flavour:
COVID-19 is a syndemic of coronavirus infection combined with an epidemic of non-communicable diseases, both interacting on a social substrate of poverty and inequality. The message of GBD is that unless deeply embedded structural inequities in society are tackled and unless a more liberal approach to immigration policies is adopted, communities will not be protected from future infectious outbreaks and population health will not achieve the gains
The first sentence is a demonstration of doublespeak that would have made the bureaucrats at the Ministry of Truth jealous. The second states that ‘protection’ from infectious disease comes from more liberal immigration policy. Again, this is a complete non sequitur and fits the exact pattern described above.
All posts in this series:-