Back in the first year of my linguistics degree there was an exchange between our lecturer and one of the students in the class. The lecturer had asked a question and the student had given an answer. The answer was correct and was, in fairness to the student, a succinct and elegant single sentence. The problem was that lecturer clearly wanted a one word answer where the word was one of the technical terms that we had been studying. That word was polysemy, which denotes the state of affairs when a word carries multiple meanings. The lecturer bluntly told the student his answer was wrong and that the correct answer was ‘polysemy’. The student objected to this saying that even though he hadn’t recited the word he had got the meaning of the concept right and that was what was important. The lecturer, a little annoyed at this show of impudence, informed the class that we were students of linguistics and one of our main tasks was to learn the technical terminology of the field as we might one day become scholars and we would be expected to use that terminology to enable precision in our work. In one sense, the lecturer’s rant was a little over the top. One in three people now get a university education and only the smallest fraction of those will ever become scholars. But she was dead right about the precision part. Especially in the sciences where maths is not the main language of communication, it is vital to define terminology. It is because polysemy is very common in natural language that science must use words which are disambiguated as much as possible so that you don’t have to continually ask whether a scholar meant meaning one or meaning two when they use a word.
This issue of precision of language carried over from my linguistics studies into my current job as a software tester. The job of the tester is to find bugs in the software and beginner testers are very happy to find bugs as this demonstrates that they are doing their job. But after some years you begin to notice patterns in the errors. For example, incompetence or laziness on the part of the programmer (both of these are relatively rare, at least in decent software departments). One of the most common causes of errors is imprecision of language. As such, experienced software testers tend to become sticklers for meaning. This is partly because vague terminology leads to extra test cases. By excluding meanings of words you also exclude the need to run test cases for those extra meanings and you therefore reduce your workload. That’s the personal benefit a tester gets from clarifying meanings. But a second reason is that vague meanings lead to miscommunication and that’s where errors come in at the team level. Person One thinks the requirements mean this but Person Two thinks they mean that. Unless the two of them get together and talk through the meanings of the words, there will be errors. Experienced software testers who are good at their job know that making people clarify language upfront will reduce bugs later on.
Ever tried to cutting meat or vegetables with a blunt knife? It’s difficult and the result is usually not pretty. Sharpen that knife up and the job becomes easy, even pleasurable. Same with words. In domains where logic and rigor are required, such as science and software development, words must be sharpened to a fine point. But a surprising number of people take the attitude of the student in that first year linguistics class. I’ve lost count of the number of times I have been told “it’s just semantics” by people who should know better. It’s not just semantics. Choice of words and meanings directly affects outcomes. This is true even in politics where the battle is usually over language. Politicians wouldn’t spend so much time and energy fighting over the meanings of words if those words didn’t make a difference.
The words used during the corona event to denote the foundational scientific terms that should, in theory, be guiding our understanding have ranged from ambiguous to blatantly corrupt to nonsensical. This is partly just because of the contortions imposed by politics and media and partly because there are some genuine philosophical issues in the underlying science. Let’s do a lightning overview of some of the key concepts that have been at play.
Viruses are deeply strange things. They are not alive and do not reproduce sexually. This makes them an edge case within the field of biology where the existing taxonomy implied sexual reproduction. This difficulty is reflected in the fact that the International Committee on the Taxonomy of Viruses has changed its criteria for categorising viruses three times in the last twenty years. The most recent change was in 2012. As I pointed out in post 8 in this series, there was strong dissent about that change. Many virologists believe that the whole concept of species does not apply to viruses. They say that Wittgensteinian family resemblance is the best way to categorise viruses. This means that no single criterion or discrete set of criteria can define a virus and you could theoretically have two viruses that are ‘the same’ even though they do not share all the same properties. This breaks the rules of logic (more specifically, Wittgenstein was challenging the validity of logic) and is not what we think of as ‘hard science’. It’s easy to see why virologists would prefer a system which seems more rigorous even if the rigor is largely illusory.
Bear in mind that, within the current rules, sars-cov-2 is a strain of the sars-cov species of virus. If, as some virologists argue, the species concept does not apply to viruses then strains are even less valid and all these variants we keep hearing about are just illusions. Even if you believe the species concept applies, currently the boundaries are worked out by mathematical analysis. That is, the difference between variant A and variant B is a genetic analysis alone. Who gets to define the boundaries? On what scientific basis is somebody allowed to declare a ‘new’ variant? Is there any disagreement? Any peer review process? Any way to test if the boundary is wrong?
Cambridge dictionary has several definitions for disease but two are most relevant to our purposes.
- An illness caused by infection or a failure of health rather than an accident;
- a condition of a person, animal, or plant in which its body or structure is harmed because an organ or part is unable to work as it usually does
Straight away there are all kinds of problems with these definitions. In the first, an attempt is made to distinguish a ‘failure of health’ and infection from accident. But surely viral infection is accidental. Viruses are not alive. They have no will of their own as far as we know. Being infected with a virus is accidental according to the dictionary meaning of that word.
The second meaning, which refers to damage to cells and structures of the body is not much better. The cells of our body are ‘harmed’, in fact, destroyed all the time. You’ve probably heard the bit about how all the cells in your body are replaced every seven years. It’s not quite as simple as that but it’s a good approximation. Some cells, such as skin cells and cells in the stomach lining die and are replaced every few days. If cells ceasing to work is the criterion for disease, we are in a permanently diseased state by nature. When a weightlifter goes to the gym, they are deliberately ‘harming’ the cells and sub-structures of their body. Lifting heavy weights tears the muscles but the weightlifter knows that it’s the response of the body to repair the damage which leads to muscle gain. Given enough food and rest, the body will not just repair the muscles but make them thicker and stronger for next time which means that the weightlifter will be able to lift heavier weight. According to the above definition, weightlifting is a disease.
These simplistic definitions quickly lead to nonsense unless we understand our body as a system responding to the larger systems that comprise its environment. The body attempts to achieve equilibrium or what is called homeostasis. The fluctuations around homeostasis usually occur within regular boundaries and this is called health or the state of being healthy. When the body is pushed outside of those bounds it mounts a response to return to homeostasis. In the case of the weightlifter, this response involves the rebuilding of muscle and ligament. In the case of a broken bone, the healing of that bone. In the case of viral infection, antibodies and other immune system adaptations. Viral infection provides a nice case study here. The body is exposed to viruses all the time and deals with them without trouble. If a virus gets out of control, it throws the body out of homeostasis. The body responds by causing fever and other symptoms. In essence, it diverts resources away from other sub-systems so that as much metabolic energy as possible can be used to fight the infection. That’s why the best thing to do is go to bed and wait for the fever to pass. Other symptoms such as coughing and sneezing are part of the body’s response.
What the dictionary meanings are missing is the element of time. Nietzsche famously said that what doesn’t kill me makes me stronger. A less poetic but more accurate version might be ‘whatever I recover from makes me stronger’. On the other side of a heavy weightlifting session, you are back to homeostasis but with thicker and stronger muscles and ligaments and denser bones. On the other side of a viral infection, you are back to equilibrium but now armed with antibodies to fight that virus and related viruses in the future. In both cases, you are better adapted to your environment; the artificial one you created with your weightlifting and the natural one that your body must deal with every day in the microbiological world.
3. Feeling Sick
Disease would be complicated enough but a big extra layer of complexity is added due to psychological and mental factors that accompany it. It is possible to be diseased and not know it which is called anosognosia. Errol Morris has a brilliant series of essays on the subject. Conversely, it’s possible to think you are sick even though you aren’t which is called somatic symptom disorder. Isn’t it funny how children start to get sick right before having to go to school? Or what about the employee feeling down in the dumps just before having to go to work on a sunny Monday morning. Both of course will make a miraculous recovery mid-morning. These cases are not just outright lies (well, sometimes they are). It is possible to make yourself feel sick. It is even possible for the mind to create the physical symptoms themselves. Perhaps the most dramatic example of this is phantom pregnancy where the women in question show all the signs of pregnancy without actually being pregnant. I once met a doctor from India at a social function and I asked her what was the main difference she noticed between Australia and India. “In India, my patients were actually sick,” she said. She estimated about half her patients were not really sick but were making it up whether at a conscious or, more commonly, subconscious level. This observation fits with the official statistics which state that most disease in wealthy countries is neuropsychiatric in nature.
The point is that feeling sick and being diseased are not the same thing. Again, weightlifting provides a nice example to explain this. The day after a heavy training session you might feel tired, lethargic and sore. You may even feel pain. Part of learning weightlifting is learning to distinguish between genuine injury (disease) and ‘normal’ pain that comes from adaptation. Similarly, once you’ve had the flu a couple of times, you learn to recognise it and you don’t worry about it. You know that if you go to bed for a few days you’ll be fine. But when somebody tells you you’ve got a brand new disease you’re going to worry. How much that worry contributes to outcomes is a question our science doesn’t want to answer. We look for physical causes alone and consider all that psychological stuff to be just epiphenomena. Except we know that it isn’t just epiphenomena. Mass hysteria is a real thing and there are countless examples of groups of people all thinking they were sick when they weren’t.
4. Viral Disease
Technically, viral disease occurs whenever a single cell in your body is infected by a virus. Some have noted that with the corona event we are all sick until proven healthy. More specifically, our public health bureaucrats consider us diseased if even a single cell is infected with a virus. There are all kinds of problems with this:-
- The PCR test does not prove a current or past infection
- Even if you have an infection, it doesn’t mean you are or will get sick
- Even if you have an infection, it does not mean you are or will be infectious or how infectious you will be
- Even if you are infectious, it does not mean other people will actually get infected. (That depends on all kinds of environmental factors)
- Even if other people do get infected, it doesn’t mean they will get sick or become infectious
Note how the technical definition here differs from the lay definition. The thing any of us care about is feeling sick i.e. coming down with a fever or a cough or, in a worst case scenario, a pneumonia. These are what we can call ‘system level’ issues. With an asymptomatic rate of about 50%, most people would have sailed through corona blissfully unaware that they were ‘diseased’. Nevertheless, a public health bureaucrat considers them diseased and that’s true by the dictionary definition. Prior to corona, a public health bureaucrat only cared about you if you showed actual signs of disease (system-level symptoms). Now they care about you at the cellular level. That is the wonderful bit of ‘progress’ that the misuse of the PCR has brought us.
For all of human history until 2020, a pandemic was recognised by external symptoms of disease (note: PCR tests were widely available for the 2009 Swine Flu false alarm but there was not enough to go around and the US CDC had to restrict their use to those who were hospitalised). The corona event started in the traditional fashion i.e. some doctors in Wuhan thought they noticed something unusual in their pneumonia patients. Those doctors reported their concerns to the China CDC who showed up and, within a couple of weeks, were using the PCR test to diagnose ‘infection’. The rest, as they say, is history.
The dictionary meaning of pandemic is a disease that has spread across a wide geographical area. According to this definition, there is therefore a permanent global pandemic of cold and flu viruses including coronaviruses. That is why, prior to 2009, the WHO’s definition of pandemic included a criterion for ‘enormous numbers of deaths and illness’. This criterion enabled us to separate a genuine pandemic from the usual cold and flu cycles. But in 2009, that criterion was dropped by the WHO. Because of that change, we are technically in a permanent pandemic of every cold and flu virus. Because the symptoms shown by sufferers of these viral diseases are indistinguishable, we lump them all, including the known coronaviruses, into a category called influenza-like illness. But in 2020, the WHO decided that this ‘new’ coronavirus would not be lumped into that category but would have its own category called ‘covid’ even though the symptoms of ‘covid’ are no different to any other cold or flu virus. Was there a formal process to make the decision? Were the reasons made public? Is there a procedure to object to the decision on scientific grounds? The answer seems to be: No.
These changes are groundbreaking. Public health bureaucrats now reserve the right to declare any new respiratory virus a ‘new’ disease and to label you as diseased based on a PCR test result for that virus. They then reserve the right to label infections of that new virus a pandemic even if the level of serious illness in the community is not severe. If ever there was an example to show why semantics are important it has to be that. In 2020, we were locked in our houses because of semantics.
6. Herd Immunity
Way back at the start of corona some old fashioned epidemiologists came out and said that lockdowns were the worst thing we could do. What we should do, they argued, was protect the old and immuno-compromised. The best way to do that was to have them stay at home while everybody else got infected as quickly as possible leading to herd immunity. For reasons that I still don’t understand, the counter-message floating around at that time was that we didn’t know that herd immunity could be achieved for a new virus. That was an extraordinary claim. It’s a bit like saying we don’t know whether gravity would exist on a new planet. Herd immunity is not just one of the foundational concept of epidemiology, it’s straight up common sense. Humans have only survived to this day because of herd immunity. How else could it be so?
But not any more according to the WHO which changed the definition in October 2020 so that herd immunity is now all about vaccines. They now say that herd immunity is achieved by protecting people from a virus not exposing them to it. Note the choice of language here. The wording somehow implies that humans now have the power to choose whether we are exposed to viruses or not (I touched on the importance of this change in my post on Acts of Nature). Of course, even if you somehow had individual choice and you chose to expose yourself to a virus rather than get vaccinated you would not be contributing to herd immunity any more. That can only happen by vaccination from now on.
This change of definition seems to me completely indefensible on scientific grounds. I was prepared to cut the WHO some slack early on in the corona event but no longer. It is clearly a corrupt organisation.
The result of this? Public health bureaucrats reserve the right to declare you diseased even if you aren’t sick and to say that the ONLY way to cure your ‘disease’ is by administration of a vaccine.
7. Cause of Death
The first thing to be said about cause of death is that, even in normal times, it is wrong about 1/3rd of the time. That is, the cause of death put on a death certificate by a doctor or pathologists is incorrect in about 30% of cases that are reviewed by an autopsy. Now, add to that baseline level of inaccuracy the psychological biases caused by a purported pandemic then add to that the political pressures. For example, there have been countless anecdotes floating around about how some family member died in the last year and the family was asked if corona could be placed as the cause of death so that the institution in question could receive the extra government money paid for corona cases. Cause of death is often difficult to determine and a PCR test doesn’t help. All the problems with the PCR as a tool for diagnosing infection apply to the cause of death. Just because you tested positive does not mean the infection played a meaningful role in your death and, even if the infection was serious, we know that in about 95% of cases there is at least one other co-morbidity. I recall early on hearing a statistic that about 50% of ‘corona deaths’ had four or more co-morbidities. This makes sense when you consider that the average age of death ‘from corona’ is the average life expectancy in most places. The people dying are the elderly and the elderly have co-morbidities.
Dying with four co-morbidities is like a zebra being killed by a pack of hyenas. Sure, it might be one of the hyenas that delivered the bite that finally ended the struggle but that hyena on its own wouldn’t have killed the zebra. It took the whole team. But with corona we have pretended that the hyena that delivered the killer bite was really a lion.
8. Excess Mortality
Excess mortality implies an average and the first question of any average is what is the standard deviation. But even if you know the standard deviation, that doesn’t give you certainty. The stock market deviates around an average most of the time and then it crashes. In Australia, the bushfire season deviates around an average and then you get a major inferno. There are things that can be done to prevent the size of a stock market crash and the size of a bushfire and those things absolutely should be done but what you can’t do is prevent them altogether, not without destroying the system i.e. preventing a free market or chopping down all the trees. The same goes for viral disease. There absolutely are measures that can and should be taken but those measures should not destroy society. That is the line we crossed in the last year.
All posts in this series:-