Ask the average person in a western nation what it means to cure a disease and what will they answer? Chances are they think a cure means a solution. You get sick with something, you take a treatment, then you’re no longer sick. Ask the same person how many diseases have been cured in the last century or so and they’ll probably think there were quite a lot. And yet, by the definition of cure just given, there have been very few actual cures developed.
Here’s a good example of the schizophrenic nature of our cultural understanding of what it means to cure. The headline reads “12 Deadly Diseases Cured in the 20th Century”. The average person would interpret this to mean that once upon a time there were 12 deadly diseases in the world and then the 20th century came along and now those diseases don’t exist. But the very first disease listed in the article is chickenpox and the article specifically states that chickenpox is not a deadly disease, is not cured, and is, in fact, a rite of passage for most people.
This kind of disconnect between the headline and the actual content of an article is extremely common these days and, once you get an eye for it, you can start to discover some interesting things about our culture. The pattern is as follows: the headline refers to the deep-seated cultural script while the body shows the “reality”. Many people would call such articles propaganda. But even if it is propaganda, it’s very subtle propaganda that works by reinforcing a cultural script that is perfectly familiar to the average reader. In this case, the cultural script is that we have cured lots of diseases through the wonders of modern medicine. If we dig a little deeper into that script, we find that it revolves around the word cure.
Fittingly, the word cure has its etymology in religion. To cure is to make healthy and healthy is related to holy. In French, curé still means priest or chaplain. In Latin, curare means “to take care of”. In the original meaning, you cured a person and you did that by taking care of them i.e. nursing them back to health (which could also have meant spiritual health).
In the modern meaning, we now cure a disease. But this is a very different meaning. This version of “cure” now means something like eliminate or defeat. We call disease the “invisible enemy” and we declare war on this enemy. In you think this is just semantics, bear in mind that the last two and a half years saw wartime measures implemented in western nations and wartime levels of debt and inflation to go with it. Boris Johnson used a war metaphor early in the development of the vaccine saying the “scientific cavalry” was coming over the hill to rescue us. Words matter as do the cultural scripts they point to.
Whether you think that medical “cures” are largely about returning a person to wholeness (and holiness) through healing or whether you think a cure is the medical equivalent of carpet bombing the invisible enemy into oblivion will in large part predict your reaction to corona. As a member of the former group, I was horrified. But most people in our society follow the latter cultural script according to which the Dr Faucis of the world are the great generals leading us into scientific battle and we must play the role of obedient soldiers.
What got me thinking about these matters was a video of US President Biden I came across in my internet travels in the last couple of days. Biden was shouting (is it just me or does Biden always shout during his speeches?) about finding a cure for cancer.
We were, Biden shouted, going to get rid of cancer once and for all. Now if you know the history of diseases we have “got rid of once and for all”, you know that the list starts and ends with smallpox. So, it’s a pretty big claim to say we can do the same for cancer. How did Biden think this incredible feat is going to be achieved? The answer, incredibly, is mRNA vaccines; the same safe and effective treatment that worked so well for covid (I’m not making it up, that’s literally what he said).
How does the leader of the free world say that with a straight face, especially given that he himself is vaccinated up the wazoo and still got covid? Well, that’s between Biden and his curé (his priest) and I hope he’s got a good one. But, in fairness, Biden probably believes what he’s saying and so do a great many people in western nations. What’s going here, despite how absurd it might look to those of us who are apostates from this strange religion, is not actually anything new but a basic element of human psychology.
The phenomenon of disregarding what looks to non-believers as overwhelming evidence permeates even the domain of science. As the saying goes, science progresses one funeral at a time. Even some of the greatest scientists have gone to their graves denying what later became standard theories of how the world works. Gerald Weinberg gave this phenomenon the name The Law of the Conservation of Laws:
“When the facts contradict the law, reject the facts or change the definitions, but never throw away the law”.
That’s not the way science is supposed to work, but it’s the way science does work because it’s the way humans work. A vaccine is a cure and cures are safe and effective. That is the cultural script or law that must be preserved in our culture and it will be preserved until it can no longer be preserved. If this means disregarding obvious facts and changing the definitions of words, then that’s exactly what will happen and it’s exactly what has happened in the last decade in order to get more “cures” onto the market.
Many dissenters analyse corona as a one-off mass formation psychosis where people were so traumatised that they continue to behave irrationally. This line of thinking puts corona in a box with a nice bow around it and places it in the crazy basket alongside historical episodes like the Dutch tulip craze or the South Sea Bubble.
But that’s not correct. Corona follows the Law of the Conservation of Laws. We acted according to some of our most deep-seated cultural scripts and, though they were a complete failure, we have not thrown away those scripts and we continue to act by them. I would add to Weinberg’s law the qualifier that the more blatant the disregard for the facts, the more fundamental must be the law that is being protected. Right now, so many deep-seated beliefs of western culture are under threat that our entire public discourse is completely dissociated from reality. That’s not a state of affairs that can continue for much longer.
I tried to unpack the main cultural scripts related to corona in my book The Plague Story. It’s because the modern west thinks of itself as undogmatic (part of our ongoing rebellion against religion) that we are unable to see that we are just as dogmatic as any other society, perhaps even more so because we are unaware of our dogma. Because we never hold our dogma up to critical review, it doesn’t change. Thus, when faced with such an obvious failure as the corona vaccines, the modern west not only doesn’t acknowledge the failure but doubles down on it. That’s what Biden’s recent announcement amounts to.
There was one other thing that Biden shouted in his speech that I thought was telling as it relates to another core cultural script of the modern west. He said an mRNA vaccine for cancer “could be used to stop cancer cells when they first arise”. You know what else stops cancer cells when they first arise?: our immune system.
It’s worth remembering that the scientific discipline of immunology is very young. Almost everything we know about the immune system at a technical, analytical level has been learned in the post war years (although we had a tacit understanding of the principles of immune response well before that). We now know that the immune system is constantly on the lookout for cancer cells which it will destroy. This is the normal state of affairs. The abnormal state is when the cancer cells evade the immune system and the chances of this happening increase with age as the immune system begins to degrade along with the other systems of the body.
From a systems thinking point of view, the immune system belongs to the category of medium number systems i.e. those systems which display organised complexity. Biden is calling his cancer-cure push the Cancer Moonshot. But this analogy is a category error. The moonshot, sending a rocket to the moon, belonged to the domain of classical physics and is therefore in the organised simplicity category. A cure for cancer, whatever that means, must come from the domain of organised complexity.
But this implied definition of “science” is just another of our most deep-seated cultural scripts. “Science” means reductionist science. It’s true that reductionist science gave us the moonshot of which we are so proud. But reductionist science does not work in the domains of organised complexity of which medicine and biology are two prime examples. We can see another example of this category error in the executive order Biden released a couple of days ago in relation to the cancer moonshot. Here is an excerpt:
We need to develop genetic engineering technologies and techniques to be able to write circuitry for cells and predictably program biology in the same way in which we write software and program computers; unlock the power of biological data, including through computing tools and artificial intelligence; and advance the science of scale‑up production while reducing the obstacles for commercialization so that innovative technologies and products can reach markets faster.
Huh? Write circuity for cells? Program biology like a computer? As somebody who works in the IT industry, I don’t whether to laugh or cry at this statement. I will say this, I wouldn’t let a computer programmer anywhere near the “circuitry” of my cells. In these metaphors we see the same old category error. Electrical circuits and computer code belong to the domain of organised simplicity. Biology belongs to the domain of organised complexity.
Let me give an alternative metaphor which I think better captures what is going on with “cures” for diseases.
The body is a system and the immune system is a sub-system. Both systems interact with the larger systems that are the “real world”. The domain of study most relevant is ecology, which investigates the relationship between livings beings and their environment.
When we treat somebody with a “cure”, we are bringing a new element into the ecosystem of the body. It is assumed that the ecosystem is out of equilibrium (in a state of disease). We hope that the new element will trigger a process that brings the ecosystem back into equilibrium. mRNA vaccines are a novel element we have now introduced into the ecosystem of individual human bodies as well as the population of human bodies. Unlike programming software or wiring an electrical circuit, such an introduction of a novel element can, in fact almost certainly will, have unforeseen effects.
Here in Australia we have numerous historical examples of introducing new elements into the ecosystem. Due to its nature as an island continent far away from major historical population centres, Australia has developed a unique flora and fauna. When Europeans arrived a couple of hundred years ago, they brought with them a bunch of new flora and fauna. One of the earlier introductions were rabbits whose purpose was to allow the aristocracy to engage in the old British pastime of hunting. The rabbit population got out of control and the rest is history.
But perhaps the better of example for our purposes is the cane toad because the cane toad was not introduced for entertainment purposes but in order to solve an ecosystem problem. Specifically, some insects were causing large amounts of damage to the sugar cane crop and the toads were brought in to eat the insects.
Sounds like a good idea. What could go wrong? Well, it turns out cane toads will eat not just insects but pretty much anything (including snakes!). This fact, combined with a lack of any natural predator to keep the population in check, meant that cane toad numbers exploded and are an ongoing problem to this day in the tropical north of Australia.
Now it must be said that there were many other species introduced to Australia that didn’t backfire as spectacularly as rabbits and cane toads. Nevertheless, the lesson holds. The use of any new kind of medication is broadly equivalent to introducing a novel species to an ecosystem. The metaphor breaks down somewhat in that most medications will exit the “ecosystem” by natural excretory processes; although the mRNA concept was always more dangerous in this sense because the process by which it would exit the system was less obvious. Nobody predicted the cane toad population would explode in Australia and cause huge problems because such things are not predicable.
This is the main difference between the domains of organised simplicity and organised complexity. The science of organised simplicity eg. classical physics, produces predictable results. That’s the whole point of it. Reductionist science always aims for an “if A, then B” formulation. That works fine in the domain of organised simplicity. It does not work in the domain of organised complexity. In the domain of organised complexity there is always the risk of a cane toad-like phenomenon. In relation to medication, we mitigate that risk by testing extensively before releasing the medication “into the wild”. Well, we used to. Now we rush medication through testing and next thing you know it’s curing cancer. Even Jesus would be like “dude, that’s totally a miracle.”
Immunology and medicine are not like flying to the moon or writing computer code or wiring up electrical circuitry. They are qualitatively different disciplines. But the people running our society do not understand this. Until we acknowledge this fact, we are going to keep repeating the same errors of the last two and a half years. And that’s exactly what we are doing and will continue to do because of the Law of the Conservation of Laws.
If science progresses on funeral at a time, then at the generational level it progresses as the generations pass. The generation running society at the moment will continue making the same errors. As the consequences of those errors mount, they will continue to try and use their political power to silence dissenting voices. But eventually all that will pass. It will be the upcoming generations who are not blind to the abject failures of their leaders who will finally start asking the right questions and finding the right answers. Well, it better be, or we’re in real trouble.