A Very Modern Plague: Part II

This is the second in a two-part post on the modern roots of the Coronavirus crisis. You can find the first part here.

A Very Modern Knowledge

So how did the Government know how to act? On what basis did it know that locking down, not just for weeks but months, was necessary? We were told, repeatedly, that they were led by ‘the science’. But what kind of science? The answer is a very modern form of knowledge, the model. It has been widely reported that the key moment that turned the British government away from its original strategy, which appeared to be something close to the path Sweden has taken, was the publication of infamous Imperial College model. A model that predicted up to 500,000 deaths without a lockdown. The use of models, complex algorithms, to produce a picture of the future is an increasingly common feature of contemporary society. But, of course, such models rely on particular assumptions that would have struck people of other ages as rather dubious. The modeller must identify each variable relevant to the question in hand, they must know how those variables relate to each other and they must know the correct figure for each variable to enter into the model. Only if all these conditions are met does the modeller have a reasonable chance of producing a model that correctly predicts the future. Listen to Michael Yeadon, a former Chief Scientist for Pfizer, 

‘I cannot stress how important it is, whenever you hear the word “model”, that you ask who has the expertise in the thing that’s purportedly being modelled. It is no use whatever if the modellers are earnest and brilliant if they are not top-quality experts in the phenomenon being modelled. Because you may be sure that from models come future scenarios – predictions if you will. If the model is constructed by people who are not subject-matter experts about the thing being modelled, then if they’ve constructed it in error, they will not know it.’

To rely on modelling, therefore, rather than empirical data collected in the past, assumes a very optimistic view of human understanding of the universe. It is essentially hubristic. Of course, as a rough and ready calculation that informs our picture of an unknown future, models can be useful. But to shut down almost all economic, social and cultural activity on the basis of a model shows an extraordinarily high level of confidence in our mastery and knowledge of the world around us. Since the UK Government did introduce a national lockdown we will never know if Professor Fergusson’s predictions about not locking down would have come true. But since the same model predicted that deaths in Sweden would reach 96,000 without a lockdown, and they currently stand at around 6000, we may well wonder if our confidence in his model was misplaced. 

We now live in a society driven not by the human and humane urges for company, companionship, love and laughter but by whatever an algorithm foretells about the likely transmission of a virus. Nothing that cannot be given a numerical value is included in our calculations and even much that can be, like the wave of unemployment and cancer deaths sure to follow the lockdown, seems to be missed out. Generations that managed to maintain their societies, without anything like the resources we have, in the face of much deadlier diseases must look upon ours with astonishment. We have been driven mad with statistics, frenzied by numbers, dancing like marionettes pulled in and out of lockdown by an algorithm in the most miserable version of the hokey-cokey imaginable. The truth of G.K. Chesterton’s remark that, 

The poet only asks to get his head into the heavens. It is the logician who seeks to get the heavens into his head. And it is his head that splits.

has been proved true on a societal level. We are a society led by ‘the science’, governed by logicians, no wonder we are a society that has split apart so severely.

A Very Modern Life.

Of course, there has been a remarkably strong degree of public support for the restrictive measures that the government has imposed. That’s not particularly surprising. Indeed, I supported them, initially, when the Infection Fatality Rate seemed to be nearer 3% than the current estimate of 0.2%. However, I do remember being somewhat taken aback when in June when Boris Johnson announced the first, slight, initial easing of the lockdown that only something like 17% wanted him to go further in loosening them. Even today, six months in, roughly 60% of the population supports the current restrictions or wishes them to go further. This can, perhaps, in part, be explained by the distinction between stated and revealed preferences. While 60% may state that they have a preference for strict rules, the fact that only something like 20% of people are actually self-isolating when those rules say they should reveals what they actually think. 

Nevertheless, it is undeniable that the British population has tolerated an enormous restriction of their activities for a significant amount of time and show little sign of stopping in the coming months. What explains this? I can’t help but think that the answer lies in the absence of any shared meaning or purpose to life that transcends death or the risk of death. Previous generations went to work, played sport, gathered to worship, in the face of far higher rates of mortality than we face in 2020. But we don’t. We might think that our reluctance is borne out of a well-developed sense of compassion for the old and the frail. But the way that the old and frail are really treated in our society belies that explanation.  

More likely, it seems to me, that we have been so willing to give up our daily activities in the face of the virus because we do not believe any of the activities in our day can really stand up to scrutiny in the face of death. Of course, many of us did things before March that did provide shafts of significance in our mortal condition; watching a football match, going to a concert, seeing grandchildren or grandparents, gathering with friends, singing in church. But while we may be able to articulate to ourselves why those things are worth doing, even if they involve a tiny risk of increased mortality, none of them have been able to hold their own in the public square. All have been swept away by the fear of death.

Like the painted boards of a stage set design, that give the appearance of the depth and grandeur of a great metropolis while being just a few inches thick, the thin, shallow, and illusory nature of so much of modern life has been revealed. Just when we need a cause, a purpose that endures beyond the grave, which can stand in the public square as well as the private home, we find ourselves bereft. And so, we are left with a life with little of the social contact that used to bring cheer and comfort, a life lived simply to endure. But, as we will soon discover: a life lived merely to endure is unendurable. Those who wish that they, or at least others, were confined to their homes to lower the death rate, will find that mortality, misery and meaninglessness slip inside the door with them while hope, joy and comfort remain shivering outside. 

The Coronavirus has shown that those who told us the very modern idea that the meaning of life is whatever you make of it were telling a lie. When a society is struck by a disease like COVID-19, it is society that needs meaning and purpose and not just the individuals within it. The idea that we didn’t need to bother ourselves with ultimate questions, that the meaning and purpose of life could simply be assumed or the question endlessly deferred, has been debunked. No, we have found out that even if we merely want the liberty to see our grandparents, we need some explanation of why life must continue in the face of death that has public acceptance. Our modern society does not have one, and so it must remain trapped indoors in fear of mortality. 

Some opponents of the lockdown have constructed rather outlandish theories as to why this is all going on. No doubt, there may be some truth in the idea that not everyone’s motivations are as straightforward as they may seem. However, while explanations such as the avariciousness of pharmaceutical companies or politicians avoiding injury to their vanity may have some truth, they are not necessary. The underlying conditions of modern society: our refusal to reckon with the tragic nature of the human condition, our reliance on the state to solve every problem, our devotion to ‘modelling’ as a source of knowledge about the future and the absence of any overarching meaning to life in the face of death, all provide fuel for the conflagration of foolishness in which we currently find ourselves, for which Covid-19 was merely the spark. We can only hope that, when this is over and we examine the charred wreckage of what remains, we find those ideas that proved to be so flammable have burned away, even as they burned up, alas, so much that we cherished and loved.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Jeff G says:

    Well said on the perils of modelling, over dependence on civil government, and a public fear of mortality… I believe this is very much on target, Graham. Sadly the correct analysis seems futile when at least 60% of men are bent on self-destruction (the problem is not just at the top). People think religion is irrelevant, but most of the government intervention seems to me expressions of faithlessness, and I think the West is discovering how miserable that really is.


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