NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE D uring this entire epidemic, and the response to it, there is a growing tension between front-line doctors and scientific researchers, between people who must use and master numbers in their jobs and university statisticians and modelers, and between the public in general and its credentialed experts.
Fact and Theory
In a nutshell, the divide reflects the ancient opposition between empiricism and abstraction — or more charitably common sense and practical application versus scientific knowledge.
When the two are combined and balanced, then knowledge advances. When they are not, both are deprived of the wisdom of the other.
Unfortunately, in the present crisis, we have listened more to the university modeler than to a numbers-crunching accountant. The latter may not understand Banach manifolds, but he at least knows you cannot rely on basic equations and formulas if your denominator is inaccurate and your numerator is sometimes equally unreliable.
It seems a simple matter that the small number of those testing positive for the virus simply could not represent all those who are infected with the contagion. Yet such obviousness did not stop modelers, experts, and political advisers from authoritatively lecturing America on the lethality and spread of COVID-19.
Internet coronavirus-meters feign scientific accuracy with their hourly streams of precise data. But those without degrees wondered why such metrics even listed China, whose data is fanciful, or why the number of “cases” is listed when it hinges entirely on the hit-and-miss and idiosyncratic testing of various states and nations.
Throughout this crisis, there has been a litany of arrogance and ignorance. The FDA early on made a hubristic and disastrous decision to monopolize testing. Neither the WHO nor the CDC could get their stories straight on the wisdom or folly of wearing masks.
There were so many expert lectures on how the virus was transmitted that many listeners shrugged and decided that researchers knew far less than those who cleaned and scrubbed for a living. It required neither a CIA analyst nor geneticist to conclude that China lied about the virus and kept lying about its lying.
So the public found little initial expertise from experts.
Our experts weekly bickered over allowing patients to try off-label pharmaceuticals. Vaccinations would be impossible for 18 months, for one year, for six months, for 18 months. . . . They apparently did not object to the sending of the infected into nursing homes. They could never decide whether to demonize or canonize the Swedish model, and so they modulated their analysis on its daily death tally from the virus.
Was infection taking place outside? Rarely, but apparently frequently enough to require masks. Were 2 million of us going to die? Or 300,000? Or 200,000? Or 100,000 — yes or no? Or maybe when we hit 60,000 deaths, the eventual total would be 63,000? And when we hit 63,000, it would be 67,000? And so on?
Was the virus most infectious on surfaces, as droplets, or as aerosols? All or none? Were ventilators the key to preventing deaths, or did they often ensure them?
Did warmer weather retard viral transmission? We were told both yes and no — and maybe sorta. Don’t dare take Advil — or use either Advil or Tylenol? Were deaths to the virus over- or under-counted? We were told both.
Do not compare any aspect of this virus to annual influenza strains — unless experts do that all the time. But nothing really is known about the coronavirus, or for that matter the flu either, given that how we count its cases and its deaths seems even hazier even than how we game the coronavirus — at least if the point now is to drive annual flu deaths down, and COVID-19 lethality up.
Could you be reinfected by the virus? Again yes, and then again no. Did antibodies provide immunity? Of course — but don’t count on it.
Were kids immune, or asymptomatic carriers, or vulnerable, or not carriers at all? Smoking was bad during the pandemic, but nicotine was good, or both bad or both good?
Just as often, the public was told nothing about what they felt was most curious. Why exactly did our three largest states — California, Texas, and Florida — have so few virus deaths per 1 million population? Was the cause state policy, earlier infection, poor statistical reporting, population density, weather — or just luck? Why did the coronavirus take off in a fashion that MERS, SARS, and West Nile Fever never had? What are the respective relationships, if any, of the Wuhan wet market or its Level 4 virology lab to the outbreak? Were the culprits snakes, bats, pangolins, lab technicians, or . . . ? And why exactly did the CDC partially fund a Chinese Level 4 virology lab?
Soon a reliable antidote, a vaccination, and the exact genesis of the virus will be discovered by university and corporate-related scientists. But how their discoveries should be used most effectively among the population will be determined by others — most likely far more pragmatic doctors, nurses, and hospital staff members in the field who treat terribly sick and infectious patients. To the degree that governors listened solely to academics and experts, they usually erred; to the degree they collated advice from those in all walks of life, they did not.
Science without humility and without the constant audit of experience, pragmatism, and common sense remains a parlor game. We should have known that from experience. We should have had experts who expressed modesty about what they did not know, while leaving the snark, the sneering, and the haughtiness to those who might have had some reason to express it. Competence can sometimes excuse the egotism of experts. But the combination of arrogance and ignorance is fatal to them.
Us vs. Him
Engineers and scientists did much to ensure the success of the D-Day operation, by inventing artificial “Mulberry” harbors, running a novel fuel pipeline under the English Channel (“PLUTO”), and creating an array of specially engineered and adapted armored vehicles to deal with German defenses (“Hobart’s funnies”).
That said, the chief innovation that allowed the Americans to break out of the hedgerows behind Omaha Beach was the ad hoc welding of metal spikes (many scavenged from German “hedgehog” steel beach defenses) to the fronts of Sherman M4 tanks by adaptive front-line soldiers.
The subsequent “rhinos,” or modified Shermans — adaptations that no D-Day planners and engineers had envisioned — then plowed through the mounds and overgrowth of the bocage. Fighter pilots cannot design planes, but engineers cannot either without the practical input of pilots.
Much of the advance of classical scholarship came from the systematization of learning and credentialing. In the 19th century, Ph.D. programs in classical philology, peer-reviewed scholarship, and a scientific method of assessing manuscripts, compiling lexica, and establishing authoritative texts of major authors allowed the creation of entirely new disciplines, such as papyrology, numismatics, epigraphy, and prosopography.
All that said, perhaps the three greatest breakthroughs in classical scholarship of the 19th and 20th centuries were the result of either “amateurs” or eccentrics. Some were without formal classical educations. Others were idiosyncratic philologists working in fields outside their formal disciplines or indeed in areas they mostly created ex nihilo.
The wealthy dilettante and retired German banker Heinrich Schliemann was many things, not all of them reputable. But for all his misconceptions and sometimes destructive restorations and misguided archaeological approaches, he was a pragmatist and the first to ground the Homeric epics within the physical landscapes of a real Troy and Mycenae.
Milman Parry was a brilliant young linguist, but he is now known for his freelancing research with Serbo-Croatian oral bards in the badlands of the Balkans. His landmark contribution was showing how it was imminently possible and indeed likely that the monumental Homeric epics were not written but composed orally — by a mostly illiterate poet’s use of formulas, modular phrases, and longer, repeating type scenes.
Parry more or less invented the entire field of Homeric oral poetry. And he did so in a unique and largely eccentric fashion.
It was conventional academic wisdom up until the early 1950s that whatever Linear B was — the strange, undeciphered syllabic script found on clay tablets excavated from the Mycenean palaces — it could not be Greek. After all, the familiar Greek alphabet first appeared nearly 400 years later through borrowing and adapting Phoenician scripts in the late ninth century b.c.
Moreover, the monumental Mycenean palaces, infrastructure, social organization, and art were so different from later Greek civilization of the emerging city-state of the late ninth century b.c. that it seemed impossible that the earlier Myceneans could have resembled Greek-speakers. To believe that heresy was to imagine an earlier, but lost, Greek script — and an alien, more Near Eastern–like prior vanished civilization that was nonetheless still Greek, one that might have been the kernel for orally transmitted Greek mythological tales set during the Dark Ages of long-ago supernatural heroes and gods.
Such views were considered heterodox, at least until architect and former cryptologist Michael Ventris deciphered Linear B. With some help from others, he proved that it was an early form of the Greek language. Then, with the eclipse of Mycenean civilization in the cataclysms of the 13th and twelfth centuries b.c., Linear B had perished and thus was apparently unknown by later Greeks emerging from the Dark Ages.
Early Greeks, it turned out, had all along created monumental Mycenean palaces and then scattered after their destruction. They gradually forgot about them during the long centuries of the impoverished Dark Age. And yet finally Greeks reemerged in recorded history, as the same Greek-speakers but with a different script and a different social and political organization, the polis, at the beginning of Western civilization.
The mavericks Schliemann, Parry, and Ventris were sometimes written off as dilettantes or strange academic birds. Often, they were snubbed; all died either tragically young or painfully.
Many of their theories are still constantly questioned and have been rightly modified. Nonetheless, they all approached scientific questions largely through their own prior practical expertise — banking and business, living among bards and transcribing oral song-making in remote southern Europe, and cryptology.
Most contemporary credentialed philologists either lacked the experience or imagination of the three, who nonetheless were often wise enough to enlist academic experts to hone their discoveries. They had more regard for the experts they refuted than the refuted did for them.
One of the most depressing aspects of the coronavirus epidemic has been the failure of the credentialed class — the alphabetic transnational and federal health organizations, the university modelers, the professional associations, and their media enablers. Their collective lapse was largely due to hubris and the assumption that titles and credentials meant they had no need to accept input and criticism from those far more engaged in the physical world — they saw no need to say, “At this time, I confess we are as confused as you are.”
In sum, the ER doctors, the nurses, and the public in general all eagerly welcomed the research of the experts. But the reverse — in which experts would listen to those with firsthand experience — was not true. The asymmetrical result is that we all have paid a terrible price in misjudging the perfidy of China; the rot within the World Health Organization; the origins, transmission, infectiousness, and lethality of the virus; and the most effective, cost-to-benefit response to the epidemic in terms of saving lives lost to the infection versus the likely even more lives lost through the response.
The problem was not just that we were supposed to accept expert, scientific, loud gospel on Monday, which grew muted and doubtful on Tuesday, and in near silence became impossible on Wednesday.
In addition, our experts learned nothing and forgot nothing, and so repeated their entire cycle of credentialed haughtiness on Thursday.