“Man has nature whacked.” C. S. Lewis relates this comment made to a friend of his at the beginning of the final chapter in his book The Abolition of Man. The comment was ironic, reports Lewis, in that when the man made it, he was dying of tuberculosis.
There have been many suggestions of historical precursors to our current travails, indicating lessons we might learn from people’s experiences of plagues and pandemics of the past. Since I believe in the value of history, I enjoy these articles and have benefitted from them. But were I to suggest a historical precedent for our current situation, it would be the 1912 sinking of the Titanic. Not because I think we’re all “going down” and that our current efforts are just so much “shifting deck chairs on the Titanic.” Not at all. I am impressed with the way most people in the country have rallied round and chipped in to help, and I have every hope that the situation will improve markedly before too long. But then again, I am no expert.
No, I am calling it our “Titanic moment” not because I think we’re doomed, but because this pandemic, much like the sinking of the “unsinkable Titanic,” is our “moment of truth”: the puncturing of that illusion that “man has nature whacked.” Nature repeatedly shows that she still has her ways of whacking back. And those lessons are often very painful. One wishes such lessons would become less necessary rather than more so; that we would learn that advances in technology and organization cannot solve every problem, especially those that must be faced with wisdom and courage.
What something like this pandemic does is to shatter the illusion of control that we all too often indulge. One can see it in the constant carping and criticisms of any and all administration efforts and/or perceived lack of efforts. The presumption is that we can control everything—or should be able to. And if we fail to control something, then someone must be guilty of ill will or incompetence.
Consider, for example, the constant clamoring for “testing.” If only testing had begun earlier; if only we had gotten people tested before the thing got serious. But since it wasn’t done, someone is to blame. Someone must have “blood on his hands.”
Perhaps early signs should have been heeded earlier, even though plenty of qualified experts did not insist on it. Hindsight is always 20/20. But let’s do some simple math. Too simple, as we will soon see, but perhaps instructive nonetheless. In a nation of over 350 million people, even if we could test a million people per day, which to my mind, though not impossible, seems highly unlikely, it would take nearly a year to test everyone. Let’s take just New York with its roughly 11 million people in the metro area. If we could test 500,000 people per day—again, highly unlikely—it would take 22 days to test everyone.
And where were these 500,000 tests supposed to come from? Does anyone imagine we could have manufactured that many tests for a hitherto unknown virus in a matter of one or two weeks?
People are impressed by the testing regime in South Korea and Taiwan. But South Korea has a population of 51 million, Taiwan 23 million, spread over a geographical area much smaller than the United States. You get a much clearer sense of the spread of the virus testing 150,000 people in South Korea or Taiwan than you do testing 150,000 people in a nation that stretches from New York to California and from Upper Peninsula Michigan to the Florida Keys. I have no doubt one of those many computer modelers could produce a nifty set of bouncing dots to show us why.
Now the obvious rejoinder to this overly simplified math is that we need not test everyone, simply a random selection of the population or some proportion. That’s true, but also not quite right. Let’s say I get tested today and find that I am not infected. Hooray. But that doesn’t mean I won’t run into someone this afternoon and get infected, so that by tomorrow or the next day, I might be infectious. So I would need to be tested again — and again and again. Health care workers in hospitals caring for Covid-19 patients would need to be tested every day. How many tests would we need now in a nation of 350 million?
And here’s the grim truth only now becoming clear about “testing.” For various reasons, testing seems to be only 70% accurate, so there are many false negatives, leaving those people free to infect dozens of others. Widespread testing can decrease the spread of the virus to a certain extent; it cannot eliminate it.
I fear many people still live in the illusory world of the Marquis de Laplace, the early nineteenth century French mathematician who famously asserted,
An intellect which at a certain moment would know all forces that set nature in motion, and all positions of all items of which nature is composed, if this intellect were also vast enough to submit these data to analysis, it would embrace in a single formula the movements of the greatest bodies of the universe and those of the tiniest atom; for such an intellect nothing would be uncertain and the future just like the past would be present before its eyes.
This is sometimes known as “Laplacean determinism.”
This may be somewhat unfair to Laplace, since he understood, as we should, that the universe is not really determined. What we get are mere probabilities. So the best we can say is that it is more likely that the spread of the virus will be diminished within certain parameters if we do x, y, and z, not that it will happen. So let’s say that it’s 90% more likely that the spread of the virus will be diminished 50% if we continue social distancing measures. What if we fall into that less likely (but not impossible) 10%? Now the spread of the virus will be diminished … well, who knows? And if we do fall into that unfortunate 10% area, whose fault was it? Who will we blame? Was it anyone’s fault? Or is assigning fault or blame in such circumstances simply an absurd, knee-jerk reaction based on our usual notions of determined cause-and-effect that don’t apply in such complex situations?
At what point are we forced to admit that there are certain things that simply aren’t under our control. Why did these people die? Perhaps we didn’t prepare well enough. Perhaps we didn’t know we needed to prepare better. Perhaps there are some things we just can’t prepare for. Perhaps we are not the gods of nature and history after all. Just regular old short-sighted, fallen human creatures trying to make it through the next couple of days or months. But what if some horrible cancer hits? Or a “hundred-year flood” happens twice in my neighbor in the space of five years and all my life savings are wiped out? Should I have been prepared? Whose fault was it? Who should I blame? Myself? The government who didn’t warn me? Those people who aren’t helping me get back to “normal”? God?
There is another dimension of our illusory grasp of the world this crisis is revealing all too clearly. “Virtual” reality is not reality. And by this, I don’t just mean that computer models do not capture human reality, although this should be clear as well. I mean that there are more basic illusions we harbor that allow us to buy into the illusions of the computer world. The problems is that just as the ship that on paper was deemed “unsinkable” might at some point run into an actual iceberg, so too the system computer models predicted would work flawlessly, might just run right into an actual human crisis. Reality can be a hard brick wall.
So, for example, some people may be suffering from the misconception that food and other necessary household goods come from a store. How else to explain the odd notion that we should “keep the economy shut down” for another six to twelve to eighteen months? Does no one understand that in fairly short order, if the factories and distribution plants remain closed, there will be nothing in the stores? There will be no packages of pasta, no more replacement light bulbs, no more cleaning solution, no meat, no fruit, no vegetables.
Obviously, some people in some industries are still working, indeed working overtime: those working in “essential industries” an interesting label, which ought to cause to examine those “unessential” industries and ask why we spend so much money on them.
The word “economy” comes from the Greek oikonomia, which means “household management.” Since very few of us live in self-sustaining households, we all know that the notion of “sheltering in place” and “stay at home” orders are essentially meaningless when it comes to one essential household activity: we all need to go to the store. And the store needs to go to its store. And those stores need to get products from the producers who work in those plants or factories.
There is simply no way of keeping the economy “closed down” for much longer (hint: it’s not really entirely “shut down” now). This comment has nothing to do with “lives” vs. “money.” It is a simple conclusion derived from getting off the computer and looking at the reality of the physical realm. No economic output means no products in the store.
At some point, centralized governments will simply have to trust local, intermediary associations to gather responsibly, as they are doing now in many grocery stores, where social distancing is being maintained while people get their needed groceries. If centralized government officials—whether mayors of towns, governors of states, or the President of the United States—decide at some future time that prudence dictates we should “allow” such private judgments about social distancing to once again guide citizens in their daily activities, and if there is an uptick in infections and even deaths, will those officials have “blood on their hands”? Or will we have the good sense to recognize that, contrary to the modern presumption, human beings, even with all their superb technology, simply can’t control everything.
Make no mistake. This is not a complaint against modern science and technology. Thank God we have it. And thank God for the scientists working tirelessly to discover better and faster testing and a possible cure.
I also have no special expertise or advice for government officials on when they should loosen the social distancing requirements. I have little doubt that social distancing has been important, if for no other reason than it has forced us to develop certain habits which will serve us well even when our current lockdown ends.
My objection is to those in our society who habitually speak as though any and every problem can be solved by technical expertise and scientific know-how. Real scientists know the limits of their craft; they are taught to gauge the “degree of error” of their results and report it honestly. Much of what passes for “science” in the modern world is merely “scientism,” or what in an earlier time would have been termed “quackery.”
My objection is to those who think that technology and/or technological “systems” will be our salvation, failing to realize that it has always been and always will be people with distinct character virtues that save a civilization.
My objection, finally, is to those who think that, since everything can and should be controlled, any ill fortune anywhere in the country must have been someone’s fault. Because from their distinctly modern point-of-view, bad, unfortunate things don’t just “happen.” Someone, somewhere must not have done his job. Someone, somewhere must be to blame. Because clearly, if something bad happened, someone could have (and should have) stopped it.
I am not suggesting there is no room for responsible reporting on human errors, so corrections can be made. Fraternal correction is essential to human progress. But those who can tolerate no mistakes and who are constantly assigning blame are not usually the ones working tirelessly to stop the crisis; they are simply the people pointing the finger at others for not having done so. And to be honest, I’m just not sure how helpful that is.