COVID-19: Believe It When You See It?
Illustration: Corona Cover (Image Credit: Dr. Barry Lynn © 2020)
These have been crazy times, and the even crazier schedule makes it easy to forget what day it is, or even what hour it is. For instance, after the day off for Independence Day, the following Thursday seemed to last forever. By the time the day finished I had forgotten it was Thursday. I might have even confused my wife who woke up in the middle of that night asking: "Is it still Shabbat?"
Until the recent past, the weather itself has caused confusion — and even skepticism — about whether summer would ever arrive this year. Is it winter, summer, or maybe spring?
The public itself often greets weather forecasts with a certain skepticism, especially at this time of year because the weather can change quickly. Still, we're all sweltering, and we're pretty sure that spring, if not summer has arrived. In fact, the next few days should be stifling and dangerously hot! Regardless, a good dose of skepticism is always required to minimize the chance of being caught by surprise.
Skepticism is the doubt about the truth of something. When asking Google to "Define skepticism," one finds things like, "What is the goal of skepticism?" "What is the importance of skepticism?” and "What is the role of skepticism in science?"
But perhaps of most importance to the following discussion is the question: "Is skepticism an emotion?" Certainly, skepticism can be a good thing. It can challenge prevailing theories, allowing us to reinterpret facts to develop new, better theories. For instance, Daniel Kahneman working with Amos Tversky developed a rigorous way to study human errors that arise from heuristics and biases — and created a new theory to explain the simple strategies we use to cope with events and how our preconceptions affect our responses to them.
We find skepticism infusing the voices of a very vocal group (including some scientists) who examine global warming predictions. We can say that the world has warmed in the last 50 years, but not as much as has been predicted by most of the climate forecast models. For instance, this page shows a warming of about 0.5 degree Celsius above the average over the last 50 years. However, average warming predictions were for about 0.8 degree Celsius; and further about 90% of the projected forecasts were for warmer temperatures than those actually observed.
One might indeed doubt where we are headed when it snows in May in New York City, the coldest May 6th since 1891. We should consider how this should affect our economic and social policy about warming going forward. It is important to consider serious skeptical arguments and rebut them if possible. For instance, if we continue along our current trend, we will have an additional 0.3 degree Celsius warming in the next decade. Is that a large and important change, even if it is smaller than the vast majority of forecasts?
Skepticism: Helpful… and Not
These are examples of productive skepticism; contrasted to them, we have what we will call emotional 'Skeptics'. This is not to say that they seek to influence others simply through emotional rhetoric, but rather the emotional ‘Skeptic’ is aware of how easily emotions — strong passions and convictions — can influence our responses in ways that may not be in our best interest.
Such a ‘Skeptic’ is someone whose worldview informs his/her interpretation of the facts — rather than allowing the facts to inform his/her worldview. Many times, these people will base their opinion on the views of other ‘Skeptics’, in a reinforcing circle of delusion.
This is most pertinent to our policy related to coronavirus. This ‘Skeptic’ will say the coronavirus is not so bad — no worse than a bad flu — and that therefore the policy of social distancing and shutting businesses has been a mistake; a colossal waste of money.
Yet, the media on both the left (e.g, The New York Times) and the right (e.g, the Wall Street Journal (WSJ)) have reported the facts of the perils of this pandemic. For instance, the WSJ reported that those who have been susceptible to the virus have felt that the virus was akin to the "invasion of the body snatchers.”
Incredibly, 'Skeptics' argue that the pandemic is not really a pandemic at all and that hospitals are not really overwhelmed with patients. Yet, The New York Times reported that there is no space to store the dead and that the death rate (death per unit time) has increased by more than 50% in many countries, increasing by six times in New York City itself. Health care professionals are dealing with harassment over their first hand reports of the effects of this disease, being pressed for “proof” that the virus is severe.
We also hear from these ‘Skeptics’ that a person just needs to develop antibodies against the virus. Yet, it is not at all clear that these antibodies or even any antibodies will protect against the virus. Moreover, many of the testing kits are not reliable, leading to the false impression that a person has antibodies when they may not.
Finally, the ‘Skeptics’ use the idea of "herd immunity” to bolster their emotional statements. Herd immunity tells us that when enough (sick) people become immune to a disease, it spreads at a lower rate than during its first encounter with people (or animals) — and perhaps even disappears.
Yet, herd immunity doesn't really work to protect us against the ravages of disease. That is why we have developed vaccines against measles, polio, mumps, and others. For instance, new babies are born without immunity; some people, declared to be immune, will nevertheless infect the uninfected; and those once tested to be immune, may find their immunity has worn off. Moreover, waiting for humanity to achieve general immunity comes at the tremendous cost of preventable deaths.
Coronavirus Skeptics making the rounds
A recent video claims that if the infection rate from COVID-19 is really like the flu, then we have nothing to worry about. The speaker admits that he doesn't understand basic concepts about the virus as he is not a medical or biological expert. His claim, based most likely on a flawed study, is dubious at best. He overlooks the fact that the flu statistics cited describe the percentage of people actually infected, rather than the population as a whole, many of whom have received the flu vaccine. His claim makes no sense because we do not have a vaccine for COVID-19.
Recently, a video filmed at a protest in California featured a speaker who claimed to be one of many physicians who believe that social distancing doesn't work. He belongs to the group of true emotional ‘Skeptics,’ appealing to the emotions of his listeners by denigrating those who do not agree with his worldview. He disparages them by calling them "experts" and "mainstream” media. His rejection of measures like social distancing runs counter to common sense — and counter to the experience of countries that practiced social distancing earlier compared to later (e.g., compare Israel to Belgium or to Great Britain).
Then we have a long presentation from an epidemiologist (since removed from YouTube) who claims that we have reached the peak of the outbreak. Yet it is not clear if we are experiencing a peak or a plateau. A peak implies that the number of new infections and deaths are moving downwards, or will soon be; therefore, we can immediately open the economy, without restriction. However, a plateau implies an increasing number of total deaths with the implication that the length of stay on the plateau and the number of deaths will depend on how people behave and whether they will observe social distancing in the coming months. Other questionable assumptions, like counting on herd immunity, are used to support the most unlikely conclusions of this investigator.
Ironically, many of the arguments against continued social distancing cite lower death rates than originally projected — clearly overlooking the fact there have been lower death rates than projected in some countries precisely because of early social distancing! After all, one might just as well say that vaccines aren’t needed for measles, chickenpox, or polio because there are virtually no deaths from these diseases today. We know that smallpox is supposedly extinct; this happened not because of the development of herd immunity to the disease, but rather because the vaccine against smallpox eradicated it.
The irony is that the 'Skeptics' are right to worry about the effect of economic and social policy on the state of the economy. However, if you want to be heard and you want to be heard in a serious way, it is first necessary to admit that there are problems to be addressed — the need to minimize disruption to our economy by lost sick days, the disruption to our health system and its ability to cope, the need to minimize death and suffering in exchange for a certain economic output that is necessary to provide food, health care, pay for our defense, and even leisure. The balance is not easy to find, or even at all obvious, and it cannot be reduced to platitudes or based on false assumptions or hopes.
Dr. Lynn is a lecturer at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Earth Sciences Department. He is also CEO of Weather It Is, LTD, a company that specializes in reducing weather risk. Click here to read more of this writer’s work in The Jerusalem Herald.