Abandonment of all logic has left us with a coronavirus strategy that is doing great damage to society
- It doesn't take a philosophy degree to see that the Government's reasoning is dangerously flawed
- The abandonment of all logic has left us with a coronavirus strategy that is doing great damage to society
- Janet Daley, 8 August 2020 • 1:00pm
- I am not a virologist or a statistician so I clearly do not have the particular specialist expertise to pronounce on the progress of the Covid epidemic. But I did teach philosophy for many years so I believe I am competent to judge the soundness and coherence of arguments. If the current public discourse on the health crisis were an undergraduate submission, I would probably write a single word in the margin: “Unintelligible”.
- It is not so much that the logic of the official argument is flawed: it is seemingly non-existent. There is no attempt to string together premises which follow from one another or to reach conclusions that are justified by any obvious process of deduction. There is no clear distinction between statements that might (or might not) be supported by empirical evidence, and hypothetical guess work: there is not even any acknowledgement that there is an important difference between these two things.
- Now all of this, you may say, sounds rather abstrusely technical. We are obviously not engaged in an academic seminar where the punctilious use of words and the rigour of logical distinctions are paramount. This is a government and its advisors dealing with a national crisis and attempting to communicate in simple, accessible ways with the whole population. There is an urgency here which rules out fastidiousness in the analysis of words and their implications. And anyway, nobody (except logic fetishists) would even notice any problem with what is being said. This, you may have guessed, is where I would disagree.
- The general public – including those who do not have philosophy degrees – has noticed that there is something disturbingly amiss with the Government’s account of its decisions. Even to those for whom the arcane analysis of arguments and meaningful speech would normally seem excruciatingly pointless can sense that the statements that are now governing their lives do not add up.
- Never mind the on-again, off-again rules about face masks or sudden changes in quarantine regulations: those could actually be legitimate functions of new empirical evidence. Much more serious is the ambiguity of the most basic assumptions. For example, we are now in the midst of a flurry of local lockdowns precipitated by (sometimes very small) increases in positive test results. These positive test results are invariably described as “cases” of the virus even when – as is generally true – those testing positive are showing no symptoms or signs of illness. The conclusion that is being presented as fact is that, in these localities, there has been a sudden, dangerous upsurge of the disease.
- Yet the indications that would truly signify such a thing – an increase in hospital admissions and patients needing intensive care – are not present. So surely, there is a need to bring responsible clarity to this phenomenon, and this could be done by a simple alteration in the language that is used to describe it. It would be perfectly possible to say that there has been, in these localities, an increase in the number of positive test results (rather than “Covid cases”) – and to make the situation even more clear, you could add the magic appendage, “This follows an increase in the number of tests that were carried out.” See? Doesn’t that change the way you perceive reality? The true state of things is now luminously, unimpeachably factually correct. And most important it does not create what may be quite needless despair.
- In fact, if the rise in positive tests were to continue without any concomitant rise in hospital admissions or serious illness – that would be very good news indeed. I will leave it to the virologists to interpret but surely that would imply either that far more more people have been infected than previously thought – which would mean that the ratio of deaths among the infected was lower than it seemed – or that for some reason, people catching the virus now are not getting the most serious form of it. But neither of these possibilities (or any others) can be publicly debated so long as the distinction between “positive tests” and “cases of the virus” are not distinguished from one another.
- So if you ask, what is the point of philosophical exegesis in a crisis, I would say, because it might stop lives being carelessly ruined by misunderstanding. Not to mention the manipulation of misleading conclusions by self-interested parties like, say, the teaching unions for whom the endless iteration of the phrase “second wave” is a weapon of mass destruction.
- Might it be helpful to make clear that there is no factual evidence for the inevitability of a “second wave” because this virus is unique and unprecedented and thus we have no reliable indication whatever about its future behaviour? Predictions of a second wave are based on the historic experience of Spanish flu – and all the experts agree that Covid-19 is not an influenza virus. The obsession with a putative “second wave” and rising numbers of “cases” (positive tests) is actively forestalling the return of normal economic activity that the Government, wearing another set of rhetorical clothes, wants so badly. (Although the much-noted failure to return to the workplace en masse is certainly more to do with this being a peak holiday month. September, when the furlough scheme starts to wind down and the schools reopen will be the real test of public attitudes.)
- The genuine – and perhaps permanent – damage that is being done by all this obfuscation and unreason is to the young who deserve our sympathy and support. Even those who haven’t had their educational aspirations devastated are being told they are “selfish” for doing what it is natural for them to do. There are sound biological and evolutionary reasons why young single people socialise frenetically: they must do their best, as must the young of all sentient species, to find a suitable mate. What kind of future will they (and the rest of us) face if they are prevented from doing that?
- In the longer term, this sort of behaviour is neither selfish nor irresponsible. That fact is one of the more endearing scientific truths about the human condition which a lot of the experts seem to have missed
- © Telegraph Media Group Limited 2020
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