Contrarian results

June 21st, 2020
by Chris

On facebook, there are four or five people whose posts I see regularly who I have so far refused to block, despite the damage this policy is probably doing to my blood pressure. I fancy that I ought to know what bizarre stuff there is going around out there, and not confine myself to my own like-minded bubble.

They have in common a tendency to put forward conspiracy theories without adopting the extreme level of suspicion which they ought, as otherwise reasonably intelligent people, be directing at things which would need a quite startling degree of collusion and cover up among very many people. If they were a tenth as sceptical about the conspiracy theories as they are about anything which governments or scientific establishments come up with, they would be abandoning virtually all of these far-fetched ideas. They have in common a liking for the term “deep state”, and a tendency to see anything which excites public opinion as being a “psyop” by the “deep state” intended to produce that change in opinion – which leads them to suggest that, for instance, the children at Columbine and George Floyd were “crisis actors”.

See what I mean about my blood pressure? I find such suggestions deeply offensive to the dead and to their surviving relatives.

Incidentally, if you’re reading this post and you’re one of them, please don’t take the fact that I don’t comment disagreeing with one of your posts and/or posting a fact check as any indication that I agree with it. I virtually certainly don’t agree with anything you post unless I actually say so in a comment. OK, it’s not completely unknown! I just haven’t time to contradict all that bull, and I do need to stop my blood pressure going any higher.

And what is this obsession with Bill Gates and George Soros being evil masterminds bent on world domination through some labyrinthine plot? I grant you, before they stopped their main money-making careers having, as you might say, “won capitalism”, and turned to philanthropy, I regarded their business practices as fairly evil, but now? Is their ultimate sin the fact that they have turned to trying to benefit others by the use of their vast fortunes? Clearly, neither has any need to indulge in byzantine plots, they can just go out and buy a government or two straightforwardly. Why not concentrate on Bezos, the Kochs or the Waltons, who show no signs of wanting to benefit society?

Anyhow, that’s a preamble. What one of these people said recently (and has repeated several times) was that it was evidence that Covid 19 was a fraud (by the deep state again, no doubt) that everyone had stopped talking about it after George Floyd’s murder, so it was obviously just something trivial blown out of proportion, had blown over, and was nothing to be concerned about. That’s against the background that in the USA, where all but one of my contrarian bugbears is located, the number of active cases continues to climb, and the best that can be said of the death rate is that it might have plateued at something around the 500 per day mark.

Of course, to anyone not enmeshed in the fantasy that CV-19 is “just ‘flu” or something of the sort, it is clear that the news outlets have got bored with Coronavirus; killings, marches, beaten protestors and toppled statues are much more interesting than the daily progression of deaths, and to a great extent, that’s the case with the general public as well.

But there’s something in operation which worries me here. Please don’t misunderstand me; the death of George Floyd was horrendous, should absolutely never have happened – and particularly should not immediately have been attended by a lot of people trying to suggest that it was somehow “his fault” and that the policemen involved were not, at the very least, exhibiting depraved indifference to his life and could be excused by procedures or perceived threat levels. All of that was just insulting to anyone who viewed the footage, and particularly to George. It has been high time for as long as I can remember that American policemen stopped shooting black men, women and children in circumstances where there was no reasonable cause to do so, and it is entirely right that there should be a wave of public sentiment in favour of Black Lives Matter.

The thing is, I suspect that much of this wave of sentiment is a displacement activity. There is nothing which can be done by most of us to fight coronavirus, and, indeed, nothing is what most of us should still be doing in countries like the US and the UK where the curve has not yet gone back down to low levels (and yes, I appreciate that very many of us cannot afford to be idle any longer, and that there is ever-increasing suffering as a result, particularly where governments have not supported the wages of those who have been prevented from working).

But doing nothing is against all our instincts; we want to be out there taking action, fighting, seeing tangible results… and in protesting and taking down statues, we can do that. I would dearly like to be out there marching in solidarity with my black and brown brothers and sisters, but I really can’t, as I’m still in total lockdown with underlying health conditions which mean that, if I catch the virus, I’m probably dead (I fed my conditions into an estimator, which came back with an 81% chance of death, which is probably an overestimate, but still not something I want to risk testing at the moment).

The trouble is, all the statistics seem to show that those of us with black or brown skins are far more likely to die of the virus than those who have white or yellowish skins, underlying conditions aside, and I have a huge fear that a major result of all this pent-up need to take action will be the deaths of more of those which the demonstrations are designed to help.

That would be a very sad result – but in its own way, contrarian.

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Hearing the people sing

June 2nd, 2020
by Chris

I am looking at my facebook feed, full of images of riots in the US, and recalling “Do you hear the people sing?” from Les Miserables. Les Miserables is set in part against the background of the Paris riots of 1832, which were a failed revolution. The song is wonderfully stirring… and the end point is that almost all of those involved in the riots (and manning the barricades) die. The riots were unsuccessful, were overwhelmed by the use of the army, and produced a backlash of repression for some years.

That said, there were not one but two revolutions in 1848; the first was unsuccessful but destabilised the government, the second set up a republic (the “second republic”, the first republic having been the result of the more famous 1789 revolution). In elections for a president following that, Louis Napoleon (grandson of Napoleon I) was elected on a landslide as a populist candidate, and three years later, faced by a term limit and the end of his presidency as a result, staged a coup d’état and declared himself Emperor as Napoleon III. He lasted until an ill-advised war against Prussia in 1870, attempting to prevent German unification; the Germans took him prisoner and Paris declared a third republic. That held until World War II, and in a way during the war in Vichy France (the Southern part of France which was a puppet state of Hitler’s Germany).

In 1946, after German occupation during World War II, the fourth republic was declared (the third being completely discredited by capitulation and the Vichy régime), but this was short-lived and was reconstituted into the fifth republic in 1958. That was a presidential republic originally modelled around Charles De Gaulle (as a strong populist leader again), and that survives to the present day.

Keen observers will notice that this history includes at least five revolutions and two coups d’état (Louis Napoleon and De Gaulle). Most of the revolutions involved significant loss of life, and the 1789 one was particularly bloody.

I am not a great fan of revolutions… people get killed (and I’m not cut out to be a fighter, have huge reservations about any use of violence, feeling slightly guilty in not going completely nonviolent as I’m sure Jesus commanded, and would probably be among the first dead if I involved myself in one) and, as the French experience shows, they rarely result in something significantly better than what preceded them, at least in the short term. The French just kept on doing it…

It is therefore with much sadness that I notice people from both the left and the right (and including the current US president) talking of revolutions with a kind of glee, and the clear fact that agitators from both left and right (but predominantly from the right) are frequently turning peaceful demonstrations into riots; the police response in many places is draconian, meeting peaceful protestors with life-threatening force. I have been encouraged, however, by several videos of police chiefs and whole police departments joining protestors rather than gassing them, baton charging them and shooting them with rubber bullets. My own view from seeing the UK police handling protestors is that it is absolutely fatal for the police to be the first users of force; that is calculated to make a riot out of a protest, though agitators can also achieve that.

Let me turn to the root cause of this unrest, the murder of George Floyd. I have viewed several piece of video of this, amounting in total to rather more than the eight minutes and 46 seconds during which a policeman knelt on Floyd’s neck. I have been distressed and outraged by some facebook contacts who have attempted to justify the police actions here, and I am writing as a retired lawyer, albeit not an American lawyer. Yes, I appreciate that the law differs between the two countries (for instance, we don’t have degrees of murder or manslaughter here) but the basics of the two systems stem from the same root, and the principles are generally very similar except when the Constitution comes into play.

So, firstly, the alleged offence was paying with a counterfeit note. I’ve done that myself, innocently, and the result was that I took back the dud note (in order to complain to my bank, from whose cash machine it had come – no joy there, though) and paid with another note. I note that the owners of the store he paid in have said that they thought he probably didn’t know it was counterfeit. Is this, I ask myself, a serious enough allegation to warrant multiple armed police officers manhandling someone? I certainly wouldn’t have thought it was. I am, inter alia, very keen on the principle of “innocent until proved guilty” which applies in both systems, at least notionally. So, from my point of view, Floyd was presumed to be innocent.

Then came allegations that he was a “known criminal”. Again, having a criminal record does not negate the “innocent until proved guilty” principle. It’s irrelevant, just mud-slinging (and in the UK, is something which cannot be brought up in court until someone is found guilty of the offence currently alleged). I could mention that other reports indicate that Floyd was a well-respected youth worker with local churches, which is not exactly the “known criminal” profile. That, too, looks to me like a piece of mudslinging, and one irrelevant to the circumstances in any event.

The original Medical Examiner’s report came close to making my blood boil. Indeed, I remarked to an American friend shortly before the result of the second post mortem became known that I’d gladly come out of retirement and travel to the States for the opportunity to cross-examine the ME. It reads to my eye (and I am very used to reading such documents) like an attempt to find any possible way in which the death could be de-linked from the police actions without actually adverting to the fact that Floyd had had his neck knelt on by a fairly substantial policeman (and other parts of him knelt on by two others) which, medically, is something which is extremely dangerous. Indeed, in my country there is some unfortunate case law arising from the restraint of a prisoner in a police station in which he was similarly compressed and died – and that prisoner, who was white, was a paranoid schizophrenic having a psychotic break, and thus particularly difficult to restrain or calm down. (Heads rolled as a result, and police procedures were changed). Floyd displayed absolutely no such signs of violent struggle, though I noted that my correspondent wanted to say that he had struggled…

It is significant to me that the whole time, Floyd was handcuffed, behind his back. He was therefore in no condition to offer very much threat to anyone. He sat quietly for some time on the ground in this condition.

Then came the allegation that he was refusing to get into a police car, and deliberately fell to the ground to avoid this. There is no sign in the video evidence that that was the case. However, there is witness testimony that he was complaining of having difficulty breathing before he fell to the ground. If, indeed, he did voluntarily end up on the ground rather than being thrust there by police officers, the logical conclusion would be that he was in medical distress, and indeed, there seems to be evidence that the ambulance was called before the episode of kneeling on his neck started. My acquaintance advances this as proving that he was already dying before that episode started… and words nearly fail me.

As I said, you do not put prolonged pressure on someone’s neck or upper torso, as it is medically dangerous, even when they are not already in medical distress. It is either total idiocy, reckless disregard for the safety of the individual or malicious action to do that when they are already complaining of difficulty breathing, and having watched the video, I have no hesitation in saying that the policeman kneeling on Floyd’s neck was at the very least reckless and most probably malicious. It is also exactly NOT what the police, who have a duty of care to those they have arrested, should be doing – they should be caring for their prisoner.

And, in those circumstances, the burden of proof is very much on those alleging that the death did not result from an action which is calculated to produce asphyxia to demonstrate that Floyd would have died anyhow – and the ME’s report, though it tries to come up with reasons why that might be the case, falls a very long way short of that.

In UK law, we also have a principle commonly referred to as “eggshell skull”, which holds that if you punch someone on the head not intending to kill them, but they have an inherent skull weakness which means that your puch cracks their skull and they die, it is irrelevant that they had a weakness in the first place; it is sufficient that you intended to cause harm and death resulted. It appears that the US has this principle as well, based on the Wikipedia article I link. This, of course, would make it massively more difficult for a defence of the policeman to allege that Floyd would have died anyway.

As a result, I’ve commented that, were I advising the policeman, I would have no hesitation in advising him to plead guilty to a murder charge. It seems, having had a brief look at the Minnesota definition of third degree murder, that that might be as much as it is sensible to charge – my feeling would be that it would be worth pleading to to avoid the possibility of conviction on first degree murder, which I think is at least a possibility.

This kind of excusing away the crime and blackening the character of the victim seems to me to happen in every case where a black person in the States is killed by police. This particular case is unusual in that there is particularly good video evidence (and, incidentally, I would ask why the only police body camera from which footage has been shown is that of an unconnnected officer who didn’t have a particularly good view – why are there no body camera footages from the officers more closely associated?) The result is that I’ve been able to take my view with more evidence than I normally have – but the fact that this happens every time strongly indicates to me that it is, not to mince words, bullshit.

I go on to ask myself why it is that this happens so frequently in the US. My own country has not been immune to similar incidents, but in general, it seems to me that we listen and learn from them, at least to some extent and in recent years – as witness the case I mentioned above of the paranoid schizophrenic.

A large part of it seems to be in the general police mindset of “us -v- them”. Yes, we have that in the UK as well; I’ve not seen it so much in their treatment of racial minorities, because where I live there are vanishingly few people from racial minorities, except for Romanys. However, it is quite clear that our police adopt an “us -v- them” attitude in relation to poor people and in particular the homeless (yes, and Romanys). They are not “innocent until proved guilty”, they are guilty until proved innocent. By and large, however, the furthest the police here go is to be contemptuous of those groups.

My feed has also had video of various US policemen doing things which I regard as unconscionable – pulling down a mask in order to pepper spray someone who was not acting in any way aggressively, driving cars at groups of protestors, riding them down with police horses, charging them with riot shields and knocking them to the ground when, again, they were offering no threat to anyone, and firing paintballs at people on their own properties. Frequently in those clips I’ve seen expressions of contempt, but also of hate – and hate is an emotion which should not be felt by police. If someone feels hate for any group of people, they should not be police officers.

But not infrequently I’ve also seen fear on the faces of police. I have in mind there particularly one clip which shows a young black man kneeling with his hands behind his head facing away from a group of at least four white police officers about 20 feet away, all of whom are pointing guns at the black man, and all of whom are looking scared.

Come on, there are FOUR of you, you’re armed and have your weapons drawn on a young man who is obeying instructions, is unarmed and poses no threat. How on earth can you be scared in that situation? OK, I will grant that all the officers are women, and all of them are considerably physically smaller than the black guy. But scared? That is particularly worrying, because the only answer which rings true to me is that they feel so threatened by a black man who is a bit larger than them that they are not made to feel safe by numbers, and not even by having guns drawn.

OK, there is a possibility that they are just scared by the situation, scared that they have felt they needed to draw their guns and scared that they might use them. If so, I gently suggest that they are not competent to be allowed out on the streets with firearms…

Scared people make stupid decisions. As Frank Herbert wrote “fear is the mind-killer”.

Scared people with guns shoot people.

How is it, I ask myself, the case that one black man can scare four trained professional female officers even enough to make them want to draw weapons? Is it, perhaps, the case that in the States, white people are always aware that their mistreatment of black people for centuries has built up a reservoir of hatred which they feel might break through even in the case of black women and black children? Is it, I ask myself, a sign of a guilty conscience? A guilty conscience can also, via projection, result in contempt and even hate…

Now, I am looking at this from the other side of the Atlantic. I make no claim that we are perfect in our own race-relations, but I don’t see this kind of fear in British policemen.

What I do do is look at the catalogue of dead black people in the States of which George Floyd is only the most recent (or rather, the most recent to have hit the headlines) and feel some sadness that this is happening – STILL happening, but even more anger for those killed and those who have lost their relatives and friends. And that’s as a British white guy. If I were a white American, I would feel incandescently angry.

And if I were an American black guy, I would be having difficulty restraining an impulse to violence of my own.

Even though, as I said earlier, I am not cut out for violence.

I can therefore understand and sympathise with those who do riot (particularly in the face of repressive policing), and with the exception of the infiltrators who just want to destabilise things, I am unwilling to condemn them. But I’m very ready to condemn the officers who killed George Floyd.

I hear the people sing, and thought I’m neither black nor American, I feel I can do no other than sing along for a while. And may tomorrow come…

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Letter to a Libertarian friend

May 18th, 2020
by Chris

Dear friend,

I understand that you label yourself as “libertarian”, that you think “taxation is theft” and that you think the only thing governments should be doing is protecting property rights. (Forgive me if I comment that every time I hear this kind of thing, I get a picture of you stroking a white cat and saying “It’s mine, I tell you, all mine bwahahaha…”) I’ve noticed that you railed against “stay at home” orders, saying that this was tantamount to fascism, and that it infringed your rights horribly.

Now the “stay at home” has been relaxed a bit, you’re furious at any suggestion that, when you go out, you should wear a mask, and incandescently angry at the prospect that you might be compelled by your government to be vaccinated against the coronavirus, or even that you should consent to a vaccination if you’re not being compelled to do so (which is far more likely).

I’m inclined to agree with you that you should feel able to ignore things like mask-wearing and vaccination as long as you’re sitting there behind your desk, stroking your white cat, on your own property. However, as soon as you leave your property, you’re on public property – that is, property which belongs to all of us. No, it doesn’t belong to the government, it belongs to us all; the government is just the way we, communally, administer the things which belong to all of us.

And we, communally, have a system of running our property. It’s ours, after all, and we can do what we like on it (communally decided, of course), we can restrict who is allowed to use it (just as you want to be able to shoot trespassers on your property). We elect people every so often to do the running for us in a system called “representative democracy”. And yes, it’s a flawed system, and it doesn’t always do what you want it to. Heck, given the option, I wouldn’t pay a penny in tax to support buying nuclear missiles or bailing out banks, but my representatives have decided that that’s what we will communally do, and even though I’ve never got a representative at a national level who I voted for, that’s how the system works.

So, you don’t want to play your part in this communal system? OK, don’t pay your taxes – but then we, communally, can decide that you’re not allowed to use any of our (communal) property or services. After all, it’s ours, and you then don’t contribute to it. So you can’t leave your property via one of those conveniently located communal roads… You can ring the emergency services as much as you like, but the police won’t listen to you and the fire service won’t put out your fire. I wish you luck in managing to continue working and making money under those circumstances. Yes, some among us can actually manage that (me, for instance; I work from home, and haven’t actually needed police or fire service for a very long time), but most cannot. (To be fair, I did benefit rather considerably from our education system here, which was a much better system in the 60s and 70s than it is now. But that was 40 plus years ago…)

Much the same principle applies to “stay at home” orders or would apply if legislation is passed to make the wearing of masks in public places obligatory. If you come onto our property, we get to decide if you can do that, and under what conditions. Let’s face it, if you were to decide that all your visitors had to wear fancy dress, you would cheerfully refuse to admit anyone who didn’t do that, wouldn’t you? And we do that via our elected representatives.

We could also reasonably decide that anyone who was not vaccinated against some disease (for instance, Covid-19, or measles) would not be allowed to use any public spaces. After all, they are ours. Again, if you suspected that someone knocking at your door was infected with Ebola, would you let them in? I don’t think so.

So forgive me, but I think you’re hoist on your own petard. If you want to preserve property rights, you’re stuck with a government and with the regulations that government wants to make in order for you to use public property.

Oh yes, and with taxes…

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Coronavirus: figures and fictions

April 25th, 2020
by Chris

Snopes has published a generalised lament about the epidemic – not the coronavirus epidemic, but the epidemic of false or misleading posts about it. This article also tackles some of them, and there may be a bit of duplication with some of what I write below, as I’ve added this in a couple of days after starting writing this.

Now, I rarely prune someone from my facebook friends list because they post a lot of stuff with which I disagree strongly – I feel that I need to avoid “living in a bubble” of like-minded people and not knowing what is being said elsewhere. I’ve even stayed a member of a group which seems totally dominated by conservative Christians of various flavours, who spend most of their time explaining why the other (equally conservative but from a different denomination) members are heretics. Goodness knows what they’d say if I shared my own theological stance with them – OK, I have occasionally stuck a barbed response in and got a deluge of proof-texting back which actually only serves to show that the Bible is not univocal. But this is not, on the whole, a theological post…

Among those I have deliberately not unfriended are three or four who, at the moment, are posting just about anything which casts doubt on the science behind coronavirus, the actions of governments (no matter what stance they have taken!) and, of course, Bill Gates. All of them are ferociously intelligent, all of them are, or at least have been, left-leaning politically. And yet they are currently posting stuff which makes them sound like coronavirus-denying Trump supporters…

So, I’ve been sticking the odd rebuttal in on their facebook feeds, which have had mixed results. In particular, yesterday I got a full salvo from one of them of how I’m swallowing the “party line” and aiding and abetting the further takeover of everything by “the deep state” and the demolition of all democratic freedoms. The post I was commenting on there was exactly what Snopes mentions in the link above, the suggestion that Covid-19 is no worse than a seasonal ‘flu.

Now, I am not used to being accused of being gullible in the face of official claims. I tend fairly heavily to the sceptical, and in the case of any and all claims about Coronavirus I tend to fact-check extensively and, where possible, look at real scientific findings rather than the frequently sensationalised versions which appear in the media. The science is too complex for the media to present accurately, even assuming the reporters actually understand it, and a huge amount of it is based on statistics.

At this point, a caveat. While I have some claim to be a scientist (I have a degree in Physics and still from time to time do research work in Chemistry) I am not well versed in the biological sciences. However, I was for some years a Civil Defence Scientific Advisor at a County level, and when the thread of nuclear exchanges lessened, the most obvious civil emergency for us to run scenarios on was a pandemic. This is, therefore, not the first time I have thought long and hard about epidemiology, virology and strategies to limit the effects of umpleasant viruses.

So, allegation 1 – the statistics are false and misleading and therefore we shouldn’t believe anything about coronavirus. I read on the day I started writing this a quotation of “there are lies, damned lies and statistics”, attributing it to Mark Twain, which immediately made me doubt the writer, given that while Twain quoted that in 1907, it’s first recorded use, as far as I know, was in 1891, and even that was probably not original. There is obviously some truth in the statement (much quoted, including by Churchill); statistics need to be read extremely carefully, and issues like sample size and testing methods are supremely important.

Let’s start with the number of deaths from the coronavirus which are touted in the media. This is not in most places a very reliable statistic, though it is not therefore something which can be ignored. One major criticism of it is that hospital deaths are being reported as coronavirus deaths if the patient who died tested positive for CV19 or showed clear symptoms of the disease, though the deaths could well have been primarily for other causes. They are therefore a significant overestimate, it is claimed. However, in most countries, deaths outside the hospital system have not been included (though that is improving), whether because testing is far too limited to include anything outside a hospital setting or because they are not centrally collected in the same way. This would lead to the figures being an underestimate.

The truth therefore is rather hard to assess, though in my country, looking at the total deaths this year compared with an average for the last few years would seem to reveal that at the point at which we recorded around 16,000 hospital CV19 related deaths and estimated another 4,000 outside the hospital system, there were actually around 8,000 surplus deaths over those in previous years. The figure of 16,000 given was, therefore, an overestimate, but not so much of an overestimate as to make the figure anything remotely like trivial. and certainly not “like a seasonal ‘flu” as some have claimed (we had, of course, seasonal ‘flu in the years used as a comparator). 8,000 was around a 60% increase in deaths for the period of the last two weeks. However, if you were to calculate it as an increase compared with deaths over the year to date, as that would include 13 weeks during which the death rate was not massively higher, the percentage increase would be a lot lower, around the 10% mark.

In addition, those figures only included around two weeks of really high death rates; the number-per-day is not increasing radically as I write this, but is also not reducing significantly. Thus, most of that additional 8,000 has occurred within around two weeks and not the three and a half months over which the figure run. Here’s a piece written when there was only really one week of massively greater death toll.

Another statistic which is frequently rolled out is that a very high percentage of the people who are dying are either over 65 or have pre-existing health conditions, which is used to suggest that for the younger and fitter majority, the danger is massively overstated – so why don’t they go back to working as normal? However, in the UK around a fifth of the population is over 65, and around 20% of those under 65 have a chronic health condition, considering government statistics which were prepared to assess the needs of the NHS in more normal times. If anything, those statistics are probably an underestimate, as they include only the people who have sought treatment for such a condition. That is a very large proportion of the population who are at moderate-to-high risk…

There is also a lot of confusion about how lethal the virus actually is. Partially, this stems from the fact that very few countries have managed anything remotely like testing for all those who reasonably might be infected. The UK has until very recently really only been testing patients in hospital, and not all of those; the figures resulting from this have indicated a death rate of around 10%. However, that is 10% of those cases who have been considered severe enough to need hospitalisation, not 10% of the number who have the virus – we have no idea how many of those there are, in truth. Even Germany, which has done at least three times more tests and shows a death rate per identified case of around 1.4% has not tested widely enough for that figure to be regarded as accurate. The larger the number of non-tested infected people, the lower the figure is in reality. A recent study by Stanford University has indicated that the true rate in Santa Clara County California may be as low as 0.12-0.2%, as they found far more people testing positive for antibodies than was anticipated. However, the participants were self-selecting from people who had internet, which casts huge doubt on how reliable the figure actually is, quite apart from being from one of the more prosperous areas of the USA, including Silicon Valley and therefore being somewhat unrepresentative – and I could comment that in the UK, a death rate of 0.12% would result in around 78,000 deaths, and one of 0.2% in around 130,000.

At this point I’ll link to this article, which is particularly useful to illustrate the extent to which Covid-19 is contagious, and (inter alia) indicates that the R0 value for the virus is somewhere around 5 (while that for the seasonal ‘flu is more like 2-3). That would agree with the observation, back in the days when we were able to track contacts, test and contain, that one of the first cases in this country actually infected five others; in the Wuhan example, there were possibly 9 from one encounter in a restaurant. This means that the CV19 virus can spread around twice as fast as does ‘flu, and we can recall that the seasonal ‘flu epidemic in 1918/19 killed around 50 million people worldwide out of a then population of 1.8 billion; that is a death rate for the population as a whole of under 3%. Some countries then weren’t significantly affected, though. It’s worth at this point noting that spreading at least twice as fast as seasonal ‘flu already makes the virus far more dangerous than ‘flu, which at least makes a start on negating allegation 2, that it’s just another ‘flu.

So, having got back to the death rate, one further thing we need to recall is that the death statistics do not show us the prevalence of the virus at the moment; the onset of symptoms of any kind can take between 3 days and 14 days, and typically take at least a week after that before they require hospitalisation; once hospitalised one can expect deaths to start occurring around 7 days later than that. Thus the deaths we are now seeing represent people who were infected 17 days to perhaps a month and a half ago. Hospital admission and testing produces a delay of 10-21 days in and of itself, so we should consider “number of recorded cases” as telling us something about how things were three weeks ago, and “number of deaths” as telling us something about how things were four to five weeks ago.

Doubling in numbers of infected people can take, in the absence of social distancing, 2-3 days. Obviously, most of the world started social distancing around four to five weeks ago, and so the number of deaths occurring now might be telling us approximately where we were at the start of social distancing, and we could have as many as four thousand times as many by now, two to the power 12 or so (which would be so close to complete as to make little difference). The thing is, social distancing reduces the numbers infected per case depending on how draconian the quarantine is, and countries vary widely in how draconian their measures actually are. Do we know with any accuracy what our particular quarantining rules have brought the figure down to? Probably not with any confidence, but if the figure is not doubling every 2-3 days there is obviously a significant effect, and if (as seems the case) it isn’t going up significantly at all, the probability is that we’re fairly close to an R0 figure of 1, which will maintain the number of cases but not increase it.

Again, though, that is to look at now, and our deaths are due to prevalence 4-5 weeks ago. Thus, testing in California which indicates a rather large percentage of people have had CV-19 now doesn’t mean that their current death rate can be compared with that number; it would need to be compared with the number who had the virus around 4 weeks ago, and that would probably be significantly fewer. One should also look at who gets tested, because the figures quoted in California (as they are virtually everywhere) were drawn from people who thought they might have CV-19, and that cannot be extrapolated to the general population who have no reason to get tested.

We don’t, therefore, know with any confidence what your chances of dying if you do contract it actually are, though for a healthy young person that would probably be around 1-5 chances in 100. For a 70 year old with a chronic health condition, it might be far higher – some nursing homes, for instance, have had death rates as high as 25% so far, and might have more deaths to come.

Most of us, of course, told that going to the pub gave us a one-in-twenty chance of dying, would probably avoid doing it… that, I think, finally disposes of allegation 2, that it isn’t any more serious than seasonal ‘flu.

Allegation 3 works against the ideas that it is less serious than is represented, and it’s the suggestion that the tests are not reliable, which some people are backing with evidence that the scientist who invented the polymerase chain reaction process which is used by most of the tests to produce a large enough sample to identify is these days saying that the process produces faulty results. Granted, he has come to believe in astrology and denies that HIV causes Aids, which might lead one to question his judgment…

However, there is clear evidence that not all of the tests which have been on offer do work. One of the things which massively slowed down the US testing programme was that the initial test produced in large numbers was faulty; there is evidence that the UK spent £20 million on faulty tests, and the extent of caution with which they were stressing that they had to ensure all the tests worked in early weeks strongly indicates to me that they were trapped exactly the same way. I am not a biochemist, but note that the standard method of testing involves converting the RNA which is the main content of the virus into DNA and then massively multiplying the amount of that DNA so that it can be readily identified; typically tests identify two or three characteristic elements in the resulting DNA. It is obvious that if a sample is contaminated with any amount of Covid 19 then the result will be to multiply that contamination massively, and this was identified as the fault in some of the tests. What is less obvious is that a bad choice of the two or three characteristic elements can lead, for instance, to false positives for people who have a different (and far less worrying) coronavirus.

Am I worried that the tests now being done are faulty this way? Not really; the fact that contamination was detected in some early testing kits and that a lot of time has been spent in the UK verifying that the tests being used here produce the right result with sufficient accuracy strongly indicates to me that current tests work adequately well – though there will inevitably still be false positive and false negatives, because no tests of this kind are completely error-free.

Allegation number 4 is the conspiracy theory. According to this, the virus has been bioengineered, perhaps in Wuhan, perhaps at the behest of the American government, or Bill Gates. I regard this as a completely ridiculous claim, not least because the characteristics of the virus have been traced back to viruses naturally occurring in bats and pangolin – my conspiracy theorist friends would say that obviously those viruses have been harvested and weaponised. Then the release is either deliberate (opinion seems to be divided as to whether the motive is by certain capitalists to further enslave the general population or by socialists intent on bringing down free market capitalism, which rather negates the thesis in the first place) or accidental.

If deliberate, no sensible megalomaniac is going to have done so without first having a vaccine or a cure, or both. I regard the continuing absence of either as proof positive that there wasn’t a deliberate release.

Could there have been an accidental release of an engineered or cultured virus? I suppose so; that has happened from labs in the past. The thing is, this is just not the kind of virus one would engineer as a weapon; see above, it just isn’t deadly enough. It does remain possible that someone, somewhere, is culturing viruses of the kind found in bats and pangolins. They are certainly being studied, as otherwise the fairly swift identification of Covid-19 as closely related to bat and pangolin viruses wouldn’t have occurred. However, I cannot see anyone tinkering with them to produce transmissibility to and between humans, which is the reason why we haven’t seen Covid-19 before this (it is, after all, a novel coronavirus). Again, what’s the point?

Just to extend this point, you’ll recall that I spent time as a Scientific Advisor and, in the process, ran scenarios involving pandemics. As we were designing the parameters with fictional pandemics, we could choose any combination of lethality, transmissibility, period of infectivity and period before symptoms were seen. What we wanted for an engineered pandemic was a fairly long period of infectivity and period before symptoms were seen; if you only became infectious when you were showing symptoms, you were easily quarantined and if you started showing symptoms more or less immediately you didn’t have enough time to infect others; we also wanted maximum transmissibility. Codiv-19 shows all of those – but the other things we wanted for a weaponised virus were high lethality, preferably similar to Ebola, and a fairly short period during which the virus could endure without a human host (so it didn’t end up contaminating our putative invader), and Covid-19 doesn’t show either of those – it seems to be able to contaminate some surfaces for an alarmingly long time, for instance.

However, if we were designing something to give the political people headaches in working out what the best course of action would be, we wanted a fairly low death rate (as if the death rate is high, stringent quarantine is a no-brainer) and the potential to leave spaces contaminated for quite a while (because that soaked up effort in decontaminating places). Another plus was something which left people needing hospitalisation for quite a long time, because that also put more strain on resources. Covid-19 ticks all the boxes for that – it is remarkably similar to fictional viruses which we were imagining back in the 1980s.

And so the fact that the conspiracy theorists latch on to the fact that various people were running disaster scenarios with very Covid-19-like viruses and conclude that they knew what was coming (and therefore, if you’re a conspiracy theorist, caused it) is a complete red herring. They were using something looking like Covid-19 because it gave the emergency planning people the maximum number of headaches to contend with, just as we were doing forty years ago. The biggest of those was, of course, whether to quarantine (and to what extent) or to let the thing run it’s course and concentrate on ramping up medical facilities. Both of those strategies have been tried with this coronavirus. It remains to be seen what the best course of action was, because this is a real virus, not one where a set of scientists in a back room are giggling while they design a new twist into the scenario to make the politicians sweat a bit more.

Finally, allegation 5 runs something like this: early projections (such as that produced by Imperial College London) were inaccurate, so we can’t believe any of the projections we see, plus, as they were much worse than what we are actually seeing, they were designed to frighten us (and, of course, if they were designed to frighten us, there must be a nefarious underlying motive such as spreading communism or cementing the power of the capitalist elite).

Projections are informed guesses (generally very well informed guesses by very bright people, but still guesses); Imperial only had very early data from China on which to base their initial projections, and much of that has been significantly refined since they published – there are at the date of writing 16 reports published from their coronavirus research team. Those which tend to be quoted are the earlier ones, and yes, they are now outdated. The thing is, these were effectively threat assessments, and the basic principle in emergency planning is “prepare for the worst, hope for the best”. Of course they were going to say “it could be this bad, we should prepare for that” or words to that effect. That is how we should read any report which attempts to foresee what will happen in the future.

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A note here; the assumption behind not quarantining or relaxing social distancing is that having the virus gives you immunity for some period of time, which is a reasonable assumption given that other coronaviruses do produce immunity, though sometimes only for a couple of months. However, there is no clear evidence that this is the case with Covid-19. This is definitely not a feature we would have imagined for our fictional viruses, because again it removes the element of choice from the politicians – if you can catch the virus again immediately after recovering from it, any thoughts of “herd immunity” go straight out of the window. It’s worth noting that the lethality also goes up markedly – the assumption behind the death rates is that you can only catch it once, and if you can catch it two or more times, clearly that figure is going to go up. If you could catch it, say, three times in a year, that might intuitively triple the lethality, but that probably isn’t a true picture; it would perhaps triple the lethality for those who were vulnerable in the first place, but probably not for those who had mild or no symptoms previously. However, that would mean that the only valid strategies would be either trace-and-quarantine for all new cases, which would mean that basically everyone would need to be tested regularly, or a permanent social distancing for vulnerable people – and as I’ve mentioned above, that could well be 25% or more of the population.

If Covid-19 doesn’t produce antibodies which give immunity, there’s one further unfortunate consequence – ‘flu vaccines work by stimulating the production of antibodies which will then fight a ‘flu virus, and if there aren’t any which are specific to Covid-19, production of a vaccine may be impossible. Happily, the most recent information at the point of writing offers hope that this won’t prove to be the case.

A second note is that there are a shedload of other viruses in wildlife which could conceivably mutate into something communicable to humans. We weren’t at all prepared for this one in the UK, and we will virtually certainly see others in the future. If the next one has Ebola-like lethality, unless everywhere in the world is able to identify, contact trace and quarantine (as, in fact, happened with Ebola), we could be looking at reducing world population by half or more. Some historic plagues are estimated to have produced casualties in those kinds of percentages…

So defunding the American Centre for Disease Control and the World Health Organisation, which are the most prominent organisations which actually seek to have the capacity to respond to such a threat is of a level of stupidity which I find it hard to credit.

A third note is that some of those I have deliberately not unfriended are likely to look at this, if they bother to read it, and claim that I am accepting everything Bill Gates says and that I don’t realise that he’s a megalomaniac bent on global domination (or something of the sort). Not so – I loathe and detest the business practices which have led to Microsoft being such a dominant player in information technology, and those are squarely the fault of Gates. I don’t buy the suggestion that his turn to philanthropy excuses the past and present business behaviour of Microsoft. But I do note that he seems to have accepted that he has, in effect, won at the capitalism game and has decided to play a different one, and that that is broadly a beneficial one, and I thoroughly approve of the fact that most of his philanthropic activities involve grants to organisations he doesn’t control – such as the WHO. Which is not “controlled by Gates” (as has often been suggested) any more than, before Trump pulled the US funding of it, it was “controlled by Trump”, even though the US withdrawal actually leaves the Gates foundation as the single largest funder of it.

Sigh. The billionaires of this world have no need to conceal their motivations in doing things – they just need to spend enough money that no-one argues with them. The Waltons and Kochs, for instance, don’t go to much trouble to hide what they are doing…

My last note is that I am far more forgiving of what are widely pilloried as governmental failings in the case of any government which didn’t immediately close its borders and institute a functional programme of tracking contacts and isolating those as well as initial cases than are many of my friends. As I said before, CV-19 is pretty close to the ideal configuration we designed as emergency planners to give our politicians the largest possible headache in making choices. The shock experienced in both the US and the UK of hearing that the tests available didn’t work is just the sort of curve-ball we were coming up with, and that fact probably negated the one obvious “contact trace and isolate” strategy for both, but in any event, the clear danger of a lot of additional deaths (and no, I don’t think there’s any serious chance that this is only about as dangerous as the seasonal ‘flu) could be outweighed by other factors. It’s quite clear, for instance, that concentration on CV-19 in medical systems is prejudicing the health of a lot of people who don’t have the virus, notably cancer patients (who are not getting diagnosed early, which is vital) and heart attack patients (who are not seeking treatment which could prevent another, more serious, heart attack). I could add those with serious kidney complaints and anyone on the transplant list.

Governments could also be excused, in a world which has had an epidemic of libertarianism alongside that of neoliberalism, of worrying that severe measures (particularly at a time when the public were not seeing many cases and even fewer deaths) would just provoke a popular revolt, leading to them losing control of the situation completely. Even in the USA, the population has seemed to have been far more willing to bear with measures which infringe their liberty very considerably than many might have predicted (certainly, after I had thought that Mrs. Thatcher had effectively killed off communitarian spirit here, with her “there is no such thing as society” approach, I have been agreeably surprised by how few people are disobeying the instructions). Yes, if they were thinking that, they were wrong – but that would have been very difficult to predict in February…

All that is without considering what the damage attendant on crashing an economy could be – and that isn’t just in terms of money, it is also likely to cost lives in its own right in the future. The Conservatives’ austerity programme from 2010 onwards, for instance, caused a very significant number of deaths in the ensuing five years (and, to a lesser extent, since then), and there is a strong probability that recovering from the astonishing amount of deficit spending in the last month or two and rebuilding after demolishing a very large number of businesses will need at least that amount of austerity, or an abandonment of neoliberal policies completely. That doesn’t seem particularly likely, though I live in hope. I’ve seen economists argue that recovery from the 1918-19 ‘flu pandemic took until around 1940, for instance, and that indicates what “just another seasonal ‘flu” can do, without a vaccine. And there is currently no viable vaccine for Covid-19.

As a tailpiece, I link this, which frankly makes most of what I’ve said above redundant.

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Vulnerability blues

April 19th, 2020
by Chris

Nadia Bolz-Weber had a splendid message a couple of days ago. If you haven’t seen it, watch it now – it’s almost certainly better than anything I’ll be saying here!

I am, unfortunately, labelled “extremely clinically vulnerable” with respect to the Coronavirus, probably with complete justification. I have lifelong asthma, am idiot enough to smoke, and probably as a result of those two now have Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (oh, and I also have three blocked coronary arteries). This has meant, for the last five years or more, that I get automatic ‘flu jabs and have on hand steroids and antibiotics to take as a precaution if I get a bad cold or ‘flu. It’s been reasonably successful, as I haven’t actually developed pneumonia arising out of what, to a normal individual, would be a period of coughing, sneezing, running nose and generally feeling naff during that period – and before that, I did end up with pneumonia several times. It seems pretty clear that Covid-19 would be extremely bad news for me were I to catch it.

Therefore, UK government guidance is that whereas the general population are now anticipating that their period of social isolation will maybe be relaxed sometime in the next three or four weeks, my own will last at least another 8, and there’s every expectation that it will be extended beyond that. Also, whereas others can go out for walks and necessary shopping, I’m told to stay at home and have contact with no-one. A follow-up letter from the government specifies that that extends even to a carer – and that would be my wife; apparently we’re supposed to live in different rooms and never come within 2 metres of each other. OK, that is not going to happen – neither of our psychologies could stand it, but it does mean that she is not picking up the slack of going to the shops two to four times a week, which I have been doing for years, as she is physically disabled and also suffers from psychological problems which have made going to a supermarket extremely difficult for her, sometimes impossible and always wiping her out for the day. I’m her carer too…

Now, in conscience, we’re pretty isolated in normal times. Aside from the shopping trips, I maybe get out to a couple of meetings a week, and have one evening playing boardgames with friends at home. OK, occasionally I spend time at the lab (I’m also on occasion a research assistant doing chemical process work) when there’s a piece of actual research going on, but that was quiet before the virus and is closed at the moment. I could wish that we were equipped for biochem, particularly as there are a host of enquiries for some biochem materials, but we’re not. That’s not to say that boredom is a problem – I’ve been up to my eyes in manuscripts to edit (and still am) and there are a lot of internet content providers who are at a loose end and producing more than ever – and I haven’t time for all of them, despite being hugely interested in some of what they’re doing. I’ll be finishing a course with Homebrewed Christianity on Whitehead’s “Process and Reality” next week, and avoiding signing up to any more. Er – “like the plague” was the phrase which came to mind, but no, not quite that much!

That brings up two more issues. I am feeling that I should do something positive to assist in this national emergency, and I do have lab skills. My wife sews (she’s a quilter, among other things) and she notes the horrendous shortage of PPE in the NHS and thinks that she should be frantically sewing scrubs and gowns for doctors and nurses. However, we are supposed to be thoroughly locked down, which means that even if I had access to a lab with the requisite equipment and a brief course of training, I shouldn’t be going there and exposing myself – and my wife would need to be in contact with others to acquire fabric and deliver things, and similarly would be risking me. And, in conscience, we are both sufficiently stressed that adding an additional source of stress would be a bad idea. So we have to cope with a frustration there.

Secondly, a significant part of what I do these days is act as carer for her, and I’m not able to do a significant part of that (namely, going out and getting stuff). I feel a loss of part of my identity there – and I know, as a friend says, we are “human beings, not human doings” and I should not be measuring myself by what I do. “Consider the lilies of the field, they toil not nor do they spin…” springs to mind. However, I don’t seem to be able to tell this to my subconscious. I’ve no doubt that a lot of other people who are prevented from doing their jobs are feeling exactly the same thing.

I think the biggest thing weighing on me, though, is that I’m now reliant on other people to get groceries and some pharmacy supplies (my regular meds I’m paying my pharmacy to deliver), and I need to thank Simon, Esther, Gemma, Claire and Ian for their help over the last four weeks. But I’m having to ask for help, and that, it seems, is against the order of nature as far as my subconscious is concerned. This is affecting my wife as well – we are, historically, people who help other people, not people who need help. She was a teacher, preparing children for life, I was a lawyer and councillor, helping people solve problems individually and collectively.

I blame our upbringing. My father, in particular, was very keen on an interpretation of the parable of the talents in which the talents were abilities (the modern reading of talents) rather than money (the biblical reading), and he regularly stressed that I had many talents and needed to use them to benefit others. “We’re put on this earth to help other people” was something he said many times. A juvenile me did once retort with “So, what are other people there for?”. Only once, though – that wasn’t a popular position with my parents. What I’m overwhelmingly left with from that childhood is a compulsion to help others and a nearly equal compulsion not to be a “drain on others”, to be completely self-sufficient while helping them.

So, sitting at home helplessly while other do my shopping for me goes against everything I was brought up to think that I was here for. I really don’t want to ask for it (and in my wife’s case, that includes the mechanism of only asking for things you really, really need, rather than things which are familiar and “nice” – apparently if we’re going so far against nature, we should be suffering for it and eating own brand sliced white bread resembling cotton wool rather than a decent French Stick, which are still readily available…).

I can maybe reproach myself that there’s some “sin of pride” there, that we shouldn’t be “so proud we can’t ask for help”. And yes, there’s probably a measure of that – but mostly, there’s years of English upper middle class conditioning. And a pervading feeling coming from that as well as all the other little niggles above that “it’s all wrong”. And that’s depressive patterns coming back, which I’ve been mostly free of since 2013 now. Those, I can’t afford – the coronavirus might kill me, but depression very nearly did, notably back in 2006, but a few other times as well.

So, today, I’ve done almost none of the things I “really ought to be doing”. I’ve enjoyed some sunshine and blue skies, I’ve listened to the birdsong and watched fishes swim (without leaving my garden, of course – “yard” to Americans). I’ve been being, rather than doing.

And that’s all right.

I suppose, having been reminded of it last night on the “One World” event, this makes a fitting endpiece

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Lent but not borrowed…

March 26th, 2020
by Chris

It’s Lent, and (for the fourth time) I’m currently following Peter Rollins’ “Atheism for Lent” course. The term was coined by the philosopher and theologian Merold Westphal, who proposed giving up God for Lent, rather than giving up something mundane.

I strongly recommend this. There’s a cost, but it’s fairly modest, and you get a lot of material – and a lot to think about. I support Pete on Patreon, so I get most of his output without paying anything more. I’ve always posted something in response to the AfL content, which changes year to year, so it’s worth going through again just for that, but there’s also a facebook group and the reactions there bring in new takes on it every year. This year I’ve not posted anything here yet – the world has gone slightly crazy, and other things (including another online course and a glut of editing work) have intervened to leave me little time for contemplative writing, but I’m now effectively locked in at home for the next twelve weeks and have at least partly adjusted to that, so…

For those who aren’t familiar with it, week one of AfL is an introduction, week two comprises standard atheistic critiques, week three considers the mystics, week four is the materialists, week five is “death of God” theology, week six covers some inventive theologies since that and week seven deals with Pete’s “Pyrotheology”. We’re in week five at the moment. Let’s backtrack a little, though.

My overall reaction to week two is always pretty much that of Archbishop Rowan Williams who, when asked how he got on with the celebrated atheist Richard Dawkins when they were both faculty at the same Oxford college, said he had no problem. “What about his strident atheism?” was asked, and Williams responded “It’s not a problem – the God he doesn’t believe in, I don’t believe in either”. This year, that came back to me hugely in week four, which started with Ludwig Feuerbach and went on to cover Marx, Joe Hill, Emma Goldman, Freud and Nietzsche. Pete has helpfully recorded a talk on Feuerbach, Marx and Hegel which is publically available, which means I can actually link to something he’s said on the subject.

Now, as I’ve written about before, I was an evangelical atheist by the time I was 9, and I’d probably have carried on being a scientific rationalist materialist and not concerning myself with God or religion at all had I not had an overwhelming mystical experience out of the blue when I was 14. It was a very good experience, sufficiently so that I both wanted to talk about it with others, so I needed a language of expression for it – scientific rationalism really doesn’t express mystical experience well! – and wanted to experience it again, so I was looking for practices, substances or concepts which would produce more of the same. In the search for this, I explored every avenue available to me over the next ten years or so, through my last few years at school and my time at university (studying theoretical Physics, at least as far as the university and my BSc were concerned), eventually arriving at practices which I concluded at least tended to improve the chances of me having peak mystical experiences (nothing I know of guarantees them) and which, by the time I was at university, gave me a low level mystical sensibility which was available merely by pausing for a moment and turning my mind in “the right direction”. OK, it was a bit like riding a bicycle – you learn how by doing it, and explaining how you do it is near impossible.

The trouble with Feuerbach, from my point of view, is that he starts by excluding (these days, a common term is “bracketing out”) mystical experience from his critique. Now, I accept his observation that the vast majority of religionists are not mystics (or, at least, in his day were not mystics, as some interesting recent studies have shown that nearly half the population in some Western countries say that they have had at least some kind of experience which could be labelled “mystical). Certainly, back in the late 60’s and early 70’s, there were relatively few people I talked with (and I talked with people obsessively about the subject) who were clearly mystics themselves. Feuerbach was writing a century earlier, and if the trend I see between the 70’s and today is projected back, there were probably very few mystics around.

The thing is, in my studying of various religious and religion-adjacent traditions, I had come to the conclusion which I first saw expressed in F.C. Happold’s book “Mysticism: A study and anthology”, that at the heart of any religion was at least one mystic, often more. Eastern religions, it seems to me, have always been more accepting of their mystics than the Christian West, and it was very attractive to me to “go eastern” like Alan Watts (whose work I encountered while at university). I ended up with a mainly Christian concept-set and praxis for complicated reasons which I’ll maybe write about separately, but have frequently been frustrated by Christianity, once to the extent of writing “the whole history of Christian theology is of non-mystics misinterpreting the writings of mystics”, which was a drastic overstatement, but which I think has a strong kernel of truth in it.

In other words, I don’t think you get a religion unless you have a mystic or two in there, and in the case of Christianity, I identify Jesus, the writer of the Fourth Gospel and Paul as being foundational mystics (as Jesus wrote nothing himself, it is thinly possible that some of the other gospel writers were mystics but that Jesus wasn’t, but as I find massive mystical sensibility in both the gospels of Matthew and of Thomas, I tend to think that Jesus himself was the foundational mystic, and to me, his career makes perfect sense as that of someone strongly affected by mystical sensibility).

When Feuerbach brackets out mystics, therefore, I see him as bracketing out what is really the whole point of the religion. That struck me very forcibly this year, and I came close to stopping bothering with AfL for the remaining weeks. However, I persevered, and observed through Marx, Joe Hill, Emma Goldman and Freud, at least, that what they were talking about was the way the followers of Christianity were acting as a result of their tradition’s developed ideas in economics, social organisation and psychology. Nietzsche I leave out – his wild vision might just possibly have something of the mystic about it.

It also struck me that they were taking a view rather similar to that of B.F. Skinner, who thought of psychology purely in terms of the actions it results in. This is regarded these days in virtually the entire psychological establishment as an excessively reductionist view. Yes, organised religion does produce results such as those criticised by Marx, Hill, Goldman and Freud, but in each of their cases, I could criticise them on the basis that, if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail, and also on the basis that they neglect the fact that even if you remove all of the interpretational and philosophical superstructure of religion, you are still going to have people having mystical experiences, which are experiences of God. There is an experiential reality there which they are completely missing.

Week six has so far covered Bonhoefer’s “religionless Christianity”, Tillich’s idea of absolutes and Altizer’s “Death of God” concept. All of those are, to a great extent, philosophers (philosophical theologians) trying to modify the philosophical content of Christianity in the light of the failure of traditional ideas of God; Tillich does in his work express an appreciation of mysticism, but in essence he is using terms in philosophical theology to attempt to arrive at something rigorous. I can’t claim to have completely got my head round Altizer’s work yet, and I’ve been living with it since, in my late teens, the then vicar of Selby Abbey caused a major stir by preaching an Easter sermon based on Altizer; I had several conversations with him following that. The other two, however, seem to me to be trying to do something with philosophy which philosophy is not equipped to do, to produce something coherent out of mystical experience.

One of the major features of a large amount of mystical writing is the “coincidenta oppositorum”, the coincidence of opposites. The mystics’ experience of God is best conveyed poetically, I think (and poetry does not lend itself to philosophical analysis any more than it does to scientific rationalist analysis, which may be the same thing) but a frequent feature is the statement of two totally opposing things which are true simultaneously, an example being the common feature of mystical experience that the sense of self is at the same time expanded to fill the universe and contacted to nothingness, something I have felt many times. There are other totally contradictory statements which can be made similarly… Logic does not know what to do with that coincidence; in logic, and so in both science and philosophy, a proposition and its negation (or two mutually exclusive ideas) cannot both be true. But to the mystic, occasionally they just are.

[I may be assisted in the coincidence of mutually exclusive ideas by having been a Physicist – a basic requirement of undergraduate Physics is to accept wave-particle duality, for instance.]

We will, at the end of the course, arrive at Pete’s Hegel-inspired idea of there being a fundamental opposition, which he also describes as a deadlock, in the structure of reality. Now, I have some difficulty with overriding statements about the underlying nature of reality; if I’ve understood anything of Kant (which, I admit, is a dubious proposition), I’ve taken on board the concept that we really cannot say anything conclusive about ontology. Personally, I incine towards the idea that there are a number of competing ontologies and one may be useful in one circumstance whereas another is more useful in a second, but that maybe, just maybe, someone will eventually come up with an ontology which encompasses both and resolves the apparent conflict. But that is really just a pious hope; maybe Pete is right, and reality really is divided against itself. I keep following him in the hope that I may sometime actually be able to borrow his concept for myself; at the moment his thought and mine coincides sometimes but disagrees on other occasions.

There is certainly a very ample amount of absurdity evident in the world at the moment!

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How are you doing with the pandemic, Chris?

March 22nd, 2020
by Chris

That’s been a fairly common question from friends either on facebook or “in real life” recently. So, yes, I am in the group which the government has “strongly recommended” after this coming weekend to self-isolate completely for at least 12 weeks (I strongly suspect that it’ll be a lot longer). Although I’m a few years light of 70, they recommend the same regime to anyone who customarily gets a free ‘flu vaccination, and I qualify for a free ‘flu jab on four grounds. The really significant ones are that I have COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease) and three blocked coronary arteries, currently managed with medication. And, despite it being idiocy of the first water, I still smoke.

Yes, getting something like COVID 19 would be a very serious prospect for me. For the last few years, getting a bad cold or the common ‘flu has been a serious prospect for me, as either of those has tended to turn into pneumonia, and I’ve as standard been prescribed steroids and antibiotics, the latter as a preventative to avoid bacterial pneumonia developing – and probably as a result I’ve not had pneumonia for the last three years. This virus, though, produces viral pneumonia, and that might be treatable with steroids, but it isn’t preventable with antibiotics.

Some friends have wondered why I’ve not completely self-isolated before now, as at Sunday 22nd March. This is not entirely due to my substantial lack of fear of death, which is in part informed by mystical experience and in part by the observation that I’ve had a pretty decent life and am now notionally retired – an “old age pensioner” and thus not as productive or “useful” as I might once have been. Also, in part, because I really ought to have been dead in 2006 (I certainly intended to be), and as a friend has said, since then I’ve been “playing with house money”.

No, in substantial part it stems from the observation that if I had the virus now, the local NHS is not overloaded (there are very few identified cases, though this could be partly down to lack of testing), and I could expect to get really good treatment; if I get it later, the likelihood is that the system will be overloaded, and in conscience, were I triaging cases, I would select a 40 or 50 year old before me without hesitation. I’ve no particular wish to get the thing, so I’ve already been being extremely careful, and (aside from generally leading a pretty isolated life at the best of times) have cancelled all of my meetings and social events, but if I have to get it, this would probably be a better time than later this year… indeed, looking at the curve in Italy compared with that here, a better time than in around two weeks. Having said that, I am not confident that the evidence shows that the virus reliably produces immunity to reinfection, and the evidence does show that it has mutated at least once, so immunity to one strain is not necessarily immunity to another.Thus getting it now isn’t necessarily a guarantee of not getting it later.

And, in conscience, I expect this virus to go from pandemic to endemic, i.e. something which, like the common cold, just moves around the population and can be caught by anyone, any time, so I expect that sometime I’ll catch it, unless I isolate forever. This article proposes an interesting “hammer and dance” strategy, but at the moment, it appears the government is falling short of implementing it as forcibly as the model demands. That, in essence, is why I expect it to become endemic.

Sometime, therefore, I expect to catch the virus. I’d just prefer that to be when the hospitals aren’t overloaded.

So, to date, I’ve been doing shopping pretty much as normal. Actually, rather more frequently than normal, because the panic buying has made it that bit more difficult to find the things I need to keep us stocked at normal levels. It’s probably been pretty safe, as there are very few identified cases in my area, despite being 14 miles from where a couple of the earliest cases in the country were identified (with the same caveat as to testing as earlier). I’m going to stop doing that as of now (luchtime on Sunday 22nd) and isolate more fully, and the likelihood is that as and when there get to be substantial numbers of cases locally, I’ll be avoiding all human contact – oh, apart from my wife (well, probably apart from her…) – and encouraging her not to go out as well. She is not in any of the high risk groups, but is disabled on physical and mental health grounds and as a result I’ve been doing almost all the shopping and other errands for some years; she could probably manage to shop for a while, with considerable additional strain on her, and much increased risk of her becoming really ill in non-coronavirus ways, but once the risk of her getting infected goes up, I’ll almost certainly ask her for that to stop too. By that time, she’ll probably heave a sigh of relief!

And we are fairly well provisioned. We’re almost always fairly well provisioned, to be honest, bar milk, bread and fresh produce which we get every couple of days; there hasn’t been any need to go and try to get multiple months’ provisions, so I haven’t been contributing significantly to the empty supermarket shelves, though I have had moments of guilt at taking the one item I needed (the last or nearly the last remaining on the shelf) knowing that the local food bank needs that kind of produce and that I could at a pinch do without…

We also have offers of going out and shopping for us, though we took up on that yesterday and found that a number of items just weren’t available, including (unfortunately) milk, which we get through a lot of. I’ve managed to repair that this morning, though it took a trip to two shops. Tesco had a queue to get in – they were restricting numbers in the store as well as items you could buy, and it was a little bizarre queuing for 15 minutes to buy two bottles of milk.

I’m not remotely afraid of not having things to do, either. Frankly, I have too much to do, even pruned of meetings and trips to the shops. My editing work is piled up, and I have a couple of practical projects which have been getting nowhere for rather a long time and which could use some attention. In addition, I’m currently involved in a couple of online courses, have another book which needs me to make a start on writing, and the forced inaction elsewhere has spurred a lot of people into a frenzy of productive activity on the web which I frankly can’t keep up with.

However, I am not feeling at my best psychologically (and neither is my wife). I seem to be permanently anxious, and anticipate that the bits of my brain which I have no conscious access to are scared stiff of the virus, and of dying as a result (I have a diagnosed anxiety disorder anyhow). Consciously, I’m also aware of feeling trapped and powerless, and neither of those are feelings I find it easy to deal with. Rationally, that’s rather silly, given that I don’t leave the house very much anyhow (two or three meetings, a church service and maybe three or four trips to the shops in a week is about the limit of my “getting out”, and the shopping trips involve virtually no social interaction). It isn’t very much at all to lose – but, it appears, psychologically the gap between “very little” and “nothing at all” is bigger than that between “very little” and “loads”.

And I suspect that that inaccessible area of my brain is also doing catastrophic thinking; I know I’m prone to that anyhow (chronic depression), but have in general successfully banished such thinking from my consciousness. Have I just suppressed it, for it to raise it’s ugly head more forcibly later? I don’t know. I do know, however, how to monitor my mood, and how to ask for help.

And I know how to contemplate and meditate, and I’ll be doing a lot of that in the weeks to come.

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Give me liberty or give me death?

March 20th, 2020
by Chris

I recently read an article in one of the US papers about how Coronavirus was going to be a test of socialised medicine. I don’t link to it, because it’s really incredibly parochial, taking the view that non-socialised medicine is the norm – which, of course, it isn’t in all Western economies other than the States. OK, it may serve as a stress-test of various models of socialised medicine, of which there are many, but it’s more likely, among those, to serve as a stress-test of government funding for socialised medicine.

The virus will, however, serve as a stress-test of economies, as this article talks of, and of governmental systems, which it doesn’t.

It is interesting to note that Boris Johnson’s recent emergency legislation gives him the power to run a command economy and an authoritarian state, and there’s every indication that that is what we’re headed for, as the “free market” proves totally incapable of responding adequately to the shock. Other European governments have taken similar powers, and several have used powers well in excess of what Johnson is currently talking of – but reading the legislation tells us that he’s probably going to use them, and probably use them soon.

It’s notable that the Chinese, after a really bad start due to their refusal to admit a problem even to themselves, have utilised their own slightly disguised command economy and extremely authoritarian state in a very successful (so far) limitation of damage – after an initial exponential phase, no new internally generated cases in 24 hours is a remarkable achievement. Other excellent responses have included Singapore (authoritarian government and social cohesion) Hong Kong (authoritarian government and social cohesion) and South Korea (national mobilisation and social cohesion). In contrast, thoroughly capitalist and democratic Northern Italy has crumbled. France and Spain are not looking particularly good. The UK is slightly behind France and Spain, who are themselves behind Italy, so it remains to be seen how we manage to perform; the worst is definitely yet to come.

It remains to be seen how the US actually reacts – it looks as if this is varying massively from state to state, so the probability is that the result will be very patchy. However, I cringe at the thought of Trump in charge of a government with truly authoritarian powers and exercising them freely…

Interestingly, the markets, bless them, seem to think that the Chinese approach is a good one – after a disastrous period for a few months, the Chinese stock market now seems to be doing exceptionally well. OK, they also still seem to prefer Trump’s America to Johnson’s UK, looking at the state of the pound at present; they also prefer the greater use of authoritarian powers in continental Europe to Johnson’s UK. One might almost think that the “free market” was telling us that the less freedom there was around, the better.

Certainly, the greater the use of authoritarian power, it seems, the lower the death toll from COVID 19. Perhaps the markets have spoken, and it isn’t a case of “give me liberty or give me death”, it’s a case of “give me liberty and death will follow”…

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In the country of the blind

March 10th, 2020
by Chris

The old adage goes “In the kingdom of the blind, the one-eyed man is king”. However, in the short story “Country of the Blind” by H.G. Wells, the people determine that the one-eyed man is disabled by his ability to see, and propose to put out his eye.

I am feeling a little like the one-eyed man – truth be told, I’ve been feeling that way since 2016, when the Brexit referendum result became apparent, and this was hugely redoubled last year when the country gave Boris Johnson’s Tories an 80 seat majority in parliament, largely on the basis of a set of perhaps 50 seats in which the best interests of the voters were obviously served by a government as left-wing as people could bring themselves to vote for, seats which had been neglected and ravaged by the austerity policies practiced by 10 years of Tory governments past. I’ve consistently been pointing out that Brexit is an appallingly bad idea, and that voting for the Tories is like turkeys voting for Christmas – and, by and large, only those who, like me, are identifiably part of the “liberal elite” have agreed with me. (I’ve a degree, a postgraduate qualification and worked most of my adult life in a profession, so I obviously qualify there…)

I’ve seen this put down to “false consciousness” by Elaine Glaser. I have a lot of sympathy with her position (the article substantially predates the referendum, but is probably significantly informed by the 2010 general election result). Alternatively, there’s a discussion of acting against one’s best interests (for which there’s a technical term “akrasia” in psychology) here.

The thing is, over the last three years plus, I’ve discussed Brexit with a lot of people, in person and online. Many of those did actually vote for Brexit, and I’ve observed before that almost none of the reasons they gave for voting that way were justifiable, an argument I made many, many times. Since the result came through, it’s been much the same, but now with a more or less universal “suck it up, we won!” edge, and that has been getting more prominent as we get closer to the actual cliff-edge of having no trade deals at the end of this year, as opposed to people trying to argue that the obvious damage being done to our trade, our industry and employment in the country is somehow “worth it”.

I could draw parallels with the US situation, in which Trump supporters seem to be doing much the same thing; from an outside perspective, virtually nothing he has done seems to be in the best interests of the USA, far less the majority of his voting basis, but the constant refrain is still one of electoral triumphalism.

“We won, get over it”.

I really have to draw the conclusion that what is most important to both groups, Brexit and Trump supporters, is that they won, and they won over all the reasonable arguments put forward by “liberal elites”. The important thing has been sticking it to the liberals (“libtards” for Trump supporters, “remoaners” for Remain voters) quite irrespective of any damage done to them. One caller to James O’Brien’s LBC show last year said “I know he’s lying, but I love it, because it upsets people like you”… There’s one difference from the “Country of the Blind” story – they seem not to want to put out our eyes out of concern for us, but because they’re fed up of people being reasonable, particularly if they seem to be right a lot of the time. “We’ve had enough of experts”, said Michael Gove, encapsulating this position.

OK, there is also a strong undercurrent of generalised hatred for anything labelled “European”, which Boris is pandering to by taking us out of any organisation with the name “European” on it – even if that is going to cost us ten times as much, in the case of Air Safety, or if we actually proposed it in the first place and mostly wrote the rules, in the case of the European Convention on Human Rights. We are, apparently “winning” if we remove ourselves from anything which, although it benefits us, has the taint of being “European”. To me, this seems rather like walking away from a football game mid match – the other players will have a slightly less good game, but we’ll have no game at all. But “that’ll show ’em”… “Winning” is apparently worth any sacrifice, including the integrity of the country (see my “one party state” post).

The appeal, clearly, is to emotion, not rationality, and rationality only gets in the way. Some Brexiteers, indeed, have called me a traitor for wanting to rejoin the EU, though my massively primary motive is to benefit my own country by cooperating rather than competing. I’ve noticed some of my fellow Remainers (now “Rejoiners”) falling into the trap of “us -v- them” and calling Brexiteers “Gammons”, and generally disparaging their intellect, which is only playing their game. But then, playing “our” game of reasonable argument is equally pointless from their point of view, because reasonable argument isn’t the game they’re playing.

What we can do, however, is refuse to play their game. No name-calling, no “us -v- them” mentality, no disparagement, merely calm reason. Yes, it will probably continue to be infuriating. But all the indications are that they aren’t in a majority any more, and eventually we can hope that the undecideds will be listening to reason, not emotion. All we need to do is, in a calm and rational way, put together a centre-to-left alliance which will defeat Boris’ Tories at the first opportunity – and hope that that is earlier rather than later…

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Pinning God down

February 28th, 2020
by Chris

Looking at Merold Westphal’s writing on “Atheism for Lent” in his book “Suspicion and Faith” for Pete Rollins 2020 Atheism for Lent, I start by being put off by Westphal talking of Freud, Niezsche and Marx as the great modern theologians of original sin; original sin is not a term which I’m fond of, particularly given that it’s very Augustinian, and Augustine seems to have been the originator of the Church’s preoccupation with sex, which these days seems to be just about all the Church really IS concerned with (given that “pro-life”, i.e. anti-abortion, is really anti-sex in its deepest motivation). I don’t myself like to talk of the yetzer ha ra (evil inclination) without also talking of the yetzer ha tov (inclination toward good), thinking that the Jewish theologians did a much better job of interpreting their own scriptures, and that Christians should have left well alone – at least on that point. I do have an idea of something “original”, but it’s original self-consciousness (and so self-centeredness).

The trouble is, just when I’d decided not to like his writing, Westphal then suggests that those three are useful as critics of Christianity, and with that I thoroughly agree. If “the unexamined life is not worth living”, then probably the unexamined faith is not worth having – or, considering that the NT usage is of a verb form, not worth faithing. I’m still comfortable when he points out that all three cast doubt on the utility of substance-dualism, and suggest that religion can be a very material, fleshly thing. What else, indeed, can it be, when metaphysics is relegated by Kant to the sphere of unfounded conjecture (as I interpret him as saying, but then, I don’t claim to understand Kant).

Then, however, Westphal is straight back into “all our righteous deeds are but as dirty rags” and “the heart is deceitful in all things, and desperately corrupt”, and quoting Karl Barth stating that it was not the world which crucified Jesus, but the church. Forgive me, but it was not the church. It wasn’t even the Jewish Temple hierarchy, which I imagine Barth considered to be place-holders for the church. It was the Romans, and they were most definitely the worldly power, and, if we believe Matthew, it was also the mob – empire and hoi polloi conjoined, which is pretty definitely the world. I will grant that in those days the concept of separating church and state was well over a millennium away, and would have meant almost nothing to any faction in the first century, and that one of the issues the Romans obviously had with Jesus was total incomprehension of “my kingdom is not of this world”. Where else could it be? They had the same issue with later followers of Jesus proclaiming “Jesus is Lord”, because, by implication, that meant that Caesar was not Lord. In that day and age, heresy was also treason – and continued to be through the history of the Empire and then of Christendom until at least the Reformation. Let’s be honest, it continues to this day – Catholics have only fairly recently started becoming more accepted because of their allegiance to the Pope, Jews are still attacked for the deeds of the Israeli Government and suspected of split loyalties, and Muslims have to carry the burden of a few of their more extreme adherents – in a way in which, I note, Christians don’t have to carry the burden of some of theirs (for example, the Lords Resistance Army).

Later, however, it becomes clear that Barth was laying the blame at the feet of the church at least in part to avoid it being cast on the Romans or the Jews (because we are not Romans or Jews), so we could accept the blame. In conscience, I think we can do that without this somewhat ahistorical exercise – Christians think of themselves as “grafted on” to the stem of Judaism, so we cannot take the benefit without the burden there, and most Western Christians are the children of Empire, whether it be the English-speaking British and then American empires or the competing ones of the Spanish, Portuguese, French or Dutch. Even the Belgians had their stab at empire in the Congo, and the Italians in Eritrea; the Scandinavians need to look a little further back to Vasa and Vikings… though perhaps the Swiss are exempt.

Westphal, however, then turns in a direction more congenial to me, in using Barth’s criticism of Christianity as transactional, using the example of Salieri from the play and film “Amadeus”; it is all about what God can do for us, apparently. One might more profitably think in terms of “ask not what your God can do for you, but what you can do for your God”. Jesus, after all, said “take up your cross and follow me”; we are not looking there at a transaction, but an exhortation, and one which leads to a death similar to that of Jesus (something which was familiar to several generations of early Christians, but entirely foreign to most today). Paul wrote “I have been crucified with Christ” – he hadn’t, in the strict sense, but in extra-scriptural writing, it seems he eventually achieved that. I think it right that, as Lent points us inevitably to the cross, so we should orient ourselves that way in advance.

One further thought came to me in contemplating this passage in a somewhat cruciform frame of mind, and that was that the stress on challenging our notions of God is very appropriate. I’m a mystic; I rest what faith I can manage (what faithing I can achieve) on a number of powerful mystical experiences, and we’ll come to that a couple of weeks hence. Pete rightly identifies the mystics as criticising any too-definite statement about God, and I have to agree that that is a characteristic of mystics reporting their experience; the words we have, the concepts we have, are inadequate to convey the fullness of that experience of God. The generality is to affirm something about God but immediately to negate it, the cataphatic way (way of denial), and the image which comes to me is that every time we make a definite statement about God, we are trying to pin God down to some specific definition (I wrote a whole post about this, the title of which “The heresy of all doctrines” prompted someone to ask if I’d encountered Pete Rollins work, as it was reminiscent of some of this titles – I hadn’t, but here I am embarking on a fourth dose of Atheism for Lent).

Pinning God down could be a description of the crucifixion…

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