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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 20-06-2020 11:20

The year of the scientists

Throughout the world, complaints about the tyranny of “Science” are becoming more frequent. We are not laboratory rats, people say, and demand that other factors be taken into account.

Since the age of Covid dawned about six months ago, rulers the world over have been insisting that all their decisions – especially the ones they fear could prove unpopular – are based on Science, with a capital S, so it is irrational to object to any of their policies. However, even though that spiky little thing which worms its way into our bodies and then goes about deconstructing them shows no signs of going away and the longed-for vaccine has yet to be invented, an increasing number of governments are looking for alternatives to the lockdowns and social-distancing ordered by the epidemiologists who are allegedly behind all the decisions that really count. 

It is not that politicians are losing faith in Science. It is, rather, that Science can be as fearfully stern a taskmaster as was its predecessor, God, back in the days when his (or His) word was law, At any rate, that is what some who claim to speak in its name evidently think should be the case. Before the coronavirus made its appearance, most allusions to “the Science” and the need to obey it came from people convinced that, unless carbon emissions were drastically reduced almost overnight, global warming would soon render much of the planet uninhabitable. Anyone who suggested that they could be wrong and pointed out that average temperatures have been rising and falling since long before mankind arrived on the scene, got treated as an enemy of Science who deserved to be put on trial for heresy.

However, as what the more enthusiastic had in mind would have entailed dismantling large swathes of the international economy, few governments were willing to go green fast enough to make much of a difference until, prodded by the virus, they suddenly closed down much of industry and put farming on hold, with results that have greatly pleased those who, if their rhetoric is anything to go by, would be happy to see mankind go back to living in caves, but which will be anything but pleasant for the rest of us.

Like God when asking questions his devotees thought disrespectful could get you killed in a gruesome manner, Science is often reluctant to give those seeking guidance a straightforward answer, which makes it hard to say exactly what it wants us to do. This is because, luckily for all of us, up to now members of the new priesthood have been far more prone than were those of the one they displaced to engage in heated arguments over what should be regarded as true, or as they say, “settled”, and what is merely a theory, like “phlogiston.” which could soon be cast aside to make way for a new and presumably much better one. Among the many whose fate we are told hangs in the balance is the Big Bang theory, according to which absolutely everything got underway approximately 13.8 billion years ago, but leaves a blank about what, if anything, was around before that.

Much of what is being said and done in an effort to thwart the coronavirus can be attributed to computerised models devised by scientists who use them to make blood-curdling predictions which frighten governments into doing their bidding – a favourite one had the death toll reaching truly catastrophic proportions everywhere unless all “unessential” people were forced to stay in their foxholes until the emergency was over. But when politicians say they ordered lockdowns and other stringent measures because their scientific advisors told them they ought to, they are accused of trying to make others shoulder the blame for what in retrospect could be seen as a terrible mistake.

Strong believers in Science, among them President Alberto Fernández – who on assuming office announced that his would be a “government of scientists” – are fond of saying that, thanks to the measures they have taken tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands of men and women who otherwise would be dead are still with us, but there is no way of “fact-checking” the alarming figures they come up with. Some places that suffered tough lockdowns have seen the mortality rate soar skywards; others in which a more lenient approach was taken by the authorities have so far escaped relatively unscathed. Of course, everything could change in the coming weeks as the virus continues its rampage, penetrating into areas it had previously left unexplored or returning to cities from which it had supposedly been banished.

Some things already seem indisputable. It was quickly appreciated that the coronavirus, unlike many of its relatives, was far more dangerous for older folk than for the young; apparently, a school kid is more likely to be killed by a bolt of lightning than by Covid-19. It also shows a predilection for the obese, of which there are a great many in the United States, and, not surprisingly, for individuals who already suffer from a life-threatening illness, which makes it difficult to estimate with any precision just how many “excess deaths” should be blamed on the coronavirus.

As well as health workers, who encounter it several times a day, another group of “vulnerable” people is the one formed by politicians who enjoy getting into close physical contact with potential supporters and greatly dislike wearing masks in public. Donald Trump and his Brazilian counterpart Jair Bolsonaro have been harshly criticised for their reluctance to hide their faces in the approved manner; so too have many Argentine politicos, including Alberto who has also been filmed warmly embracing individuals (like Formosa’s long-time boss Gildo Insfrán) he wants to keep on side. Among those who have already tested positive for the virus are the former Buenos Aires Province governor Maria Eugenia Vidal and Lomas de Zamora Mayor Martin Isaurralde. Unless politicians make a habit of steering clear of one another for the duration, many more could find themselves obliged to self-isolate.

Throughout the world, complaints about the tyranny of “Science” are becoming more frequent. We are not laboratory rats, people say, and demand that other factors be taken into account. Many want policy-makers to pay more heed to the views of economists, sociologists and psychologists who warn us that the consequences of more months of lockdown and enforced social-distancing could be every bit as unpleasant as the fate awaiting those who catch the virus. They are surely right. If, as now looks likely, we are about to experience a great depression comparable to the one which helped set the stage for World War II, millions more could die prematurely and hundreds of millions of others spend the rest of their lives in extreme poverty.

James Neilson

James Neilson

Former editor of the Buenos Aires Herald (1979-1986).


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