Apr 03 2020

A Stupidity Pandemic

As a skeptical science communicator I am constantly walking the line between hope and cynicism. On the one hand, I very much take to heart Carl Sagan’s approach to science – focusing on the absolute wonder of the universe, and celebrating the curiosity and ingenuity of humanity. We have peered into the past, walked on the moon, and decoded many of the secrets of life. Science is a powerful tool that has transformed the world more in the last few centuries than in tens of thousands of years beforehand. And yet, humanity still struggles with the demons of our evolutionary history. We are tribal, superstitious, and capable of surrendering our critical thinking to a charismatic leader.

What this all means is that when we are faced with a challenge, even a crisis, we are capable of meeting it. We can bring the tools of science, philosophy, and politics to bear to solve almost any problem. And yet the extent to which we will fail to do so is a consequence of our own stupidity and lack of critical thinking. There is nothing like a pandemic to reveal all of this – the good and the bad.

On the bright side, there have already been thousands of studies of the novel coronavirus (SARS-COV-2) and the disease it produces, COVID-19. Researchers are already exploring possible treatments and developing a vaccine. Meanwhile, we have solid mechanisms everyone can use to protect themselves and slow the spread of disease. Where implemented properly and in time, these strategies work. Compare this to just 100 years ago, during the 1918 flu pandemic. That pandemic killed at least 50 million people worldwide – and that magnitude was created largely by the world’s collective failure to properly understand and deal with the virus. They had no treatment, no vaccine, and utterly failed to enact adequate public health measures (for sure, this was partly due to the fact that they were fighting a world war and many politicians prioritized the war effort over mitigating the pandemic). Go back a bit further to the black death, which killed a third of Europe, and they did not even understand the nature of the pandemic. Their ignorance made them all but helpful before it.

Today, through science we understand exactly what is going on, down to the molecular level. And we have the methods to quickly (relatively speaking) figure our how best to address it. It is still a challenge, because the pandemic is moving quickly, but all we really have to do collectively is not panic and listen to our own experts. But of course, it’s never that simple. Some people will find a way to screw it up, because humanity is a complex mixture of motivations, biases, and emotions.

Most of the nonsense gets filed under people using the crisis to promote their own ideology. We all see the world through our own ideological lens (just as I am viewing this pandemic through a scientific and skeptical lens). It really does bring into focus the strengths and weaknesses of these various approaches – and I think makes a very strong argument for why we need high quality and objective science. Examples of ideological mischief are replicating as fast as the virus.

For example, Ethiopia just announced that their traditional healers have found a traditional medicine that is effective against the virus. Unfortunately, they announced the treatment and the beginning of clinical trials, but did not share any scientific details. It seems like grandstanding, to promote their own traditional culture, rather than the best science. Plants and natural substance can certainly be a useful source of effective medicine, but they require years of development. I suspect this will go as well as those African countries that decided to rely on traditional treatments for HIV, resulting in the worst AIDS epidemic in the world.

It also seems that every alternative medicine guru is pushing their own brand of snake oil for COVID-19. They are exploiting fear to sell miracle cures. Many chiropractors, for example, falsely claim that chiropractic can “boost the immune system” and help protect against COVID-19. This is transparent nonsense, and certainly not worth the risk of going in for an adjustment. Demand for acupuncture for the same reason is also surging. Also, “The American Institute of Homeopathy (AIH) hosted a two-hour international web conference on the homeopathic treatment of patients with COVID-19 on March 18th.” Homeopathy is magic water with demonstrated zero efficacy. Relying on it in a pandemic is like relying on witchcraft, which will work as well as what was available during the black plague.

We even need to be cautious about more plausible treatment, like hydrozychloroquine and azithromycin. Trump famously tweeted, ““HYDROXYCHLOROQUINE & AZITHROMYCIN, taken together, have a real chance to be one of the biggest game changers in the history of medicine.” Even taking into consideration Trump’s propensity for hyperbole, this was a bit much. Because these drugs are already on the market, this was, in fact, very dangerous messaging. Hydroxychloroquine, for example, is used to treat serious autoimmune diseases, and now some patients who are dependent on it are finding it hard to get their medicine because it is being diverted unnecessarily in the hope of preventing COVID-19.

Meanwhile, cooler heads (i.e., the experts) have advised caution. The preliminary evidence is not convincing and has serious problems, but it is enough to warrant further studies. At this point the only proper way to take this medicine is part of a clinical trial and under proper medical supervision. Also, an independent follow up study found no benefit to these medications in reducing the virus or in clinical outcome. Like most new medical hypotheses, this treatment will likely flame out once good evidence is acquired. Meanwhile, how many people will take it unnecessarily? The drugs are not benign, and can cause serious cardiac side effects. In fact, in the current negative study two patients had to be taken off the drugs due to this side effect.

At the extreme end of the spectrum are the conspiracy theorists and political extremists. Their claims are too absurd to even bother debunking, but they blend seamlessly into mainstream politics. Rush Limbaugh, for example, is telling his listeners not to listen to the experts because they are part of the “deep state.” This is now a mainstream conservative talking point. It is just the latest manifestation of the entire war against expertise. This is part of the price we pay – demonizing the elite, experts, the “deep state” in order to score short-term political points is a risky strategy. The COVID-19 pandemic is revealing just how pernicious this is. It turns out, we need a deep state of career professionals for emergencies just like this.

No responses yet