The root cause of the US failure to grapple with the ongoing health and economic crises unleashed by the coronavirus ultimately stems from the collapse of any notion of a publicly shared reality. To beat the virus everyone would need to believe in its existence and act on that reality. They would need to socially distance, wear a mask, wash their hands, limit interactions with others to small groups and necessity. They would need to eliminate unnecessary travel, and avoid vulnerable members of the population whenever possible.

If most evil arises from ignorance, then what is driving our failed response is a lack of belief because the knowledge of what to do is everywhere. Too many of us distrust the medical experts’ understanding of the disease and the media’s communication of what needs to be done in light of it. America is not alone in this epistemic crisis, it being a shared legacy of the West, but suffers from a particularly acute version of it, one that has made our capacity to respond to the virus much worse than any of our peers. It’s a crisis that like Trump himself has been a long time in coming.

Restoring a shared sense of reality is the clearest way out of the crisis, but the difficulty such a restoration faces is that we’ve known for a long time now that any such notion of the real world is a fabrication. Like Adam and Eve, we find it impossible to return to a state of lost innocence, our intellectual virginity was lost a long time ago. We’ve known since Kant that the “thing in itself” lies just outside our reach, and since Nietzsche that we’re all liars. The lessons of social construction have been deeply embedded in anthropology and sociology, and infuses philosophy through the lucid caterwaul of postmodernism and the workaday plodding of pragmatism.

Even the most whiggish liberal among us understands that the news is a ratings and click-bait game, objectivity a smokescreen- we’re all Chomsky-est now.  All good scientists now know that our theories don’t correspond to some true world “out there”, but are mere models- provisional guides for the blind through an uncertain labyrinth. Even the best of our models of covid-19 and its spread are merely provisional maps of a constantly changing landscape, and because of that full of holes only the future will reveal.

The greater public might not learn of this alienation from Truth via university education, but they experience it viscerally every day through television and the internet. Hard core reality has disappeared behind screens, becoming fungible, editable. Not a mirror held up to the real but a means of distortion, compression, enhancement, and amping. All we have are models now, and whose models you trust depend on a set of prior commitments that seem unshakable even in the face of the catastrophic failure of one’s own assumptions regarding the world.

This reduction of capital T truth to models isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The idea that human beings who are part of and made by the world could somehow through our narrow sieve of cognition create a completely faithful copy of that world was always a species of hubris. In that sense, our closest approximation of the truth might come from the acknowledgement of our own limits- identifying the permanent holes in our maps. Yet the replacement of the truth by models does come with its own unique set of dangers, the first being that only part of a society gets the memo.

In that case you get a group or groups of individuals in a society who have sincerely confused the map with the territory. We might call these people fanatics, or maybe just believers depending on our mood. And they need not necessarily be anti-scientific, but instead confuse what science does with a mistaken belief that it describes reality, rather than its actual task of demarcating uncertainty. Because they never update their beliefs to incorporate new information that conflicts with their priors, given the right circumstance they will repeat the same mistakes over and over again- like Charlie Brown and his football. In honor of Lucy we can call them blockheads, though this should not be seen as an insult. Blockheads are made not born. And it is the supposedly cleverest among us who are responsible for having made so many of them.

Of course, all past societies did this. They organized life around socially constructed fictions. Surprisingly, this ability to live on the basis of imagined worlds has been a great strength of our species rather than a weakness. Part of the reason that it could remain a strength was that such delusions have always been constrained by common sense. This partly biological and partly learned shared understanding of how the world works arises from our inherited or experienced contact with the real world. At a bare minimum our social constructions are anchored to the language we share with whatever larger human group we belong to. We share meanings for commonly experienced things within the world, where what we have inherited constrains the forms any future social constructions can take.

Even the insane don’t normally lose this grounding, but merely adopt a private version of delusions that are usually social and make little sense outside of a collective context. The only people who experience its loss are those suffering from severe forms of dementia where what is lost is not so much beliefs but shared protocols on how to interface with the world, and thanks to the globalization of technology, these protocols used in the human made world are now universal. A person suffering from a manic delusion might wrongly think that there is a monster hiding behind a door, but they will rarely forget how to open one.

What distinguishes our own age of belief is how good we’ve become in inventing and spreading imaginary worlds while, at the very same time, the origin of our protocols has drifted away from common sense. The modern scientific revolution began as an effort to clarify, demarcate, and formalize this common sense. In the search for the grounds of our commonly experienced world science ended up taking us farther and farther away from the scale of the world as actually experienced by human beings– confronting us with new scales in both space and time. Invisible entities or hyper-objects that are too large for us to see, time scales too fast for human perception, or too long to be comprehensible when compared with our own limited human lifespan replaced angels and demons, infinity and the abyss.

Yet our belief or disbelief in these invisible entities has no consequence for our use of technologies and interfaces based upon them. Using my computer requires no understanding of what computation actually is, for all I know, it could be tiny Keebler Elves running the show back there. A person traveling to a flat earth convention isn’t flummoxed in the least by the fact that he uses GPS to find his way there.

Blockheads can normally get along just fine in the world precisely because of this persistent gap between belief and performance. Politics in such a world doesn’t normally take the form of Mytilenian debates, with all the existential risks they entail, and are more like loyalties to sports teams- matters of taste where nothing of real consequence is at stake. Like with sports, politics can be tribal and because a change in position is tied to questions of identity they are usually rare. And analogously to someone switching out his favorite team for a new one the job can be taxing and deemed not worth it. Constantly updating one’s priors is hard, and when the civil war is merely a Potemkin conflict, so long as you yourself aren’t a member of its “collateral damage”, is just rare enough to not have revolutionary consequences- at least up until now.

With the coronavirus (and climate change) we’re faced with particularly harsh examples of what it means to live in a society that depends on science for its existence, yet where so few of us need any understanding or experience of this science to thrive. With the coronavirus you have something that is both too small for us to see, and whose effects- until it infects ourselves or a loved one- are too large and diffuse for us to understand. Outside of the normal human scale it becomes just another demon dreamed up by eggheads in lab coats. Whereas every human society in the past was confronted by the mass death of pandemics in their homes or on the streets, our deaths are now hidden away from us in hospitals, whose horror shows, like with our slaughter houses, factories, or prisons we never need to personally see.

You combine the fact that the virus is outside of our normal human scale and hidden from everyday experience with an information ecosystem that is so obviously corrupted, and where much of science itself has been captured by these very forces of corruption, then it’s no wonder why we find ourselves in a situation where a medical crisis has become yet another football in our endless and self-destructive partisan conflict. Indeed, and in the greatest of ironies, once the pandemic became political it thereby could be deemed unreal, just another front in the meaningless war between rival armies of blockheads.      

For the second danger in replacing truth with models is that we start to view all models with cynicism. Ultimately, the cynic comes to see the search for knowledge itself as nothing but a game. In his view what separates the wise man from the fool is that the wise man knows that everybody is playing him. A chaotic good cynic might take this one remaining piece of truth in the world and use it to become a prankster whose sole goal is the exposure of all those whose power arises from their control of these language games. Someone of the chaotic evil bent, on the other hand, might use the truth of untruth as a vehicle for wealth or power for what it gives him is an unprecedented flexibility when it comes to language. The primary skill of both the salesman and the demagogue is knowing how to tell you exactly what you wanted to hear.

This penchant for using the flexibility of language to create fantasy worlds or steer the block headed crowd lies deep in the roots of the American psyche, a country whose first truly novel cultural export was confidence men like P.T. Barnum. Some would merely see it as salesmanship, but there is a fine line between persuasion and deception, a line that is drawn where the persuader’s belief in his own veracity fails.

The constant pulling at our coattails by marketers wouldn’t matter so much had we been able to hive off the important issues of the public sphere from its influence- something which Walter Lippmann urged us to do as far back as the 1950’s. What we’ve proven since then is that it’s impossible to build a system of public communication that is supported by advertising and political propaganda while at the same time dedicated to informing us of the truth in a way we’ll actually believe.

Luckily, in America very few of these cynics leading blockheads have become demagogues, and even fewer of these demagogues have obtained positions of national power. On the white populist side, we’ve had William Jennings Bryan, Huey Long, Father Coughlin, Joseph McCarthy, George Wallace and now Donald Trump. The last has managed to smoothly transition from being a huckster cynic to becoming the only demagogue to ever obtain the nation’s highest office. God help us all.

The seemingly intractable problem we now face is that we have a man leading the country who doesn’t believe in reality and who has amassed a following of cynics and blockheads large enough to make an effective response to a very real pandemic impossible. In all likelihood the pandemic will move much faster than us finding an escape route from our epistemic jam, but we should try chart a path towards an exit in any case- otherwise we’ll keep repeating the same mistakes until reality has its final say and at last does us in.

The fact is that we’re returning to a world where substituting the creation of fantasy worlds for the discovery of necessarily tentative truths will likely become increasingly less tenable. It’s often been said that it was Huxley’s Brave New World rather than Orwell’s 1984 that got the late 20th century right because Huxley put his finger on the fact that the society being built was all about escapism. What critics of Orwell miss is that the societies he imagined were based on an entirely fake war because war itself had become impossible.

It was the absence of war which made the complete replacement of the search for reality with the construction of fantasy possible because the existential stakes of war require those who wage it to see the world in front of them as truthfully as possible, while at the same time acknowledging the limits of their own perception, along with the necessity of making decisions even when information is less than complete. And while 21st century warfare may in large part concern itself with getting inside the enemies’ OODA Loop, and leveraging misinformation both assume that there is an actual reality whose perception can be disrupted or hid.

The US may or may not be headed towards a new cold war style conflict with China, but in any case, the American exceptionalism that is our refusal to accept reality cannot be sustained. Our wealth and geographic isolation have saved us from facing the full consequences of our numerous mistakes going all the way back to at least the Vietnam War. What we face now is not so much an escalating competition with other societies as it is an intensifying struggle with Nature itself. What we desperately need to learn is that the world outside of us follows an agenda all its own, oblivious to our fantasy worlds and regardless of how skilled we are at building them.


Mary Shelley’s other horror story; Lessons for Super-pandemics

Given the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, I thought it might be a good idea to re-post this piece I wrote several years back during the halcyon days when the US had a government competent enough to help other countries in a pandemic, rather than being incapable of even helping itself. It was written back in 2014 at the height of the Ebola outbreak and reviews Mary Shelley’s horror novel about a civilization destroying pandemic, The Last Man. 

The lessons I gleaned from Shelley’s novel I believe still stand, which is not that the world is ending, but that which we most have to fear from pandemics are their uncanny ability to make almost everything we love disappear. This includes, especially, those closest to us.

What made Ebola particularly tragic was that it tended to prey upon those who loved its victims enough to provide them with some kind of care. COVID-19, although far less deadly, may in some sense be worse, for what appears to work best at stopping its spread isn’t the massive lock down of cities as seen in Wuhan, but the identification of infected individuals followed by their rapid separation from their families. Let’s hope that as few as possible of these separations turn out to be final, and that we use what this crisis is teaching us to fix our all too broken society.


Back in the early 19th century a novel was written that tells the story of humanity’s downfall in the 21st century.  Our undoing was the consequence of a disease that originates in the developing world and radiates outward eventually spreading into North America, East Asia, and ultimately Europe. The disease proves unstoppable causing the collapse of civilization, our greatest cities becoming grave sites of ruin. For all the reader is left to know, not one human being survives the pandemic.

We best know the woman who wrote The Last Man in 1825 as the author of Frankenstein, but it seems Mary Shelley had more than one dark tale up her sleeve. Yet, though the destruction wrought by disease in The Last Man is pessimistic to the extreme, we might learn some lessons from the novel that would prove helpful to understanding not only the very deadly, if less than absolute ruination, of the pandemic of the moment- Ebola- and even more regarding the dangers from super-pandemics more likely to emerge from within humanity than from what is a still quite dangerous nature herself.

The Last Man tells the story of son of a nobleman who had lost his fortune to gambling, Lionel Verney, who will become the sole remaining man on earth as humanity is destroyed by a plague in the 21st century. Do not read the novel hoping to get a glimpse of Shelley’s view of what our 21st century world would be like, for it looks almost exactly like the early 19th century, with people still getting around on horseback and little in the way of future technology.

My guess is that Shelley’s story is set in the “far future” in order to avoid any political heat for a novel in which England has become a republic. Surely, if she meant it to take place in a plausible 21st century, and had somehow missed the implications of the industrial revolution, there would at least have been some imagined political differences between that world and her own. The same Greco-Turkish conflict that raged in the 1820’s rages on in Shelley’s imagined 21st century with only changes in the borders of the war. Indeed, the novel is more of a reflection and critique on the Romantic movement, with Lord Byron making his appearance in the form of the character Lord Raymond, and Verney himself a not all that concealed version of Mary Shelley’s deceased husband Percy.

In The Last Man Shelley sets out to undermine all the myths of the Romantic movement, myths of the innocence of nature, the redemptive power of revolutionary politics and the transformative power of art. While of historical interests such debates offer us little in terms of the meaning of her story for us today. That meaning, I think, can be found in the state of epidemiology, which on the very eve of Shelley’s story was about to undergo a revolution, a transformation that would occur in parallel with humanity’s assertion of general sovereignty over nature, the consequence of the scientific and industrial revolutions.

Reading The Last Man one needs to be carefully aware that Shelley has no idea of how disease actually works. In the 1820’s the leading theory of what caused diseases was the miasma theory, which held that they were caused by “bad air”. When Shelley wrote her story miasma theory was only beginning to be challenged by what we now call the “germ theory” of disease with the work of scientists such as Agostino Bassi. This despite the fact that we had known about microscopic organisms since the 1500s and their potential role in disease had been cited as early as 1546 by the Italian polymath Girolamo Fracastoro. Shelley’s characters thus do things that seem crazy in the light of germ theory; most especially, they make no effort to isolate the infected.

Well, some do. In The Last Man it is only the bad characters that try to run away or isolate themselves from the sick. The supremely tragic element in the novel is how what is most important to us, our small intimate circles, which we cling to despite everything, can be done away with by nature’s cruel shrug. Shelley’s tale is one of extreme pessimism not because it portrays the unraveling of human civilization, and turns our monuments into ruins, and eventually, dust, but because of how it portrays a world where everyone we love most dearly leave us almost overnight. The novel gives one an intimate portrait of what its like to watch one’s beloved family and friends vanish, a reality Mary Shelley was all too well acquainted with, having lost her husband and three children.

Here we can find the lesson we can take for the Ebola pandemic for the deaths we are witnessing today in west Africa are in a very real sense a measure of people’s humanity as if nature, perversely, set out to target those who are acting in a way that is most humane. For, absent modern medical infrastructure, the only ones left to care for the infected is the family of the sick themselves.

This is how is New York Times journalist Helene Cooper explained it to interviewer Terry Gross of Fresh Air:


COOPER: That’s the hardest thing, I think, about the disease is it does make pariahs out of the people who are sick. And it – you know, we’re telling the family people – the family members of people with Ebola to not try to help them or to make sure that they put on gloves. And, you know, that’s, you know, easier – I think that can be easier said than done. A lot of people are wearing gloves, but for a lot of people it’s really hard.

One of the things – two days after I got to Liberia, Thomas Eric Duncan sort of happened in the U.S. And, you know, I was getting all these questions from people in the U.S. about why did he, you know, help his neighbor? Why did he pick up that woman who was sick? Which is believed to be how we got it. And I set out trying to do this story about the whole touching thing because the whole culture of touching had gone away in Liberia, which was a difficult thing to understand. I knew the only way I could do that story was to talk to Ebola survivors because then you can ask people who actually contracted the disease because they touched somebody else, you know, why did you touch somebody? It’s not like you didn’t know that, you know, this was an Ebola – that, you know, you were putting yourself in danger. So why did you do it?

And in all the cases, the people I talked to there were, like, family members. There was this one woman, Patience, who contracted it from her daughter who – 2-year-old daughter, Rebecca – who had gotten it from a nanny. And Rebecca was crying, and she was vomiting and, you know, feverish, and her mom picked her up. When you’re seeing a familiar face that you love so much, it’s really, really hard to – I think it’s a physical – you have to physically – to physically restrain yourself from touching them is not as easy as we might think.


The thing we need to do to ensure naturally occurring pandemics such as Ebola cause the minimum of human suffering is to provide support for developing countries lacking the health infrastructure to respond to or avoid being the vectors for infectious diseases. We especially need to address the low number of doctors per capita found in some countries through, for example, providing doctor training programs. In a globalized world being our brother’s keeper is no longer just a matter of moral necessity, but helps preserve our own health as well.

A super-pandemic of the kind imagined by Mary Shelley, though, is an evolutionary near impossibility. It is highly unlikely that nature by itself would come up with a disease so devastating we will not be able to stop before it kills us in the billions. Having co-evolved with microscopic life some human being’s immune system, somewhere, anticipates even nature’s most devious tricks. We are also in the Anthropocene now, able to understand, anticipate, and respond to the deadliest games nature plays. Sadly, however, the 21st century could experience, as Shelley imagined, the world’s first super-pandemic only the source of such a disaster wouldn’t be nature- it would be us.

One might think I am referencing bio-terrorism, yet the disturbing thing is that the return address for any super-pandemic is just as likely to be stupid and irresponsible scientists as deliberate bio-terrorism. Such is the indication from what happened in 2011 when the Dutch scientist Ron Fouchier deliberately turned the H5N1 bird flu into a form that could potentially spread human-to-human. As reported by Laurie Garrett:

Fouchier told the scientists in Malta that his Dutch group, funded by the U.S. National Institutes of Health, had “mutated the hell out of H5N1,” turning the bird flu into something that could infect ferrets (laboratory stand-ins for human beings). And then, Fouchier continued, he had done “something really, really stupid,” swabbing the noses of the infected ferrets and using the gathered viruses to infect another round of animals, repeating the process until he had a form of H5N1 that could spread through the air from one mammal to another.

Genetic research has become so cheap and easy that what once required national labs and huge budgets to do something nature would have great difficulty achieving through evolutionary means can now be done by run-of-the-mill scientists in simple laboratories, or even by high school students. The danger here is that scientists will create something so novel that  evolution has not prepared any of us for, and that through stupidity and lack of oversight it will escape from the lab and spread through human populations.

News of the crazy Dutch experiments with H5N1 was followed by revelations of mind bogglingly lax safety procedures around pandemic diseases at federal laboratories where smallpox virus had been forgotten in a storage area and pathogens were passed around in Ziploc bags.

The U.S. government, at least, has woken up to the danger imposing a moratorium on such research until their true risks and rewards can be understood and better safety standards established. This has already, and will necessarily, negatively impact potentially beneficial research. Yet what else, one might ask should the government do given the potential risks? What will ultimately be needed is an international treaty to monitor, regulate, and sometimes even ban certain kinds of research on pandemic diseases.

In terms of all the existential risks facing humanity in the 21st century, man-made super-pandemics are the one with the shortest path between reality and nightmare. The risk from runaway super-intelligence remains theoretical, based upon hypothetical technology that, for all we know, may never exist. The danger of runaway global warming is real, but we are unlikely to feel the full impact this century. Meanwhile, the technologies to create a super-pandemic in large part already here with the key uncertainty being how we might control such a dangerous potential if, as current trends suggest, the ability to manipulate and design organisms at the genetic level continues to both increase and democratize. Strangely enough, Mary Shelley’s warning in her Frankenstein about the dangers of science used for the wrong purposes has the greatest likelihood of coming in the form of her Last Man.