Covid-19 & the Emperor’s New Clothes

We all know the story of the emperor’s new clothes. In it, the emperor is hoodwinked by rogues who take his money and make him…nothing. “Nothing” that his advisors, fearful of offending him, declare to be the finest finery in the land.

Then, the emperor dons the non-existent robes…and a little child calls him out, exclaiming, “But the Emperor has nothing on at all!”

Except…The original fable, by Hans Christian Andersen, is a little more complex.

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How to Make COVID-19 Evolve to Become Less Dangerous

Donald Trump says that even without a vaccine, COVID-19 will eventually fade away. And amazingly, the science says he might be right…though not if we follow his plan for reopening the country.

The science in question is evolutionary virology.

It says is that under certain circumstances viruses will evolve into less virulent forms. In fact, this might even be what happened to the 1918 Spanish Flu…though not until after it killed tens of millions of people.

Let me explain.

In order to be an evolutionarily successful, virus can’t just infect one person, they have to jump from one person to another. They can do that by making us cough, giving us diarrhea that contaminates other people’s food or water, or giving us sores that shed virus particles onto anyone or anyone we touch.

I.e., they make us sick.

But if they make us too ill, too quickly, they don’t get much chance to spread because we either collapse into bed, away from other people, or make others leery enough of catching the disease that they take suitable precautions.

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The Corruption of Critical Thinking

This post is not directly about politics or COVID-19. But it should be, which is why I’ve tagged it for both.

When I was teaching at California State University, Sacramento in the late 1980s, the Cal State system was trying to increase the focus on classes that emphasized critical thinking.

If there was an official definition, I never saw it, but my department made it clear that the environmental studies law-and-public-policy classes I taught were exactly what they wanted.

I ran these classes not as lectures, but as discussions based on assigned readings, and my biggest goal was to challenge the students to think about the readings’ implications, rather than just taking them at face value.

One of my favorite moments was a discussion in which one of the students flipped whatever I was saying at the time back on itself and pointed out something I’d overlooked. “That’s what you taught us to do,” he said, when he realized how well he’d hoisted me by my own petard.

I don’t remember what grade he got for the course, but for that day, he definitely got an A+.

Since then, however, I’ve found that critical thinking is all too often replaced by shorthand substitutes.

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Scylla, Charybdis & COVID-19

In Greek mythology, Scylla and Charybdis were monsters guarding opposite sides of the narrow strait between Italy and Sicily. Chart a course too close to one side, and Scylla grabs you. Try to steer clear of Scylla and you fall prey to Charybdis.

It’s hard to think of a better metaphor for the modern moment.

Except…in the Greek lore, the two monsters acted independently. Now, it’s more like each isn’t so much trying to snare you for itself as to drive you into the other’s clutches. And it’s something we seem to be doing our level best to assist.

Let me elaborate.

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Optimism vs Despair on COVID-19 (and possibly good vaccine news)

In 1965, Admiral James Stockdale of the U.S. Navy was shot down over North Vietnam and became the highest-ranking U.S. officer to become a prisoner of war, suffering isolation, privation, and repeated torture until his release in 1973.

He went on to become a university president (and was a Ross Perot’s vice-presidential pick in his quixotic run for President), but history may best remember him for what has become known as the Stockdale Paradox, about how to survive harrowing times.

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Sweden v Georgia: Gambling on COVID-19

Sweden v. Georgia: it sounds like a sporting match—(can I have Sweden by 5½ points?)—but it’s actually a high-stakes alternative approach to the battle against COVID-19. (Photo © Ralf Roletschek, Wikimedia Commons.)

It began in Sweden, which—unlike other countries—has had no lockdown, no mandatory restrictions.  Instead, using a “trust-based” approach, it merely offered general guidance: work from home when possible, wash your hands, avoid unnecessary travel, and be particularly careful if you are older or suffer preexisting conditions. What it did not to was to shut down business, ban public gatherings, etc.

The impetus appears to have been a conclusion that the virus was bound to spread no matter how strict the control measures, so there was no point in being too draconian, so long as the curve was sufficiently “flattened” that health system wasn’t overwhelmed.

But Swedes are also a community-minded people, the plan’s architect Anders Tegnel told Nature:

As a society, we are more into nudging: continuously reminding people to use measures, improving measures where we see day by day that they need to be adjusted.

That decision has been, to put it mildly, controversial. As of April 25, Sweden had seen 18,177 cases, with 2,192 deaths—a much higher death rate than neighboring Norway, Denmark, Finland and Germany.

But, it has nevertheless flattened the curve and, Tegnel told Business Insider on April 24, enough people in Stockholm have already had the virus for the city (and soon the country as a whole) to develop enough herd immunity to ward off a massive rebound of infections in the fall.

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