Thursday, April 16, 2020
The lockdown’s loyal opposition
At First Things, Fr. Thomas Joseph White the Covid-19 lockdown, whereas Rusty Reno . As , I agree with Fr. Thomas Joseph but I also believe that reason, charity, and the common good require serious engagement with skeptics like Rusty – and that this is more true, rather than less, the longer the lockdown goes on. Meanwhile, at The Bulwark, conservative lockdown defender Jonathan V. Last that he won’t link even to Fr. Thomas Joseph’s article, let alone Rusty’s. The reason is that Fr. Thomas Joseph’s article “made matters worse, not better” by granting “legitimacy” to the idea that “there are really two sides to the issue, and that reasonable and intelligent people can disagree.” He compares Rusty’s skepticism to that of flat-earthers and anti-vaxxers.
This is outrageous. Does it not occur to Last that the surest way to reinforce skepticism is precisely to demonize it, even when it is expressed by a serious writer and thinker like Rusty? When you don’t bother to respond to an argument with a counterargument, people will naturally suspect that the reason is that you can’t. And when people think their sincere concerns are not being given a fair hearing, they are only going to be hardened in their position, not shamed out of it.
By no means is this merely a matter of good public relations strategy. For one thing, the lockdown, however temporarily necessary, is an extreme and dangerous remedy and one that has imposed massive inconveniences on people, not to mention threatened their livelihoods. It is unreasonable not to cut the skeptics some slack even when they make intemperate remarks. Defenders of the lockdown also need to keep in mind that intemperate things have been said and done by people on our side too.
For another thing, refusing even to engage with the arguments of one’s opponents is a recipe for confirmation bias, circular reasoning, and other forms of dogmatism. If an argument is wrong, then you should be able to explain how it is, rather than simply dismissing it. Otherwise you are stuck on an intellectual merry-go-round: “People who believe X aren’t even worthy of a reasoned response, because their arguments are so awful; and I know their arguments must be awful because no one who believes something like X could possibly be worthy of a reasoned response.”
Such question-begging condescension is bad enough in the best of times. It is potentially catastrophic in our current circumstances. Given how damaging the lockdown is the longer it goes on, it would be insane not to welcome constructive criticism, and regularly to revisit the issue of how long the lockdown ought to continue, given constantly changing circumstances.
To be sure, the fact that the estimated death toll has now been revised downward by no means shows that the lockdown to this point was not necessary. It is, however, reasonable for people to ask how soon it can end, consistent with avoiding a resurgence of the virus. I have no opinion to offer, other than the conventional one that widespread testing is essential. To that I would add only that two extremes need to be avoided.
The first extreme is dogmatically to parrot lurid journalistic accounts of every nightmare scenario that “the science” is purportedly revealing to us, as if they were holy writ. As the Covid-19 lockdown started to ramp up in the U.S. a month ago, one of the skeptical voices I took most seriously was that of Stanford epidemiologist John Ioannidis, with whose work I was familiar from his famous paper “Why Most Published Research Findings Are False.” Anyone familiar with the points made in that paper would be wary of too quickly accepting any bold claim made on the basis of current research, especially when it is filtered through the keyboard of a journalist. Pathologist John Lee has more recently offered a reminder of how important it is to keep the methodological problems in mind when assessing claims about Covid-19.
Naturally, though, there is another extreme, which is to make of the fallibility of research findings an excuse glibly to dismiss them. To observe that Sherlock Holmes is not infallible is hardly grounds to think him incompetent, or to judge yourself to be a better detective than he is. It no less ridiculous for radio hosts and Twitter warriors to decide that they know more than the epidemiologists, on the grounds that the latter have revised their opinions. Moreover, in a crisis situation, fallible research is better than none at all, and all we have to go on. As others pointed out a month ago, Ioannidis’s own reasonable reservations did not entail that the scientific evidence was then too weak to act on.
As I have said before, the lesson of all this is not that we might as well throw up our hands and cannot arrive at a right answer. The lesson is to calm down and realize that things might be more complicated than whatever it was you read today in your Twitter feed or at your favorite political website. But that’s true for the lockdown’s defenders too, and not just its critics.
Here’s a good debate at Catholic Herald between Helen Andrews and Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry.