an autodidact meets a dilettante…

‘Rise above yourself and grasp the world’ Archimedes – attribution

the science of Covid-19: the virus, symptoms, spread, vaccine, incubation period, crude case fatalities

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So I’m now embarking on a series devoted entirely to the virus that’s shutting so many of us in our homes, feeling slightly (or considerably) fearful, for our lives as well as our livelihoods, feeling both frustrated and fascinated, both mystified and enlightened about human behaviour, governmental responses and the like.

First, some people call this virus Covid-19, some call it SARS-CoV-2, and most just call it coronavirus. But most well-informed people know by now that coronaviruses are quite commonplace RNA viruses (numbering in the hundreds). They’re relatively large and get their name from the corona or crown of proteins that spike out from the virus membrane. The official name of this new coronavirus is SARS-CoV-2 (that’s severe acute respiratory syndrome), and Covid-19 is the name of the disease or condition that the virus causes.

This is the third coronavirus in the last 20 years to infect large numbers of humans. Coronaviruses are zoonotic – they spread from animals to humans, becoming more potentially lethal in the process. The others were SARS in 2002 and MERS (Middle East respiratory syndrome) in 2012. The immediate species origin of this new strain is still unclear. According to leading epidemiologist Dr Edison Liu, sequencing has shown that it arose from a bat coronavirus, but it probably passed through a series of vectors before passing to humans. It appears to be less lethal than SARS or MERS, but its spread has been far more rapid. In an interview on the Jackson Laboratory website (JAX), Liu explains that the Covid-19 epidemic occurred at the same time as an influenza epidemic, and while the symptoms are very similar, Covid-19 has about ten times the mortality rate. The essential symptoms are fever, shortness of breath and coughing. Acute symptoms appear to result from a mix of direct viral damage and intense immunologic response in some cases.

The virus is spread primarily by coughing and sneezing, and from the time of contact with it until the time of symptoms is approximately four to seven days. The virus passes from the body in about 14 days on average – hence the recommended minimum quarantine period.

Liu had this to say about a vaccine. Vaccine development generally takes 12 to 18 months, not only to prove its efficacy but to scale up production to the required level. Animal models are needed to test the efficacy of any antiviral treatment. Covid-19 enters our cells through the ACE-2 receptor (angiotensin-converting enzyme 2). Mice, which are often used as test animals, don’t take up Covid-19 through their ACE-2 receptor, but scientists at Iowa University have developed an animal model for infection, in which the human ACE-2 receptor has been engineered into the animal (a mouse). So the effectiveness of antiviral drugs can be tested on these animals, which can apparently be provided en masse, with the Jackson Lab as a premier provider.

The invaluable worldometer website has regularly updated stats on total cases (about 1.1 million as of today, April 4), total deaths, total recovered, death rates and much else, as well as a country-by-country breakdown. It also has well-sourced and referenced info on symptoms, incubation period and other useful stuff. The incubation period is defined as the time from exposure to the development of symptoms. Worldometer sets this period as 2 to 14 days, according to data from WHO, China’s National Health Commission and the USA’s Center for Disease Control. Note that this period is longer than that stated earlier, in information from Jackson Laboratory CEO Edison Liu. Similarly a Chinese online community for physicians and healthcare workers has reported an incubation period of ‘3 to 7 days, up to 14 days’. However, rare outliers have been reported, with incubation periods up to 27 days. The WHO has considered these might be due to second exposures – incidentally raising the issue of re-infection. However, most experts feel that re-infection is unlikely, and this appears to have been borne out as the global spread advances.

Over the past day I’ve listened to two Sam Harris podcasts on Covid-19, interviews with experts conducted in early March – already long ago, it seems. The second, which I listened to first, was with Dr Amesh Adalja, of the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. He made an educated guess of the death rate for Covid-19 at 0.6%, based on his analysis of South Korean figures. This is approximately six times the rate for seasonal flu (though it should be mentioned that the most recent seasonal flu has been the most fatal for children in many years), but somewhat lower than many of the predictions of other experts. He also seemed, at that point, less concerned about the need for social distancing and other mitigating measures than others, but it seems that the rapid spread of the virus and growing public concern has rendered obsolete his nonchalance in this area. Also, stop press, a New Scientist article posted yesterday (April 3) has this to say on the South Korean data:

Crude case fatality rates are so-called because they don’t take into account the fact that some of the people counted in the infected numbers have not recovered yet and may still go on to die. Early in March, for instance, South Korea had a crude case fatality rate of just 0.6 per cent. That has risen to 1.7 per cent.

As to the fatality rate of Covid-19 at present, this is difficult to assess, largely due to ‘severity bias’, which means that many milder infections may be going untested, with only the more severe cases capturing the attention of the health care system, or even the infected. New Scientist reports ‘a wide range of estimates, from as low as 1 in 1000 to as high as 1 in 30’. It seems clear from current figures that death rates vary wildly from region to region, and country to country, but the reasons for this are still very unclear. To give some examples of the variation, the current crude case fatality rate for the UK is around 9%, for Italy it’s nearly 12%, but for Germany it’s only 1%. Here in Australia, it’s considerably less even than that, and no doubt governments around the country will be keen to take the credit. But there seems to be more to this variation than government action/inaction. This question along with many others will be explored in future posts.


Written by stewart henderson

April 4, 2020 at 4:01 pm

Represent Us and ‘US democracy’ part 3

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So I previously looked at the model act, the American Ant-Corruption Act (AACA), which was first crafted by the chair of the Federal Election Commission, Trevor Potter, in 2011. How to get Congress to support an act which is contrary to the vested interests of its members? Silver, Lawrence and co argue that the best strategy is to bypass Congress and focus on state and city legislatures. By passing forms of anti-corruption laws state by state and city by city, a momentum for change will be caused, as has occurred in the past with other legislation. Apparently states have control over how any election, including federal elections, are run in each state, presumably including financial contributions to candidates. They cite a 2015 Bloomberg News study which shows that passing these kinds of local laws does lead to a victory in the federal sphere. This has apparently occurred with women’s suffrage, interracial marriage, and same-sex marriage. Once a certain number of states have come on board, federal passage becomes inevitable.

So that’s the argument. Now I want to look more closely at those examples. The Bloomberg News study ‘looked at six big issues—interracial marriage, prohibition, women’s suffrage, abortion, same-sex marriage, and recreational marijuana’. The legislation results are shown in the graph below.

The video looked at three of these.

In the case of women’s suffrage, Wyoming was the pioneer, granting full voting rights to women when it entered the union in 1890. The National Woman Suffrage Movement began to organise over the next couple of decades, and Wyoming’s neighbour, Colorado was the next to ‘fall’, followed by Utah and Idaho (also new states, presumably). After the Great War, the numbers increased rapidly, leading to the passage of the 19th amendment in 1920.

Interracial marriage had a longer and more troubled history due to the north-south civil war divide. Many states had no ban at all, but such marriages were generally frowned upon in the decades following Reconstruction (1865-77), especially in the south. California pioneered major change in 1948 when its Supreme Court, in a tight decision, ruled that its ban on interracial marriage was unconstitutional. Thirteen states followed in the next few years, and in 1967 the federal Supreme Court ruled against all state prohibitions.

The first change to US prohibition of same-sex marriage came in 2004 when the Massachusetts Supreme Court found the ban unconstitutional. Connecticut followed in 2008, and other progressive states followed. In 2013, ‘the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the federal government must recognise same-sex marriages performed in states where it is legal’. This led to number of state courts lifting bans. The federal Supreme Court made its final ruling in favour of same-sex marriage in mid-2015.

So, the strategy of focusing on state legislature seems a sound one, in the long-term. The question is, how long might this take, and have there been any, or is there likely to be any, initial successes? The strategy is to create grassroots, cross-party campaigns, and the video claims, but without any links to evidence, or any detail, that it has chalked up 85 ‘wins’, with the hope that there will be many more in the future.

Columbia Law School’s Center for the Advancement of Public Integrity (CAPI) provides probably the most comprehensive overview of corruption issues and anti-corruption legislation on a state-by-state basis in the USA. A read-through of a couple of state analyses (Alabama and Florida) highlights, for me, the complexity of the problem. In spite of many reforms, statutes, codes of ethics and monitoring bodies, both these states are plagued with financial corruption problems. It would seem that, for federal success, a co-ordinated program of similar or near-identical anti-corruption and finance-limiting laws relating to elections and public office need to be enacted. Represent Us, with its American Anti-Corruption Act, appears to be aiming at just this. It would also make the federal Supreme Court’s job a lot easier if the appropriate laws are already written, requiring little adjustment to suit the federal level.

Finally, Represent Us has a comprehensive website advertising and providing details of its above-mentioned wins. Many of these seem to be at the city or council level, and I’m not familiar enough with the fine detail of US politics to measure their significance, but clearly it all adds up. This is undoubtedly a vital movement to get the USA out from under this overwhelming weight of money in politics. Another movement, I think, should be seeking to alleviate the poverty and disadvantage in large swathes of the country, to provide those currently suffering under this disadvantage a sense that their vote can make a difference, that they are welcomed contributors to an American community.

Written by stewart henderson

April 3, 2020 at 2:55 pm

Represent Us and ‘US democracy’, part 2

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Wall Street owns the country. It is no longer a government of the people, by the people, and for the people, but a government of Wall Street, by Wall Street, and for Wall Street.
― Mary Ellen Lease

So the next issue the Represent Us video raises is partisan gerrymandering, an issue here in Australia too. It’s extraordinary to think that gerrymandering has been a problem in the USA since 1788 (the term refers to a salamander-shaped redistricting map created by a governor Gerry of Massachusetts in 1812), with still no solid solution found. So, although this isn’t a new problem, the clearly political, anti-democratic motives involved should make it obvious that it needs to be dealt with apolitically, such as through the justice system or a thoroughly independent, regulated authority. The idea should be that boundaries, which may need to be redrawn from time to time, considering, for example, the general human movement from rural to urban neighbourhoods, should be drawn so as to best assure that all individual votes are of equal value in deciding representation. This would clearly mean taking redistricting out of the hands of partisan politicians and making it a function of independent bodies armed, nowadays, with computer-based maps and up-to-date statistics on human movement. Or am I missing something? Apparently. Here’s what Wikipedia says about the US problem:

Through the 20th century and since then, the US Court system has deemed extreme cases of gerrymandering to be unconstitutional, but has struggled with how to define the types of gerrymandering and standards to be used to determine when redistricting maps are unconstitutional. 

… the Supreme Court has struggled as to when partisan gerrymandering occurs (Vieth v. Jubelirer (2004) and Gill v. Whitford (2018)), and in a landmark decision in 2019 in Rucho v. Common Cause, ultimately decided that questions of partisan gerrymandering represents a nonjusticiable political question that cannot be dealt with by the federal court system.

I’m not sure if this 2019 decision is due to the conservative stacking of the Supreme Court (Republicans have more financial clout but less popular support than Democrats), but it seems reasonable to my naive self that legislation can be created to ban incumbent governors etc from redrawing the boundaries of their own districts. They should be the last people allowed to do so.

So the video goes on to claim that, due to gerrymandering, ‘only 14% of House campaigns are actually competitive’. As a non-American, I’m not sure if that means just House of Reps campaigns or Congressional campaigns. In any case a USA Today article from late 2016, with the telling title ‘Fewer and fewer US House seats have any competition’. However, the author argues that it’s not just about gerrymandering. He quotes a political scientist who talks of ‘self-sorting of the population’, where citizens move around to be with the ideologically like-minded. The Washington Post has an article from mid 2017 on the trend, which, I have to say, favours my fantasy of having the USA split into two nations, on red and blue lines, and seeing how each one fares. But nothing is so simple. Interestingly, on the gerrymandering question the WaPo has this:

Some states have moved to take the redistricting process out of the hands of the legislature, turning the duty over to special commissions that in many cases are told to ignore political outcomes. Results have been mixed.

A bit vague, unfortunately. Are they talking about the results of the attempt to form special commissions, or the results of redistricting by the commissions? The point should be that redistricting by partisan actors should be banned as intrinsically a bad thing.

So let’s look at other claims in the video – 1) trillions of dollars spent annually ‘on fraud and abuse in government’ (does this mean on fighting it, or just by the fraudsters and abusers?) – 2) one in five children live in poverty – 3) the most expensive healthcare in the world – 4) more people in prison per capita than any other country. Other claims are perhaps less quantifiable – the US is losing jobs to the rest of the world, and isn’t doing enough re air and water pollution. I’ll look more closely at those first four.

On point one, the evidence is plentiful. This Medical Economics article cites a study showing nearly a trillion dollars annually in healthcare waste, most of it due to administrative complexity and over-pricing. Forbes reports here on massive waste and fraud by federal agencies, and – most egregious but least surprising – the Pentagon’s accounts are in such a mess that multiple firms of auditors have given up on auditing them. There’s no doubt that waste, fraud and abuse in this massively over-indulged sector dwarfs all others.

As to point two, poverty is of course defined differently in different parts of the world. The US website has a section titled How is poverty defined in America?, but what follows fails signally to answer the question. Nevertheless, according to their vague criteria 22% of Americans under 18 live in poverty. With its limited government-based safety net and its massively-paid business and banking sectors, there is surely no other ‘open society’ nation that has such a rich v poor disparity.

On the third point, according to Investopedia, the USA does indeed spend more per capita on healthcare than any other nation, but without the best outcomes. Also, unlike most European nations which also spend heavily on healthcare, the USA spends vastly more on expensive private health insurance rather than subsidised government healthcare.

Point four – Wikipedia doesn’t seem to have reliable figures on incarceration rates beyond 2013, but it does state that ‘in the last forty years, incarceration has increased with rates upwards of 500% despite crime rates decreasing nationally’. It’s an outrageous and shameful statistic, but they might argue that it’s the price they’re willing to pay for their libertarianism (!). The rate of incarceration of women in recent decades has been double that of men. The price to pay for women’s liberation?

So there you go – the greatest country in the world, according to that country.

So the Represent Us argument is that this mess can be cleared up, or begin to be cleared up, if the nation is given back to the people, who are currently unrepresented, mostly. Fix the system, and you can fix everything else. According to Silver and Lawrence, and the constitutional scholars (again, that worshipped constitution) and other experts they consulted, a law (but presumably more than one) that would wrest power from the established economic elites and so move, via the people, to end gerrymandering (using independent redistricting commissions), to create ranked-choice voting (we have this in Australia, where it’s called preferential voting), which will give more scope for new parties and independents, and to automate voter registration.

As to the issue of bribery and financial corruption in the political system, here’s what’s hoped to happen once they, the people are in control. They’ll overhaul lobbying and ethics laws, so that politicians can’t be bribed, say, by promises of cushy sinecures after leaving office; they’ll mandate transparency of political spending, for obvious reasons; ‘give every voter a tax voucher so politicians spend time fundraising from their constituents rather than the [economic elites]’ (this is a strange one I’ll have to look into).

All of these reforms can be wrapped up in an American Anti-Corruption Act, which 87% of Americans already support, enthuses Josh Silver.

So the model American Anti-Corruption Act (AACA), co-authored by Silver and other luminaries, was first unveiled in 2012. I gather from the Wikipedia article on it that it does have a lot of electoral support, though 87% might be a bit exaggerated. I just don’t have that much faith in they, the people.

In any case, Silver himself has little faith in a Congress captured by the economic elites. Congress, he feels, will never turn such an act into law. So what’s the solution? I’ll look at that in my next post. Keep well!

Written by stewart henderson

April 1, 2020 at 6:44 pm

Represent US and ‘US democracy’, part 1

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If there was one decision I would overrule, it would be ‘Citizens United.’ I think the notion that we have all the democracy that money can buy strays so far from what our democracy is supposed to be.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Leaving the weird awfulness of Covid-19 aside for a while, I must thank a good friend for sending this video my way. Jennifer Lawrence is an American actor none of whose films I’ve ever seen, but in this video she and Josh Silver, fellow member of the activist group Represent Us (with presumably a play on the US – and they’ve been making videos for years now), effectively focus on a problem of US politics I’ve largely neglected in my own analyses of the subject since the advent of the most recent incumbent in the white palace.

I’ve referred to it obliquely, for example when writing about the election cycle in that country, and my view that there’s at least one election too many – i.e. the presidential election. It all seems too much of an expenditure of time and energy, but I neglected to focus enough on the most insuperable problem – money.

So in this post I want to look at what Lawrence and Silver claim about the influence of money and wealthy lobbyists on government, especially federal government, and the corresponding lack of influence the relatively disadvantaged generally have, in spite of their vast numbers. Are there claims accurate?

l’ll try to fact check much of this – and their first claim isn’t directly about money, it’s the claim that the last two presidential candidates, Clinton and Trump, were ‘the least popular candidates since they began keeping track of such things’. Australia’s journalistic website The Conversation certainly confirms this about Trump. At election time, he ‘had the highest unfavorability rating in history, with over 61% of Americans having an “unfavorable” or “disapproving” view’. His victory, with fewer votes, says much about the electoral college system and how it favours less populated ‘red’ states, but I won’t go into that here. Clinton, though, was a ‘historically unpopular opponent’, with an unfavourable rating of 52%, the worst rating ever recorded for a losing candidate. So that checks out.

The next claim is that ‘only 4% of Americans have a great deal of confidence in Congress now.’ I imagine that the word ‘great’ is key here, as everything depends on framing. For example the question might be – how much confidence do you have in Congress? (a) no confidence (b) very little confidence (c) a fair amount of confidence (d) a great deal of confidence – or something similar. And how many constituents, anywhere, would say they have a great deal of confidence in their politicians, where there’s space to express skepticism? A quick check shows that the figure comes from a Gallup poll reported in The Atlantic back in 2014, and indeed it was a multiple choice question, but the most interesting/disturbing finding was that the attitude to Congress has suffered a massive downturn in recent decades, as shown by the graph below. So, unless there’s been an uptick in the last few years – and surely there hasn’t – Represent Us is right on this too.

The video next focuses on a Princeton study on ‘how public opinion influences the laws that Congress passes’. Represent Us presents this as a ‘thirty percent rule’. Any law has a 30% chance of being passed by Congress, regardless of its public support (from no support to complete support). The Princeton study concluded, apparently, that ‘the preferences of the average American appear to have only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact on public policy.’

So, the 2014 study, by two professors of politics and decision-making, Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page, is self-described as ‘tentative and preliminary’, but they are clear about their findings:

The central point that emerges from our research is that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence.

I’ve just read the study, and, unsurprisingly it’s a lot more nuanced, complex and at times dauntingly technical than the 12-minute video. For example it points out that policies advocated by cashed-up lobby groups may well benefit most of the public in spite of their lack of popular support. However, the economic elites, who have the most influence on Congress through financial, quid pro quo support, favour policies which are generally non-beneficial to the poorer, and far more numerous, sectors of the population. In fact, a lot of the findings remind me of passages in a very different text, Robert Sapolsky’s monumental book Behave, where he examines class-based behaviour (he calls it socio-economic status rather than class, coz we all know that the USA is a classless society haha). Take this example:

… a culture highly unequal in material resources is almost always also unequal in the ability to pull the strings of power, to have efficacy, to be visible. For example, as income inequality grows, the percentage of people who bother voting generally declines.

R Sapolsky, Behave, p292

As Sapolsky also points out, the super-rich, and their children, tend to move in the limited circle of their peers and so reinforce each other in seeking to maintain and enhance their lifestyles. The super-poor, meanwhile, are more often in a battle with each other (and not with the super-rich who are invisible to them) for resources, and tend not to trust government, since it is run by ‘them’. So the more economically unequal the nation, the more political power falls into the hands of the wealthy.

Anyway, returning to the video, the next claim is an odd one: ‘politicians are spending up to 70% of their time raising funds for re-election’. The term ‘up to 70%’ could actually mean anything from zero to 70%, so let’s take that with a pinch of salt. Another Represent Us website quotes former Democrat senator Tom Daschle: ‘a typical US senator spends two-thirds of the last two years of their term raising money’. I’m not sure if this is meant literally, but of course time spent isn’t the issue, rather money raised is the issue. The video goes on to make this interesting claim: ‘in order to win a seat in some races, you would have to raise $45,000 every day for six years to raise enough money to win’. I’m not sure how to fact-check such a claim, though ‘in some races’ could be a warning sign of some exaggeration or over-simplification. Then again, the idea of those kinds of dollars being involved in any electoral race is a sure sign of shonkiness. In any case the claim has to be seen in tandem with the next factoid presented, that ‘only .05% of Americans give more than $10,000 to politics’, which suggests that this tiny sector – the super-rich and wealthy special interest groups – are the funders of election campaigns, generally with agendas that the pollies are politely commanded to comply with – with the inevitable result for the increasingly disengaged majority.

So, whether these facts are precisely correct or not, it’s clear enough that money is poisoning democracy in the USA. As the video goes on to say, Americans are leaving the major parties in droves, and some 42% are registered as independent, rather than members of the duopoly of Republicans and Democrats. And since there are virtually no independent candidates, the quote from Sapolsky above becomes all the more relevant.

I’ve only looked at about a third of the video, but I’ll post this lot and present my take on the rest in my next post. Keep well!

Written by stewart henderson

March 30, 2020 at 2:43 pm

Covid-19: act quickly, test widely, maintain distance

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So Covid-19 is the inescapable pandemic, the great test of administrations worldwide. We’re beyond blaming China for inflicting this upon the world, though this shouldn’t be forgotten, as mistakes need to be remedied. But now we’re looking elsewhere for praise and blame. Few people are keen to praise the Chinese government for its methods, however effective they might be. They’re looking to more humane governments, those that have achieved similar results without the brutality.

A much-discussed essay from Imperial College London compares suppression with mitigation, and favours suppression, and this is proving controversial, as others say it’s overly pessimistic, citing apparent success in flattening the curve in South Korea, for example. Of course there’s the difficulty of knowing whether reported data is reliable, whether testing is thorough enough and so forth. This article from The Conversation looks at South Korea’s success and suggests it may be as much due to its surveillance technology regime as to its effective virus testing program. Other countries, such as Taiwan and Singapore, have also been very successful, apparently, though with a much smaller case load. Another enigma appears to be India. It has been praised for shutting its borders early, but surely there would be a difficulty in obtaining reliable figures in such a diverse patchwork of a nation. Still, if we take its reported figures on face value, it has been an outstanding success story, so far.
South Korea’s success has much to do with its sophisticated biotech industry (something we in Australia can also boast of), which can produce tests quickly. It also has a well-developed healthcare system, apparently. It has done more testing than any country, other than China, so its figures are likely to be more reliable. But it can also track contacts of Covid-19 sufferers through debit and credit cards and mobile phones (the country is at the top of per capita users of these items). The country also employs CCTV surveillance more than just about any other country in the world, and this is mostly acceptable to its citizenry. My own conversations tell me that such surveillance would cause much greater concern here.

So the pandemic will continue to be combated with a variety of methods by different countries, all looking to others to see what works and to modify working methods to suit their own people. Keep alert for success stories and analyse them, see if they can be replicated. Italy appears to be a disaster, but not everywhere. In the northern town of Vo, where the first Italian Covid-19 death was reported, health authorities managed to lock down and test all 3000 of its residents at the outset, and found a 3% infection rate. The infected, most of whom displayed no symptoms, were quarantined, and a later large-scale test found the rate had been reduced to less than 0.5%. Of course, this is a small town, but the lessons are obvious. Test widely and act swiftly, and make sure you’re prepared for this sort of situation, unlike the USA, where federal neglect under the wanker in the white palace has virtually eviscerated its CDC. The CDC’s failure to provide test kits to state public health labs at the start of the outbreak has massively hampered the ability to isolate and trace contacts of the infected, so important during the early stages. Labs around the country are still struggling to fill the void, while the wanker engages in the standard down-playing, over-promising and blame-shifting that’s inherent to him.

Here in Australia we’re ranked 21st in the number of cases, not great for a sparsely populated island nation, far from the epicentre, though our connections with China, and our slowness in shutting down travel from that country, is the likely explanation. The good news is that we’ve recorded only seven deaths from a little over a thousand cases so far. The bad news is that the curve isn’t flattening, with more than a hundred new cases recorded in the last 24 hours. Stop press: make that more than 200, and Australia has jumped to 19th in the number of cases, though still only 7 deaths thankfully. I’ve just listened to a press conference by our Prime Minister and Chief Medical Officer announcing closures to pubs, restaurants, cinemas and cafes for the foreseeable. Schools, however, are to remain open, with everyone expected to follow distance rules of four square metres. This is all extremely unnerving. I’ve been asked to teach tomorrow, with different classes starting at different times to prevent crowding on arrival and departure. I’ve agreed to do it, though I’m over sixty with a pre-existing bronchial condition (but it’s more the over seventies that are at risk). Much of the questioning at the press conference was about the school situation, with states such as Victoria not apparently being aligned with the federal government on whether they should remain open. It may be difficult to maintain the four square rule in a relatively dynamic, interactive classroom, and then there’s the question of virus spread by people who haven’t been tested and show no symptoms. Our students have already been here for a while, and I’m presuming, without much knowledge, that infectiousness is greatest in the early stages of contracting the virus. There are also rumours, mentioned in the press conference, that the young may be ‘super-spreaders’. The Chief Medical Officer claimed that there was no evidence to this effect, and I note that the term is rather frowned upon as ‘unscientific’, but without more widespread testing we really don’t know what, or who, we’re dealing with when we enter a classroom.

Meanwhile, just in the past 24 hours there’s been a spike of cases here in South Australia, all from people recently returned from overseas and interstate. Of course, these are the people who would be tested… And, Australia has now jumped to 16th in the world for number of cases, but the death toll remans the same – in fact we have the lowest mortality rate of all the top twenty countries, according to worldometer, but I’m personally a bit skeptical of these figures.
May we live in interesting times…?

Written by stewart henderson

March 23, 2020 at 11:09 pm

Posted in behaviour, covid19

Tagged with , ,

gods, science and explanation

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If you think that it would be impossible to improve upon the Ten Commandments as a statement of morality, you really owe it to yourself to read some other scriptures. Once again, we need look no further than the Jains: Mahavira, the Jain patriarch, surpassed the morality of the Bible with a single sentence: ‘Do not injure, abuse, oppress, enslave, insult, torment, torture, or kill any creature or living being.’ Imagine how different our world might be if the Bible contained this as its central precept.

Sam Harris, Letter to a christian nation

Reading David Deutsch’s The beginning of infinity, together with a collection of Stephen Jay Gould’s essays, Dinosaur in a haystack, has reminded me of my critique of Gould’s bad NOMA argument, which I reread lately. So here’s a revisiting and a development of that critique.
Put very simply, Gould argued that religion was about moral and spiritual matters, and that science was about causes and effects in the natural world, and that these spheres of interest didn’t overlap, so co-existence was not only entirely possible but mutually beneficial.

In his argument, I noted, Gould generally avoided mentioning gods, or God. It seems to me now, that this is more of a problem than I thought at the time, because religions are all about gods. While I don’t want to be hard and fast about this, religions really don’t exist without gods. In that sense, you might call Buddhism a spiritual belief system or worldview or discipline, but it isn’t a religion. It doesn’t use gods to explain stuff. And Confucianism even less so. Certainly in earlier times, in a more god-besotted world, Buddhism and even Confucianism were associated with or could be easily assimilated with local deities in China, Korea and Japan, and the world of morality was generally associated with portents and god-induced ‘disasters’, but that was to be expected in a pre-scientific climate, which prevailed globally for most of human history.

This is the point. For century upon century, gods, their behaviour, powers and attitudes or natures, were the explanations for war, famine, disease and the everyday accidents that humans suffered from. Even as some medical and other knowledge developed, the will of the gods was always there as a background explanation for the otherwise inexplicable. And so it shouldn’t be surprising, in a world teeming with god-explanations, that the pioneers of more earthly, measurable and testable explanations for phenomena still clung to this background of god-explanations for so much of what they saw around them – the birds in the sky, the food that sprang from the ground or hung from the trees, the life-giving rain, the failed harvests, the floods, the plagues, the invasions and so on.

Nowadays, what we call science can provide better explanations in every area we can think of than do god-explanations, and this is a major blow to religion and its relevance in the modern world. I would describe it as a death-blow. Indeed gods aren’t just bad explanations, they’re not really explanations at all. Why gods, after all? What are they, and where do they come from? No coherent explanation can be offered for them. Of course the obvious answer is that they come from the human imagination, as is evidenced by the human qualities they display – the beauty of the love-goddess, the long-bearded father-god, the thunderous dyspepsia of the war-god and so forth – but such an explanation is anathema to religion, as it collapses the house of cards. So an attempt is made to divert attention from inquiring into the ineluctable mystery of the god’s existence – sometimes by making such inquiries a kind of sacrilegious abomination – and to focus more on the god’s commandments. This is a move made by many a staunch Catholic.

I’ve heard such people say that the ten commandments of the Old Testament are clearly the basis of all our laws and morality. I’d like to have a look at them, particularly in terms of explanation. As young children, we’re often given commands – do this, don’t do that – by our parents. These commands generally have an explanation supporting them, which we learn later. But the explanations are essential, and commands without effective explanations to support them are surely a form of tyranny – at least that’s how I see it.
So let’s have a look at these commandments, which are so essential to ‘western’ or ‘civilised’ morality, according to some. I’ve put them in my own words.

  • 1. I’m your god, you mustn’t have other gods before me.
    This has nothing whatever to do with morality as far as I can see. This god says elsewhere that he’s a jealous god, and this is further proof. Catholics gloss this commandment as a commandment against idolatry, but that’s highly problematic because it makes the enormous assumption that the god called God is not an idol. If he’s saying ‘I’m the true god, all the others are fake’, he needs to provide proof. He doesn’t – and presumably makes the arrogant claim that he doesn’t need to.
  • 2. You mustn’t take my name in vain.
    So what is this god’s name? God, apparently. It’s like a marketing ploy, as if MacDonalds got to change their name to Hamburger and could take action against anyone else who used the name. In reality the god now called God was an amalgam of Hittite and Armenian gods, forged into a monotheistic being by elites of the region somewhere around the 7th century BCE. The idea of the commandment is that you should speak his name respectfully. Why? Because he’s God. The only way to avoid a circular argument here is to provide proof of this god’s existence, which hasn’t been done and can’t be done. There’s no morality on display here.
  • 3. The sabbath day should be kept holy.
  • This is fairly arbitrary, the word coming from the Hebrew sabbat, meaning rest, and it’s based on God’s rest day, as he created the universe or multiverse or whatever in six days and rested on the Saturday, according to Judaic tradition, but Christians arbitrarily changed the day to Sunday. Of course no educated person today thinks the world, universe, or whatever, was created in a week, whatever you define a week as, by an ethereal being. Again, this could only have moral effect if you believe in this creation story and the god at the centre of it (and if you believe the god is egotistical enough to want to be eternally remembered and acknowledged in this way).
  • 4. Honour your parents.
  • As a heuristic, this makes sense, but it is not a given. Some parents kill their children, others do irreparable damage to them. The vast majority, of course, don’t. This is a matter of individual cases and analyses. The complexity of parent-child relations is dealt with most profoundly by Andrew Solomon in his great book Far from the tree. I would refer everyone to that book as a response to the fourth commandment.
  • 5. You mustn’t kill.
  • This again is too vague, as it doesn’t deal with self-defence and other exculpating circumstances. It’s also fairly commonplace, and common-sense. It’s easy to find supporting explanations. Nobody needed this commandment to create laws regarding murder and unlawful death.
  • 6. You mustn’t commit adultery.
  • A lot can be said here. At the time that these commandments first appeared, and for a long time afterwards, women and girls were treated as chattels and very often married off against their will, sometimes as children, to men twice or thrice their age. Considering such a context, and considering that contraception was essentially non-existent in those days, adultery was generally treated differently depending on wealth, social status and gender. There might have been an explanation for the law of adultery, but it probably had more to do with property and the status of offspring than morality per se.
  • 7. Don’t steal
  • The concept of private property would have emerged slowly, and would have been interdependent on other cultural developments in the move from horizontally to more vertically based cultural systems. Even so, it’s unlikely that a prohibition on stealing would’ve been novel when this commandment was formulated.
  • 8. Don’t lie
  • the telling of lies to advantage oneself and disadvantage others would have been a problem at least since effective languages developed, and we have little evidence as to how long ago that happened. We certainly know it was long before the 6th or 7th centuries BCE, so there’s nothing new here. Again, though, the commandment is too vague to be particularly effective.
  • 9. Don’t covet (lust after) your neighbour’s wife
  • These last two commandments are about thoughts, which makes them particularly ineffectual. They might be interpreted as advice, which would leave us with fewer commandments to criticise, but even as advice they seem like so much pissing into the wind. And of course the fact that wives and not husbands are singled out is an indication of the particularism of the patriarchal society this commandment addresses.
  • 10. Don’t covet (hanker after) your neighbour’s goods.
  • Again, hardly a profound or memorable commandment, and barely relevant to today’s society. If you’re impressed by your neighbour’s car, for example, you might ask her about it, check out its performance and decide to get something similar yourself. What’s the big deal?

I’ve spent too much time on this, but I simply wanted to point out that, while gods are what religion is all about, they are, or were, also used as explanations. That’s in fact what they were for. And a ‘commandment’ is simply an explanation once removed, because they represent the god’s will. The explanation, therefore, for bad tidings or bad karma or whatever, becomes failure to follow the will and the commandments of some particular god or other.

Nowadays we have better explanations, based on what we know of human psychology and neurophysiology, and of how we work together in societies, as the most socially constructed mammals on the planet. We also know much more about how the physical world works, which has resulted in technological developments of increasing reach and sophistication. The idea that knowing so much more about what we are has no relationship to what we should do – the moral sphere – has always struck me as preposterous. This old is-ought separation was key to Gould’s NOMA thesis. But it’s not only that science’s increasingly far-reaching accounts of ourselves and the universe we live in is essential to our decisions about what we should do. It’s also true that religion keeps trying to tell us what we are. And its account s just don’t stack up, from the broadest scientific perspective. It just fails comprehensively as an explanation.

Written by stewart henderson

March 20, 2020 at 2:58 pm

My current health condition 3: nerves

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I’ve been to see a physiotherapist/sports medicine specialist, on the advice of a couple of people, and I’m happy with the result. It won’t mean an immediate cure, but the session has provided me with hope and a pathway to recovery.

Today and yesterday, the pain has been fairly minimal, after an excess of pain the day before. It seems to be about managing the medication.
So, to the physio. I described my situation in minute detail, describing as best I could the type of pain I felt, its sudden onset, how it responds to head movements and so forth. He very quickly conjectured that it was a nerve problem, which in fact had been my first intuition before I began researching the problem. He described the ‘queerness’ of nerve injury, or nerve impingement as it’s often termed – how damage in one place can be felt in another seemingly unrelated region. Interestingly, it was my description of how, since this condition has struck me, I’ve had difficulty moving my head back (this causing my shoulder pain to increase), and so not being able to gargle with mouthwash – which I do because of my bronchiectasis – it was this description which made him feel more certain that it was a nerve problem. He could be wrong but I think he’s right.

He did a lot of physical manipulation of the shoulder region and gave me advice. Keep up the medication, maintain activity of the shoulder and arm regions – not too much but not too little – and keep the area warm. He gave me some shoulder exercises to do, and assured me things would come good in time. I’ll revisit him next week.
Now, on this concept of impingement. It’s a term that comes up in the literature, and it was used by the physiotherapist today, so I asked him about it. He obliged by giving an explanation that was complex and difficult to follow, much like the material I’ve been reading online about the subject. So I’ll have a go at explaining it to myself.
Nerve impingement is one term among many (e.g pinched nerve, nerve compression, nerve entrapment), which indicates the trickiness of the condition and its description. In my case the suprascapular nerve is probably involved. As Wikipedia puts it ‘the nerve passes across the posterior triangle of the neck parallel to the inferior belly of the omohyoid muscle and deep to the trapezius muscle.’ I don’t know exactly what this means, but it seems to explain the pain at the back of my neck, left side, when I throw my head back.

The posterior triangle of the neck is a technical term with its own Wikipedia page. Here’s an image of it. As can be seen, it connects the omohyoid muscle and the massive trapezius which goes well down the back.
So nerve impingement/compression/entrapment is what it implies – something is impinging on the nerve, entrapping it, compressing it, pinching it. It could be bones, muscles, tendons, ligaments, cartilege, and that just about exhausts the possibilities. Carpal tunnel syndrome, for example, generally involves a pinched nerve in the wrist. The causes of course, are various. It could be a particular injury – but I can’t trace my own sudden onset to a particular injury (which doesn’t mean that no injury occurred) – or physical stress from repetitive work or sports activity, or some rheumatoid problem (which presumably would’ve shown up as some sign of inflammation, and I’ve never shown any signs of rheumatism) – or obesity.

The possibility that this was caused by lawn bowling remains real, if remote. Fascinatingly, when I told the physiotherapist that the only sports activity I’d taken up in recent times was lawn bowling, he asked me if I played at Walkerville – it turns out that he recognised me as he played in the competitions there too – out team had thrashed his only a few weeks ago! He agreed that bowling as a cause seemed unlikely – but being a bowler himself, he would say that, wouldn’t he?

But whatever the cause – and I won’t be bowling again for a while, if ever – the diagnosis and cure are the things, and it’s amazing what a seemingly effective diagnosis can do to calm the – nerves! I feel I can cope much better now, and I’ve had the humbling experience of knowing what severe pain is like. This is important as I’ve tended to be dismissive of the pain of others, with thoughts of ‘low pain threshold’ and ‘get over it’. So, it’s a lesson.

I’ll be returning to the physiotherapist next week, hopefully for the last time. His feeling was that just one more session would be enough, that if I simply followed the light exercise regime he suggested, things would come good. The pain has risen and fallen since then, but there’s been no relapse into anything agonising. I worked at Eynesbury yesterday, a relief day, but hopefully there won’t be any work for a while. In any case Covid-19 means we probably won’t be getting many, if any, students coming in from overseas over the next few months.

Of course, it’s not all back to normal, though I’ll try to get back to regular reading, writing and the like. Here’s a final quote from the Mayo Clinic on my situation:

If a nerve is pinched for only a short time, there’s usually no permanent damage. Once the pressure is relieved, nerve function returns to normal. However, if the pressure continues, chronic pain and permanent nerve damage can occur.

We’ll have to wait and see.


Written by stewart henderson

March 18, 2020 at 2:02 pm