Today I learned that my local government has decided that the criteria has not yet been met to justify relaxing the rules of social isolation and lock down of non-essential activities (private businesses and public amenities).
There were no established rules for justifying the extraordinary restrictions on the general population, especially of younger and healthier people, for the expressed benefit of a small population of vulnerable people. The restrictions apply to people who will never though their normal activities come into contact with anyone in the vulnerable population.
An example is the prohibition of bars and clubs that cater mostly to the young adults, and generally do not attract the vulnerable population at all. These establishments are either closed, or restricted to allow such small numbers of patrons that the business loses its appeal that made it profitable in the first place. The thinking is that some of their young adult customers would live with or frequently come in contact with their more vulnerable relatives. This thinking has never been justified in the local area that has a large transient population, who moved from their distant homes to take jobs in the area. Most people who make use of these no-forbidden social establishments have apartments they have to themselves or share with similarly aged and similarly healthy roommates.
So far, this population has accepted this situation. This is not too surprising because they are mostly empathetic minded, willing to follow a decree that has the appearance of adding to the greater public good. Alternatively, they are too socially conscious to risk criticism for objecting to this decree.
What bothers me most is the exclusive focus on the immediate goals of the social good that is the postponement of illnesses with positive test results for this virus. There is not enough attention of the consequences on even the near future.
As mentioned above, the initial declaration required much less justification than we are imposing on the lifting of that declaration. In earlier posts, I resigned to the fact that the initial policies were at least reasonable given the initial uncertainty with early results indicating that this was a once-in-a-century type pandemic in terms of the harm it would cause. Critically, the initial policies were justified by the lack of contrary information to balance or to negate the catastrophic early evidence.
We accepted at the time that we did not have enough information to be certain and decided to error on the side of extreme caution. The problem is that once our forms of government make any policy, for whatever justification, the policy becomes permanent.
To change a policy, we need extraordinary evidence to prove it is no longer needed even when there was virtually no evidence to prove it was necessary in the first place.
Now that we made a policy of social isolation and commercial lock-down, it is now established scientific fact that it is necessary. To remove it, we need to prove the nonnecessity of that what never was proven necessary in the first place.
As I have written here in earlier posts, I think there is a fatal flaw in our current government in that it now presumes that science is permanently true (until disproved) and thus any law passed is automatically permanently relevant if it based on science at the time.
Modern government structure comes out of the enlightenment era that recommended government guided by science. While the same faith in science persists today, I believe that the modern interpretation of science is very different than how our ancestors viewed it. More specifically, the modern approach equates science with scientists well versed in published papers. The earlier approach equates science with the broader public applying science in the form of rational reasoning to explain observations in their present world. In earlier generations of our government, everyone could be a scientist so that no one is a scientist in the way we think of it today.
Today, we select a particular few scientists and trust in them to tell us what the science is. In the past, we debated each other’s rational conclusions about the evidence, and eventually came to a tentative agreement about some common ground that could be the basis of a new law.
That difference in dynamics in concluding on the operative science has implications on the results. Trusting a select set of scientists to make a recommendation will result in a recommendation that has no real debate on that recommendation. The lack of debate heightens our confidence that the recommendation is scientific and thus permanently reliable.
This is how we get to the current situation where we must continue a policy that suspends the social and professional development of young people because we previously decided that this is the only way to save the lives of the vulnerable who already reached the peak of their social and professional credentials available in this lifetime. The recommendation came from just a few select scientists out of the entire world’s population. The recommendation is permanently true even as we gather abundant evidence that undermines that recommendation now.
I believe an earlier generation would have long sense abandoned the initial policy. Even if they would have accepted at first that the policy was prudent, they would have reached that conclusion during a period of lively and free debate where many dissenting and compelling arguments. The very first proclamation would have been very tentative from the very start. The population would be eager to replace that policy at the earliest opportunity when evidence undermines that policy. In my view, that point occurred a month ago. We should have canceled the entire lock down once we observed that the disease had infection rates and mortality rates similar to recent pandemics that we survived through without needing these restrictive policies. Furthermore, this particular outbreak threatens the younger population much less than those earlier pandemics and infected younger populations are much less likely to spread it to vulnerable populations than those earlier examples.
Another example of the first scientific conclusion becoming permanent is the observation that this disease is spread from person to person. Immediately, we concluded that everyone was susceptible, and that anyone could be a spreader. As a result, everyone has to stand shouting-distance apart and wear masks and minimize their companionship.
Meanwhile, more data makes it apparent that the spread is mostly within peer groups. Those who are most vulnerable to the disease caught their disease from similarly vulnerable peers. Those who are less vulnerable to severe complications caught the virus from their less vulnerable peers and likewise spread the virus to those same peers.
The evidence suggests that there is minimal cross infection between the most vulnerable and the least vulnerable. To the extent that is true, it negates the justification for continued lock down and social isolation.
There is clustering of the death cases involving assisted-care centers, many of which support populations with various levels of assistance. Some of the residents will have freedom to pursue their leisure outside of their community and bring back with them what ever they may pick up. The spread would then be from one resident to another.
Earlier it was proposed that the infection came from younger relatives during visits. Personally, I think this was just conjecture based on past illnesses and on the plausibility. I hear that most of the early cases traced to Europe suggests strongly that the virus came from someone who recently returned from an extended European vacation. Similarly, the cases traced to Asia probably came from one of the vulnerable population returning from an Asian trip. These likely leisure travels are likely by someone closer in age and vulnerability to the rest in their community.
It remains mysterious as to how the disease actually spreads. We presume that person-to-person transmission somehow involves some mutual contact. First came the proposition that people picked it up by touching surfaces contaminated by someone else. This led to the recommendation of frequent hand washing and surface disinfectants. Second came the idea that the infection could spread by droplets expelled from sneezing or coughing, so the solution was covering the face. Next came the idea that the infection can come from normal aerosols from breathing and thus we need to stay 6-13 feet apart.
My impression is that all of these explanations are conjectures or just-so type stories. We can imagine this being a possibility so we accept it as proven science. I am not aware of any of these being proven to be a significant contributor to the spread or that any of the counter measures are actually effective in terms of reducing the new cases.
I mentioned in an earlier post an impression I picked up where the spread was caused by extended exposure with an infected person. In particular, it appears to spread from conditions common with extended conversation or augment. Both cases tend to be long in duration. Relaxed conversation typically involves people in very close proximity. Argumentation may be further apart but with raised voices and exaggerated speech. While proximity plays a role, the important factor is the longevity of the engagement.
For a virus infection, all it takes is a single virus to infect one cell. It is conceivable a single virus sitting on some counter top may transfer to a hand, then to face, then to nose, then to the inner lining to infect something. I don’t doubt that this might actually happen but it is rare. On the other hand, a lengthy conversation presents a multitude of opportunities for the transfer to take place.
If that is the case, then most of the restrictions we currently have are not necessary. Most social and commercial encounters do not involve lengthy conversations, or if they do, there can easily be special accommodations of distancing and shielding just for these cases.
That would still leave in place the suspicions of socializing spaces such as bars or clubs. For that I would argue that the risk is irrelevant because the spread is within a peer group that is not vulnerable to serious complications. Assuming that there is very little risk of spreading from the healthy younger peer group to the older vulnerable one, then there is no need for restrictions for these locations as well.
If the most significant path to infection involves extended conversations, there is an elevated risk of cross-group infection in the case of young people visiting their more vulnerable elderly relatively. For the most part, these visits are shorter and less frequent than the vulnerable population than conversations within the vulnerable’s peers. We could have specific recommendations for such visits without inconveniencing the rest of the population.
It is primarily within multi-generational households where continuous contact between the different vulnerability groups is unavoidable. There can be specific recommendations to address this. However, it is easier to make a policy for situations that are this specific compared to making a single policy for entire population. For example, I heard one proposal is to make available affordable or even free alternative accommodation for the wage-earner or errand-runner members of the household to minimize exposure for the ones who remain at home. This is costly, but probably not as costly as the current sequence of universal economic impact payments and guaranteed business loans for businesses forced to be closed. There are likely other alternative solutions that may be similarly practical for this one type of scenario.
The point of this post is not to propose policies. Instead, I’m more interested the difficulty we are facing in terms of finding a solution. I believe this difficulty comes from the very nature of modern governments being constrained to make scientifically-based decisions, where we define as scientific whatever is recommended by a few selected scientists.
We have allowed our governments to become as inflexible as the height of medieval theocracies that demand some ritual to entice the favor of the beneficent divinity or to dispel the evil spirits. Lately, the medieval parallel has escalated with the demand for universal conformity: anyone deviating from the recommendation needs to be punished or even banished so that the rest of the population may be covered by the recommended policy.
The inflexibility comes from the same foundation: that there exists a source of eternal truth that is knowable by someone, and we trust we have identified that person who can access that truth. We must follow the revealed recommendation because it comes from something eternal. We must follow it indefinitely even if we never had to follow it before.
In modern times, this comes from the faith in science defined as coming from selected learned scientists. The lack of diversity in the selected group of scientists reinforces our confidence of their correctness. These are equivalent to medieval priests, or ancient oracles. They have access to the Universe’s eternal truth.
I proposed a government alternative that relies instead of data and urgency. I initially described this as a fantasy government because it relies on data technology that is not yet available (but it closely approaching). Lately, I have been seeing a lot of parallels with form of government we once enjoyed. That historic government had basically the same institutions we have now, but instead of being guided by science as pronounced by a select group of credentialed scientists, it was guided by a notion of science that comes from everyone applying science to observations to find the best rational explanation of current events.
That earlier concept of science closely resembles the machine-implemented use of data and urgency. Both place priority on the most recent observations over preexisting explanations. Both permit proposing new explanations even when they directly contradict previous explanations, as long as the new one better accounts for the present observations.
In this particular scenario, we are facing a virus. We are observing that the behavior of this virus is contrary to what we have learned from a long history of science about earlier viruses. Instead of clinging onto the old theories, we could permit ourselves to come up with a new theory. We may even declare that this is not a virus at all, thus freeing us to come up with a completely different solution based on what we are seeing right now.
When confronting new challenges, our current system of government forces us to follow a prepared playbook based on old science. We created the playbook long before the first observation of this virus, but we are confident of the relevance because we determined that it is a virus.
It appears to me that the playbook is failing to deliver on its promises. Our reaction is that the playbook must be correct, so we need to move on to the next chapter when the first chapter fails to solve the problem. By now, we are probably on the 10th chapter, still stubbornly following the guidance of old science.
In this system, each new observation is a test as to what to do next according to the old science. As a result, we don’t permit ourselves to propose new science based on these observations. Anyone who does propose new theories is dismissed as a conspiracy theorist and he is banned and condemned if his theory is compelling.
I believe our ancestors approach science-guidance very differently. They held a higher suspicions about the reliability of established science as a result of their recent memory of past theories being demonstrably proven wrong. There was culture that even celebrated the discovery of new science that is well defended with the currently available evidence. I believe this came from there being a culture that encouraged everyone to participate in the practice of science and collect of new evidence that undermines old science.
This older culture is similar to the automated government of data and urgency. The automated approach emphasized data representing recent observations from reliable sensors of objects that are not biased by preconceptions.
When I first thought about automated government by data, I quickly realized that it must also include the criteria of urgency. To make the best decisions, the system needs data that is uncontaminated by preconceived science. Because rules are based on science, the enforcement of those rules biases the objects of observations. People obeying a law will give the impression that this is normal.
The current example is the rule about social distancing, social isolation (stay at home), mask-wearing. For the past month or so, we are collecting data about human behavior. Based on that data alone, an algorithm may conclude the human nature is solitary, distrustful, and avoidant. As a result, any new rule would act to preserve this state of nature and we would end up exactly where we are now: thinking this is the new normal that will define the rest of our lives.
The earlier model of discovery of new science (in contrast to the current model of recovery of old science) would not be so easily convinced that suddenly humans have become like spiders or octopuses, content to live in isolation and fearful or even immediately aggressive toward anyone that comes near.
Urgency solves this problem. A proper government accepts that any ruling based on current understanding is inherently tentative. A government should never be confident of its rules being permanently relevant.
In my proposal, any rule would only exist when the public’s demand for urgent action crosses a threshold. In addition, any such rule would have an automatic expiration date a short time into the future. When the rule expires, the population needs to reassert its expression of urgency. Chances are that over the course of a few weeks, the sense of urgency will decline to the point where there is no compelling reason to extend the rules. I think that is where we are now.
If there is a follow-up urgency after the first rule expires, the complaint is possibly very different, possibly demanding a very different rule, including one that completely contradicts the first rule. We may be approaching that with the realization that we are endangering our collective future.
In the intermediate term, we may be facing economic collapse or large scale food shortages.
In the longer term, we may be facing an aging population that we compromised by restraining them in their youth. They will be less healthy and more prone to disease. Alternatively, they will be less prepared with experience and training that they could have been, while future challenges demand that they be even more prepared.
Another example is the rapidly approaching decision as to whether we should mandate a rapidly developed mRNA vaccine of a type we never before have used, and we will not allow ourselves the benefit of long-term safety studies (in particular of acquired immune deficiency, auto-immune diseases, sterility, or organ or brain damage). At the point of the very first emergency rules, our current government already accepted taking this risk in order to get a vaccine as quickly as possible. It appears we are now condemned to follow though with this plan even though the vaccine does not exist and will not be available for many months. There is no opportunity to reevaluate the urgency of this crisis or prudence of risking the future to preserve the past.
Urgency may be a very effective check on a poorly decided decision. The government can only continue to act when there is an urgency to act after the first act expires. We would now be at the point of expiring the initial policy. If there is a continued sense of urgency demanding some action, we would reevaluate the desirability of mandating a vaccine that has no testing for long-term deleterious effects, especially among the younger generations who will have to live with the consequences for the prime of their lives.
The additional benefit of algorithmic government is that we democratically choose the algorithm. In particular, we decide democratically what are the best measures of merit for the algorithm to optimize. It is likely our current leaders and selected scientists will choose measures that are consistent with current policies and plans: to best eliminate the virus and to preserve past investments. The result of the population would also have their say, and I think most would prefer metrics that maximizes the benefits they will enjoy in the future, and that minimize the burdens and handicaps they will have to endure.
Mandatory vaccinations with a vaccine that has no time to test for safety benefits mostly the people in charge, and their age cohorts. Furthermore, the same age group will likely exclude themselves as needing the vaccine: the older populations are less likely to have the desired immune response and are more likely to experience short-term bad results. Forced immunizations of the young will produce the desired herd immunity making it less likely for the elderly to catch it. If there are any bad effects of the vaccines on this younger group, those may not appear for many years into the future, probably too far out to establish the cause-and-effect of the vaccine.
A government by data and urgency with a democratically selected algorithm for the objectives to optimize would not pursue a mandatory global vaccination program. When considering the future when the effects of this particular virus are no longer a concern, the priority needs to be on the health and readiness of the remaining population to advance their welfare and to avoid catastrophe. From that perspective, there are far better things to pursue than developing a vaccine to be globally mandated.