Science, statistics and society – The story of a modern coup d’état

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In the last few weeks – now slowly turning into months – everyone around the world has had a set of words and terms cross their ears. “The curve”; “the peak”; “flattening of the curve”; “bending the curve”; “quarantine”; “self-isolation”. Why viewers and readers of news have not yet got bored of the excessive use of these terms is because all of these are uttered at a time when everyone clings to their television screens in the hope of getting the good news of lockdowns being relaxed; the decision of which is said to rely on the facts related to these terms. But the one term we all get to hear in connection with the rest can be called their mother-term: “guided by the science”.

Every politician in the world at the forefront of coronavirus discussions has used the term “guided by the science” numerous times when informing the public of their action plan against the deadly virus. And “every politician” here does actually, truly, unexaggeratedly mean “every” politician and leader of the world; from the most rogue and nonsensible to the relatively less nonsensible, the well informed and educated ones to the least bothered and ignorant, from religious ones to non-religious ones – all leaders claim to be following “the science” in the process of decision making.

With every decision of these world politicians being referred to the science, it has started to appear as if we are no longer ruled by our democratically elected politicians; rather big-headed, unrelenting and generally stubborn dictators have also given way for “the science” to rule their land. Scientists owe this coup and their subsequent newfound rule of the world not to armies, not to military warfare, not to rebellion, but to a virus so tiny that it cannot be seen with the naked eye.

Just like their benefactor, the rule of scientists has swept across the globe, through political borders and geographical boundaries so silently and so smoothly that no one even realised that a revolution has taken place. Such a coup would normally not be called a “bloody” revolution, but let’s stay away from the term for now as some shades of its meaning are too tempting in the given situation.
Not that leaders of all types are following the science, but what is ironical is that they all seem to be receiving some type of advice to suit their needs and agendas. We were always told that for something to be scientific meant that it remains the same across the board, but it turns out that this is not the case. How is it that the World Health Organisation (WHO) – seen as representative of scientific advice in terms of health – holds the opinion that face masks are of no use, Germany is told that they are one of the most effective weapons in this war and the UK is advised – by the same science – that they are recommended for one group of people and not the other?

A whole jumble of jargon has also been heaped on the innocent audience – generally called the general public – the meaning of only some of which we have now started to understand: The R rate, the pathogen, the antigen, herd immunity and many more.
But again, while science is expected to have a single definition for a certain notion, there seem to be varying meanings flying around. Where the R invariably stands for “reproduction” rate of the virus, what constitutes for it to be within the safe-water mark seems too variable. Some countries were told by the science that one was encouraging, Germany was told 0.7 was and UK leadership awaits a signal from scientists.

Social-distancing is understood by the UK scientists to mean two metres apart, WHO thinks one is enough while other scientific bodies see coughs and sneezes having a range of up to eight metres. But all these differing opinions come from the same source: The goddess of science.

With all world leaders blindly following this varying, conflicting and self-contradictory advice, it is now confirmed that the coup d’état has happened, has seen its peak and is now stubbornly refusing to recede; quite contrary to the curve of the deadly (or deadlier) virus.

The army that has backed science in this coup d’état is that of statistics. Every day, when politicians present themselves to their nations in press briefings, they have a scientist and a statistician by their side, the statistician to fuel the bold but wavering strides of the scientist. The statistics are shown on charts and graphs for the public to comprehend how bad the outbreak has got (and how directly proportional the government’s response has been).

The problem with statistics is the same as that with science. By the time we can understand a certain graph, e.g. how good or bad a country is doing in terms of new infections, we are told that this ought not to be judged against “this” axis but actually against “that” axis.

If the public feels slightly happy about the number of deaths falling, and that too on a promising slope, they are told by statisticians that this graph only shows the number of deaths in hospitals and, hence, does not paint the true picture. So, we are told, the number of deaths in all other settings has now been added. As if with a magical touch, the country that seemed to be doing better than many turns out to be the second worst in the world, worst in Europe, and third worst or fourth worst in some other regions, in some other regard on some other scale, on some other graph.

But we still sit and eagerly wait for these statisticians; we still tune in at the set time and still choose to believe what we are told; our thoughts and emotions going up and down with the colourful lines that depict bleak numbers. There isn’t much we can do anyway, but to believe.

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At the onset of the coronavirus outbreak, when these briefings first started, viewers were told for many days that “such and such number of people have died in the last 24 hours”. Jaws would drop and hearts sink by just imagining 800 or so persons, in just one country, in just one day being wiped off the face of the earth by the deadly virus! This was when they wanted everyone to strictly follow the stay-at-home instruction. They got it done.

Then came the next phase when scientists saw the vaccine coming out nowhere in near future but, at the same time, the economy falling to tatters. Something had to be done. Herd immunity could be one option so they fed this advice to both the puppets – the politicians and the media – to change the statement from “… have died in the last 24 hours” to “… deaths reported in the last 24 hours”. Without us knowing, the needle of our emotions was adjusted at a slightly better mark. The fear of “black death” lurking the streets, ready to stab anyone that came its way, turned into it hiding behind corners that one could cautiously walk past and avoid becoming its victim.

When science felt the need to inject fear directly the into veins of society, their statements would say, “Such and such number of those who died in the last 24 hours had no underlying conditions”. Later, when they wanted to reduce the potency of fear in our daily dose, the statement was altered to, “Such and such number of those that are reported to have died in the last 24 hours had no known underlying conditions”. The whole picture changed colours.

When the government suggested that it was immensely important to send children back to school, “the science” suddenly found a “new syndrome in children linked to coronavirus”. Statisticians, like any good courtier, were quick enough to come up with a scary number of children with the infection, diagnosed within a terrifyingly short timeframe. As soon as governments took heed and backed off from considering opening schools, the numbers were made to appear small and the span of diagnosis was spread over a less-scary number of days.

So here we have a society ruled by “the science” and its operations run by the its truly-yours statistics.

The problem is that the public had got used to politicians that changed goalposts as and when it suited them. They were no longer credible. The public had also become wary of religion for its “non-scientific” approach, for its “lack of scientific evidence” and for its “dogmatic rigidity”. They had learned to live in a world that strongly believed in science because they believed that science is the only provable, tangible and progressive reality. They were told that for science – and for statistics for that matter – two plus two would always equal four.

But then came the outbreak of coronavirus ensued by the coup of science. And with it came, for the general public across the world, the shocking realisation that science is not only about formulae but it too has variable doctrines; that these varying doctrines can turn into rigid dogmas as and when “the science” wants things to go its way; that two and two is usually four, but science and statistics can suggest that it is five or six when it so suits them.

Even the most trusted media outlets shattered the trust that the public had in them. In the scientist’s agenda of drilling fear and paranoia into public psyche, news channels showed ICU staff – three or four on each side of the bed – struggling to flip a ventilated patient on his chest; pipes and cords hanging from every part of the body. The scenes were repeatedly shown on television screens, ensuring that they got properly indoctrinated into the viewers’ minds. What they never mentioned was that this is usually what is done to any patient that ends up on an invasive ventilator.

It took weeks before they started to show patients walking back home on their own two feet. All this, to support the scientific advice that the virus is deadly and the minimum havoc it can wreak is to escort one to the ventilator; nothing less.

Over centuries, mankind lost faith in religion and started to believe in science; then it lost faith in politicians, then in bureaucracy and then in social structures. Why? Because the goddess of science asked for this sacrifice. But now, this goddess has turned masochist and seems to be breaking its own bits and pieces apart; its shards piercing, once again, through human belief system.
Science has done a lot of good to humanity. It has played a very important role in making the modern world so productive and efficient. But while playing chess with human society, the pieces of science have tried to move into lines where they do not belong. Some moves have been against the rules.

Now is the time for science to stop and redefine its course. Now is the time for people to regain faith and place it where it belongs.

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