In recondite technical areas, one has to rely on expert opinion. That’s why I’ve always refused to approach the Covid issue from general principles. Nor do I trust views (including my own) informed by popular publications only.
Too many cracker-barrel epidemiologists have come out of the woodwork touting strong opinions for me to wish to add to their number.
Alas, such reticence has drawn the wrath of some readers, who claim, and quite possibly possess, greater technical knowledge than mine.
One of their laments has to do with my excessive credulity. How dare I believe what the experts are saying? After all, they don’t even agree among themselves.
Mea culpa. Being acutely aware of my own ignorance in most areas (other than those in which I’m not ignorant), I do tend to trust the experts. And if their judgements vary, I rely on my own common sense to take sides.
One minor proviso though: for the experts to be trusted, they have to be trustworthy. When they spout arrant nonsense, my innate credulity gets a blow and I no longer know what or whom to believe.
That’s exactly what happened yesterday, when I was watching Sky News. Those who have followed this space for a while know this means I’m in France.
For it’s only here that I watch any TV news at all, appalled as I am by its invariable shallowness, vulgarity and unconcealed left-wing bias. But those English voices on the tube serve as an umbilical cord 400 miles long, tying me to the womb of London.
So I suppress my usual revulsion and watch, at breakfast. As I did yesterday, having managed to beat by a couple of days the travel ban imposed by France on British travellers, a measure more political than medical.
The hysterical reaction of the French government (as opposed to the French people) to Brexit makes me fear that before long they’ll start putting British holiday makers in refugee camps and hold them to ransom. I can’t even discount the possibility of summary executions.
For the time being they voice a fulsome concern about the spread of Omicron, which gives them a pretext for being bloodyminded towards the British. My response to that is strictly second-hand: “And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?”
It’s only one man’s observation, but everyone I talk to in France (and this time around I’ve only so far talked to fellow tennis players) either has had Covid or knows dozens of people who have. I didn’t hear a single such story at my London club, even though infections must be more prevalent there than in my French backwater.
Still, Omicron has appeared in the UK and it is spreading. But how fast and how widely?
Sky News provided an answer to this gnawing question. It emerged out of an interview with a consultant to the SAGE Committee, Prof. Someone-Or-Other (the name didn’t register).
That amiable sixtyish man exuded steely authority leavened with smiley bonhomie. That put me on guard straight away.
“Omicron cases,” he said, “currently number 30,000 and they double every day. And they’ll continue to do so for any foreseeable future.” Normally, when an expert cites precise numbers, I don’t dare question him.
Mercifully, however, I remembered the legend of how chess was invented. When the inventor showed the game to King Shirham of India, the latter was so impressed that he told the man to name his own reward. Gold? Jewels? Palaces?
No, nothing like that, replied the man. Just put one grain of wheat on the first square of the chessboard, two on the second, four on the third and continue to double all the way to the last of the 64 squares. Then give me the wheat and we’ll call it even.
The king laughed, but then got angry. How dare he ask for such a paltry payment? “Give him his sack of wheat and throw him out,” he ordered.
A week later he asked his retainers if they knew where the inventor was. “He is still here, Your Majesty,” they replied. “We are still counting the grains.”
To cut a long story short, at work there was geometrical progression with common ratio 2. It yielded a total number of 18,446,744,073,709,551,615 grains. This is the amount of wheat harvested by the whole world in several decades.
Armed with that knowledge, I calculated on my ten fingers that, if the good professor was right, the whole population of Her Majesty’s realm would have been infected by New Year’s Day. Not even the Black Death could have claimed such a score, and it was much more virulent.
Thus the good professor’s projections can only be described in crude terms, either testicular or excremental. He indisputably was talking rubbish. But does that mean all expert opinion should be dismissed out of hand?
I don’t think so. It only means that expert opinion must be taken with a grain of salt. Or a grain of wheat, if you’d rather.