We’re all epidemiologists now

Covid isn’t only a deadly contagion but also a symptom of another highly communicative disease: institutionalised idiocy.

“I’m entitled to my ignorant opinion!”

This malaise has its own symptoms, such as distrust of (even contempt for) expert opinion, proud ignorance, smugness, debauched intellectual discipline, and a propensity for saying “I’m entitled to my own opinion” and “Let’s agree to disagree”.

It was Aristotle who first observed, and C.S. Lewis who later repeated, that one unfortunate and unavoidable by-product of democracy is a widespread belief that, because all citizens are equal before the law, they are equal in every respect. And, if they are all equal, then so are their opinions on any subject, no matter how involved or specialised.

Such misconstrued egalitarianism (this is a tautology: all egalitarianism is misconstrued, but we’ll let it slide for now) has been elevated to a cult, a surrogate religion our comprehensively educated masses find easier to follow than any other.

Suddenly the opinion of an illiterate believer in multiple universes becomes as valid as the judgement of a Nobel prize winner in quantum physics. Or even more valid actually: the ignoramus’s mind, unsullied by recondite knowledge, is more open to new ideas.

Generally I avoid citing my own example, but this one is germane to the theme. Anyone who can gain access to the Salisbury Review archives from the early ‘90s will find many of my articles dousing the universal enthusiasm about the ‘collapse of communism’.

What was happening, I wrote, wasn’t a triumph of democracy, but merely a transfer of power from the Party to the KGB, fused with organised crime. In the past few years, dozens of people who read those pieces or simply discussed the subject with me at the time have acknowledged that I was right – the evidence before their eyes is hard to ignore.

But they have conveniently forgotten the vehemence with which they argued with me at the time, upholding their right to their own opinion and insisting that my naysaying was caused by a chip on the shoulder. In that spirit, the publisher of a book of mine was fighting every word I wrote about Russia, to which he used to have an ideological attachment.

Then, a couple of years ago, he admitted graciously if begrudgingly that my guess turned out to be lucky. Not wishing to gloat over a fallen foe, I dismissed the surrender. Yet I could have told him there was neither luck nor guesswork involved. I simply knew more about Russia than he did – and, at the risk of sounding conceited, just about anyone else in this country.

In addition to possessing native knowledge of Russia, whose enigmatic nature is, according to Churchill, impenetrable for outsiders, I’ve probably read more books on the country than most professors of Russian studies. And I’ve been following Russian news sources for decades, without missing a beat.

My publisher’s knowledge of Russia exceeded that of an average passer-by randomly plucked out of a crowd, but he still wasn’t qualified to argue with me on the subject. Yet many chaps who knew even infinitely less than he did screamed their disagreement with me at the time – and some still do, but there we’re talking of clinical cases.

None of this is to say that I’m the ultimate authority on the subject – only that I am indeed an authority, and those who aren’t will argue with me at the peril of coming across as ignoramuses with an infirm grasp of what constitutes knowledge.

Epidemiology is an easier subject to learn than Russia, but it too demands vast experience in acquiring and applying a large corpus of knowledge. Such knowledge lies even deeper beneath the surface than Russian topics do. After all, until a year ago stories about epidemics hadn’t exactly been inundating print, electronic and broadcast media.

And yet a staggering number of people insist on proving that a derided Mr-Know-All has been thoroughly displaced as an enunciator of opinions by a Mr-Know-Sod-All. They open their minds wide, empty them of brains and fill the vacated space with the travesty of knowledge they pick up from Google, newspapers or – at best – articles in popular science magazines.

Suddenly they feel equipped to take on professional epidemiologists in polemical jousts. Rather than asking respectfully what the experts think, they pooh-pooh the experts as being biased, in the pay of the state or Big Pharma or generally corrupt. Laudably, these neophytes bring to the task a complete absence or prejudice or indeed any other judice worthy of the name.

One reads and hears ignoramuses pitting their expertise skimmed off the top of news stories with that of men who have devoted their lives to the study and practice of that discipline. The arguments usually end with the sacramental flagship phrases of modern barbarism: “I’m entitled to my own opinion” and “Let’s agree to disagree”.

The blighters don’t even realise how pathetic they sound. By contrast, a friend of mine is a medical doctor, but not an epidemiologist. Even though he’s highly erudite in every branch of medicine, not just his own, he refrains from voicing strong opinions on this specialised discipline – and he isn’t generally known for such reticence.

It hardly needs saying that we can, indeed must, take experts to task, asking them probing questions and querying about their sources. But we can’t argue with them – unless we too have put in the time studying the discipline with professional dedication.

This isn’t about epidemiology, Russian studies, quantum mechanics or any subject in particular. The problem is wider than any of them, and it has left the domain of epistemology or sociology to penetrate those of ontology and anthropology.

The very nature of modern man is changing before our eyes, with his intellect receding into the background. Coming to the fore instead is ignorant, aggressive rodomontade that in the past would have made most people wince. Today they applaud and cheer.

3 thoughts on “We’re all epidemiologists now”

  1. Apart from the last paragraph, which encapsulates a superficial change in behaviour rather than the deeply evolutionary change that its wording implies, this is, once again, a set of “spot-on” observations. Alas!

  2. “wasn’t a triumph of democracy, but merely a transfer of power from the Party to the KGB, fused with organised crime.”

    Not so much the “west” and democratic institutions strong but the Soviet Union weak [except for ICBM and nuke weaponry].

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