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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics

Monday, April 6, 2020

Coronavirus Goofs of Biology Authorities in Early 2020

If you were to ask a scientist what the main role of a scientist is, he or she might refer to some role such as discovering truth. Probably not many scientists would mention a role of acting as a watchdog, to alert the public of danger. Historically speaking, scientists have had a rather mixed and spotty record when it comes to alerting the public of dangers. Let us look at some of their hits and misses.

Case #1: The Danger of Nuclear Weapons

One of the gravest threats to the survival of humanity has been nuclear weapons. Scientists don't have a strong record of warning about this danger. During the 1930's it became increasingly clear to physicists that knowledge about nuclear physics might lead to a new class of weapons far more destructive than any the world had known. But scientists did little to alert the world to such a danger. In fact, they brought the danger to reality by designing the first atomic bombs. 

After the first nuclear weapons were developed using nuclear fission, it then became increasingly clear that a vastly more powerful type of bomb could be created, one using nuclear fusion. But scientists did little to alert the world to the danger of the development of the hydrogen bomb. Scientists worked to bring hydrogen bombs into existence.  By the 1960's the world was filled with hydrogen bombs that threatened the survival of mankind. Scientists did very little to alert us to the growth of this existential danger, and were largely responsible for its existence. 

Case #2: Atomic Testing

The above-ground testing of atomic weapons was a public health disaster that probably led to more deaths from cancer in the US  than all the people who will die from coronavirus in the US. The article here states, "New research suggests that the hidden cost of developing nuclear weapons were far larger than previous estimates, with radioactive fallout responsible for 340,000 to 690,000 American deaths from 1951 to 1973." This was an area where our biologists should have been front and center, shouting loud and clear about the risks of radioactivity from atomic testing.  But they did little to alert the nation to such a peril.  

Case #3: Global Warming

Scientists have had a generally good record about alerting us to the severe danger of global warming. But there are two reasons why their record on this topic is much less than ideal.

One reason is that when recommending how scientific funds should be spent, scientists continue to advocate that the lion's share of  scientific funds should be spent on their pet projects, rather than on researching topics such as renewable energy, energy-reducing technologies or geoengineering technologies that might one day help reduce global warming. Some of these projects (such as the 4000-meter LIGO gravitational wave detector) are bad from a global warming standpoint (requiring large-scale carbon emissions), and do nothing to help any human beings. Another reason is that scientists have often lived lifestyles with a high carbon footprint, and very many of them have jetted around the world to engage in scientific conferences that are not really necessary given the possibility of web-based teleconferencing and information sharing on the Internet. Very effective group collaboration software (allowing interactions as effective as at a conference) has existed since the late 1990's.

Imagine if scientists were to say, “We are so worried about global warming that we advise: loot the budgets of our pet projects to help fight it,” and also, “We're so worried about global warming that we are going to permanently stop jetting around the world to attend international scientist conferences, to reduce our own carbon footprint.” That would send a stronger warning message than scientists are currently sending on the topic of global warming.

Case #4: The Opioid Crisis

One good thing about the response of scientists during this coronavirus crisis is that scientists have started to pay full serious attention once the US death toll reached more than 1000.  We can hardly say that about the response of scientists to the opioid crisis.   A CDC web page tells us "From 1999–2018, almost 450,000 people died from an overdose involving any opioid, including prescription and illicit opioids." A graph on the same page tells us that most of these deaths came from overdoses of "commonly prescribed opioids."  Did the chemists and biologists give us a full-throated warning about this danger while the first 25,000 of these people died? It seems that we hardly heard much of anything from the scientific community until the death toll exceeded 50,000.  When I try the biology preprint server I see there are only 58 papers with "opioid" in the title (almost none directly involving the opioid overdose crisis), but 1647 papers with "evolution" in the title. Similarly when I search the "quantitative biology" papers at the arXiv server, I find only 7 papers with "opioid" in the title, but 954 "quantitative biology" papers with "evolution" in the title. From such ratios should we conclude that the opioid-related death of almost 450,000 Americans has been a matter of relatively little interest to our biologists? 

Case #5: Genetic Engineering

Many people think that genetic engineering poses a grave danger to mankind, threatening millions or conceivably even billions of lives. The danger lies in the possibility that someone might create and unleash a genetically engineered organism that might be more effective than the Black Plague in killing people. Think of all of the trouble and global disruption caused by the current coronavirus pandemic. Then ask yourself: how many times worse could it if we were facing a far more frightening genetically engineered virus or bacteria?

The record of scientists about warning us of the topic is poor. On one hand, we have the fact that many of today scientists are heaping scorn on those who urge caution about genetically modified organisms used in agriculture, sometimes senselessly branding such people as “anti-science.” No one who belittles caution about genetically modified organisms is going to be a credible source of warning about the perils of genetic engineering. There is also the fact that many scientists have been enthusiastically advocating a particular technology called CRISPR that makes genetic engineering much easier. Our scientists have been actively playing around with modifying the genomes of some microbes (as discussed here). When people warn that  millions may one day end up dying from some genetically engineered virus or bacteria, courtesy of some technology such as CRISPR,  such voices of caution are sometimes dismissed by biologists who want to "play God." So all in all biologists are doing a poor job of warning about the danger of genetic engineering, a danger some of them seem to be increasing every year by their dangerous fiddling with genomes.  Technologies such as CRISPR open the door to basement "bio-hackers" who might create a global pandemic as easily as a basement hacker creates a new computer virus. 

Case #6: Deaths by Auto Accidents

The annual death toll in the US from auto accidents started to climb sharply around 1920, reaching a level of about 50,000 deaths per year by 1966. A death by an auto accident can be coldly considered as a case example of physics, and can be described by Newton's famous equation f=ma  where f is the force, m is the mass of a body and a is the acceleration of the body. You might think that physicists would have some strong interest in auto accidents that have claimed a total of millions of lives, perhaps by immersing themselves in possible ways to reduce this toll by applied physics. But it seems that physicists and other scientists didn't do much to warn us about this danger that kills so many.  Nowadays a typical physicist seems like someone far more interested in exotic speculations such as string theory and dark matter than in any application of applied physics that might reduce tens of thousands of annual US auto deaths.  

Case #7: The Current Coronavirus Crisis

As of April 2, 2020, scientists were projecting that coronavirus would kill between 100,000 and 250,000 in the United States. There is a false narrative shaping up on cable TV, one suggesting that US scientists gave very strong early warnings about the peril of coronavirus, and that such grave warnings were ignored by a "head in the sand" government.  But the truth is that some US biology authorities had a gigantic failure to properly alert the public of the peril of coronavirus, in crucial weeks such as late January 2020 and early February 2020, when scientists had ample reason for giving the strongest warnings. 

Let us look at the early record of the very hard-working nice-guy Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, a figure who we have seen at many White House press conferences, and on countless TV interviews in recent weeks. The public may so strongly identify this sincere and well-intentioned figure with coronavirus that they may think of him as "Mr. Coronavirus." But it seems that in late January 2020 and early February 2020, this "Mr. Coronavirus" acted rather like "Mr. Overconfidence."  During such a critical time, Fauci repeatedly spoke as if coronavirus wasn't very much to worry about. 

In a January 27, 2020 interview on Fox News, Fauci stated this about coronavirus spreading in the United States (at the 1:42 mark): "The risk right now in the United States is really low." This was a rather absurd opinion for any forward-looking epidemologist to have held on such a date. It was already known on that date that coronavirus had spread widely in China, causing massive numbers of infections, and severe economic disruption. It was also known that very many people had traveled from China to the US during the weeks that the virus had been raging in China. Although only five US individuals had been identified as having the virus as of January 27, 2020, there was every reason to suspect that the actual number of people in the US with the virus was many times greater, because of all the travel from China to the US. And there was every reason to suspect that the virus would spread in the United States.  In the interview, Fauci stated that the Chinese were "shutting down cities with a total of 35 million people" because of the virus. How could any epidemologist aware of such a fact have claimed in the same interview that "the risk right now in the United States is really low"? 

Rather than raising a loud-and-clear alert to the graveness of the threat, Fauci said that in the interview "I'm saying don't worry, and don't be afraid."  He failed to alert the public health system to the coming danger on January 27 in any kind of noticeable way that would attract attention. 

By mid-February it should have been all the more clear to any forward-thinking epidemologist that the United States faced a grave peril from coronavirus. On January 30, 2020, the World Health Organization had officially declared coronavirus a "global health emergency." But Fauci predicted on February 3, 2020 that there would be a "dampening down" of US coronavirus cases. And in a February 17, 2020 interview with USA Today, Fauci suggested that coronavirus was nothing much to worry about in the US.  

coronavirus error

In the USA Today article from February 17, we read: "Fauci doesn't want people to worry about coronavirus, the danger of which is 'just minuscule.' " There was no excuse for failing to warn at this date (February 17, 2020) that there was a very large chance that the United States would face a crisis as grave as the massive crisis that had struck China in the previous month.  The next day Fauci made similar comments about coronavirus, saying the risk for the US public was "really relatively low" and telling people "right now, don't worry about it." 

Although Fauci crowed in an overconfident manner that the CDC has "the best epidemologists in the world," the Center for Disease Control displayed similar stumbling. In a February 13, 2020 statement, the CDC issued an extremely weak statement about coronavirus that failed to attract much of any attention, saying nothing more alarming than this vague assertion: "There will likely be additional cases in the coming days and weeks." By February 26, 2020 the CDC had detected evidence that coronavirus was spreading in the US. But rather that issuing a very strongly-worded "scream bloody murder" warning that people would pay attention to, the CDC issued a mild-sounding statement failing to alert anyone of a grave public threat. The statement made it sound like the government had coronavirus under control.  The statement said, "Unprecedented, aggressive efforts have been taken to contain the spread and mitigate the impact of this virus." Immediately thereafter, coronavirus started spreading massively all over the place in the United States. US biology authorities were caught with their pants down. 

No one should be very surprised to learn of such overconfident blundering. For the statements were made by biology authorities, and biology authorities have for many decades been massively guilty of overconfident blundering on the most serious topics.  Our overconfident biology authorities have been telling us for many decades that they understand the origin of species and the origin of humanity, even though they do not have any credible theory to explain the origin of any complex biological innovations in organisms, and do not understand the origin of life, and cannot give any credible explanation as to how a speck-sized fertilized egg could progress to become a full-organism. When such overconfident biology authorities suggest that fine-tuned protein molecules and super-organized cells are explained by something in the works of Darwin, a 19th-century thinker who was completely ignorant about the enormous fine-tuned complexity and organization of protein molecules and cells, it is like someone telling you that smartphones or digital computers were explained by something in the works of the ancient thinker Plato.  The same overconfident biologists (who cannot even give us a credible explanation of how a eukaryotic cell is able to divide into two) claim that they know that brains store memories and that brains produce our consciousness and creativity and thinking.  But they have no robust evidence for such claims, and there are many powerful reasons for rejecting them. 

On the supreme questions of biology, our biologists are "understand very little" people who pretend to be "understand so much" people.  Our legend-spreading academic institutions are the high stilts that prop up many laughable knowledge pretensions of our biologists.  Just as medieval churches acted to propagate and preserve the dogmas of the Catholic Church, our colleges and universities act to propagate and preserve the belief system of academia, a system of dogma that consists of so many dubious and unproven articles of faith.  And just as the medieval church was active in censoring contrary beliefs, modern academia pretty much has a de facto system of censorship under which a host of inconvenient observations and intelligent viewpoints are excluded from the journals, textbooks and oral presentations of colleges and universities.  During their heydey Soviet commissars should have been envious of the degree of thought control and belief regimentation going on in US universities and colleges.  

Even long after coronavirus started to spread like wildfire in places like New York City, quite a few US biologists and medical authorities taught the senseless doctrine that average people should not be wearing masks to protect themselves against the disease. US Surgeon General Jerome Adams incorrectly stated on February 29 that masks are "not effective in preventing general public from catching coronavirus."  But we read here the opposite:

"Studies on the 2003 outbreak of SARS — a cousin to the coronavirus that causes Covid-19 — found that masks alone were 68 percent effective at preventing the virus. By comparison, washing hands more than 10 times a day was 55 percent effective."

Adams even made this preposterous claim about coronavirus: "You can increase your risk of getting it by wearing a mask if you are not a health care provider." On March 8 Anthony Fauci stated, "There's no reason to be walking around with a mask," and used goofy "hazard of face masks" logic similar to that of Adams. There were many good reasons for not holding such misguided opinions, discussed here.  It is a simple uncontestable historical fact that surgeons have been using masks to prevent infections for more than 70 years, so it is only through sophistry that one can argue that the spread of a virus would not be inhibited by the general public using face masks.  A recent scientific study tells us, "In the case of coronavirus, masks stopped both routes of transmission: both droplet and aerosol - the number of viral particles in the sample fell by several orders of magnitude." That indicates you'll transmit or get 100 times fewer virus particles by wearing a mask. 

After weeks of Anthony Fauci saying that you don't need to wear a face mask, as coronavirus showed explosive growth in the US, Fauci finally began to change his tune. He stated on April 1, 2020 that "if, in fact, a person who may or may not be infected wants to prevent infecting someone else, one of the best ways to do that is with a mask," that "much more broad, community-wide use of masks outside of the health care setting is under very active discussion at the task force, " and that "the CDC group is looking at that very carefully.”  By April 2, 2020 the mayors of both New York City and Los Angeles had finally got around to telling people that everyone should wear some type of face covering when going out outside. And on April 3, 2020 the sluggish Center for Disease Control (CDC) finally got around to recommending that US cititzens wear face coverings outdoor, contrary to what Fauci had been recommending throughout most of March. The US Surgeon General Adams promptly recanted his previous position on face masks.   

On April 3, 2020, a new page on the CDC web site stated,  "CDC recommends wearing cloth face coverings in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain (e.g., grocery stores and pharmacies) especially in areas of significant community-based transmission."    They thereby reversed what they had long been teaching on their website, where up until April 3 they had stated the foolish advice, "You do not need to wear a facemask unless you are caring for someone who is sick." 

When we saw the news media repeat the foolish February and March recommendations that some major US biology authorities made on this topic (that there was no need for typical people to wear face masks), it was a case of people senselessly  parroting some authority pronouncement rather than using a little common sense, which goes on very frequently in news media coverage of biological topics. 

As for claims about there not being enough masks for everyone,  I may note that if biology authorities had properly informed us of the urgent need for face masks late in February, there would have been plenty of time to have manufactured all the needed masks for both medical personnel and the population in places with high rates of coronavirus such as New York City. One major reason the manufacture of masks did not surge enough is that our authorities were unwisely claiming that such masks were not needed for non-medical personnel. 

Meanwhile the World Health Organization continues its senseless recommendation against face masks for the general public,  which it tries to back up by utterly dubious claims such as this:  "Key to remember, say WHO officials, is that coronavirus is spread by droplets and not airborne transmission." At the same time, we read at the web site of the leading science journal Nature this quote: 'In the mind of scientists working on this, there’s absolutely no doubt that the virus spreads in the air,” says aerosol scientist Lidia Morawska at the Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane, Australia." This is additional evidence of scientists dogmatically pretending to know things that they don't really know. One of these two scientific authorities is dead wrong, but dogmatically teaching falsehoods with smug assurance. 

As shown in this video compilation, often in February and in much of March a Dr. Drew on television and radio made statements minimizing the importance of coronavirus, including a statement on February 8 saying, "It's not gonna happen," when someone suggested the possibility of 1000 coronavirus deaths in the US. (The US death toll from coronavirus as of April 6 is about 10,000.)  I concede that the erring authorities listed above were trying their hardest and had good intentions, and you couldn't ask for a nicer and more hard-working fellow than Dr. Fauci, a man who deserves the best of fortune because of previous distinguished accomplishments. 99% of those involved in fighting coronavirus are blameless.  We should have the greatest admiration for the heroic medical professions "in the trenches" fighting for the lives of coronavirus patients, often at risk to themselves. It's a shame that some pivotal US figures couldn't have been proper watchdogs in late January and February, so that more could have been done to prepare for the current tidal wave of infections. A question we should ask is: what good is having an expensive watchdog if the watchdog is so late in barking, and if the watchdog's bark (at the critical moment) is so feeble that no one pays attention to it? 

Another question we should ask is: when our biology authorities fail to give us the right answers for weeks or months to such elementary questions as whether face masks should be generally used during a pandemic, or whether a virus very massively infecting one country should be expected to spread to another country receiving very many visitors from the first,  then why should we have any confidence that biology authorities have given us the right answers to almost infinitely more complex and subtle questions such as those involving the origins of life, complex biological organisms, and human minds? 

So far the overconfidence of dogmatic biologists has merely been spiritually and intellectually disastrous, causing the masses to be indoctrinated in many false ideas and unbelievable beliefs about the most important questions relating to the nature and origin of life and the nature and origin of man and mind. But if biologists are allowed to play around to their heart's content with genetic engineering technologies such as CRISPR, the overconfidence of biologists may also before long become physically and economically ruinous to most of us, if there ever escapes from a gene-splicing lab some genetically-engineered virus or bacteria, which might easily result in a pandemic ten times worse or a hundred times worse than the current coronavirus pandemic. 

Postscript: The Reuters news agency has a lengthy "Special Report" here entitled "Johnson listened to his scientists about coronavirus - but they were slow to sound the alarm." It discusses the poor performance of scientists in alerting British prime minister Boris Johnson (now gravely infected with coronavirus) about the dangers of a coronavirus pandemic.  We read the following:

"Richard Horton, a medical doctor and editor of the Lancet, said the government and public health service wasted an opportunity that month [February 2020] to prepare quarantine restriction measures and a programme of mass tests, and procure resources like ventilators and personal protective equipment for expanded intensive care. Calling the lost chance a 'national scandal' in a later editorial, he would testify to parliament about a mismatch between 'the urgent warning that was coming from the frontline in China' and the 'somewhat pedestrian evaluation' of the threat from the scientific advice to the government."

Reuters should do a similar lengthy Special Report on the similar incompetence that occurred in the United States, discussing some of the items I have mentioned in this post. 

The World Health Organization's blunder in this matter was gigantic. From the beginning of the global coronavirus pandemic around March 1, 2020 to June 2, 2020, the World Health Organization senselessly taught on its website that there was no need for ordinary people to wear face masks as a global pandemic raged. A meta-analysis published in the leading medical journal The Lancet on June 2, 2020 concluded that "face mask use could result in a large reduction in risk of infection." This was an analysis of studies that had already been published.  A CNN story on this meta-analysis says, "The chance of transmission without a face mask or respirator (like an N95 mask) was 17.4%, while that fell to 3.1% when a mask was worn." The World Health Organization's disastrous blunder of telling people they did not need to wear face masks during a pandemic is an example of the stubborn persistence of errant biological dogmatism, something that we see all over place in biology. 

Post-Postscript: On June 6, 2020, after 362,000 people had died from coronavirus, the World Health Organization finally came to its senses, and reversed its ruinous position on face masks that it had been teaching as the coronavirus spread like wildfire across the globe. After months of teaching us that only medical personnel needed to wear face masks, the World Health Organization finally reversed its position and stated on June 6, 2020, "In light of evolving evidence, WHO advises that governments should encourage the general public to wear masks where there is widespread transmission and physical distancing is difficult."  There was no sudden revelation that prompted such a thing. The evidence for the effectiveness of face masks was right there during the crucial months of March, April and May 2020, while the WHO was teaching the folly that ordinary people did not need to wear face masks during a pandemic.  How many of those 362,000 would have been spared if the WHO had not been guilty of stubbornly erring biological dogmatism? 


  1. As I understand it, we are currently doing nothing to prepare for an EMP (electromagnetic pulse) event, that could in an instant destroy our electric grid and computer systems. Preparing for this would cost far less than the $2 Trillion being earmarked for Covid-19. An EMP event would, by many estimates, kill NINETY PERCENT of ALL AMERICANS within 12 months after occurrence. It would take decades, or more, to rebuild, during which time, foreign enemies would have their way with us. And guess who produces our major electric grid components? China.

  2. I can think of three different potential calamities we haven't done enough to prevent or protect against: (1) nuclear terrorism caused by someone getting some highly enriched uranium and making it into a bomb; (2) the EMP event you mention; (3) an asteroid collision.