Pandemic Observations, Episode 2 by Richard Feldman

3.  The Persistence of Personality and Belief

I wasn’t surprised by the range of pandemic explanations that I uncovered in my research.  In a past blog post, I lamented the realization that consensus reality was a myth.  I had observed that people expressed distinct belief systems or narratives about the world to which they maintained loyalty even in the face of what other people might consider incontrovertible contrary evidence.

My views of the world, including the current pandemic, have been influenced by my father, whose work was centered on the statistical analysis of health data.  In school I studied probability and statistics, essential tools for the attempted practice of an analytical way of understanding the world sometimes called critical thinking or scientific method.  In the attempt to think critically, I’ve tried to recognize the cognitive biases in my thought processes as well as to stay aware of both my past wrong conclusions and my ongoing areas of ignorance.  However, I’ve observed that it’s ultimately impossible to evaluate one’s own thought processes objectively.

So, like other people I’ve brought my personal beliefs and narratives, along with the rest of my personality, to the current crisis.  I have not believed that the pandemic arrived as a sign of coming judgment, the end of days, or God’s wrath, a nefarious lab project, a Bill Gates-headed conspiracy, a 5G wireless side effect, or an astrological alignment.  I have believed, among other things, that:

a.  epidemics or pandemics of pathogens of various sorts (both new and reappearing) have affected humanity periodically over thousands of years;

b.  the onsets of epidemics or pandemics have been somewhat random, although what has happened with them may have been influenced by patterns of living conditions and travel at the time the pathogen appeared; and

c.  societal choices made both before and during epidemics or pandemics has sometimes been a major influence on how they played out.

I’ve been disappointed but not surprised that so many people have stuck with narratives where the pandemic was a consequence of some other thing that they considered more important.  I could understand that buying into a narrative where the disease itself is the major agent has been hard, as the group of so-called experts attempting to explain it to us laypeople have disagreed with one another and steadily changed their stories.  Even some believers in critical thinking and the scientific method must be have been having a hard time dealing with how much the “experts” disagreed with each other.  I’ve been following a series of weekly reports surveying projections of numbers of Covid-19 cases and fatalities by university public health faculty and other knowledgeable people compiled by a couple of biostatisticians at the University of Massachusetts, and every week the numbers have been all over the place, with many of the participants making it clear that they didn’t have a well-defined idea of what was going to happen weeks or months out.  People don’t turn to experts wanting to hear that the experts have no clear idea of the answer.  I’ve thought that this disconnect has been one reason for so many people sticking with non-science-supported narratives.  (On the other hand, I’ve seen multiple plausible analyses that suggested that people have been in better agreement and anti-pandemic campaigns have gone more smoothly in places where politicians have let scientists be the spokespeople.)

I’ve also noted people’s inclination to reject as wrong explanations that they couldn’t understand.  The patriarch of one of our neighboring households assured me confidently that the disease was just a form of the flu.  He and the rest of his household have been strongly anti-mask and have teased me when they’ve seen me wearing one.  Perhaps I’ve envied them in their certainty that they know the answers.  I became accustomed to listening to people speak with authority about things they knew nothing about years ago.  Since the advent of the pandemic, many of those people have continued to embrace the opportunity, but now the stakes have become higher.

Pandemic Observations by Richard Feldman

“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.

“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide.  All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring, Chapter 2, “The Shadow of the Past”

  1. Prologue

For years I’ve inclined toward a somewhat dark and pessimistic view of general arc of human history, a view that I’ve at least partially shared with Miriam.  Both of our worldviews never completely recovered from the sense of chaos induced by the parade of unsettling, sometimes apocalyptic-seeming events we experienced as we came of age during the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Our shared coming-of-age perspectives notwithstanding, for many years after we started living together almost 25 years ago, we had an ongoing debate in which Miriam maintained that human existence was improving overall while I argued that it was getting worse.  I eventually realized that my saying that human existence was getting worse was an overstatement.  (What I really believed was that things were always simultaneously getting both better and worse; however, the faith in long-term improvement that underlay many popular belief systems was not based on reality, but it had the potential to lull people into complacency in the face of a variety of unpredictable threats.)  Eventually, Miriam stopped disagreeing with me, seemingly swayed by the general trend of twenty-first century events.

My view of the historical prospect has always contrasted my predominantly cheery experiencing of day-to-day life.  This predominantly cheery daily existence has probably at least partially been a reflection of my personal temperament, but it has also reflected an awareness that on the whole I’ve been fortunate in both my personal experiences and the times in which I’ve lived.  I’ve lived mostly during times where even large-scale misfortune has been inflicted on a sufficiently local or regional level that it’s been possible for me to avoid it.  Events concurrent with my coming of age as large as the American societal drama that surrounded the war in Vietnam did not end up having a major direct effect on me.

The other side of my awareness that my luck has been good has been the awareness that things could change at any moment.  While not wanting to dump additional misfortune on those coming after me, I have repeatedly wished privately that various bad things would hold off until after I was dead or at least no longer able to notice them.

Although a viral pandemic probably wouldn’t have been the first macro-catastrophe that would have occurred to me to worry about, I imagine that it would have been in my top five.  Over the years I’ve periodically seen reasonable-sounding discussions of the threat of a viral pandemic that would significantly affect the United States.  Therefore, it didn’t come as a total surprise to me to find one finally arriving in my neighborhood and myself having to decide how to deal with this particular time.

So I, like most of humanity, find myself faced with Frodo’s challenge of suddenly having to confront an unpleasant situation not of my own making.  However, unlike in most works of fiction, I’ve become used to the idea that, even facing a worldwide pandemic, we’ve all been going around living in very different stories from one another.  Pretty much every general statement that I might have made about the pandemic I’ve heard or read someone disagreeing with.  Not only does YMMV apply even though our lives have all been dominated by the same thing, it seems that everyone’s mileage has varied.   I’ve found that reflecting and writing has enhanced my understanding of my personal experience; perhaps my reflections will help readers have perspective on their own experiences.

  1. Alternative Views

What do I mean when I say that we’re living in very different stories from one another?  From what I consider reliable sources, I’ve learned that seemingly tens of millions of Americans believe that:

  1. The coronavirus pandemic and associated economic fallout are signs of coming judgment, a wake-up call for us to turn back to faith in God, or both;
  2. the coronavirus pandemic and global economic meltdown are evidence that we are living in what the Bible calls the ‘last days’; or
  3. COVID-19 was created in a laboratory either intentionally or accidentally.

Less popular but still well-documented views are that COVID-19 is a conspiracy against anti-vaxxers spearheaded by Bill Gates, that it’s caused by 5G wireless networks (seemingly most popular in the United Kingdom, where arsonists have been enthusiastically trying to destroy the 5G infrastructure), that it’s caused directly by climate change, that it can be explained by astrology, and that it was originally brought to China by an American, most likely a cyclist competing in the World Military Games in Wuhan last fall.

From reading about these alternative views, I could understand why a lot of people haven’t really cared what Anthony Fauci was thinking and that my beliefs were probably only shared by a relatively small minority.  However, over the years I’ve adjusted to the idea that most Americans are living narratives that don’t particularly agree with mine. Even if they don’t respect my belief system, I’m still fond of it.

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Editor’s note: Expect a continuation from this writer later this month. Miriam’s Well is delighted to welcome back Richard Feldman as a favorite blogger! It’s hard for me to find “good” things during the pandemic–but his writing is one of them. Plus his presence as my spouse.