WE focus almost exclusively on conclusions. We decide that one is right and another wrong before we’ve earned the right to lay claim to any conclusion at all. And they usually aren’t even our own conclusions. For example, people who like the conclusions of the Guardian or the New York Times tend to dismiss the conclusions of the Daily Mail or the New York Post. But conclusions aren’t the only important thing. Destinations make sense only in the context of the journey and with reference to the point of departure.
Where is the starting point? What is the correct starting point?
On November 3, reacting to the news that the UK had approved the Pfizer coronavirus vaccine, Jonathan Barr wrote in Lockdown Sceptics: lockdownsceptics.org ‘Sceptics must be careful to avoid excessive application of the precautionary principle here. Of course, it hasn’t been definitively proved that the vaccine is safe. But then again, it can’t be proved, categorically, that it would be safe to end all Government-mandated restrictions tomorrow and we don’t regard that as a good reason not to do so. It’s about a balance of risk and we should apply that same calculus here.’
‘The problem with this comparison is the starting point. “No restrictions” and “no vaccine” is the correct starting point. The burden of proof is not on lockdown sceptics to show that removing restrictions will be entirely safe. It was on the government to prove they were necessary and effective – which it has never done. The burden of proof is also on the government to show that the vaccine is safe. This comment makes a false equivalency between concern for a vaccine and concern for lifting restrictions. The latter is a position we shouldn’t be in, because we are (or were) free individuals. It grants the restrictions a legitimacy they do not deserve. Let’s not fall into that trap. Our attitude must remain “prove to me that restrictions are necessary” and “prove to me that the vaccine is safe”. But so many have already ceded the ground and are trying to prove to the government that it’s safe to lift restrictions now, that I fear it won’t be long before we find ourselves in the position of having to justify not getting a vaccine.’
Since then I’ve started to see this problem of incorrect starting points everywhere. Twice recently I read or heard the comments of medical experts that sounded very sensible and justifiable until I considered their point of departure. Once I did I couldn’t quite believe what I was hearing.
The first was a CBC article about secret recordings of conversations between the Premier of the Canadian province of Alberta, Jason Kenney, and his medical advisers, including Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr Deena Hinshaw. Until recently Kenney has been virtually alone among leading politicians in Canada for keeping restrictions to a minimum and refusing to shut down the province. A few weeks ago, as his approval rating continued to plummet, he finally capitulated to the pressure, but as this CBC article revealed, throughout the pandemic he had been steadfastly insisting on evidence of the level of danger and necessity before taking such unprecedented measures.
One might think that was a prudent stance for an elected representative to take, but the CBC seemed to think it was self-evidently foolish:
‘A source with direct knowledge of the daily planning meetings said the premier wants evidence-based thresholds for mandatory restrictions that are effectively impossible to meet, especially in an ever-changing pandemic . . . The source said Kenney’s attitude was that he wasn’t going to close down anything that affected the economy unless he was provided with specific evidence about how it would curtail the spread of Covid-19. “This is like nothing we have ever seen before. So [it is] very, very difficult to get specific evidence to implement specific restrictions,” said the source . . . CBC News also interviewed a source close to Hinshaw who said she has indicated that, eight months into the pandemic, politicians are still often demanding a level of evidence that is effectively impossible to provide before they will act on restrictive recommendations.’
But if they’re not basing their restrictive recommendations on evidence, what are they basing them on? The starting point seems to be act first and get evidence later. This might be acceptable in circumstances where the measures taken had no ill effects of their own. But lockdowns have catastrophic effects on people’s lives, and therefore the decision whether to embrace those effects knowingly is one that ought to necessitate a high threshold of evidence to prove the measures are necessary and that they will be effective, saving more lives on balance than they will destroy.
The second instance was an interview that UnHerd’s Freddie Sayers conducted with Swedish epidemiologist Fredrik Elgh of Umeå University in Northern Sweden. Professor Elgh is an outspoken critic of Sweden’s more relaxed approach, recommending harsher measures than those preferred by state epidemiologist Anders Tegnell, and insisting that Sweden should have acted with more restrictions and greater preparedness back in February and March.
‘It’s a very dangerous path when you don’t know how the contagion really acts,’ he said. ‘Before you let anything sweep through the population you have to have knowledge what you actually are doing. And that was not in place in March and April. Definitely not. So it was the lax strategy, whatever its background was, was not good.’ When Sayers pointed out that we didn’t know about long Covid in March and April, he continued, ‘therefore we should have, and we should today, be more cautious.’
The point of departure seems to be, first, that any potential threat to public health must take priority over anything else, even in the absence of evidence of that threat. Being cautious in this case means taking unproven and harsh measures that could theoretically slow the spread of a virus we know very little about, while disregarding entirely any other consideration. The second assumption is that there is nothing to lose by taking precautions. Thirdly, Elgh assumes that the virus is prima facie in the control of the government if he thinks that they have the power to ‘let anything sweep through the population’.
Let’s be clear. Governments cannot control viruses. If viruses spread, that’s because that’s what viruses do, not because governments ‘let’ them. The question is, are there any measures that governments can take that will mitigate the damage a virus might cause? Are those measures proportionate and likely to cause more net benefit than harm? The only people with the legitimacy to make such decisions are our elected representatives, and the only way they can do this is by weighing up the evidence for one particular thing, and balancing it against the evidence for all sorts of other things. This is what Premier Kenney was trying to do, and it’s what Sweden did do, which Professor Elgh thinks was a mistake.
Running through all this is another assumption – that we must listen to scientists and chief medical officers no matter what, regardless of evidence. Almost as if everything scientists say is scientific. But of course it’s only scientific if it’s evidence-based. The legitimacy of science as a discipline is entirely based on evidence. Insisting that we trust the science but not insisting on evidence is a contradiction. If there’s no evidence, the recommendations are not scientific: they are dogmatic. Science has been elevated to a religion.
The essential truth of the matter is that this unlikely society in which we live in mostly peaceful conditions with personal freedom is the correct starting point. The English tradition in particular, where it is a presumption that people can do whatever they like except what the law prohibits, is a rare thing indeed. As Sir Graham Brady said in a recent interview, ‘freedom isn’t an absolute but it should be a presumption, and a very strong one’.
One of the only public figures to maintain this correct starting point is Mail on Sunday journalist Peter Hitchens. He knows what a society without freedom looks like and how precious liberty is. When everyone else is getting it wrong, he is forcing the burden of proof back where it belongs – on those who would remove our freedoms. He persistently calls on the government and anyone agreeing with government regulations to provide evidence that the restrictions are necessary, that they’re effective, and that they’re beneficial. He asks penetrating questions, while avoiding making claims he cannot substantiate. He has not wavered from this stance, which must take tremendous mental discipline.
It’s why he’s loved and hated at the same time. Those who share his starting point recognise the value in his questions, and seek the same answers to justify the disruption and irreversible damage caused to their lives. Those who do not share it do not understand how he reaches his conclusions, for example, that lockdowns are a disproportionate and destructive reaction made out of hysteria and stupidity. They think he’s being callous and uncaring to the victims of Covid-19 because their starting point has drifted so far from his.
The more society strays from the presumption of liberty, the more commentators like Peter Hitchens will look out of touch and delusional. And a growing number of people will take comfort in dismissing his increasingly prophetic warnings as they embrace the very tyranny that he was trying to tell them about, supremely confident in their conclusions but totally ignorant of their own starting point.