A recent article (23 March, 2020) by Eric Schliesser and Eric Winsberg (“S&W”) in The New Statesman: America, “Climate and coronavirus: the science is not the same,” attempts to make the case for separating climate science – specifically the facts about Anthropogenic Global Warming (“AGW”) – from the COVID-19 pandemic.i This pandemic is driven by the “novel coronavirus,” but I will stick to just “COVID-19.” Superficially, there is nothing wrong with wanting to do so since these are, after all, different topics. But just because the two subjects are non-identical does not mean that lively and effective analogies cannot be drawn between them. It is this last point that S&W wish to deny. Their attempt is specious on multiple levels, and I wish to address a few of those levels here.
To address this speciousness, we must understand the nature of the argument that S&W are making.ii The abbreviated form of their argument goes something like this: (1) The facts about COVID-19 remain highly questionable, as the amount of data is severely truncated by lack of testing, and significantly variable methodologies of evaluations across international, and even local, lines. (2) This lack of data makes any comparison with, or analogy between, COVID-19 and AGW an error. (3) Further, the paucity of adequate data regarding COVID-19 requires us to view any and all such claims with great skepticism. (4) Such skepticism, in fact, that dramatic action which entails substantial economic impact ought to be rejected wholesale.
Their inter-related claims are specious because points 1 – 3 (and, in particular, many of their variously related sub-claims) are either misleading or simply false. But even if we were, out of some peculiar act of generosity, to grant points 1 – 3, point number 4 remains a blatant argumentum ad ignorantiam. Given what is at stake, both in terms of the humanity (which S&W largely disregard), and the economy (for which they express care, but offer only a superficial analysis), the failure of number 4 is altogether indefensible. Turning to the details, as these claims are fairly deeply integrated the one with the others, I’ll not try to tease them apart per se, but deal with them alternately depending on which point merits greater emphasis at the moment.
Rather ironically, S&W begin their piece by quoting Jimmy Kimmel who noted, “the geniuses who told us not to worry about coronavirus are the same geniuses telling us not to worry about climate change.” They want us to see this as a false equivalence because, “there has been no independent audit of the Covid-19 “evidence” circulating in public discussion.” In contrast, they assert that, “human-induced climate change is a hypothesis that is 100 years old, and it has been carefully studied, criticised, audited and looked at by a host of different disciplines.”
Having characterized themselves as “philosophers of science,”iii they rather disturbingly trample over a number of salient facts. First of all, what Jimmy Kimmel said is manifestly true, regardless of whether any deeper analogies hold between the COVID-19 pandemic and AGW. Secondly, decrying the lack of peer-reviewed evidence outright ignores the evidence that is available. Their complaint is akin to sitting in a car that is stuck on railroad tracks with a freight train bearing down on it, and decrying any precipitous action because a full-scale NTSB study of the matter is yet forthcoming. Without overwhelming evidence that the train can, in fact, stop in time, the only rational course of action is to “precipitously” abandon the car and move a safe distance from what has every sign of being a catastrophic collision.
Further, they fail to even mention the enormous amount of science that already exists regarding epidemiology and coronaviruses in general. Recall, per this last, that COVID-19 is caused by the novel coronavirus; the SARS and MERS epidemics were also due to coronaviruses. A useful survey can be found in Ed Yong’s discussion in The Atlantic. (Yong is one of the science writers for that magazine.) The simple fact of the matter is, we do know how to stop pandemics, and the dire situations in Lombardy, Italy, and New York City tell us more than enough about what happens when we do not.
Thus, when S&W go on to insist that, “Given the disparate level of scientific scrutiny applied to climate change and Covid-19, it is misleading to compare the industry-financed and bad-faith questioning of climate science, to questioning the rapid response of scientists using limited models of the coronavirus and drawing on data that is at best incomplete,” they are themselves presenting a misleading and inaccurate account of the science as it stands. Further, the accusations S&W level against current work on the COVID-19 pandemic is exactly what those “bad faith” actors leveled and continue to level against AGW and climate science. S&W insist on emphasizing “disparate scrutiny” even as they systematically disregard the enormous levels of scrutiny that is being applied and is already in place regarding contemporary epidemiology.
In addition, S&W’s description of AGW as an “hypothesis” also merits examination. As self-proclaimed “philosophers of science,” they presumably know what they said amounts to a casual dismissal. As they are presumably well aware, an hypothesis is simply an opinion that has the possibility of being tested, while a theory is an hypothesis that has been tested. AGW, like evolution, is a theory. But by claiming AGW is merely an hypothesis, they leave themselves wiggle room to apply the same standards of doing nothing with regards to matters of climate change that they insist be applied to the COVID-19 pandemic.
And doing nothing is their recommendation. Of course, they offer the usual, sober insistence that more study is required. But just as with AGW, “study” is what one does to avoid taking concrete action while pretending otherwise. Here we come to the crux of their argument: “On the political side, shutting down entire economies and shuttering people into their homes will have profound consequences. Public health research points to a strong correlation between a good economy and good health.” They argue that this mitigates against taking any drastic, economy effecting actions. Yet they are writing this even as the entire healthcare system in Italy is collapsing under the weight of the COVID-19 pandemic. It scarcely seems possible that S&W are unaware of this. And where, in their argument, is so little self-reflection on their part as to wonder about what happens to an economy when a pandemic is permitted to run riot? Perhaps this is something else we need to “study” prior to taking any “precipitous action”? Despite the fact that we already know what happens when sufficient intervening action is not taken in time?
Now, as noted, S&W present themselves as sober players here, yet it is nearly impossible to avoid comparing their arguments with the pearl-twisting bloviations of such conservatives as the Lt. Governor of Texas, or the rightwing radio personality Glenn Beck, both of whom argued that people – vulnerable people – should be ready and happy to lay down their lives for the economy. Funny how the people making these claims never have to actually put up, sacrificing themselves or one of their own. One might be tempted to say the same thing about S&W, with their eagerness to throw millions of people under the bus in the name of saving the economy, with not a shred of evidence that doing so will make the economy better. And it bears repeating, since S&W skipped over it without so much as a sideways glance: Italy already shows us what happens when you fail to aggressively address the pandemic at the early stages. The US and UK are not far behind.
And it is worth pausing, here at the end, to notice just how much “the economy” (more specifically, capitalism) has contributed to manufacturing this crisis. Rampant, unregulated capitalism is the order of the day in the wet markets of Wuhan, where COVID-19 first established its foothold. Rampant, barely regulated capitalism, is the order of the day in the United States, which does not even have a “healthcare” system; rather, we have a medically based system of maximized profit-streams. And those profit-streams are not maximized when there is any slack in the system (such as, additional beds, equipment, and providers for when a global pandemic occurs.) S&W insist that protecting this system is more important than dealing with its failures. They make this clear in their repeated insistences that we must not act to damage this economy until we have absolutely indisputable facts. They don’t use those words as such, but just as with their weak, damning with faint praise of AGW, it seems hard to avoid the conclusion that there is no amount of evidence that will elevate any crisis to the level of a theory.
Italy has far more hospital beds per capita than the US, and their failure to contain the pandemic at its early stages has left that system – a significantly better system than we have in the United States – overwhelmed. Italy’s economy is imploding because they failed to act soon enough and aggressively enough, yet S&W insist there is no evidence and we must not act in a hasty manner. Their measured rhetoric and sober presentation does not change the fact that what they are arguing for is a formula for unparalleled catastrophe, and they are basing this conclusion on their own argument from ignorance, the argumentum ad ignorantiam.
i The authors do not use the term AGW, nor do they really speak of “facts” in relation to it. I’ll have more to say on that momentarily.
ii All quotes from S&W are copied and pasted from the article at the URL above, confirmed April 6, 2020.
iii Their mini-bios at the end of their article only say: Eric Schliesser is a Professor of Political Science at the University of Amsterdam and Eric Winsberg is a Professor of Philosophy at the University of South Florida. For the record, “political science” is not “philosophy of science” in any conventional sense of the term, and “professor of philosophy” is too vague to even evaluate. My CV would no doubt be even less impressive than either of theirs, but neither am I trying to impress my readers with my self-proclaimed authority (except, perhaps, in matter relating to Whitehead and process philosophy.)