I’m not, I hope, unreasonable. I even hope people who contact me find me pleasant to deal with. I try to be quite generous with my time and attention. I essentially like people and enjoy talking to them. Nothing delights me more than getting a fun message or email. Where I draw the line, however, is with debating. Debating becomes a royal pain in the arse given that I spend a good part of my week writing articles with a strong political bent. It can make my Twitter life hell.
First is the problem of timing. I often write a piece on, say, Monday morning, which won’t appear until sometime Tuesday. By the time the tweets start to appear, it’s probably late evening and I’ll have already moved on. That time at night, my mind is usually elsewhere (a film, a game, or cartooning) and I’ll be in no mood to start defending something I’d written two days earlier. I’m certainly in no frame of mind to start explaining an argument to people who haven’t read the piece they felt so moved to comment upon. Often, in fact, it’s obvious they’re not even addressing the content but the title of the piece. And, as I’m sure you’ve heard other writers scream: we don’t write our headlines.
So, last night I turned off the PC before it all got to me. I’d written a piece which I’d framed as a letter to Lord Sumption, who had appeared across media this past week peddling the Trumpian line about the “cure being worse than the disease”. He’s a respected jurist and was making some particularly harsh comments about police behaviour in recent days. Phrases like “police state” were being casually thrown around. Hitchens had written [that awful piece on Sunday], which he laced with terms like “Stazi” and “USSR”, to make the same point.
My piece to Sumption addressed what he called the “mass hysteria” around the coronavirus and I pointed out that mass hysteria arises when people’s imaginations are taken by tall stories. They are significantly not led by science nor data nor facts. Government responses to the virus are just that and, I think, people have been largely supportive of those measures. What is hysterical, I put to him, is that “police state” argument that has started to emerge on the right of politics, as well as the one that suggests the economic harm now exceeds any harm done by COVID-19. It reached a zenith in Toby Young’s article for The Critic in which he did the brutal maths of human life.
I don’t buy any of that and, what’s only important here, is that the consensus of scientific opinion seems to be with the government position. That doesn’t mean scientists can’t have these debates among themselves (that’s their job) but it does mean, in my opinion, it’s wrong when pundits try to elbow their way in on the action. It’s very noticeable how these pundits are now citing the same material. For example, I had numerous people tweeting or sending me the Hitchens source material I’d already read/listened to/discussed/dismissed a week ago. Here again, I found myself reading the words of Professor Sucharit Bhakdi, former head of the Institute for Medical Microbiology at the Johannes Gutenberg University of Mainz. He’s big in the Hitchens argument and his name is now doing the rounds on right-wing websites: The Conservative Woman, The Daily Mail, Policalite…
Then I’m sent a link to a piece of Reaction – the site I usually write for – which I’d read last week when “the Oxford study” made its first appearance. That was the research that hadn’t been peer-reviewed and which Professor Devi Sridhar, the Chair of Global Public Health at Edinburgh, described as: “clearly flawed”. She tweeted: “Problem with rapid, theoretical epidemiology with multiple assumptions over taking the data we already have from other countries. Only has gotten the press it has bc the label ‘Oxford’ is attached.” That’s the same study The Byline Times did a pretty devastating piece about. You might want to [read it here].
Then there was The Spectator piece written by a retired professor of pathology. It made some interesting points about data but the argument that seems to have excited the right is the one that argues that people with comorbidities were probably going to die soon anyway, so listing coronavirus as the cause is misleading. I haven’t quite got my mind around that one but, then, one retired professor is still just another outlier.
Then I had people pulling me up for my choice of language. I’d written a reply to one tweet and had originally used the word “epidemiologist” three times for effect, but I’d run out of characters. I had then quickly changed them to “virologist” which gave me space. That prompted somebody to send me a tweet explaining the difference between an epidemiologist and a virologist. I knew the difference. I know the difference. But I had naively thought either made my point, that people who aren’t epidemiologists/virologists should listen rather than pontificate. Clearly, I hadn’t. Or, at least, hadn’t for the one person I would now have to write a long explanation of the above.
So, I didn’t bother. I muted the conversation and I don’t intend to look at it again.
Is that laziness or intellectual cowardice? I hope it’s neither. I hope it’s just my way of preserving my sanity. I think it was Suzanne Moore, The Guardian journalist, who tweeted recently when responding to her critics, saying that she doesn’t “write out of nothing”. She meant that she doesn’t simply write without having first done the reading. I like to think I can make the same boast. Writing 1000 words is easy but getting to the point where you *can* write those 1000 words is hard. It means reading, thinking, listening, thinking, scribbling, thinking, revising, thinking… I can spend days with an idea bouncing around my brain until it settles into a shape where I feel like I can explain what I think.
It also means – and sorry if this sounds arrogant but I hope it isn’t – that I’m unlikely to change my mind if you simply repeat the very same arguments I’ve already been puzzling over for at least a week. Does that mean I’ll never change my mind? Of course not. If I have a central belief, it’s that we should be guided by the evidence and the best arguments. If somebody can prove to me that “the cure is worse than the disease”, I will write an article explaining my conversion. I just find it hard to believe that some stranger with no bio and not many followers will be able to achieve that late at night in the space of 240 characters. (I certainly know I can’t meet that challenge. I’ll have spent hours measuring my words for the article. If I couldn’t properly explain my argument there, I sure as hell can’t do it in one or two tweets.)
The other reason I’m unlikely to change my mind is this: the only argument I’m making is that we should be guided by the best science. Most of us writing about this crisis are not experts in the proper fields. That doesn’t, of course, mean that we shouldn’t engage with the science, but the very worst sin would be to pick and choose outlier science that validates our political ideology and then write articles that encourage readers to dismiss government warnings. As far as I’ve seen and read, the arguments from the right do only that. They want the economy restarted and no number of deaths or warnings from doctors and scientists will convince them otherwise.
Lastly, there’s also a matter of energy. Much of the above is repetitive – making the same arguments I’d made in the piece that people hadn’t been bothered to read – but it’s also wearying. I simply don’t have the energy to get into an argument with everybody who responds to something I’ve written. Naturally, there’s ego involved on both sides and nobody wants to back down, so each side would continue tweeting until their supper’s grown so much mould it’s become sentient. In an ideal world, I would sit and listen to knowledgeable people all day long. I’m not so proud that I won’t admit that I can always learn something new. Those people are rare, though, and usually pressed for time. As am I, especially now have a blog to keep.