serious questions for churches

The question I would ask churches that are re-opening without masks or distancing, but with lots of congregational singing, is: How do you think infectious disease works, exactly? How do you think COVID–19 is transmitted? What’s the theory you’re operating on?

I’m going to assume that the leaders of such churches believe that infectious diseases exist, that there are illnesses that pass from person to person via contact or proximity. I am also going to assume that they believe that COVID–19 is one of these infectious diseases.

I wonder how many such leaders are aware that health organizations all over the world — not just American organizations run by Trump-hating libtards — generally agree about how COVID–19 is transmitted? See for instance this poster from the Japanese Ministry of Health:


And perhaps they have read about the dramatic and terrible rate of illness among the members of this community choir?

Given all the information available, I’m wondering what they actually believe — not just about what their rights are, or about what they should be allowed to do — but rather about this disease. Some of the more likely options:

  1. It’s all fake news, even that thing from Japan. There’s nothing to worry about, COVID–19 is no worse than the flu. All those reports of death? FAKE NEWS. Massive conspiracy concocted by global elites.
  2. Some of it is true, but the dangers are dramatically exaggerated by the global elites, we’ll probably be fine. Also, masks don’t work.
  3. It was very dangerous, but it’s all over now — the President wouldn’t be telling us to open up if it weren’t safe to do so.
  4. It’s still dangerous, but we’re putting our trust in God, counting on Him to protect us.
  5. It doesn’t matter whether it’s dangerous or not. If we perish, we perish. We may all get sick, we may all even die, but we’re not supposed to count the cost of following the Lord.

My guess is that the churches choosing to open — when they can; some that want to are now forbidden to do so — are using any and all of the above options as needed. Theirs is a castle with many mottes and many baileys. I don’t believe that churches re-opening for business-as-usual, or seeking to re-open for business-as-usual, have assessed the evidence and made prudential judgments in light of that evidence. They have decided to act on what they want to do, and then will employ whatever ex post facto justifications seem best in the moment, according to the arguments marshaled against them.

So we should expect to see any of the five defenses listed above, and perhaps others I have neglected, deployed from once moment to the next, even though those defenses aren’t necessarily consistent with one another. The answer to my initial question, then, is that the leaders and members of such churches will believe whatever at a given moment seems useful to justify acting on their desires. ’Cause in much of America today, that’s how we roll.


In a new and extra-special edition of his newsletter, Robin Sloan writes about why he likes texts that have “a modular structure, an accelerated pace — a bit of TV’s DNA grafted into the capacious form of the book.” And he thinks about how this kind of writing, as exemplified by Georges Simenon’s brief, arrowing Maigret novels, court the world of pulp:

And while the utter disposability of a lot of pulp (culturally as well as physically) isn’t appealing, some of its other characteristics are VERY appealing. Speed! Unpretentiousness. Accessibility. And seriality, of course: the feeling of discovering the first installment in a series and, if you like it, zooming forward, absolutely devouring it, until you join the mass of readers who are caught up, waiting for the next release.

And then he says, “Okay, so, for many years, I’ve thought, wouldn’t it be wonderful to produce something with that shape? — an ongoing series of relatively small pieces published at a steady clip, gathered up later into something substantial.”

I find this thought both interesting and appealing, and I want to expand it. because Robin is also helping to write a video game, creating his own video game, sending little stories in the mail … and I wonder whether the idea of many “small pieces published at a steady clip, gathered up later into something substantial” might encompass not just pieces that are published in the familiar genres of fiction but might also extend to other genres and even other media altogether. You could end up with something like a multifaceted jewel, a body of work that has a kind of thematic integrity, but an integrity that might be discernible in full only by the person who made it.

But maybe to some considerable degree by the most sympathetic and attentive of readers/viewers/listeners/players. Owen Barfield once wrote of his friend C. S. Lewis, “There was something in the whole quality and structure of his thinking, something for which the best label I can find is ‘presence of mind.’ If I were asked to expand on that, I could say only that somehow what he thought about everything was secretly present in what he thought about anything.”

A consummation devoutly to be wished, as I think about my own career anyway.

Bruce Sterling has just announced that he’s wrapping up his 17-year run on his blog. I’m going to quote at length:

I keep a lot of paper notebooks in my writerly practice. I’m not a diarist, but I’ve been known to write long screeds for an audience of one, meaning myself. That unpaid, unseen writing work has been some critically important writing for me — although I commonly destroy it. You don’t have creative power over words unless you can delete them.

It’s the writerly act of organizing and assembling inchoate thought that seems to helps me. That’s what I did with this blog; if I blogged something for “Beyond the Beyond,” then I had tightened it, I had brightened it. I had summarized it in some medium outside my own head. Posting on the blog was a form of psychic relief, a stream of consciousness that had moved from my eyes to my fingertips; by blogging, I removed things from the fog of vague interest and I oriented them toward possible creative use….

A blog evaporates through bit-rot. Yet even creative work which is abandoned and seen by no one is often useful exercise. One explores, one adventures by finding “new ground” that often just isn’t worth it; it’s arid and lunar ground, there’s nothing to farm, but unless you venture beyond and explore, you will never know that. Often, it’s the determined act of writing it down that allows one to realize the true sterility of a silly idea; that’s how the failure gets registered in memory; “oh yes, I tried that, there’s nothing there.”

Or: maybe there is nothing there yet. Or: it may be ‘nothing’ for me in particular, but great for you. “Nothing” comes in many different flavors.

What I find interesting is how Sterling thinks of the whole set of writing venues, from private notebook to blog to published fiction and nonfiction, as a single endeavor, each element of which is necessary but not in predictable ways. And what those elements are necessary to is the development of his own thinking.

I think what Robin Sloan and Bruce Sterling in their posts are pointing me towards, whether they mean to or not, is a different way of looking at these matters. Maybe the really important thing is not whether an idea gets published, or the genre or medium in which it makes its way into the world, but the integrity of my Gedankenwelt, my thoughtworld. A kind of Wittgensteinian reorientation in which publication may happen, but whether it does or not is effectively external to the real project.

I’d like to get to that posture of serenity and unconcern, but instead I spend a lot of time worrying over the relations among the various kinds of writing I do. And it occurs to me that the major impediment to my achieving what I have just decided to call Wittgenzen is the publishing industry.

Now, to be sure, and without any doubt, the publishing industry has been very good to me. I am enormously grateful to my agent and my editors for bringing my voice before the public. But one thing the publishing industry, for understandable reasons, doesn’t like is to pay for something that has been made public, even in part, somewhere else. The more I write about something on this blog, the lower the chance that I will be able to sell a more-fully-developed version of it to a publisher.

And yet blogging, for reasons Bruce Sterling has laid out, is good for thinking, for my thinking anyway. To borrow a metaphor from my friend Sara Hendren, who borrowed it from engineering, blogging is a kind of sketch modeling: something more ordered and structured than notebook jottings, and less fixed and complete than a published book. Moreover, blogging is formally networked in ways that neither notebooks or books are: each post is linked not only to the online writings, or images, or films that it interacts with, but also via tags to other similar posts. Properly executed, a blog can approximate Walter Benjamin’s Arcades project, for reasons suggested by Eli Friedlander in this essay on Benjamin. Or, to put it another way, a blog is a Wittgenzen garden.

So here’s my situation: the more I write at this blog, the less opportunity I will have to publish my work in book form; but also, the more I write on this blog, the better I will think. I still believe in lateral thinking with seasoned technology; I am still trying to put myself in a position where I don’t know where I’m going. But it’s not only easier, it somehow feels more responsible to take advantage of my publishing opportunities, which so many people would love to have. (Also: cash money.)

As those posts I just linked to will show, I’ve been going around in this circle for years now. But one of these days I’m gonna figure it out. One of these days I’m gonna take the plunge into the who-knows-what of Wittgenzen. These posts are here to give me courage and wisdom for that day.

enlightenment for ninepence

I know you didn’t ask — and you’re not going to read this anyway — but all the same, I have some advice for those of you who are going around proclaiming that COVID–19 is no worse than the flu, maybe not as bad as the flu. What I see you doing is looking for somewhere, anywhere, where the death rate seems to be small, and then declaring that that is the official universal death rate, on the basis of which you deny that anything truly serious is going on. And then you stop looking for data, because you’re no Lew Archer.

What I’m asking you to do is to act like a grown-up.

Don’t just cherry-pick the one number that seems to fit your narrative. Do a comparative study. Look at numbers from all over. Add and divide.

Discover how many people have died in this country from COVID–19 and over what period of time. Now compare that to deaths in the last few flu seasons, and ask yourself this: How long is a flu season? This page might give you a hint. Do the adjustments to correct for differences in the lengths of time you’re looking at, because that’s what grown-ups do.

Don’t just ask how many people die. Reflect also on the costs, both human and economic, of people spending extended periods in hospitals. Look at the evidence for COVID–19’s damage to lungs and to other organs. Do some more addition. Do some multiplication. Get out your calculator if you’re straining your brain.

Read something like this article by Ed Yong. Look at all those links. Follow them up, see what evidence he is citing and where the evidence comes from. This is the work of a grown-up writer. Try to imitate it, as best you can.

There’s a lot about this situation that we don’t know, and there are many things that we may never know. But there is a metric shitload of data out there for you to consult and reflect on. Consult it.

C. S. Lewis’s old tutor, whom he called Kirk or Knock or The Great Knock, was an irascible old Ulsterman who would regularly get exasperated by people who lacked intellectual discipline and even basic curiosity. He would sometimes say to such people, “You can have enlightenment for ninepence but you prefer ignorance.” That’s you. You can do better, and God help your sorry-ass soul if you don’t try.

the seductions of prediction

Derek Thompson is an outstanding journalist, but this piece strikes me as way premature. I mean, good heavens, we’re not even two months into our current order. Even the Italian lockdowns only started in late February, and the shelter-in-place directives in American cities several weeks later. The most essential questions about the long-term effects of COVID–19 — How much long-term damage does it do to people who survive it? Will it weaken in the summer months? Will it come back in the fall, and if so, how strongly? When will we get a vaccine, and how effective will the vaccine be? — remain unanswered, and only when we have answers to them will we have any reasonable sense of the long-term effects on the economy. This is an article that simply should not have been written.

But everyone’s doing it, I guess. The seductions of prediction are irresistible. Note how Thompson regularly slips from the conditional — “The year 2020 may bring the death of the department store”; “The pandemic will also likely accelerate the big-business takeover of the economy” — to the unconditional: “Many of these spaces will stay empty for months, removing the bright awnings, cheeky signs, and crowded windows that were the face of their neighborhood. Long stretches of cities will feel facelessly anonymous.” It’s hard to tell whether these alternating verb forms reflect different levels of confidence, or whether Thompson just gets caught up in the mug’s game of prophecy and forgets to hedge his bets. I suspect the latter.

But in any case, if I were the world’s greatest computer hacker, I’d inject some code into stories like this that would insert, every five sentences, William Goldman’s justly famous and transcendently wise line: “Nobody knows anything.”

thinking during Covidtide

Content warning: the second half of this post is mainly for my fellow Christians 


For me, this Covidtide has been an unwelcome opportunity to revisit the experience of writing my book How to Think. Again and again my reading in these past two months has drawn me back to that book’s themes. On my Pinboard page, a good many of the links tagged covid19 are also tagged HTT for “How To Think.” (HTT is a tag on this blog too: see the bottom of this post.) 

Three themes of that book, focusing on the sources of erroneous thinking, have proven to be especially relevant to this moment: 

  • The “Repugnant Cultural Other” 
  • The sunk costs fallacy
  • The necessity of finding people who are trustworthy to think with 

The RCO. I borrow that term from the anthropologist Susan Friend Harding, and you can find a nice summary of the ongoing relevance of the concept to anthropology here. To understand the phenomenon (though without the term) you might also look at this superb post by Scott Alexander. In times of crisis people desperately crave moral and practical clarity, and one of the most efficient means of achieving such clarity is by designating an Outgroup, an Other, which you find repugnant, so you can take your bearings by opposition. This can be seen everywhere — see these quotes from a recent Wall Street Journal piece for an international perspective — but I have been especially distressed to see it among my fellow Christians, who think that if academics and people on CNN are saying that the coronavirus is dangerous then it must be fake news. 

Sunk Costs. I recently wrote about this problem at some length here, so I won’t repeat myself. I’ll just add that this also is universal, and related to the RCO problem. If your moral framework is built upon your opposition to an Other, then it will be very hard for you to let go of, or even modify, a narrative that you’re so heavily invested in. 

Whom to Think With. Again and again in my book I emphasize that we cannot “think for ourselves,“ that we always think in response to and in relation to others, and so the real challenge for all of us is not to become independent from others but rather to find the people who are most trustworthy to think with. When people let their thinking about the coronavirus, and responses to it, be guided by TV networks desperate for viewers and websites desperate for clicks, they are not choosing their interlocutors wisely. 

Again, these three sources of cognitive error interact with one another, and interact as certain combinations of drugs do to magnify and multiply consequences. You can see how this destructive multiplication works, especially among conservatives and Christians, in several anecdotes told by my friend Rod Dreher in this post. You can see Christians who are driven by enmity invest their whole lives in a narrative of binary opposition and then choose to think, or “think,” only with those who share that investment, that enmity, and then dismiss any countervailing evidence as “fake news.“ 

It’s tragic when this happens to anyone, but it’s especially tragic when it happens to Christians, who are supposed to be known for their compassion, their kindness, their self-sacrifice, their love of God and neighbor. But if you listen to the Christians whom Rod quotes in that post, you’ll see that a very different theme eclipses all of that stuff: They talk ceaselessly, not about love or service or obligation, but about their rights. (Never the rights of others — only their rights.) As Rod, in response to this talk, rightly says, 

Mother Teresa, speaking about abortion, said, “It is a poverty to decide that a child must die so that you may live as you wish.” Along those lines, we might say, “It is a poverty to decide that old people, those with weak immune systems, obese people, and others must die so that you may live as you wish.” 

Allow me to emphasize once more a recurrent theme on this here blog: We are looking here at the consequences of decades of neglect by American churches, and what they have neglected is Christian formation. The whole point of discipleship — which is, nota bene, a word derived from discipline — is to take what Kant called the “crooked timber of humanity” and make it, if not straight, then straighter. To form it in the image of Jesus Christ. And yes, with humans this is impossible, but with a gracious God all things are possible. And it’s a good thing that with a gracious God it is possible, because He demands it of those who would follow Jesus. Bonhoeffer says, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” He doesn’t bid us demand our rights. Indeed he forbids us to. “Love is patient and kind,” his apostle tells us; “love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” Christians haven’t always met that description, but there was a time when we knew that it existed, which made it harder to avoid. 

We are unlikely to act well until we think well; we are unlikely to think well until our will has undergone the proper discipline; and that discipline begins with proper instruction. Maybe Christians who want to act wisely and well in this vale of tears should start by memorizing 1 Corinthians 13

the post-truth thought leaders at work

Giorgio Agamben

The other thing, no less disquieting than the first, that the epidemic has caused to appear with clarity is that the state of exception, to which governments have habituated us for some time, has truly become the normal condition. There have been more serious epidemics in the past, but no one ever thought for that reason to declare a state of emergency like the current one, which prevents us even from moving. People have been so habituated to live in conditions of perennial crisis and perennial emergency that they don’t seem to notice that their life has been reduced to a purely biological condition and has not only every social and political dimension, but also human and affective. A society that lives in a perennial state of emergency cannot be a free society. We in fact live in a society that has sacrificed freedom to so-called “reasons of security” and has therefore condemned itself to live in a perennial state of fear and insecurity. 

Rusty Reno

That older generation that endured the Spanish flu, now long gone, was not ill-informed. People in that era were attended by medical professionals who fully understood the spread of disease and methods of quarantine. Unlike us, however, that generation did not want to live under Satan’s rule, not even for a season. They insisted that man was made for life, not death. They bowed their head before the storm of disease and endured its punishing blows, but they otherwise stood firm and continued to work, worship, and play, insisting that fear of death would not govern their societies or their lives. 

I find this convergence quite interesting, and wish I had the time to trace the intellectual genealogy that led a post-Heideggerian, quasi-Foucauldian continental philosopher and a traditionalist Catholic to make precisely the same argument. Reno’s contemptuous dismissal of the value of “physical life” echoes Agamben’s “purely biological condition,” his famous concept of “bare life,” while Reno’s attack on “a perennial state of fear and insecurity” echoes Agamben’s “perennial crisis and perennial emergency,” his equally famous “state of exception.” (One common ancestor, I think: Carl Schmitt.)

But for now I’ll just note that perhaps the strongest obvious link between them is indifference to the truth of their historical claims. What Reno got wrong about the American response to the Spanish flu I mentioned in an earlier post; for a refutation of Agamben’s claim that a sense of emergency in plague time is a new phenomenon, see, for instance, this post by my friend and colleague Philip Jenkins, and Anastasia Berg’s critique. When the facts get in the way of the narrative, print the narrative. 

UPDATE: One brief thought: We see here an excellent example of what happens when you over-extend a plausible thesis. For both Agamben and Reno technocratic modernity is really really Bad — that’s the plausible thesis! — so when they see uncomfortable social constraints occurring in the reign of technocratic modernity they think that technocratic modernity must, perforce, be the cause of those uncomfortable social constraints. So they instantly assume that earlier societies did not respond to plagues in the way that we do. But, it turns out, the primary factor shaping social behavior in time of plague is not technocratic modernity but rather the actual transmission of infectious disease. Imagine that: human behavior shaped not by ideology but by plain old, unavoidable old, biology. 

motte and bailey and coronavirus

Nicholas Shackel

A Motte and Bailey castle is a medieval system of defence in which a stone tower on a mound (the Motte) is surrounded by an area of land (the Bailey) which in turn is encompassed by some sort of a barrier such as a ditch. Being dark and dank, the Motte is not a habitation of choice. The only reason for its existence is the desirability of the Bailey, which the combination of the Motte and ditch makes relatively easy to retain despite attack by marauders. When only lightly pressed, the ditch makes small numbers of attackers easy to defeat as they struggle across it: when heavily pressed the ditch is not defensible and so neither is the Bailey. Rather one retreats to the insalubrious but defensible, perhaps impregnable, Motte. Eventually the marauders give up, when one is well placed to reoccupy desirable land.

For my purposes the desirable but only lightly defensible territory of the Motte and Bailey castle, that is to say, the Bailey, represents a philosophical doctrine or position with similar properties: desirable to its proponent but only lightly defensible. The Motte is the defensible but undesired position to which one retreats when hard pressed.

Scott Alexander has done a great job of explaining the widespread relevance of the motte-and-bailey tactic. And it is a tactic that is getting a heavy workout these days, especially from certain parts of the Christian Right (especially its Catholic-integralist, nationalist-fundamentalist, and snake-handling Baptist wings.) Here’s how the conversations go: 

A. We’re not going to practice any sissified “social distancing” — we’re followers of Jesus, and ours is not a spirit of fear. We’re not afraid to die! We know we’ll go to be with the Lord! 

B. Okay, that’s fine for you, but what about all the people you might infect? What if they aren’t ready to die? What if they’re not even Christians? And anyway, should you be making that decision for them? 

A. Ah, those people aren’t going to die. This thing is basically just the flu, and the whole panic has been whipped up by the media to discredit the President. 

A’s first statement is the bailey, his second the motte. First he makes a bold show of defying death, and then, when his position is challenged, he avers that death isn’t at all likely. But that’s a completely different position. “People of faith should not fear” bears little resemblance, as a moral claim, to “People who are in no real danger should not fear.” The second position acknowledges what the first denies: that wisdom requires discerning the dangers of different situations and adjusting your behavior accordingly. (I cross my driveway without looking but I wouldn’t cross a highway during rush hour without looking.) Not adjusting your behavior according to risk is the first principle of True Faith in A’s initial statement; but, sensing that that stance won’t hold up to even the most cursory scrutiny, he beats a quick retreat to the motte of “No real danger here,” which is at least more defensible than the absolutism of the first claim.  

Alexander writes, “So the motte-and-bailey doctrine is when you make a bold, controversial statement. Then when somebody challenges you, you claim you were just making an obvious, uncontroversial statement” — or perhaps a statement that’s widely accepted in your social circle — “so you are clearly right and they are silly for challenging you. Then when the argument is over you go back to making the bold, controversial statement.” And that’s how it goes with the Ours-is-not-a-spirit-of-fear crowd too. 

There’s a lot to be thought and debated about how to reach the right balance of policies in a time like this, to minimize both loss of life and economic devastation. But that’s not what I’m talking about here. Here I’m reflecting on how Christians should understand these matters, and maybe one way to start is give up the motte-and-bailey dance and decide what your actual position is. If what you really think is that Christians should never be afraid of death, then grasp that nettle. That restaurant server who attends your church, who desperately needs the money but is afraid of getting seriously ill because she has pre-existing health issues and there’s no one but her to take care of her children? Person of weak faith. Failure as a Christian. “Get out there and bring me my quesadillas.” 

rocketing the mind

In his glorious poem “Advice to a Prophet,” Richard Wilbur begins:

When you come, as you soon must, to the streets of our city,   
Mad-eyed from stating the obvious,
Not proclaiming our fall but begging us
In God’s name to have self-pity,

Spare us all word of the weapons, their force and range,
The long numbers that rocket the mind;
Our slow, unreckoning hearts will be left behind,
Unable to fear what is too strange.

Oddly enough, perhaps, I think this is relevant to the proposal that has emerged today to give all Americans a thousand bucks — or, in some proposals, more — to compensate for the afflictions many will experience because of the economic consequences of the coronavirus. The idea of giving everyone in America that much money strikes us, initially and instinctively, as an insane amount of money. But let’s run the numbers.

There are 330 million Americans, more or less. Giving a thousand bucks to each of then would be $330 billion. But the federal budget that Donald Trump has just proposed is $4.8 trillion. So a thousand bucks for everyone is doable — not easily, mind you, but doable. It’s even doable more than once, especially if people like me, who are financially secure, donate our thousand to charity.

It doesn’t feel doable. The numbers “rocket the mind.” But I think we owe it to Andrew Yang that many people are able to overcome their initial feelings — their “unreckoning hearts” — and realize that this is something we can do, if we want to.


Folly is a more dangerous enemy to the good than evil. One can protest against evil; it can be unmasked and, if need be, prevented by force. Evil always carries the seeds of its own destruction, as it makes people, at the least, uncomfortable. Against folly we have no defence. Neither protests nor force can touch it; reasoning is no use; facts that contradict personal prejudices can simply be disbelieved indeed, the fool can counter by criticizing them, and if they are undeniable, they can just be pushed aside as trivial exceptions. So the fool, as distinct from the scoundrel, is completely self-satisfied; in fact, he can easily become dangerous, as it does not take much to make him aggressive. A fool must therefore be treated more cautiously than a scoundrel; we shall never again try to convince a fool by reason, for it is both useless and dangerous.

If we are to deal adequately with folly, we must try to understand its nature. This much is certain, that it is a moral rather than an intellectual defect. There are people who are mentally agile but foolish, and people who are mentally slow but very far from foolish — a discovery that we make to our surprise as a result of particular situations. We thus get the impression that folly is likely to be, not a congenital defect, but one that is acquired in certain circumstances where people make fools of themselves or allow others to make fools of them. We notice further that this defect is less common in the unsociable and solitary than in individuals or groups that are inclined or condemned to sociability. It seems, then, that folly is a sociological rather than a psychological problem, and that it is a special form of the operation of historical circumstances: on people, a psychological by-product of definite external factors. If we look more closely, we see that any violent display of power, whether political or religious, produces an outburst of folly in a large part of mankind; indeed, this seems actually to be a psychological and sociological law: the power of some needs the folly of the others.

— Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “After Ten Years” (1943)

incuriosity and indifference

Incuriosity and indifference — intellectual laziness and the absence of compassion — are vices that feed each other. If you don’t care about what happens to people, then you are unlikely to seek out more knowledge of their condition; and the less you know about their condition, the less you will feel called to compassion for that condition. Exhibit A for this vicious circle is this despicable essay by Heather Mac Donald. It’s not something I even want to talk about, but perhaps some commentary will be useful. Let’s start by zeroing in on one paragraph: 

Much has been made of the “exponential” rate of infection in European and Asian countries — as if the spread of all transmittable diseases did not develop along geometric, as opposed to arithmetic, growth patterns. What actually matters is whether or not the growing “pandemic” overwhelms our ability to ensure the well-being of U.S.residents with efficiency and precision. But fear of the disease, and not the disease itself, has already spoiled that for us. Even if my odds of dying from coronavirus should suddenly jump ten-thousand-fold, from the current rate of .000012 percent across the U.S. population all the way up to .12 percent, I’d happily take those odds over the destruction being wrought on the U.S. and global economy from this unbridled panic. 

(1) Notice the scare-quotes around “exponential” and “pandemic,” as though those are examples of Fake News. But they are precisely the accurate terms — which, in the former case, Mac Donald even acknowledges. So why the scare-quotes? Presumably they are an attempt to generate skepticism where no skepticism is warranted. 

(2) Mac Donald clearly doesn’t understand the difference between the mortality rate of a disease and any currently uninfected individual’s likelihood of dying from the disease — because she hasn’t thought about it. She’s just tossing around numbers she thinks help her case. But for the record, if .12% — that is, a little more than one-tenth of one percent — of Americans died from COVID-19, that would be approximately 400,000 deaths. She’s “happy” with that. 

(3) More to the point, MacDonald is obscuring, or is ignorant of, the relevant time-frames for considering these matters. She writes, “So far, the United States has seen forty-one deaths from the infection…. By comparison, there were 38,800 traffic fatalities in the United States in 2019.” But that is to compare data about one thing for an entire year with data about another thing for less than a month. Her essay was published on March 13; the first American to die from COVID-19 died just two weeks earlier, on February 28. Even if the rate of deaths from the virus remained steady — which Mac Donald admits will not happen — that would be an annual rate of over a thousand deaths. 

(4) But this takes us back to the matter of geometric progression. In Italy, the first person to be diagnosed with COVID-19 was so diagnosed on January 30. I am not sure when the first person in Italy died of the disease, but as I write, 1,441 people in Italy have died from the virus — of 21,157 confirmed cases! — and the cases are increasing rather than slowing down. In short: this disease moves quickly. Take a look at this chart:

VoKBM number of confirmed coronavirus cases by days since 100th case png

Full size version here. Two vital pieces of information in this chart: first, the rate at which cases in Italy are confirmed is increasing; second, the rate of infection for the United States looks a lot more like that of Italy than that of Japan or Singapore or Hong Kong. So over time the ten-thousand-fold increase that Mac Donald treats as an absurd extrapolation is certain to be dramatically exceeded. We can and should still do a lot to mitigate the effects, but a month from now the comparison to traffic deaths will not look good for Mac Donald’s case. She doesn’t anticipate this because, though she acknowledges geometric progression, she doesn’t grasp it, and as a result thinks only in terms of the present moment. Thus she writes, “The number of cases in most afflicted countries is paltry.” Yes; and the damage done to a coastal city by a hurricane is paltry — in the first ten minutes after landfall. 

(5) Similarly, Mac Donald writes, “We did not shut down public events and institutions to try to slow the spread of the flu.” Indeed, and that’s because the flu has been around long enough that many people have developed immunity to it, which means that flu cases do not increase at a geometric rate. But the coronavirus is novel, which means that no one has yet acquired immunity. That’s why it moves so fast. Contra Mac Donald, not all transmissible diseases spread at a geometric rate — those rates vary quite a bit for many reasons, including the means by which they are transmitted — COVID-19 would be even worse if it were airborne — but also according to whether they’ve been through a particular population before. These are not difficult distinctions to grasp. For those who are willing to grasp them. 

(6) We now reach the point in the essay at which intellectual laziness slides into moral callousness: “As of Monday, approximately 89 percent of Italy’s coronavirus deaths had been over the age of seventy, according to The Wall Street Journal. Sad to say, those victims were already nearing the end of their lifespans. They might have soon died from another illness.” Maybe! But — I’m not sure about the data in Italy — in the United States someone who is currently 70 years old can expect to live another fifteen years; and an 80-year-old can reasonably expect another nine years. These are not insignificant years to lose. Those can be times not just of personal satisfaction — older people are happier than younger ones — but also times when they can give counsel to their children and love to their grandchildren, or indeed give to others who are willing to acknowledge their personal value. 

The only value Mac Donald seems to cherish is that of a stock market portfolio — for financial losses she feels great compassion, though she has none to spare for human beings. She should reflect on something John Ruskin taught us long ago: “There is no wealth but life.” 

who you gonna believe?

Rush Limbaugh says, “Yeah, I’m dead right on this. The coronavirus is the common cold, folks.” Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, says, “I mean, people always say, well, the flu, you know, the flu does this, the flu does that. The flu has a mortality of 0.1 percent. This is ten times that.” (He could have said “at least ten times that.”) 

Question: Why does Rush Limbaugh think he knows better than Fauci? Potential answers:  

  1. He doesn’t. He’s just saying what he thinks his audience wants to hear in order to keep them listening, keep his advertising rates high, and put more money in his pocket. 
  2. He’s a narcissist who suffers from the Dunning-Kruger effect
  3. It’s a classic case of motivated reasoning: Like all of us, he would prefer that COVID-19 be an insignificant threat to public health, so he finds a way to believe it. 
  4. He sees a vast conspiracy of elite culture against Donald Trump in particular and conservatism in general, and Fauci, as the director of a federal agency, is ipso facto a member of that elite; therefore it is logical to assume that Fauci is part of that conspiracy. (Perhaps not consciously; perhaps Limbaugh would think that Fauci is the one guilty of motivated reasoning.) 

We need not choose one or two explanations: probably all four factors are at work, though it would be impossible to know in what proportion. Certainly Limbaugh wouldn’t know, in precisely the same way that I don’t understand my own motivations. 

But maybe more significant is this question: Why do many Americans — millions of them, I suppose — believe Limbaugh rather than Fauci? Presumably answers 3 and 4 above play a major role. But the matter bears more reflection. 

I believe the key issue that must be addressed in this situation concerns what Tom Nichols calls the death of expertise — and, more important still, what might be done to restore public trust in genuine expertise. For my money, the really vital chapter in Nichols’s book is the one on the wrongness of experts — why they get things wrong and what happens when they do. Indeed, that should be a book in itself.

I want to call attention to a few passages from Nichols’s book, starting with this one: 

[Our] daily trust in professionals … is a prosaic matter of necessity. It is much the same way we trust everyone else in our daily lives, including the bus driver we assume isn’t drunk or the restaurant worker we assume has washed her hands. This is not the same thing as trusting professionals when it comes to matters of public policy: to say that we trust our doctors to write us the correct prescription is not the same thing as saying we trust all medical professionals about whether America should have a system of national health care. To say that we trust a college professor to teach our sons and daughters the history of World War II is not the same thing as saying that we there- fore trust all academic historians to advise the president of the United States on matters of war and peace. […] 

Experts can go wrong, for example, when they try to stretch their expertise from one area to another. This is not only a recipe for error, but is maddening to other experts as well. In some cases, the cross-expertise poaching is obvious, as when entertainers — experts in their own fields, to be sure — confuse art with life and start issuing explanations of complicated matters.

But it’s not just “entertainers” like Limbaugh who are to blame here. A classic example of the abuse of expertise, as I wrote a few years ago, is the Doomsday Clock. If I may quote myself: “No actual science goes into the decision of where to place the hands of the clock. The scientists who make the decision have no particular expertise in geopolitical strategy, military and political risk assessment, or even climatology (relevant since they incorporate climate change into their assessment). They just read a bunch of stuff and take their own emotional temperature.” 

Related to this is the reluctance of many experts to acknowledge the vital distinction between what can be known precisely — and therefore precisely anticipated — and that which is too complex, or too dependent on unknown unknowns, to be subject to confident prediction. If you listen to Dr. Fauci’s full testimony, you’ll see, I think, that it’s an outstanding example of how to distinguish between what experts can know and what they cannot. But that sort of caution is, alas, not the norm.  

That’s why I think Nichols ends his chapter on the wrong note. It’s not that what he says is incorrect — it isn’t. It’s true. Here’s his last paragraph: 

For laypeople to use expert advice and to place professionals in their proper roles as servants, rather than masters, they must accept their own limitations as well. Democracy cannot function when every citizen is an expert. Yes, it is unbridled ego for experts to believe they can run a democracy while ignoring its voters; it is also, however, ignorant narcissism for laypeople to believe that they can maintain a large and advanced nation without listening to the voices of those more educated and experienced than themselves. 

But had I been writing that I would’ve placed more stress on the need for experts to police themselves far more carefully then they currently do: to maintain the strictest standards of impartiality, and to make clear distinctions among (a) what they know, (b) matters about which they can reasonably surmise, and (c) those topics on which their opinions are no better than yours or mine. One of the primary responsibilities of genuine experts, in a heavily polluted informational ecosystem, is to give uninformed laypeople no justification, however implausible, for preferring their own judgment to that of the genuinely knowledgable. That wouldn’t eliminate the Dunning-Kruger effect, nor would it get rid of a President who thinks he has a “natural ability” to understand complex scientific matters in which he has no training whatsoever; but over the long haul, incrementally, it would help. 


UPDATE: A fascinating and illuminating comment on this post from Samuel James: “You know what the most interesting thing is about Limbaugh’s COVID commentary? The fact that he was recently diagnosed with advanced lung cancer. It stands to reason, does it not, that a man who desperately needs the best experts and credentialed information in this season of his (possibly fading) life would see the value of expert testimony? But in my experience, this actually has little effect on people. My family tree is full of people who practically live in the hospital and eat prescriptions for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, but who are confident that Sean Hannity knows more about anything than any scientist, lawyer, or even theologian. The death of expertise is so nefarious precisely because it’s resistant to cognitive dissonance.” 

motivated reasoning, part gazillion

If I had to name only one thing I have learned in my many years of making arguments, it would be this: You cannot convince people of anything that they sense it’s in their interest not to know. I thought about this often as I was reading Alex Morris’s Rolling Stone story about American evangelicals’ love of Trump

One such moment came when Morris related a conversation with her family: 

“Do you think because Jesus is coming soon that the environment doesn’t matter?” I eventually ask.

“Alex, the Earth is going to be all burned up anyway,” my aunt says quietly. “It’s in the Bible.”

“But according to billions of people, the Bible is not necessarily true.”

“All we can do is love them.”

“No, we can cut back on carbon emissions. There are a lot of things we can do.”

“It doesn’t matter. We’re not going to be here.”

Maybe the first thing I want to say here is “according to billions of people, the Bible is not necessarily true” is not a great reply. Morris could have pointed out that the Bible itself says no one knows when Jesus will return, and that the Earth will be renewed and restored, and that in Genesis we are given stewardship over all Creation, a responsibility never to be taken away. She could — I’m getting carried away here, I know — she could have given her aunt N. T. Wright’s essay “Jesus Is Coming — Plant a Tree!” 

But setting all that aside for now: It is very much in the interest of Morris’s aunt, and in the interest of millions and millions of other people, not to know that we are, through our economic choices, bringing ruin to the planet that we’re supposed to be the stewards of. And so she doesn’t know. Like so many others, she makes a point of not knowing. 

But I think the problem of motivated not-knowing isn’t found only on the conservative evangelical side of things. Here’s one passage from Morris’s essay that seems to be drawing a lot of attention: 

“The white nationalism of fundamentalism was sleeping there like a latent gene, and it just came roaring back with a vengeance,” says [Greg] Thornbury. In Trump’s America, “‘religious liberty’ is code for protection of white, Western cultural heritage.”

In that second sentence, the clause “In Trump’s America” is a problem. What does it mean? In one sense, the entire nation is “Trump’s America” right now, whether we like it or not; but maybe Morris means something like “Americans who enthusiastically support Trump,” or “the parts of the country that are strongly supportive of Trump.” Impossible to tell. Thornbury didn’t use the phrase, but presumably he said something that led into his line about “religious liberty” as code for something else. 

So the passage is unclear, but I’d like to know what Thornbury means. I’ve written a good deal about the importance of religious freedom on this blog and elsewhere — just see the tag at the bottom of this post — so does that mean that I am using that topic as “code for protection of white, Western cultural heritage”? If so: explain that to me, please.  

Maybe there’s something that Greg Thornbury and Alex Morris have an interest in not knowing: that even if millions of white Americans abuse the concept of religious liberty, religious liberty could nevertheless be in some danger. Indeed, I think this is one of the key points that progressive Christians make a point of not seeing, because if they did see it then they might sometimes have to come to the defense of people (especially evangelicals) they don’t want to be associated with. They know that as long as they denounce white supremacy and homophobia, and endorse (or at least remain silent about) abortion, they won’t run afoul of the progressive consensus. Why put their status at risk by defending willfully-blind bigots? 

One answer might be: Maybe the cultural consensus won’t always be in your favor. Almost a decade ago I warned conservative Christians that if they sought to deny religious expression to Muslims they might someday find the shoe on the other foot, and in the obviously hypocritical position of demanding rights for themselves that they tried to prevent others from exercising. (Update: they didn’t listen.) Perhaps progressives believe that that could never happen to them, that, even if they lose the White House from time to time, they can never find themselves out of cultural power and in need of powerful people to come to the defense of their rights. Well … Isn’t it pretty to think so? 

(In the interests of full disclosure, I should note that I’m in an odd place with regard to all this: As a person who thinks we’re ruining the planet; who has consistently condemned the Trump administration and its enablers, especially the Christian ones; who believes that white supremacy is demonic; but who is also strongly and I hope consistently pro-life, I find that I am publishable but not employable in the circles my progressive friends inhabit. Funny old world.) 

One of the most (unintentionally) comical articles I’ve read in recent weeks is this Ian Millhiser piece at Vox. Millhiser is in a kind of moral agony over the forthcoming Supreme Court case of Tanzin v. Tanvir

Muhammad Tanvir, the plaintiff at the heart of the case, and this first story is likely to inspire a great deal of sympathy among liberals. Tanvir says he was approached by two FBI agents who asked him “whether he had anything he ‘could share’ with the FBI about the American Muslim community.” After Tanvir told the agents that he did not wish to become an informant, those agents allegedly threatened him with deportation and placed him on the “No Fly List.”

Because of this treatment, Tanvir also claims that he was unable to fly to see his ailing mother in Pakistan, and that he had to quit a job as a long-haul trucker because he could no longer fly home to New York after a one-way delivery.

The core issue in Tanvir’s lawsuit is whether he may sue these FBI agents for money damages under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), a federal law protecting religious liberty.

Why is Millhiser in such a state about this case? Because, while he is deeply sympathetic to Tanvir’s plight, “If the Supreme Court holds that such lawsuits are permitted under RFRA, the biggest winner is unlikely to be religious minorities like Tanvir. Rather, the biggest winner is likely to be the Christian right.” Oh shit! What a calamity! How can I ensure that people I approve of get religious-freedom rights while people I don’t approve of are denied them?? 

In the coming years, I predict, there will be a clear answer to this dilemma from the left, including the progressive Christian left: Sorry, Mr. Tanvir. Sucks to be you. Liberal proceduralism is so, so dead.

genealogists wanted

Much of my written work has focused on stepping back from whatever it is people in my field — or people more generally — happen to be discussing or debating at any given moment, stepping back in order to ask: Why are we talking about this? How did our discursive frame happen to take this form? How would things look different if we made different assumptions, or if our institutioms were constituted differently so as to prompt different ways of speaking or different speech genres?

Looking back, far back, I’m inclined to think that one of my most formative intellectual experiences happened when, in grad school, I read Foucault’s great essay “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History.” That didn’t make a Foucauldian of me, really, but it did give me a permanent habit of thinking genealogically. And I’m grateful for having developed that habit. It has been useful to me and sometimes, I think, even to a few others.

That essay is often seen to mark Foucault’s transition from an intellectual archaeologist — someone obssessed in classic 19th-century style with tracing an idea or a phenomenon back to its archē, its origin or source, its Ursprung or Quelle — to the more skeptical character of the genealogist, who sees belief that an Origin can be found as a romantic delusion and is interested instead in tracing all the ramifications over time of thought and practice.

The average thinker will always be an archaeologist, I think, because the average thinker mainly wants someone to blame for whatever he or she laments. (This is why, as I often comment the intellectual vacuity of generational thinking has such lasting appeal.) But what if you want to understand? Then you’ll have to work harder.

It seems to me that we especially need more genealogists of our current political order.

There’s a very good chance that next November Americans going to the polls to vote for President will be asked to choose between Donald Trump and Joe Biden. I am less interested in which of those I should choose — in fact I won’t choose either — than in how the hell we got that choice. Or look at the U.K., whose major political parties are led by Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn, two people manifestly unqualified to lead anything. How did that happen? If we don’t know how we came to this pass, can we find our way to a better one?

the command to be reconciled

One of the chief themes of my book How to Think is the vital importance of characterizing the arguments of those you disagree fairly — ideally, in terms that they themselves would recognize as valid. It’s good for them and it’s good for you: it strengthens your intellectual muscles to contend, as my buddy Robin Sloan has put it, not with straw men but rather with steel men


⚠️ Warning: Intra-Anglican disputes ahead! ⚠️


I thought about all this recently as I was reading Alex Wilgus’s response to a post by Hannah King arguing that the various Anglican bodies now at odds with one another should begin to seek reconciliation. Here’s how Wilgus characterizes King’s argument: 

Rev. King has decided that the 14 year distance between the schism of ‘04 opens an opportunity for Anglicans on both sides to reunite in some way around a desire for friendship, or at least a shared dislike of division. She seems to favor gatherings that heal by giving people the opportunity to “lament” publicly. 

So Wilgus would have us believe that King’s post is motivated by a mere “desire for friendship” or a “dislike of division” — as though it were an inclination or preference. But if you read King’s post you’ll find something very different: 

As Americans, this politics of polarization is in our bones. We sort and divide and sensationalize without even realizing there is another way. One only needs to follow the news for a few days to realize that our respective political parties no longer speak to each other; instead, they speak about each other. Yet as Christians, as those who adhere to a different polis — one not of this world — we must search and pray for another way. Even if it seems mysterious or impossible to us, we can ask God, for whom all things are possible. We can pray for the prophetic imagination to participate with him in the healing of his Church. 


I believe God called me to be a priest in the ACNA. But that doesn’t mean I disparage the Episcopal Church. I am less interested in who is “right” and who is “wrong” than I am in where God is asking us to go from here. None of us has the road map for this; but we do know the Guide. He has given himself to us fully and freely. Indeed, his body was broken for us — and it remains broken while his Church is broken. He has absorbed our separation in his own flesh, holding us together at his expense. As we feed on him and follow him, nourished by his very life, may we find ourselves put back together: reconciled to God and each other, one Body on earth and in Heaven. 

So it’s clear that King is not indulging a preference, but rather asking what obedience to a Lord who prays that we will be one as he and the Father are one (John 17:21), and is at work reconciling all things to himself (Col. 1:20), might look like in this case. I’d like to see someone respond to a steel version of King’s argument, not one of straw.  

King says that she need not disparage the Episcopal Church. Wilgus thinks he must do exactly that, because “the very existence of the ACNA contradicts the ministry of TEC,” and insists moreover that the choice faced by Anglican clergy is strictly binary: “We as clergy are still presented the same choice as those who went before us, to lead our flocks into worship in Spirit and Truth, or to fall back into old habits of approving of sin and error.” Would that it were so simple. It is, alas, perfectly possible to avoid some habits of sin and error while plunging headfirst into others, including, possibly, the habit of taking satisfaction in our divisions rather than prayerfully seeking to overcome them. Hannah King says that “It would be naïve to suggest that such activity is a simple road to reunification; but it would be jaded to deny that it could be a starting point.” Alex Wilgus’s post sounds jaded to me. 

I should declare an interest here. There is a faithful and flourishing ACNA parish here in Waco, Christ Church, which I attended for a while. I still miss the people there, clergy and laypeople alike, but the fact of the matter is that Christ Church is very much Anglo-Catholic and I am very much not. So I now attend a faithful and flourishing Episcopal parish, St. Alban’s. The primary reason both churches are growing is simply this: they preach the same Gospel. And that ought to count for something. That ought to be a starting point, as Hannah King says, in our prayers for reunion, for oneness, and (yes) lamentation over our current severances. And I pray every day for that oneness, because I believe that the very same Lord preached in both of those churches is the one before whom, ultimately, every knee will bow, and whose Lordship every tongue will confess. 

insincere controversialists

Genuine controversy, fair cut and thrust before a common audience, has become in our special epoch very rare. For the sincere controversialist is above all things a good listener. The really burning enthusiast never interrupts; he listens to the enemy’s arguments as eagerly as a spy would listen to the enemy’s arrangements. But if you attempt an actual argument with a modern paper of opposite politics, you will find that no medium is admitted between violence and evasion. You will have no answer except slanging or silence. A modern editor must not have that eager ear that goes with the honest tongue. He may be deaf and silent; and that is called dignity. Or he may be deaf and noisy; and that is called slashing journalism. In neither case is there any controversy; for the whole object of modern party combatants is to charge out of earshot.

— G. K. Chesterton, from What’s Wrong with the World (1910)

the BAD problem

As it happens, a large amount of carbon sits in American dirt. If that carbon escapes into the atmosphere, it will worsen climate change. Should a small nation ever appoint you despot of all climate laws, please do something about dirt. But generally and politically speaking, dirt does not get the people going. Upon hearing the slogan “Dirt: Now More Than Ever,” most voters will not picture overflowing cornucopias of prosperity. They will picture bath time.

I have come to think of this tension as climate policy’s Boring-as-Dirt Problem: the BAD problem. The BAD problem recognizes that climate change is a very interesting challenge. It is scary and massive and apocalyptic, and its attendant disasters (especially hurricanes, wildfires, and floods) make for good TV. But the policies that will address climate change do not pack the same punch. They are technical and technocratic and quite often boring. At the very least, they will never be as immediate as climate change itself. Floods are powerful, but stormwater management is arcane. Wildfires are ravenous, but electrical-grid upgrades are tedious. Climate change is scary, but dirt is boring. That’s the BAD problem.

Robinson Meyer. As Rob suggests, almost every social problem in desperate need of addressing shares the BAD problem.


When a person testifies about some past event, and his or her listeners have no external evidence to corroborate or refute that testimony, those listeners will place a great deal of emphasis on credibility. “I find her a very credible witness.” “I just didn’t find him credible.” We know that con men make opulent livings through seeming credible to large numbers of people; if we search our memories we will discover scenes in which we believed people we shouldn’t have believed and disbelieved people we should have believed; but in the moment we human beings seem to have a nearly absolute confidence in our ability to assess credibility.

This is, of course, complete nonsense. None of us has the superpower of looking into speakers’ souls to discern their true character. Each of us is, in many circumstances, easily fooled. And perhaps on some level, somewhere deep in the recesses of our minds, we realize this. We remember those moments when we were so sure someone was lying when they weren’t, or telling the truth when they weren’t. So we peek around at our ingroup for confirmation. And we get it. They have the same impressions, the same feelings, the same assessments of credibility.

And that can scarcely be surprising, because we share our prejudices and presuppositions and assumptions and tendencies with other members of our ingroup — that’s in large part what makes them our ingroup. So tribalism both produces our impressions of credibility and confirms them. Which makes our impressions of credibility epistemically worthless.

But without them, what do we have? That’s a question that, it seems, few are willing to face. To doubt our impressions is to doubt much of what sustains us day by day. This morning Ross Douthat writes, “Only the Truth Can Save Us Now.” Yeah, good luck with that.

how to evaluate a strong but disputable claim

This from John D. Cook is a great example of how to respond to strong but highly disputable scientific claims — in this case Michael Atiyah’s claim to have proven the Riemann hypothesis:

Atiyah’s proof is probably wrong, just because proofs of big theorems are usually wrong. Andrew Wiles’ proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem had a flaw that took a year to patch. We don’t know who Atiyah has shown his work to. If he hasn’t shown it to anyone, then it is almost certainly flawed: nobody does flawless work alone. Maybe his proof has a patchable flaw. Maybe it is flawed beyond repair, but contains interesting ideas worth pursuing further.

The worst case scenario is that Atiyah’s work on the fine structure constant and Todd functions is full of holes. He has made other big claims in the last few years that didn’t work out. Some say he should quit doing mathematics because he has made big mistakes.

I’ve made big mistakes too, and I’m not quitting. I make mistakes doing far less ambitious work than trying to prove the Riemann hypothesis. I doubt I’ll ever produce anything as deep as a plausible but flawed proof of the Riemann hypothesis.

Fantastic. Would that we had more people who think this way.