The virus beyond biology

A perfectly agreeable suggestion on first glance, especially since it provides an opportunity for a quick rebuke when faced with such conspiratorial, often xenophobic claims. But on a second or third reading, you find the problem (apart from Harari’s habitual oversimplification): insinuating that your interlocutor is an idiot is only going to have them dig their heels in further, possibly even change tack to accuse you of being a snob that is out of touch with the masses. And that would probably be right.

Not nearly everything about the new coronavirus outbreak pertains to basic biology. For example, understanding the SEIR model used to predict the spread of the virus does not require me to know anything about the virus’s tropism or the human body’s defence mechanisms. Instead, I simply need to know the model applies and then, based on the model’s predictions, I become qualified to comment on how the virus might spread (as long as I adhere to the principles Gautam Menon outlined). More broadly, knowing how a virus works is incidental, and deferring to the facts of biology – or any branch of scientific enquiry for that matter – as a way to qualify them to comment meaningfully about the world is patronising. Don’t trust theories if they don’t make sense to you, period, but at the same time ensure your own knowledge of biology is good enough to separate good evidence from bad.

Speaking of evidence – and perhaps even more importantly – these arguments when they do happen are founded not on the availability of facts but on a deliberate decision to ignore or at least suspect them, and instead reach for those claims that reinforce preexisting beliefs. The way to argue with such claimants is to not. Failing that, you’re unlikely to engage them with evidence alone, even less change their minds, without having to change your own conviction that the middle ground lies not in the realm of science and reason but somewhere in the overlap of socio-politics and ultimately emotions.