June 18, 2024

The irrational is ever-present in our lives, however much we want to believe otherwise

An essential part of the modern self-image is a belief in the power of rationality. And not just a belief in the power of rationality, but its power above everything else: above emotion, above instinct, above intuition—and certainly above faith.

Frankly, it’s nonsense.

Yes, rationality plays an enormous, even oversized role, in the way the modern world works, not least of all in the operation of science and industry, which have transformed our societies and our planet, giving us electricity, the x-ray, the atom bomb, the Saturn V rocket, and of course, the IPhone, with its wondrous ability to send high-resolution images of our private parts beaming across vast distances in the blink of an eye.

I think I’ve made that joke before.

Anyway, you don’t need to be paying attention too closely to see, or indeed to feel, that, for all our technological progress, the irrational is very much still with us, whatever we like to tell ourselves about the triumphant, and inevitable, march of Progress.

Humans are, after all, animals, whose being is grounded in animal senses and instincts that claw us back hundreds and thousands and millions of years into the primordial soup in which the first single-celled organisms bubbled and roiled. These senses and instincts, which have nothing to do with formal calculations made according to the axioms of logic, have remained with us as guides across the vast chasm of our development for the simple fact that they have helped us survive. They’re still here because we are.

But those irrational parts of us can also lead us astray, into folly and even our own doom. Fear, in particular, as Paul Atreides reminds himself in Dune, “is the mindkiller”—the most potent means of inactivating our thinking faculties and rendering us helpless and compliant.

There’s no better example of this, in our time, than the pandemic. I posted a screenshot on Twitter today of a Daily Mail headline from 2021, in which the paper—famous for issuing sober, well-considered warnings—claimed that trees might be spreading COVID-19 through their pollen.

Quick, chop them all down!

How did anybody ever believe such arrant nonsense—or the ten thousand other absurd things we were told to believe and do by our rulers during the greatest mass delusion in history?

How did anybody believe that standing six feet away from everyone else would protect them from the virus? What about if I stand 5 feet 11 inches away—what then?

How did anybody believe that sitting on a bench outside with a cup of coffee or walking, alone, across a desolate English moor, or surfing—again alone—on the beach could be a public-health risk?

And how did anybody believe a thin piece of cloth, with pores of a size many magnitudes greater than the virus itself, could offer an effective barrier to transmission?

How indeed.

Integration of hysteria with police who does not know to prioritize its resources-Israeli police forces,helicopter and jet-skys in a massive operation to pull a surfer out of the water near Tel Aviv, after he violated the #corona lockdown.The fish were saved from the virus pic.twitter.com/kZjdQsLtPx

— Ronen Bergman (@ronenbergman) April 24, 2020

On the subject of masks, I also wrote today, at greater length, about a new study which shows that wearing face coverings did nothing to reduce the risk of infection by the Omicron variant of COVID. I can’t say I’m shocked.

Researchers from the University of East Anglia looked at survey data taken from large-scale public surveys during the pandemic which assessed rates of infection and also gave details of personal habits, including social and work behaviour, and mask-wearing.

By analysing these data, the researchers found that wearing face coverings did not reduce the risk of infection by the Omicron variant at all.

The researchers claim, however, that during the first wave of COVID-19, before the emergence of the Omicron variant, wearing a mask was associated with a decreased risk of infection. But other evidence, including other studies, suggests even that isn’t true.

At the very least, we can say that during the pandemic, we had no effective guide—no clear data, no clear precedents—as to the effectiveness of masking.

Many people forget that we were told, in the beginning, not to wear masks. Remember that? It was because, we were told, even if you had a proper medical-grade respirator, only a professional could fit one properly and ensure an effective seal. In the very early days, it was the few mask-wearers, usually equipped with proper respirators and even military gasmasks, who were considered weirdos, and the non-mask wearers were the sane majority. And then, overnight, it was the other way around.

We just did it and swallowed the uncertainties, the cognitive dissonance.

We would be wrong, however, to believe that the irrational has somehow just intruded into medical practice and public health recently.

A 1957 paper in the American Sociological Review, titled “Ritual and Magic in the Control of Contagion,” looked at protective measures against tuberculosis in a veterans’ hospital. The author, Julius Roth, showed that the uncertainties surrounding the transmission and the effectiveness of techniques like ultraviolet sterilisation and wearing of personal protective equipment, led to the “ritualization” of safety procedures in ways that made little rational sense.  

These uncertainties, Roth added, “also leave the way open for irrational practices that can properly be called ‘magic’.”

For example, hospital workers were aware that they were not consistently sterilising items that entered the hospital, but they still carried on: books were sometimes sterilised, for example, but money, never. Although medical personnel were required to wear personal protective equipment at all times, visitors to the wards weren’t. Even so, doctors and higher-ups would frequently flout the rules for wearing masks and caps—probably because they knew they didn’t work as barriers and that nobody would challenge them for doing so—whereas the lower-downs wore their gear rigorously. Patients were forced to wear masks when they were moving around the hospital on “business,” but when they socialized, including sitting in a crowded room for hours watching movies, they didn’t have to wear them.

As Roth put it, acidly, “The rules suggest that the tubercle bacillus works only during business hours.”

Long before the events of the past three years, sociologists were observing the irrational (i.e. magical) elements of disease control within the medical system. This short paper, on tuberculosis control, is from the American Sociological Review, from 1957. 👇 pic.twitter.com/EzzFrAtxhc

— RAW EGG NATIONALIST (@Babygravy9) December 8, 2022

Of course, the situation during the pandemic was more complicated than in that 1950s veterans’ hospital. Nobody had a government jackboot quite literally on their neck, for one thing. And yet it all seems so familiar.

Clearly, during the pandemic deep veins of irrationalism were tapped by the powers-that-be. And, never forget, they were tapped deliberately, through the use of specialist psychological warfare units like Britain’s 77th Brigade and so-called “nudge” units in government departments, dedicated specifically to guiding people’s behaviour through targeted interventions in the media and especially on social media.

All of this must be remembered. But if we want a true reckoning with the pandemic—and I would suggest we do, if we want to prevent the same mistakes from happening again—it will also have to be a reckoning with ourselves, with the emotions and feelings that have been with us the longest, for good and for ill.

Israeli Plan To Force All Gazan Survivors Onto US Ships Exposed

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *