Schrödinger’s Virus: Is It Possible that Everybody Is Right—and Wrong—About This Thing?

Image by Alexandra_Koch from Pixabay

We’re all talking about science models and what they say about what to do about the coronavirus. Models are only as good as the data you put into them and the assumptions you use when you build them. Both of those are core reasons why no coronavirus or other science model is perfect. They are all ultimately subject to human limitations and biases.

Which is a slightly pretentious way of saying that we don’t really know what we’re talking about because our machines are going to be dumber than we are. But whatever position we take on the ‘rona, we can grab a model off the shelf and justify it. If you think it’s a massive threat, there’s a model for you. If you think we’ve become a police state for little reason, there’s a model for you too.

Brit Hume tweeted this earlier Tuesday. It looks like really good news for New York.

That there curve appears to have been bent. Gov. Cuomo and his plausibly pierced nipples have been haranguing New Yorkers to just stay home for a while. Most of them surely have.

But a whole lot of them obviously haven’t. The city’s subways, which ought to be viral free-for-alls, are still packed. It looks like a majority in the photo at the link are wearing masks, but there are also some bare faces. Yet New York’s curve looks flattened and one of the main national models, the IHME, has been revised downward. The virus may not kill nearly as many of us as feared. That’s good news. But it’s still likely to kill a lot, which is not good news.

It’s true that we’ve taken extreme and unprecedented actions to tame this virus. It’s true that these actions have gravely harmed us and the economy. It’s true that many in positions of leadership have said and done things about the virus that have turned out to be untrue or extreme, and those statements now let different sides use them as gotchas.

Here’s one of those. Back in January, Dr. Anthony Fauci declared the virus was “not a major threat” to Americans. That’s obviously wrong now. Dr. Fauci leads the coronavirus task force and now says we may never get back to a pre-virus normal.

But was he wrong when he said that back in January? This is how science works. You operate on the best information you have until better information is available. Then you adjust your thinking. Rinse. Repeat.

I’d say he wasn’t wrong. Was he a little arrogant? Maybe. Aren’t we all? He was speaking from the best information he had, which was not a lot. Whatever you say about the virus, odds are you’re speaking from even less knowledge than he has. New viruses come and go every year. At that point in January, he was working off what he knows of viral infections, which is a lot, and what the Chinese government and the World Health Organization were saying. They were presenting a facade of calm. Should Dr. Fauci and everyone else have known they were lying? Suspicion of communist China is always in order. That’s a government founded by murdering millions upon millions of its own people and it operates heinous concentration camps now. Beijing’s rulers are evil. But even if one comes at statements from China with due skepticism, how could Dr. Fauci or anyone else have known this virus would turn out to be this bad? That was an unlikely scenario, a “black swan” event. We’ve seen a flock of those lately.

Now, there are those out there who think the virus isn’t really that bad, and the downward revisions of the models and the bent New York curve are proof. They’re not. Social distancing and shutting things down were supposed to flatten the curve and reduce the caseload. It looks like that’s working. That’s good news. It’s also evidence that the police state we now live in isn’t permanent. We will never know, or have “closure,” that we absolutely had to shut everything down. We only have the one world to experiment on, and even shutdown outliers like Sweden may prove less than we want them to. It’s a spin on the Schrödinger’s cat thought experiment, only we can’t really open the box to find out who’s right or wrong.  Science can be heartlessly annoying like that.

Is Dr. Fauci wrong to say we may never get back to normal? I hope he is. He probably does too. And he probably is. We’ve gotten good at sequencing DNA and devising vaccines and defenses to keep ourselves alive. But he may also be right about that, and the death toll may already be higher – or lower – than we know.

We had it pretty good before this bug swept out from Wuhan across the world. We had achieved a rare state when the economy was strong but not overheating, jobs were plentiful and we had time to argue over silly things like the color of a dress in a photo. We debated the most tedious timewasters but weren’t fighting a major war against anyone. By historic standards, when you’re not at war and your society is relatively prosperous and stable, your life is not the “nasty, brutish, and short” existence that most humans have endured throughout the ages.

That life seems like a distant memory. Things are unraveling little by little. There’s a growing unease. We’re still in our homes for now, but millions really don’t know where their next real paycheck will come from. They’re worried and probably getting a little more concerned as the days pass and they’re about to become dependent on an increasingly insolvent government for the first time in their lives. There’s a failure cascade just waiting to happen. We do need to get back to work. We do need businesses and schools and parks and everything else to reopen soon, and we need a plan to do that. We do need for every official who has turned out to be a closet tinpot to be taken down a few pegs.

And we also need to beat this deadly virus.

Bryan Preston is the author of Hubble’s Revelations: The Amazing Time Machine and Its Most Important Discoveries