Links and Comments: How Science Really Works; How Pandemics Can Trigger Cultural Renewal; Newton’s work during a Plague Year

(updated 18jul20)

Slate, Shannon Palus: How Public Health Experts Feel About Being Wrong. Subtitle: “That they change their advice is actually why we should trust them.”

The subtitle is precisely right. Experts, scientists, anyone with intellectual integrity change their minds when evidence warrants it. Especially in novel situations where the evidence trickles in slowly, and differently from previous experiences.

Is Peter Navarro a dimwit, or a conniving Trump cultist? The former is a possibility; people who don’t understand science, who don’t understand that scientific conclusions are tentative and change as the evidence comes in (as in police detective work), who think that every question has a definite, unchanging answer (as in religion), may truly think that Fauci has “made mistakes.” No. His advice was the best possible at the time, and new evidence and circumstances caused him to revise his advice. This CNN piece,

Trump team’s circular firing squad goes after Fauci

patiently explains how every point Navarro made was cherry-picking or taken out of context, especially in ignoring the conditions Fauci put on his advice in the first place.

This should not be difficult to understand.

Yet some people refuse to understand this, apparently. Or — is this is a calculated attack to discredit Fauci in the eyes of the Trump cultists, who will believe anything they are told from their leader and his minions, to discredit a decades-renowned scientist in order to open up the economy in a desperate bid to hope the virus goes away and Trump can still win re-election…?

A similar feat of magical thinking was on display with White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany’s remark White House press secretary: ‘The science should not stand in the way of’ schools fully reopening. Ironically, this NBC piece’s subtitle is about her accusing the media of bias. Many news outlets characterized her remarks as saying science should be ignored in the face of reopening school; in fact she meant (her wording was poor) that the science does actually support reopening the schools. No it doesn’t; you can trust her; she’s motivated by Trump’s wanting the reopen the schools, and the economy, at any cost to human lives.


As for a silver lining… here’s a long essay by Lawrence Wright, author of books like God Save Texas: A Journey into the Soul of the Lone Star State and Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief, as well a novel about a global pandemic, The End of October, published in April but written long before Covid19 was on the horizon.

The New Yorker: How Pandemics Wreak Havoc—and Open Minds, subtitled, “The plague marked the end of the Middle Ages and the start of a great cultural renewal. Could the coronavirus, for all its destruction, offer a similar opportunity for radical change?”

It’s a long article and I haven’t read it all. His point is that catastrophes like a global pandemic can jolt society into reforms they otherwise would not otherwise have made. But here’s a key point, from a conversation between the author and the retired John Hopkins University scientist Gianna Pomata, an Italian.

In an e-mail, she condemned those who blithely ignored scientific advice, writing, “What I see right now in the United States is that the pandemic has not led to new creative thinking but, on the contrary, has strengthened all the worst, most stereotypical, and irrational ways of thinking. I’m very sorry for the state of your country, which seems to be in the grip of a horrible attack of unreason.” She continued, “I’m sorry because I love it, and have received so much from it.”


I saw another essay whose link I now cannot find, about the aftermath of the Black Plague, about how London made various reforms, such as a sewer system, to reduce the spread of disease, though such measures were opposed by libertarians. [Update 20jul20: I found the essay and link, and discuss it in the next post.]


And one more. Revisiting Carl Sagan’s 1980 book (and TV series) Cosmos recently, I came across this passage, about Isaac Newton. (Page 68 of the book.)

In 1666, at the age of twenty-three, Newton was an undergraduate at Cambridge University when an outbreak of plague forced him to spend a year in idleness in the isolated village of Woolsthorpe, where he had been born. He occupied himself by inventing the differential and integral calculus, making fundamental discoveries on the nature of light and laying the foundation for the theory of universal gravitation. The only other year like it in the history of physics was Einstein’s “Miracle Year” of 1905.

A year.

This was the same plague that Daniel Defoe documented in his book A Journal of the Plague Year (

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