The COVID Files #2

July, ’20: Written a few months ago and not published, as usual, because it felt meaner than I had intended when I started. This was during the final contemplation stages of what alt-ac life would look like, and probably not a good time to be generally disgusted.

And that’s the problem with it: it doesn’t really have any content. It is, by turns, an expurgation, violent muttering, hyperbole, and threats. Normally I wouldn’t bother. But like I keep saying, I’ve run out of people to impress.

If the present rate of virus hot takes grows exponentially, my calculations show that by mid-June the entire internet will consist of one single living preprint, simultaneously being written and rewritten several billion times, while perpetually updating itself quietly out of existence when reality fails to comply with its confidence.

One amorphous yotta-document, full of mistakes and fixes that make them worse, held together with the mathematical equivalent of stained brown twine, bursting with formulas copied from the background graphics of Mr. Robot, accompanied by one huge unending scream.

I previously touched on, briefly, the two competing motives for producing research in a hurry right now: the desire to help, versus the desire to strategically position. The next months or years will radically transform how science is funded, because we are facing an existential threat that has set various fires around the feet of global healthcare infrastructure, the tax base, employment prospects, and your elderly relatives. It is not a good time to ask for normal public largesse to invest in your research into Mesopotamian pottery or Aztec burial rituals or feminist theory, which are valuable and interesting, or something like ego depletion, which isn’t.

Our retrieval from the depths of this threat depend on science and medicine which simply must be funded, and money is now being released into government and private grant-giving schemes to give it out. These people will help. They will do well and work hard.

But scientists, like plants with photoreceptors or slugs with light-sensitive stalks, are drawn towards money without the need for a pesky intervening cortex, and the money is following the virus. Thus, the horde follows too. And while many are strategically positioning to capture that money, they hide behind the motive of trying to help in the best way they know how.

Thus, the motivation for the present abrogations of science, hasty preprints, half-baked calculations, sloppy work, and breathless announcements. It’s an attempt to position various bodies of work in front of how funds are about to be redistributed. Expect green fields of facts and calculations laced heavily with anti-personnel mines filled to the rivets with an equal mix of RDX and bullshit.

It should not need saying at this point, but here we are: this is not a game that can be won through hot takes and explosive factoids, dressed up in the gladrags of competence, vying for a fresh new angle which runs a neat line between alleged social responsibility and Real Hot Takes. This is a knock-down, take-prisoners-and-shoot-them-later-after-enhanced-interrogation, lines-at-the-cemetery epidemic, probably the most consequential global public health event since polio or smallpox.

When we get to write sentences like “the mortality rate will likely be somewhere below the H1N1 outbreak of 1918–20 and the episodic poliomyelitis outbreaks from 1920–1960” it sounds somewhat more bloodless than what it is — millions of dead people.

Dead people, as in, not the ghosts of forgotten foreigners from news broadcasts who have never been ‘people’ to the Anglosphere, the casualties within the international hypocrisies that people generally forgive themselves if they think of them at all.

Dead people down the block, in the street, at the local funeral home, from your office, from your mum’s office, from your dad’s warehouse. Dead Barrys and Kevins and Angelas and Kates, dead aunts and nephews. Immediate dead people, immediate real, bleeding, coughing, confused, dying actual dead people who have to say goodbye via Skype through a phone held by a doctor crying behind a 3D printed faceshield held together with spirit gum and hope.

The kind of day-to-day consequences that the conscience of the willfully blind and comfortable will tell you only happens elsewhere.

But into this fierce new world, the rules of normal discourse are as broken as they were before. There is no intrinsic moderation, there is simply an imperial acquisitive rush. From our friends and colleagues with grand motives. Like Alexander the Great discovering an additional country in Asia Minor that he hadn’t nicked yet.

So, a warning: every word, every hot think-piece, every distortion and stupidity, is being written in an ostensive future history of poor messaging.

Twenty or fifty years from now, much of what has been said in the last six weeks will be in an textbook chapter under “Structural mistakes in messaging and inefficiencies within the science surrounding the COVID outbreak (2019–2021)”.

We are living through history, right now. And history does not sod about, does not suffer fools gladly, and — uniquely for the present moment — is utterly unforgivable in its ability to preserve and retrieve EVERYTHING. This is the first proper crisis of the digital age. The wrong text right now — on these exact days, in these exact times — have amorphous bodies stamped into the dirt of their footnotes, and always will. Opening your mouth right now has consequences that very, very few people are willing to appreciate.

This is understandable, of course. The presupposition of such a situation simply has never occurred to the sufficiently comfortable. They have never known a time where their words dragged bodies closer to consequences.

With this in mind, the idea of going off half-cocked with a model made from frantic midnight calculations, to enter the pool of public discourse with the confidence of a lion at midday and the insight of a drunken barnacle, is to produce some kind of … pandemic pornography — titillating, immediate, arousing, and ultimately rather empty compared to the real thing. It is to responsible scientific discourse as free Pornhub for all Italians is for genuine human connection.

But cheap research, cheap talk, is now not just a problem that people like me bop on the head and call meta-science — it is an active threat to public health.

I am disgusted with our enterprise today. I am deeply annoyed by your cheapness, and with the willingness of so many to be courtiers. Part of my subconscious is keeping a list of people in my networks who are building paper houses right now, and I will never, ever forgive you.

At the exact global moment that came along to prove that science was necessary, you rushed like orphans who heard there were fresh biscuits in the kitchen to be part of the attention, to get the money, to make your own announcements while the rest of the world was paying attention for once.

I understand the desire, of course — your grants may be dry, and you might be hurting for money. And it’s our moment. It’s hard not to feel virtuous when we have all the eyes. I heard people speaking in the street the other day about vaccine development timelines. I see science leading the news, not just popping up at the end when someone manages to visualize a quasar.

And attention is a hell of a drug. So is money. But then again, so is heroin, and people who allocate their time to that are generally posited as candidates for intervention.

We’re not stuffed. We’re not all going to die. This will probably get worse, and then, lurchingly and agonisingly, be understood, mitigated, and solved. Maybe not soon, maybe not neatly. But soon enough that we don’t qualify as a failed species.

And anyone who made that harder, the wastrels with their hard eyes and sticky fingers and sense of entitlement that would impress Gordon Gekko, is going on the list.

P.S. Inquisitive cat included to make piece prettier.

I write about science. We can probably be friends.