Tuesday, 22 December 2020

What do you believe in?

 As this Christmastime like no other rolls around I find myself mulling on the nature of belief.

I believe in science. But my belief in science is no less built on faith than other people’s religious beliefs. I know very little about it, beyond a couple of GCSEs, some populist books and newspaper articles, and what Professor Brian Cox says whilst standing in picturesque locations.

Religious faith rests on believing in something that, by its very nature, can’t be proven one way or the other.

Science is all about trying to understand the world by coming up with theories and then trying to prove them. That’s great for scientists, but for those of us who don’t understand what they’re talking about, we just have to take their word for it.

Some things in the world you learn from experience. You learn that when you drop an apple it will fall to the floor and if someone drops an apple on your head, it hurts. You go to school to learn why it happens: it's not magic, it's gravity. 

What happens when apples fall (in case you weren't sure).
Photo by Grey World via Flickr Creative Commons. 

I know if I press the switch on the wall it will make an electricity connection from a cable that feeds into my house, and lo there will be light. I’m pretty hazy on how it is. I’ve learnt that it works, but as for my understanding of the science, well it might as well be magic.

Believing in the virus

And so to today. I believe that we’re in a pandemic. Not everyone does. My belief is based on the news articles that I compulsively consume from organisations I trust.

My first-hand evidence for being in a pandemic is slim: the presence of face masks, the non-availability of toilet roll and pasta for part of this year, and the restrictions on shops and other businesses, the closure of the theatre where I work. There’s a bunch of causes that could have led to this.

I also believe that there is a vaccine which will hopefully bring us out of the pandemic, although those who know say it won’t bring an end to the virus. I know what a vaccine does and how it’s supposed to work, but how you can actually do that – make something that you can inject into our arms that will magically stop us getting sick from a particular disease – seems miraculous.

The first vaccine was administered by Edward Jenner when he figured out that having cowpox would prevent you from getting the much more serious smallpox. He took the gunk out of a cowpox blister in someone’s arm and injected it into the arm of the person he wanted to vaccinate. Lovely. The process is quite a lot more technical these days. Still, I wouldn’t say no to that if the alternative was getting smallpox – a hideous disease for which the best case scenario is disfiguring facial scarring. This isn’t ancient history - the last person died of smallpox a few weeks before I was born, in Birmingham.

My extensive liberal arts education may not have given me the ability to understand electric lights, viruses, vaccination, but it has taught me to check my sources.

The web is an incredible invention allowing people to disseminate information and opinion across the globe at the touch of a button. It has allowed us to have contact with friends and family, and for many of us to continue doing our jobs whilst locked out of our offices. But it’s also full of shit. The freedom to distribute your opinions so widely means people claim authority and manage to get their unsubstantiated claims in front of an audience.


Edna’s opinion that electricity pylons give you influenza might once have been limited to her immediate family, neighbours and those she ran into at the bus stop, but today she can dress them up to look much more plausible and chuck them out on Facebook. If she’s a bit more adept she can make a meme, to help spread them far and wide, like the cheerful one I made above. 

Look before you believe

There are so many conspiracy theories around: there isn’t a pandemic - it’s a plot to take away our freedoms; it’s a plot devised by pharmaceutical companies; death rates are being inflated to manipulate us; Covid-19 doesn’t actually exist; that one about the 5G networks. And those who have poured their personal wealth into funding vaccine research aren’t really doing it for altruistic reasons.

Whatever Bill Gates’ corporate ethics were, he’s no longer in charge of Microsoft. His day to day job now is mostly curing malaria and climate change, so discrediting the vaccine on the grounds of his involvement is ridiculous. Given the direction of his philanthropic projects in the last few years it was extremely likely that he was going to support a vaccine. Dolly Parton has also put huge amounts of money into vaccine development – do we think there’s going to be a mysterious surge in country music downloads on Spotify once it’s rolled out?

Believe things will get better

If you’re going to have blind faith in something, let it be something that helps yourself or others. Maybe I'll make more of an effort to try and understand this science stuff, since I believe in it so much. 

Believe in stars and stables and barns and babies if you like; believe in doctors and nurses who are working themselves into the ground to help people recover from Covid. Believe in facemasks, vitamin D and extreme handwashing. Believe in the genius of scientists who in just 12 months can go from discovering a new virus to making a vaccine for it. Believe that one day we won't be afraid to step outside our own front doors - that things will get better than they are now.

Anyway, I have another kind of mulling to do now, and Dolly Parton has a new Christmas album out. Joy to the world. 

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