Monday, November 8, 2021

The Coming Age of Illiteracy: What Future for Science?

   One of the 16th century reliefs still existing at the monastery of "San Vivaldo," in Tuscany. It is an early example of a purely image-based communication: an attempt to tell complex concepts, the stories of the gospels, to people who couldn't read. It was a failure, but also a remarkably innovative approach. The time for image-based communication may return with the rapid loss of literacy affecting our times. The problem with this evolution is huge in science, with fewer and fewer people able to read the scientific literature. We are now depending on professional interpreters to tell us what "Science" is, just like long ago illiterate Christians were forced to rely on professional interpreters ("priests") to tell them what the scriptures said. The result is that Science is becoming whatever these scientific priests say Science is. And this is bad, although perhaps not beyond redemption. 

Let me start this post by citing a fascinating article written by "Marty Mac's and Cheese" I don't know who Mr. Marty Mac is, but he clearly has a remarkable cultural vision. He notes how Catholicism and Protestantism evolved along separate lines of thought. Protestantism was born as a literature-based religion: Protestants were "people of the book." Conversely, Catholicism catered more to the illiterate. 

You can see the difference in the respective churches: Protestant churches are normally austere, while Catholic churches are highly decorated and full of images. The image below is from Marty Mac's post. 

The idea of using a visual language was exploited in full by the Catholic Church. The multi-colored reliefs of the San Vivaldo monastery, in Italy, are one of the few remaining examples of the attempt to create a completely new visual language that would bypass the Babel of spoken languages that Europe was in the late Middle Ages. It did not work because of the development of the printing press and the gradual expansion of literacy in Europe. Universal literacy would not arrive before the 20th century, but already during the Renaissance, the European elites were able to read and write in their national languages. A text was a much more sophisticated and flexible tool than the reliefs of San Vivaldo, no matter how impressive they looked. 

But literacy is not a fixed concept. It evolves. Marty Mac makes some very interesting points about the transformation of literacy in our age. Even those who are still able to read, no longer have the ability to follow an articulate and complex discourse as one might find in a book of hundreds of pages, to say nothing of the 1400+ pages of the English version of the Christian Bible. The Protestant Church, nowadays, is changing as the result of this evolution. The Pentecostals are a manifestation of this trend with their spectacular services, people singing, "talking in tongues" and the like. They are no more "people of the book." 

I think it is worth reporting an extended excerpt of Marty Mac's considerations: remarkably sharp.

A mind trained with the written word is different from a mind without it. The organization of thought required for reading is very different from that in an oral environment. The differences come entirely from communicative form.

Oral communication is nearly always discursive. Even when someone gives a monologue, it is to an audience, which reacts (perhaps silently) and participates. But monologues are rare and nearly always have a particular social purpose: relating important cultural narratives, or persuading people or expounding to them from a position of authority (what the ancients called rhetoric). But discourse is more typical of oral communication.

Discourse is by its nature unstructured. When you speak with someone, the other person can disagree, change the subject, extend your thoughts in a new direction, or bring up something new. Discourse is extremely unlikely to follow a set of logical presuppositions and explore them all the way to their end. By its nature it jumps around, assembling different ideas from multiple people in a back-and-forth which may or may not represent a coherent whole.

None of this is bad. It is just the nature of having multiple minds in real-time communication with one another through the medium of linear speech. Valuable knowledge can be imparted and also discovered in this process. A single mind following a single set of logical presuppositions cannot arrive at complete knowledge. But oral communication is by nature unstructured.

Not so the written word. Writing forces communication to be continuous and follow some particular path. There is no interlocutor to correct, derail, or add to the argumentation. If discourse is by nature a hodge-podge, with different thoughts from different minds combining to make a gestalt, writing has the ability to unmask whether the thought itself, expressed in language, has internal coherence. The act of writing forces the writer to pay attention to this. The act of reading brings to the attention of the reader whether what is being said has structure and consistency. Literacy is an avenue to greater coherence and precision of thought.

Literacy changes the way people think, or rather it opens up a new manner of thinking. It doesn’t necessarily supplant the discursive oral communication (elite Ancient Greek society, existing on the bleeding edge of the novel technology of writing, considered both oral and written language, in their proper uses, to be learned forms of culture). However, literate cultures have different qualities from illiterate ones. This kind of research is inevitably controversial, but it appears to be the case that written languages (even when they are spoken) more frequently use conjunctions and have more types of conjunctions. Many languages around the world lack a word for ‘or’, not to speak of ‘however’, ‘nevertheless’, or ‘yet.’ You can get on just fine with no conjunctions, or with a smaller number of conjunctions, or just a single generic conjunction that means ‘mostly and.’ This should not be surprising. If language occurs mostly in a context of unstructured discourse, there is less need for lots of connectives that link one set of thoughts to the next (contrariwise, there is more need for discourse elements acknowledging and addressing the interlocutor!). The increased attention to internal coherence in writing seeps back into the oral language here it is in an unexpected way: a multiplication of conjunctions.

Complex mathematics do not arise in oral cultures. This is not to say oral cultures cannot do math — you can find oral cultures comfortable with surprisingly high multiplication baked into their number systems. However, no purely oral culture has developed algebra or complex geometry. This kind of lengthy, step-by-step algorithmic process is something our brains are not naturally very good at. We seem to require an external aid for structuring, in the form of writing, to jump-start higher mathematics. After people are taught step-by-step mathematical processes, they can become quite adept at doing (some limited amount of) math in their heads. It just seems to be true that to take that first step requires writing the mathematical formulae.

Literacy is not just a communicative tool, although it is that too. Literacy causes a shift in how people think. It enables and enforces certain kinds of structured thought and is a step away from the gestalt, ad hoc compositional thought of discursive or oral communication. We all begin our linguistic lives with only oral1 communication, and only later learn to be literate. Literacy is not a replacement for oral language: it is built on top of it, both historically and in each person’s personal development.

The loss of literacy skills has been impressive during the past few decades. I note that from my students. They can repeat what they read, or the notes they took in class. But in terms of understanding a complex matter, well, it is a disaster. I note the same trend with my colleagues. When I was a student, I was impressed by the ability of my teachers to go through complex mathematical calculations with just pencil and paper. Nobody does that anymore: when successful scientists need to make a complex calculation, they pay someone to do it for them

That may be just an impression of mine, but there is clear evidence that literacy is declining everywhere. We are losing what Marty Mac defines as "The kind of lengthy, step-by-step algorithmic process." In religion, it is the defeat of Martin Luther's approach, who had been maintaining that everyone should be able to read the Bible by him/herself. There follows that today in a sense we are all Catholic (or maybe Pentecostals). You may argue that this is nothing bad in itself. Indeed, it is not: it is just that things are different than they used to be, and that's the normal way the world works. 

The problem -- the very big problem -- is with science. Science normally used the Catholic approach, in the sense that ordinary people were not supposed to read the original sources in the scientific literature. That may have been the reason why scientific "papers" are normally written in an obscure and hyperspecialized language -- understandable only by those who work in the same field as the authors. Not just that, but scientific papers are inaccessible to the public, hidden behind paywalls for the profit of publishers. 

So, you need an interpreter, a scientific "priest" to tell you what "Science" (with a capital "S") says (Tony Fauci has reached the status of "Scientific Pope"). This is a disaster because the "scientific literature" is so huge that any scientific priest with a veneer of expertise in a certain field can claim more or less anything without too much fear of being contradicted, just because so few people can really understand that field. 

That does not normally happen with religions: Imagine that your local pastor tells you at the Sunday service that Jesus Christ recommended human sacrifices. You may not be a theologian but you know enough to suspect that something is wrong. That makes Martin Luther's approach viable: the Bible is a huge book, but its main points are understandable more or less by anybody. 

But when the director of the Center for Disease Control (CDC), Rochelle Walensky, tells you that "Masks can help reduce your chance of Covid19 infection by more than 80%" how do you react? Would you believe that she invented this number from whole cloth? 

Yes, she did. 

There is not a shred of evidence in the literature that face masks of any kind can attain that level of protection, surely not the kind of masks that people buy and wear. I can tell you that from my own analysis of the literature. You may also check the opinion of Vinay Prasad (Epidemiologist at the University of California San Francisco) and of many commenters to Walensky's tweet.

Fine, but why should you trust me or Prof. Prasad instead of Dr. Walensky? In the Protestant approach, you would check the literature yourself. But do you have the capability to look up the relevant papers? Do you have access to the literature without having to pay the exorbitant prices charged by scientific publishers? And even if you have the relevant papers, can you understand them, written in the kind of heavy, involved, purposefully obscure style, typical of scientific papers? And do you have the capability of filtering away the evident frauds resulting from corrupt scientists publishing to please their sponsors?

You see what is the problem. Science has become so huge that it has gone beyond the human capability to understand it. Outside one's hyperspecialized field, scientific truth has become little more than what you read in the slip of paper you find inside a fortune cookie in the Chinese restaurant. Maybe you read, "You have a secret admirer.” Oh, yes? And where does that come from? You are not supposed to know. It is the same problem you have when listening to your TV scientist appearing on the screen to tell you "wear a mask," or whatever. Where do those statements come from? You are not supposed to know that.  Science has expanded itself beyond existence. 


Now, pause for a moment to breathe after realizing that more than two centuries of scientific research have led us to a dead-end street. It has been said that a scientist is someone who knows a lot about very little and who aims at knowing everything about nothing. If we keep going like this, it is a prophecy that's going to come true. 

And now what? 

At this stage, the normal proposal is that we should do something to improve our schools and, in turn, that is supposed to improve the average literacy, scientific and otherwise. But the loss of literacy, in the sense of the capability of understanding complex texts, is probably irreversible. The idea of public schools financed by the state is modern: those schools have existed only for less than two centuries, from mid 19th century. They came into existence as tools for the linguistic and cultural homogenization of the newly formed nation-states. But, with the coming of image-based communication, mainly TV, they became obsolete. 

Things change fast in our world: in little more than one year, we saw schools turned from a central element of our society into dungeons inhabited by little plague-spreading monsters to be kept masked all the time. How our society could turn so nasty, so fast against its children was an unexpected confirmation of Seneca's observation that "ruin is rapid." But it is also true that ruin occurs when evil meets opportunity and there is no doubt that the powers that be were bound to discover, sooner or later, that schools were not needed anymore. Why spend money to teach people how to read and write? Just let them sit in front of the TV. 

History moves always onward and if this is what is happening, there is a reason for it to happen. Think that for most of humankind's history, spanning at least a few hundred thousand years, there was no such a thing as "written text." It appeared some 5000 years ago and up to very recent times, it was a skill of a tiny minority of people. We tend to see "universal literacy" as an achievement of our civilization. But it is not obvious that knowing how to read and write makes people better. You could argue for exactly the opposite (Verily I say unto you, except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven. Matthew 18:3). So, we are simply returning to something that was the normal way to be in earlier times, except that, by now, the exchange of ideas is done over the Web rather than physically face to face. Maybe it is an important difference, maybe not. We'll have to see that. 

In any case, Visual languages made a comeback, pushed by the new tool of Internet-based communication. We are not anymore limited to exchanging translated text: we have a wide variety of image-based communication tools, starting from the simplest "emoticons," smiling faces, and the like, to the capability of making elaborate video clips at low cost. This new range of communication tools was going to have a profound effect on the ways people speak to each other. And it is happening.  

And how about Science? Well, science has been an offshoot of our text-based civilization. As it is now, it does not serve a useful purpose anymore, having become mostly a money-making tool for corrupted people and corporations. It will change, too, not because we want it to change, but because it has to. Science will use a different kind of language, it will aim at different purposes, seeking different kinds of knowledge. But we will still recognize it for what it is, we humans were born to seek for the truth. And we'll keep doing that. 


  1. --especially the section on respirators, surgical masks and face coverings. These guys are 'only' engineers, but if masks work against forest fire smoke _proper_ masks can work against viruses. Of course if you try to stop a fire with a garden hose or a virus with garlic (or a mask on your chin) you probably will end up as sick as a dog, or perhaps with a Darwin award.

    1. Anonymous, excuse me, but you are a good example of what I was saying: scientific illiteracy. Smoke particles are typically in the range of 1-100 microns (thousandths of a millimeter). The size of the Covid is around 0.1 microns, or even less. Forest fires are completely different: different diffusion rates, different filtering rates, everything is different. As I said, if you want to understand this matter, you have to look at the primary sources using randomized control trial (RCT) studies that tell you in which conditions mask may (sometimes) protect you. Start from the comment by Vinay Prasad, and from there you can explore the literature.

    2. A Covid virus does not fly alone through the sky like a bird. It adheres to a tiny drop of water as it was expelled by the respiration of an infected person. This is called an aerosol and and masks like FFP2 or better FFP3 are very well capable to filter a high prcentage of human aerosols.

    3. The virus certainly dies when it touches a dry surface, but I see no reason why it cannot "float" in the air for some time. But you are right that it is emitted in the form of an aerosol. And, an aerosol is normally defined as droplets under 1 micron. Not much bigger than a single covid beastie. FFP2 and FFP3 masks are those known as N95 masks in the US. They can surely filter part of the aerosol but, as I noted below about another comment, my point is not that masks have no effect. It is that there is no evidence in the literature for Ms. Walensky's claim of an 80% protection.

    4. The virus cannot float in the air for a simple reason: It is coming from the lung of a sick person. There is a climate in the lungs of 37°C temperature and a relative humidity of 100%. When this air leaves the nose it suddenly is cooled down becoming oversaturated steam, which condensates immediately around any tiny particle – and so it does with any virus. The next step in an oversaturated steam is that many of these fine droplets clog together. So we get a wet aerosol with particle sizes of 0,1 µm to 10 μm. According to European Norm E149 FFP2 masks are built and tested to absorb at least 95% of virus and other particles, FFP3 masks absorb even 99%. Obviously there is some leakage on the sides of the mask, but according to this norm leakage should not exceed 8-11%. Your claim that there is “no evidence in literature” is simply wrong, it is even an industrial standard.

    5. Gerhardt, excuse me, but you are proving my point. It is easy to get into this kind of "non-debate" where one side chooses the papers that seem to confirm their viewpoint, and the other chooses different papers that seem to confirm the opposite viewpoint. It is exactly what Ms. Walensky did, even though she didn't bother to report where she had taken that "80%" protection value.

      My point is that this is not science, it is just politics. Politicians don't care about accuracy, a scientist should. It simply means that Ms. WWalensky is a politician, not a scientist. Which is probably the reason she heads the CDC. The problem comes when politicians pretend to tell people what "science" says. And we are seeing the results....

    6. BTW, can viruses float "alone" in the air? As you correctly say, when they are exhaled they are part of small aerosol droplets. But the water of the droplets is destined to evaporate, depending on the temperature of the air. The virus, instead, does not evaporate, so it could well keep flying alone for a while. We have no way to prove or disprove it -- those tiny beasties are too small to be detected in air. It makes little difference, but we cannot exclude that "naked" viruses could be inhaled and re-activated inside the body.

    7. Dear Hugo, finally we are arriving at the point of you article, if science is falling down the Seneca cliff in this very moment. Of course, I cannot deny that there are certain hints that this might happen. I must add that I consider myself to be a scientist, I have studied physics, mathematics and medicine and in my active time I was professor at several universities in Europe and in America and I have been fighting for about 50 years in all 5 continents against the destruction of our world by big enterprise and post colonialism. The problem of science is not so much illiteracy but a severe misunderstanding. Science was never meant to be a tool to become rich or famous. A real scientist is like an artist, burning with curiosity and creativity- otherwise one will fail. On the other hand, science is not so vast a universe as it might appear. Of course, the amount of data is enormous and growing every day. But the method – at least in physics and in mathematics – is not more than a handful of books. And a part of the method – and not the least important one - consists in distinguishing between serious sources and not so good ones.

      However, in the sixties and seventies of the last century many people discovered that with a degree of a fashionable university one could earn a good income. So, they tried to “study” science. Unfortunately, many of those students believed that they can “know science” learning many data by heart. After all they only wanted to become Science-Managers. And they had problems with the methods because that would require thorough practice and a real motivation. So, in order to distinguish between right and wrong their only help was to believe in authorities. Sometimes they got it well and sometimes not. However, meanwhile those Science-Managers have become famous, rich and powerful too. Now they are the authorities who supposedly know the truth. This has created lots of confusion for the rest of humanity who does not deal with science.

      Said that, a tedious but usually successful method to find out the truth is to make experiments oneself. In all those 50 years I have not only worked theoretically but in laboratory too, frequently as a biochemist with very dangerous substances, and the very fact that I am still alive is the best proof that I know when I have to use a mask and what I can expect from a it!

    8. Oh, yes, I have been working il laboratories with radioactive and highly poisonous substances. I am still alive because I knew exactly were the fire extinguisher was when the lab I was working in caught fire. That was many years ago, but I still remember the experience very well. So, precautions are necessary. I never said that masks have zero effectiveness -- If I had said that, I would have made the same mistake that Ms. Walensky made!

  2. Lots to unpack. Thought provoking as always.
    When I was a child I was required to write letters to people I scarcely knew. My parents, one a farmer and another living in a new language, wrote letters regularly as part of life. By high school I saw that my childhood training actually paid benefits. I eventually realized that my parents were not only more articulate than many "social betters", but had a superb talent for methodical thinking and communication. They had what I would now call ordered minds. I strongly believe that their continual reading and also writing was a large factor in this.
    During my working days I had to understand certain mechanical systems and integrate them into a whole. I developed a technique of taking walks and mentally pretending I was teaching the subject I was pondering. Often I talked myself into a hole, which made me realize I didn't know my stuff as well as I thought, forcing me to get the manuals out again and clarify questions that had arisen. Thinking a subject through with reductionism and building back up, in my opinion, makes for mental discipline.
    My own personal experience of reading to know and writing/teaching to understand makes me think it useful and effective. Learning from electronic media, with its short synapses, does not seem to produce similar results.

    1. Thanks Wornsmooth, you have inspired me to review the hundreds of letters from friends in the 70s and 80s. Nobody writes now, such a shame.

  3. The movie Idiocracy posits a timeframe of 500 years for civilization to degenerate, but mass media are accelerating the process. Videos are popular often with banal content and they replace books among the young.

  4. Ugo: Good stuff:
    But I think that I will e spending some time in the next couple of days discussion how the credentialism/trade school mindset that has taken over higher education has been had major damage to science.

  5. The Italian Higher Institute of Health has drastically reduced the country’s official COVID death toll number by over 97 per cent after changing the definition of a fatality to someone who died from COVID rather than with COVID.

    Italian newspaper Il Tempo reports that the Institute has revised downward the number of people who have died from COVID rather than with COVID from 130,000 to under 4,000.

    Does this tell us something about science at the moment? Does this tell us that science is just another (very efficient) method of manipulating the minds of ordinary people?

    1. Well, not excactly this. They said that only less than 3% of the people who died with a positive Covid test had no other detectable pathology. Then, it is anyone's guess whether the others died "of" Covid or "with" Covid

    2. My point was that hospitals attributed ALL deaths to COVID, which was obviously not true. It seems that COVID caused less deaths than seasonal flu. I am not saying that nobody died of COVID, nor that there is no new variant of Corona virus (naturally or man made), I am just saying that whole COVID hysteria was fraud. At least, the hysteria shows that scientists are not really rational, that they are also prone to mass manipulation.

    3. Of course, Ivan. They attributed to covid also people killed by a bus if a postmortem examination resulted in a positive result. But the debate is still locked to the inflated original numbers

  6. Some years ago I was on a routine business flight. I was reading a book — a novel by Dickens as I recall. I had two pages of text in front of me with no pictures or images. The person in the seat next to me said, “I can’t do that.” I asked him what he meant. He said that he could not read a book consisting of just text.

    I presume that he could read well enough to conduct his business. But he sounded sad and regretful.

    1. It happened to me, too.... I mean, not being able to read a novel anymore. It took me a certain effort to return into "reading mode." Possible, but not so easy.

    2. When I am unclear in my thoughts, which seems to be a lot of the time, I write them down. I find that doing so forces me to think through unstated assumptions and erroneous logic. Sometimes I reach the conclusion that my ideas on that topic are simply wrong. When speaking, however, we tend to literally say “the first thing that comes into our mind”.

      If we are moving away from a reading culture then prepare for much more sloppy "thinking".

  7. Another thing. I am not at all certain that your statement

    But we will still recognize it for what it is, we humans were born to seek for the truth. And we'll keep doing that.

    Has a great deal of "truth" in it. Not meaning to be contrary, perhaps this can be rephrased.

    I will also work on this and post if I come up with something.

    1. I was citing from Dante Alighieri: "Fatti non foste a viver come bruti, ma per seguir virtute e conoscenza" (you were not created to live as brutes, but to seek for virtue and knowledge). But maybe he was wrong, I admit!

  8. Questo lungo post mi ha fatto pensare ad un racconto di Italo Calvino, preso dalle cosmicomiche: "Un segno nello spazio". Il protagonista Qwfwq traccia un segno nello spazio, pienamente consapevole della rivoluzione innescata dal "logos" e poi finisce sommerso in un universo dove i simboli sono dappertutto, un caos senza capo né coda. Da studente salivo le scale del dipartimento di fisica dove, con caratteri cubitali latini, anzi romani, stava una frase di Galileo: stimo maggiormente trovare il vero bensì di cosa leggiera, ché disputar longamente e votamente sulle massime quistioni senza conseguir verità nessuna. E pare che stiamo avendo la nostra ubriacatura di cose leggiiiiere, così che il loro valore viene inflazionato ed i diamanti di verità finiscono per avere lo stesso peso delle perline di vetro. E mi pare che in fondo il valore della scienza stia più nelle parole di Lise Meitner: "La scienza fa sì che le persone raggiungano disinteressatamente la verità e l’obiettività; insegnando alla gente ad accettare la realtà con meraviglia e ammirazione."
    Anzi mi vien da rovesciare la questione: la scienza è quel distillato che le persone raggiungono con disinteresse perseguendo la verità e l’obiettività.
    Mi pare che in questo modo sia più facile scriminare da che parte viene la buriana e che cosa stia corrompendo una attività una volta nobile e pura. E se venisse accettato il principio, si potrebbe chiamare la prima (co)scienza e la seconda $cienza e credo che una volta che si fosse tracciato lo spartiacque fra le due cose, attribuendo loro nomi seprati, per la gente della strada sarebbe più facili distinguere la prima dalla seconda, senza farsi abbindolare dal debordante canto delle $irene, prestando invece orecchio al sussurro delle muse.

    Che cos'è un numero ché l'uomo lo può capire? Che cos'è l'uomo che può capire il numero?

    Che cos'è il denaro, ché l'uomo gli dà valore? E che cos'è il valore? E perché l'uomo l'attribuisce al denaro?

  9. I'm finding that 'science' is being leveraged ever more by the 'ruling class/elite' to justify/rationalise policy decisions/diktats/etc. as if that merits their actions as 'objective/evidence-based'. And questioning this in almost any way brings a torrent of objections/disdain by a large majority of 'believers'. 'Science' seems to have taken on a cult-like following where none can question and once you do you are labeled 'anti-science'. The ability to question has always been for me the cornerstone of 'science' but we seem to have moved far away from this fundamental tenet.

  10. Hello Ugo,

    Very interesting topic! I am an avid reader, of course of your books, but also other literature and non-fiction.

    Here in the Netherlands, the average time spent reading has dropped from 6h/week in 1975 down to 2h/week 2015. This in a period when "higher education" has ballooned out of all proportions.

    I have read the last few weeks about quite a few people who switch to the Orthodox Christian faith, e.g. Paul Kingsnorth. As you have undoubtedly followed several masses in Russia, you know that this part of Christianity is even less intelligible to the practitioners. Most of the sermon is in an archaic language, and some of the ceremony takes place out of sight, behind the icon-wall.

    It is a multi-sensoric experience - sounds, visuals, smells, heat, confusion, bearded men in strange dresses.

    Is this the future we are headed for?


  11. Interesting topic about which, I as a librarian, have thought much. One point is missing though: memorized oral tradition for recitation and passing of knowledge. Do you recall Michener's Hawaii...the passages at the beginning of the book where he talks about (well...long time since I read it) or quotes the long, long, epic directions in oral recitation on how to go from here to there....etc.? This was not a discursive oral tradition, it was the passage of knowledge in oral form, prewriting...a talent that most of us have lost...memorization of long, long passages. When I was young I made a habit of memorizing and recitation; and beyond this, of "recording in my mind" conversations I heard (when I was working on writing novels) and being able to recite or write them back, the shock of the original source on occasion. I wonder if epic poems were memorized and recited for entertainment. I wonder if this will come illiteracy gains. Christine

  12. Something interesting re oral traditions.
    And, this:
    I had put it out of my mind that I used to belong to the Oral History Association and even attended some of the national meetings. There's a lot on the web on this:
    I don't think this will ever go away, even if is seems sort of underground now. Christine

  13. Fantastic post. Totally agree with you. Except on masks. And, as far as I now, you do not hold any qualifications allowing you to read a med study better than others non med educated. Just check this please then dive into each specific study.

    1. Thanks for the praise, Anonymous. About face masks, thanks also for the link, it is a good source of data. But I never said that I was "better educated" than others in any sense. I just noted that it takes a certain degree of scientific literacy to understand a scientific paper. Then, if the paper is a statistical study, as these on mask effectiveness are, you do not need to be a medical doctor to understand it.

      And if you look at the literature, you'll see that there is no evidence from RCT studies that supports Walensky's claim that "masks protect you more than 80% from infection." That's the point -- then there are some RCT studies indicating an effectiveness of around 10%, which is reasonable. Those things have to have some effect, after all.

      But, I repeat, my point was not to discuss the effectiveness of the masks. It was to note that for most people it is impossible to verify the claims of the experts since most people are unable to critically read a scientific paper and so they have to rely on experts. But if the expert lies to them, well....

    2. To be exact, you have limits to what you can do in terms of RCT when studying face masks. For instance, the study cannot be "blind" -- obviously people know whether they are wearing masks or not. And the randomization, too, is tricky. You can approximate that, such as in this recent study, the one I was citing in the previous comment. It has many flaws but it was probably the best that could be done. They find at best a 11% reduction in virus transmission with the N95 mask. Zero for other types of mask.

  14. The point of the post is that we must trust someone to interpret much of the scientific and technical literature that is outside our area of expertise.
    And people will often trust someone who either doesn't know what they are talking about or is deliberately misleading them. Happens all the time, both in print and online.

    1. Cierto, pero ¿deberemos darlo ya todo por perdido? A la naturaleza, a la biosfera, le dará perfectamente igual. Ella restablecerá su equilibrio a su modo, indiferente a las tribulaciones humanas. Sin embargo, puede encontrarse otro camino que descienda con suavidad el acantilado. Dice Spinoza que
      convencer a la mayoría, propiciar un cambio cultural, requiere recurrir a la experiencia más que a la razón, el entendimiento, habilidad que, dice, escasea entre los hombres. Porque la experiencia, la manera en que el "vulgo" accede a la verdad, puede conducir a un conocimiento claro y perfecto de la realidad cuando es informada por el entendimiento, la razón.

      Esta es la tarea reservada a quienes siguen creyendo en el método científico, pero aplicado a otros fines no tan "mercenarios" como el progreso sometido al crecimiento y al mercado. Y creo que cada vez son más. La crisis climática, los síntomas de agotamiento civilizatorio que comenzamos a experimentar, parecen desautorizar a las élites que nos han traído has aquí.

      Parte de esa comunidad científica inspirará cambios revolucionarios si consigue enraizar los cambios culturales necesarios en experiencias asimilables por las mayorías. Por experiencia también sabemos que lo viejo se resiste a morir; y que lo nuevo tardará, pero acabará por nacer. La ciencia cuenta ya con herramientas para acabar con el antropocentrismo. La física, la evolución, la astronomía... muestran que nuestro lugar en el universo es insignificante y contingente, y que sólo tendremos algún futuro si encontramos nuestro verdadero lugar.

    2. Apuntes del blog de Gail Tververg ( ) : Los colectivos con mayor interés en decir la verdad sobre la disponibilidad decreciente de energía son:
      1, Los científicos que no necesitan publicar ni financiar sus investigaciones.
      ( ¡ Los jubilados ! )
      2, Los ejércitos, que siendo absolutamente dependientes de la energía fósil conocen desde hace mucho su declive; así que cada vez están invirtiendo más en la guerra biológica. (La industria farmacéutica, obviamente, crece a su sombra)
      3, los bloggers, si entienden la historia ( !!!!! )

    3. I don't think it is possible to get out of the current economic model, in need of growth, and extractivist, within a finite planet. Capitalism won, and has created a defensive dynamic, which makes change from within impossible. Collapse is inevitable. Now well, we should have a strategy to get out of the collapse by maintaining some enlightenment, and avoid another thousand years of obscurantism. think post-collapse strategies

  15. La ciencia nos tiene bien informados de nuestra insignificancia. La tradición ilustrada humanista nos ayudará a encontrar nuestro lugar: humildes dependientes de los demás y de la naturaleza. Comenzar por expulsar a los economistas de la comunidad científica sería un buen comienzo.

    1. I am dealing with Google translate, but I certainly agree that Economics is not Science.

      It's not even science fiction,but more like a fantasy or a mythology expolited by the powers that be to justify themselves.
      And the charts economists churn out make great propaganda tools.

    2. IMHO Economics is to Ecology the same as Astrology is to Astronomy.
      Economics and Ecology both study energy and material flows and describe these phenomena.
      Astrology and Astronomy both describe the motion of the stars and the planets.

      One of the two is scientific and has some predictive power. I think you know which one...


    3. Although I think you and I are overstating the case against economics, the "social scientists" in general aren’t scientists. They may become scientists with enough time and AI computer power, though.

    4. Economists have been brought up in a unique way of thinking, this prevents them from doubting their dogmas of faith, even when the evidence says otherwise, and they look for strange excuses to justify that their thought is still valid. Furthermore, they do not take into account all the variables, as is being seen now with the limitation of natural resources. economics is closer to being a religion than being a science

    5. Es curioso que lo que universalmente conocemos como Nobel de Economía sea en realidad un reconocimiento del Banco Central de Suecia. Sin embargo, los media se obstinan en seguir llamándolo Premio Nobel, otorgándole el prestigio de práctica "científica" excelente que otorgan los premios de la Academia Sueca de Ciencias.

      Por cierto, este año ha recaído en unos autores que han demostrado, mediante un estudio de caso, que el establecimiento de un salario mínimo no conduce necesariamente a un incremento del paro. Anatema en la teoría neoclásica, creo. ¿ Un rayito de luz ? ¿ una brizna de esperanza ?

  16. Concerning Marty Mac's distinction between oral and written communication I'd like to correct his view about "the mind that is trained with the written word". The best mind that used the written word was Plato's mind and yet he chose to explain his thoughts in the form of discourse (dialog). That method was called dialectics, the best scientific method ever devised. That method was in essence discourse. The discourse that Plato used was not at all unstructured, it was in fact highly structured. It requires that the person who searches the truth asks at the same time counter-questions, to doubt his own thoughts. The relation between logical thinking and discourse is not simple. But Marty is right that using written word in the process of learning has special significance. It teaches you to focus, to concentrate on the subject.

    1. I believe that teaching with video, as well structured as written text, with the help of the moving image, could help (and it already does) to transmit quality knowledge. Hearing a human voice, and seeing its figure, is the natural way for humans to convey information and capture attention

  17. in a crisis, political decisions have to be made, you cannot wait for the scientific method to confirm the effectiveness of the mask. Ms. Walensky's shouldn't lie. But you have to make decisions, without having all the proven data. I hope so from a leader

  18. Image-based communication a failure? Think again ... Symbols rule the world, not words, nor laws.

    “The Secret Teachings of All Ages”: The Ultimate Reference in Occult Symbolism