September 6, 2020

“Scientific and Sacred,” Bob Ryder

Daniel Patrick Moynihan – “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.”

Carl Sagan – “Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality. When we recognize our place in an immensity of light-years and in the passage of ages, when we grasp the intricacy, beauty, and subtlety of life, then that soaring feeling, that sense of elation and humility combined, is surely spiritual…The notion that science and spirituality are somehow mutually exclusive does a disservice to both.

Proverbs 23:23 – Buy truth, and do not sell it; buy wisdom, instruction, and understanding.

REFLECTION
It’s been almost six months since we were plunged into this tedious, lonely, conflicted, exasperating way of living due to COVID-19. It seems longer, doesn’t it? Yet according to all credible sources, we’re not out of the woods. Back in the Spring perhaps we assumed that by now things would be better. Schools would safely reopen, we’d be back at work and resuming a semblance of our normal lives – such were our hopes. Yet here we are at Labor Day with case numbers on the rise across the country, even here in little old McLean County. This isn’t what we expected, and it’s certainly not what any of us wanted – but it is reality.

As of this weekend the United States has had approximately 6.3 million COVID-19 cases and 188 thousand COVID-19 deaths. Epidemiological models project that by the end of the year the death count in the US will be between 288k / 410k / 620k – depending on how consistently the population practices safety protocols under our control. By the way, these figures come from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington, a source cited by the White House. (https://covid19.healthdata.org/united-states-of-america?view=total-deaths&tab=trend)

Of course, wanting and needing it to be over doesn’t make it go away. Viruses don’t care about economics or politics, wedding plans or holidays or graduations, not about anyone’s constitutional rights or election prospects. Coronaviruses spread, sicken and kill based on the principles of biology. We can pretend to live in some make-believe version of reality more to our liking, or we can cooperate to make things as safe and manageable for ourselves and one another as possible as treatments improve and a vaccine is developed. But there is no quick or easy option available. Sacrifices still have to be made; plans have to be revised, postponed or cancelled. Meanwhile, the more we wash our hands, minimize close physical proximity to others, and wear facial coverings when we venture out, the less the virus will spread and the fewer will get sick and suffer or die. The more we ignore those protocols the more people will get sick, and in our country about 3% of those who do get sick will die. This is the data. This is the science.

I articulate all of this not because I suppose any among us are likely unaware, but because we’re frequently being told otherwise, especially in recent weeks. That’s going to continue. Also, unpleasant as the reality is, it’s worth acknowledging regularly because we are human, and we are tired of it all, and we yearn for it to end. It might become tempting to believe in rosier assessments of what’s going on, ones that sanitize the human cost of our decisions and shift responsibility to others. We needn’t look far for those peddling alternative facts. Social media posts, conservative pundits and some government leaders are eager to tell us the disease isn’t so dangerous after all, that the majority of COVID-19 deaths are actually due to other factors, that enforcing rules for public safety is unnecessarily restrictive, tyrannical and politically motivated. For instance, recent claims that only 6% of the deaths attributed to COVID-19 are actually due to the disease – and that the remaining deaths were caused by other illnesses – are absolutely false, as researched by Politifact. (https://www.politifact.com/factchecks/2020/sep/03/donald-trump/trump-repeats-false-claim-about-covid-19-deaths-fo/)

Similarly motivated statements have claimed that the rise in reported cases is due to increases in testing. This too is false, not to mention absurd. (https://www.politifact.com/factchecks/2020/jun/17/donald-trump/trumps-take-covid-testing-gives-short-shrift-publi/)

It’s exasperating that refuting deliberate stupidity only seems to reinforce the bad behavior. An immature ego loves rebellion for its own sake. Perhaps this belies the most challenging aspect of the pandemic – the human tendency for willful ignorance and wishful thinking. As we move forward, we need to be well informed with accurate information and wise perspective. We need to be responsible in discerning which sources of information to trust, which of course calls on our capacity for critical thinking and scientific literacy.

When the Hubble space telescope was first brought online, astronomers discovered there was a slight but critical warp in the curvature of the mirror that collected the starlight and focused it onto the sensors that analyzed it. Through careful measurements and engineering, a computer package called COSTAR (Corrective Optics Space Telescope Axial Replacement) was created and installed to correct for the aberration, allowing the instruments to see clearly and collect spectacular images that have helped us explore and understand the universe for decades. The human mind is subject to similar aberrations in perception and reasoning. There are dozens, perhaps hundreds of ways we misinterpret reality – often in favor of a more comfortable or flattering conclusion than measurements dictate. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_cognitive_biases  The correction package for this universal human vulnerability includes the scientific method and critical thinking, checking facts, knowing the sources of information and the motivations of those sources. Understanding and disciplining our own motivations and preferences.

The ability to think critically and discern truth from falsehood is primarily a spiritual discipline, right alongside empathy and courage. Over 2000 years ago in 430 BC, there was a Great Plague in Athens, Greece. A man named Thucydides survived and recorded his observations. “Thucydides and his contemporaries did not believe that we are born good. We become good by choosing to do good. We become brave by choosing courage. We overcome the twin vices of self-interest and fear by actively rejecting them.” (Katherine Kelaidis, Atlantic Magazine, March 23 2020) I’m struck by that line – “We overcome the twin vices of self-interest and fear by actively rejecting them.” Could it be that simple, that fear and self-interest are the primary problems we need to avoid in pursuit of knowledge and the virtue to use it well?

Perhaps it’s simple, but it certainly is not easy. Those twins, fear and self-interest, are part of the human condition, the foundation for survival instincts, and they come to the surface whenever we feel threatened. When we are afraid, when our lives or tribe or possessions are at risk, we hunker down and seek to protect what is ours – including our view of the world. We project our fear onto tangible targets and create a sense of “other” so we feel as though we understand where the danger is so we can protect our families and homes, our communities and possessions. Ironically,  these very inclinations to define and locate the sources of our insecurity can make our situation the more dangerous for misinterpreting the actual threats and resources through warped perceptions. As people of faith, cultivating a relationship with the sacred, the challenges and possibilities of this moment call for us to think critically and to be as scientific in our world view as we possibly can, maintaining generosity and courage as we go.