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When wrong and exaggerated forecasts based on computer code are described as ‘science’

Reproduced below is an unpublished paper “Covid-19: Statistics, Science and Scientific Temper” by Pramod Ranjan, whose interests lie in the study of the working style of means of mass communication, analysis of the subaltern aspect of culture and literature and development of modernity.
His works include “Media Mein Hissendari” (Representation of Bahujans in media), “Sahityetihas Ka Bahujan Paksha” (History of Hindi literature: The Bahujan dimension), “Bahujan Sahitya Ki Prastavna” (The Case for Bahujan Literature), three volumes centred on the representative thoughts of EV Ramsamy Periyar and Shimla Diary. His book on Covid-19 is under publication.
Currently, Ranjan is an assistant professor in Rabindranath Tagore School of Languages and Cultural Studies of Assam University.
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The exaggerated fear of Covid has pushed human civilization and culture - which was moving in a certain direction - into deep peril. The direction in which humanity was moving had its own problems but this new crisis has made it imperative to explore which way we were going and what should be our future direction.
We also need to dwell on what science is and how much should we depend on it. Is science and scientific temper one and the same thing? Or is there some fundamental difference between the two? How much faith can we have in science and why is it necessary to be equipped with scientific temper? The two are not contrary but complementary to each other. However, it would be erroneous to believe that scientific temper is only about having faith in science. Scientific temper is also about questioning the intents of science, of suspecting them.
It was in the beginning of 2020 that the world was informed about an unknown virus spreading in the Wuhan province of China. Immediately, some data scientists waved their magic wand and came out with figures that shocked the world. The first among them was Professor Neil Fergusson of Imperial College, Britain. In March 2020, he used a mathematical hypothesis to announce that unless strict steps were taken to stop the march of the Coronavirus, it would kill around four crore persons in the world over the next three months. Specialists in India used the same model to declare that unless a strict lockdown is imposed, the Covid death toll in India would cross the 35 lakh mark over the next three months. And these were estimates for just three months. It was said that if the virus continues to rage for the next year or two, a substantial part of human population would be wiped out. These forecasts were imaginary and baseless and stand exposed. Not only were Covid deaths fewer in countries where strict restrictions were not put in place but excess deaths were also negligible. A well-known example is Sweden, the government of which relied on the wisdom of its people. Besides, countries like Japan, South Korea, Belarus, Turkmenistan, Tanzania, Netherlands, etc either did not impose any restrictions or just issued an advisory. In all these countries, excess mortality was very low. According to official figures, the death toll in these countries, as on 13 September 2020, were: Sweden-5,846, Japan-1,423, South Korea-358, Belarus-744, Turkmenistan-0, Tanzania-21 and Netherlands-6,253. The countries where strict restrictions were imposed not only recorded a higher number of deaths but their economies were also ruined. The health infrastructure in these countries came under severe stress and health services came to a virtual standstill. The uncertainties induced by the restrictions caused deep mental stress to the people which, in turn, led to untimely death of lakhs of persons. All this happened in the name of science.
Baseless estimates and worthless solutions were presented in the name of ‘science’. This was partly the outcome of senseless use of statistics and partly of the use of unsuited and wrong methodologies for collection of data. But all this easily acquired social and intellectual validity in the name of science. The World Health Organisation (WHO), along with declaring Covid-19 a Public Health Emergency of International Concern, changed its data collection system in such a way that it became very difficult to know whether a deceased person had Covid or had died of Covid. Thus, the difference between a person who was infected with Covid but had died due to some other disease and a person who had died due to Covid was obliterated. This was described as the ‘science’ of data collection. Under this ‘science’, deaths of persons who had Covid but had died due to some other disease were also counted as Covid deaths and using IT, the burgeoning figures of these deaths were flashed around the world.
New studies in this regard have come out with startling disclosures. 
According to the data made public in the first week of September 2020 by the US Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, in only six per cent of cases the doctors had held ‘only Covid’ responsible for death. This meant that of the 1,61,392 deaths in the US till that date, only 9,210 could be solely blamed on Covid while the remaining 94 percent deceased had co-morbidities, any of which could have been responsible for their death. Had they received proper treatment for the co-morbidities, may be, many of them would have survived. If the health system was functioning properly and adequate number of trained health personnel was available, a majority of these 94 percent persons would have been alive today.
A closer look at Covid deaths in India would also reveal that most of them were attributable not to Covid but to other diseases from which the patients were suffering before they contracted Covid. But the fear that they might be infected with Covid came in the way of they getting proper treatment for their pre-existing diseases. Elderly heart patients formed a majority of these unfortunate persons. Additionally, a large number of Covid patients died due to the use of wrong medicines by hospitals. Probably the biggest culprit was an anti-malarial drug, which was used for treating Covid in India and in most parts of the world under the protocol laid down by the WHO – again in the name of science. Different researches have revealed that anti-malarial drugs could be fatal for cardiac patients.
The insensitivity that informed the treatment of Covid patients in hospitals in India and other Third World countries also led to a large number of deaths. There were reports of Covid patients in India being kept alongside unclaimed bodies and peeing dogs. The seriousness of the situation can be gauged by the fact that a journalist from a leading Hindi daily, who was suffering from Covid, jumped to his death from the multi-storied building of one of the prestigious hospitals in Delhi, where he was under treatment. There were even reports that patients who complained of mismanagement in hospitals were threatened that they would be killed by administering wrong medicines to them. The walls of social media pages of scores of persons linked with my social media accounts carry heart-rending accounts of how they rushed from one hospital to another with their loved ones suffering from diseases other than Covid but the hospitals refused admission, leading to their deaths. 
In India, there were reports from Meghalaya, among other places, of how women in labour being refused admission by hospitals, forcing them to deliver babies in the open and leading to the death of both the mother and the child. Social media is chock-a-block with complaints from people that their loved ones, who had died of other diseases, were declared dead due to Covid. On the other hand, those who recovered from the infection reported that it was not a painful disease. Of course, they came under psychological pressure when they were declared as suffering from Covid but they never felt that they were going to die. This was the situation not only in India but in all Third World countries. 
In fact, the behaviour and the attitude of the health personnel of even the so-called developed nations were extremely insensitive. The fact is that the many times more lives were lost due to the panic created through IT tools and the unwise, unwarranted and insensitive restrictions imposed on the people, than due to Covid per se. Other studies have come out with evidence-backed revelations of how the official data on Covid deaths was misleading and false. Britain has admitted that its figures were exaggerated. Thanks to wrong methodology, even those whose death was mainly due to other reasons were declared as victims of Covid. Denis Rancourt, a respected professor of Physics at University of Ottawa and his team said in a report of their research, published in August 2020, that the excessively strict quarantine rules enforced in France, purportedly for protecting the people from Covid, led to 30,200 deaths in the country in the months of March and April due to strict quarantine measures. At that time, the number of Covid deaths in France was less than 25,000. According to official figures, at the time of the writing of this article (14 September 2020), around 31,000 persons had died due to Covid in France.
According to Professor Rancourt, the main reason behind these deaths was “The psychological stress and social isolation of individuals with health vulnerabilities.”
The research concludes, “By mass quarantine in care homes and establishments, the State isolated vulnerable elderly persons from their families, limited movements within establishments, often confining individuals to their rooms or beds for days and weeks if not months, reduced the staff and allowed staff to take extended or frequent sick leaves, forced staff to adopt extreme measures such as masks, shields and gloves, which can induce a measure of fear or terror, created a general atmosphere of danger, and prevented air circulation by locking doors and windows, and by preventing ingoing and outgoing traffic except for essential services.”
Since the power holders feel that they can benefit from the feeling of fear among the people, they are trying to perpetuate it in their minds. Projection of Covid as an extremely sinister and extremely fatal natural catastrophe has ensured that the question that why we have very few hospitals is forgotten, as also the question that why the number of medical colleges is so low. What is the logic behind giving medical science a special status and distancing it from other disciplines of knowledge? Why is it not mandatory for every college and university to have a medical science department? Why did the governments across the world lay great stress on education but dragged their feet when it came to making health care a basic right of the people? Many countries, including India, declared education as the means for building human resources. Resources for whom? These and other such questions that cause unease have been made to disappear from the public discourse.
In the present times, not only crude and unrefined science is being presented before the world as authentic and factual but also using IT, we are being bombarded with dubious information. The way free flow of information has been blocked, the way brains are being conditioned and the massive arrangements made to reach the so-called ‘official information’ to the people is really unprecedented. But the question is that if the science which is being used for combating Covid is unrefined or ‘wrong’ then what is refined or the ‘right’ science? The quest for an answer to the practical aspect of this question leads us to a discourse which tells us that science can and does become a game in which arguments are bandied about without any concern for their objectivity – a game the powers play to further their own interests. Bereft of scientific temper, science can be a source of inertia and superstitions, and thereby a blinkered view of things.
For instance, Professor Neil Fergusson’s projections of Covid deaths were based on a statistical code that was run on computers. The forecast made on the basis of this code legitimized the lockdowns, which caused lakhs of avoidable deaths in Britain, America, India and the rest of the world; pushed crores into unemployment and poverty; deprived people of their basic freedoms and made digital surveillance a new normal.
The wrong and exaggerated forecasts based on this computer code were described as ‘science’. Most of the political leaders and news outlets of the world used the forecasts based on this code to assert that the decision to impose lockdowns was ‘scientific’ and was a part of the ‘science’ of combating epidemics. And this propaganda continues to date.
However, later studies revealed that the code used was 13-year-old, crude and irrelevant . The code came up with different results when run by different persons. Can this be called science? The answer can be both yes and no, depending on how you see it. That is why; the supporters of lockdown see it as ‘science’ while its opponents as rubbish. Some time back, a veritable war had broken out between the supporters of the two views in the columns of newspapers and research journals.
Those who believe that this computer code is ‘science’ assert that it was due to the projections based on it that lockdowns were imposed and lakhs of lives were saved. Otherwise, the hospitals, which, in any case were not in adequate numbers, would have been inundated by infected persons and the total number of deaths due to Covid or other diseases would have been many times over that it actually turned out. They believe that whether it was wrong or right, the forecasts did fulfil their basic objective of creating fear – both in public and in the governments. And that is why, it is science. On the other hand, those who contend that the code was pseudo science or a fraud argue that the mayhem caused by the projections resulted in a much higher number of deaths than if the world was told the truth. They argue that if the code was incapable of making accurate predictions, the decisions based on it cannot be called ‘scientific’.
‘Science’ has been defined by innumerable thinkers and philosophers. But at the practical level, it is still an unclear concept. Like religious priests, the priests of science can interpret the theoretical definitions as per their convenience.
Be that as it may, a related question is whether statistics can be called a science. Based on the arguments quoted above, the answer can be both yes and no.
There is an anecdotal tale about what statistics, devoid of common sense, can lead to. A villager set out on a long journey with his family – wife and three children. He was known in the area for making calculations of all sorts before doing anything and had a reputation for being over-wise. After journeying for many days, while he and his family were passing by a village, the locals advised them not to proceed ahead and stay for the night at the village. The traveller was told that there was a river on the way which was too deep to wade through and that a boat would be needed to cross it. The wise man asked lots of questions about the flow of water in the river, its depth, its deepest stretch and so on. He was told that the depth was not less than 6-7 Balisht , that it is a fast-flowing river and its bed is uneven and that no boatman would be available to ferry them across after dark. The man, wise as he was, made some calculations and discovered that the average height of his family was more than the depth of the river.
He ignored the advice and marched ahead with his family. When he reached the river bank it was already dark and the boatmen had left. But he had no worries. He knew that the average height of his family is more than the depth of the river. All the five members of the family entered the river and began wading through the water. But only the wise man, his wife and his eldest daughter reached the shore. Both his sons were drowned as their height was less than the depth of the river. The story shows what kind of disasters can result if the mathematical and statistical formulae are used unwisely.
The fact is that neither mathematics nor statistics nor science – in fact none of the human knowledge systems – are as self-evident as they are shown to be in the modern teaching systems. There is no doubt that the human race has immense potential of studying and regulating the living world which would be realized by the coming generations. But we also face the danger of technology overwhelming human intelligence and common sense.

Unscientificness of science and totems

Two examples would suffice. Most countries, including India, have made wearing of facemasks compulsory, ostensibly to contain the spread of Covid. However, there is no evidence that facemasks can protect one from the virus. In fact, facemasks give the wearer a false sense of security and the use of mask for long hours can prove fatal to those suffering from pulmonary diseases. Mask is just a totem, which is being used to perpetuate fear. And there is no attempt to hide the real motive either. 
Some time back, the government of the Indian state of Jharkhand published an advertisement in newspapers, warning that not wearing face masks may attract heavy fine or even a jail term - this when the state is home to a large number of the poor and the tribals. The advertisement said that wearing of masks had been made compulsory to ‘bring about a change in the behaviour of the people’. Similarly, the Government of Meghalaya declared the entire population of the state as ‘asymptomatic carriers of Covid’ and made wearing of masks compulsory. The Government’s rule says that under Covid protocol, all residents of the state would, without any exception, have to compulsorily follow three commandments: “compulsory wearing of masks, practicing personal hygiene (washing of hands with soap or use of sanitiser) and maintaining physical distancing at all times, ( both in public and personal premises).
The government of this northeastern tribal state, which has seen a very few cases of Covid, justifying its decision said “The moment you begin to think that you are Covid positive your behaviour changes. You are more cautious.”
Can these totems be called science? Won’t you be surprised if I say that ‘yes, this is also science’. As its role in maintaining social fear can be replicated and since its psychological impact is pre-determined, hence it is science.
Today, lakhs of people in the world are opposing masks. Germany and Australia recently witnessed huge rallies to protests mask-wearing. Over the past few months, there were a series of demonstrations in America to protest against making facemasks compulsory. It is possible that the questions being raised on the efficacy of facemask may render it less effective in generating fear. Then, this ‘science’ would become outdated and old.
The second example is related with one of the most basic, natural needs of the living. Dr Theresa Tam, a famous medical scientist of Canada and the chief medical office of the country apprised the people of the scientific way of having sex during the Corona period. In an official statement issued on 2 September, she advised the people to “skip kissing, avoid face-to-face closeness and wear a mask that covers your mouth and nose” while making love. She also drew the attention of the people to the fact that “As per current evidence, there is little chance of contracting COVID-19 through semen or vaginal fluid.” The doctor also warned that before indulging in any sexual activity with a partner outside of one’s household (lover, sex worker or even husband and wife meeting after a long gap), one should monitor one’s sexual partner for Covid-like symptoms and avoid having sex with obese persons and persons with compromised immune systems as they are at a higher risk of contracting Covid.
Similarly, Association for Erotic and Sexual Service’, a German organisation that works among the sex workers, has issued a ‘hygiene code’ for its members which bars them from kissing their customers or giving any type of ‘oral service’. It has also made wearing of facemasks and of gloves during some particular activities compulsory. The code says that while they are on the job, the sex workers should keep their heads at one-hand distance from the face of their customers.
Is this science? And if it is, thank heavens that it is not asking us to maintain a distance of two metres while having sex! After all, that, according to science, is the minimum distance one should keep from others to keep one safe from Covid.
An even more pertinent issue is whether it is possible to observe these science-mandated rules while indulging in the primordial biological activity, which is a free and unbridled expression of love.
But many health journals have published research papers confirming the scientificness of this ‘science’. In one such article published in Annals of Internal Medicine, medical scientists of Harvard University have suggested a way of completely adhering to the Covid-related science. They say that indulging in masturbation or sexual activity via digital platforms such as phone or video chat are the safest in the current times.
Needless to say how unscientific and nonsensical these solutions, suggested in the name of science, are. Had these scientists been equipped with scientific temper, they would not have gone along with the flow and would have realized the future social and psychological implications of their recommendation to indulge in virtual sex.
In my last article on this topic, I had talked about how initially highly exaggerated forecasts about Covid deaths were made and later the system of compiling data on deaths was changed. The fact is that pandemic can be attributed more to the systematic creation of fear than to the virus itself.
In this article, my main objective is to draw your attention towards the difference between science and scientific temper.
The word ‘Science’ has originated from the Latin word ‘Scientia’, which literally means ‘knowledge’. Subsequently, ‘Science’ emerged as a methodical enterprise in the field of knowledge, which brings to the fore such facts about the living organisms, our world and our universe, which can be examined and tested and on the basis of which an accurate forecast can be made. In other words, Science is systematized branch of knowledge, the results of which can be replicated.
For instance when Newton discovered gravitational pull by systematically studying why apple falls on the earth, he discovered a scientific principle because the experiment will yield the same results in identical conditions and an accurate prediction can be made that every time an apple gets detached from the tree, it will fall on the earth.
In historical context, science is just a stage in the continuous development of knowledge. It is the name given to the condensed knowledge available to date – in a sense the practical aspect of knowledge. For the layman, science means a branch of knowledge which uses impeccable methodology to arrive at irrefutable conclusions. Over the past couple of decades, the people have formed the image of a scientist as a super human and of science as a discipline that performs eye-popping miracles. Science has been established as a god who is never wrong.
Its efficacy has contributed as much to the prestige of science as the fact that the earlier systems of acquisition of knowledge (which was generally compiled by religious) had turned old and stale. In fact, religion is also an older, outdated version of science. Religion claimed that it taught morality and humanism to people. Science says that it is moral and humanistic in itself. The claims of both only served the interests of the individuals and the groups that benefitted from them.
The birth and development of science followed the same trajectory as that of religion. Religion was the condensed form of the best knowledge available at that time. It also represented the practical aspect of the knowledge that humanity possessed. Problems arose when religion started being used by the powerful to serve their interests. With changing times, religion became outdated. Besides, hypocrisy and fraud increasingly began making inroads into it.
What had once happened with religion, is happening with science today. But debates and discourses can lead to the development of a science that can help build a beautiful world focused on welfare of people.
The common sense and intelligence of the people represent intrinsic scientific temper, which needs to be developed. But this cannot be achieved by unilateral discoveries and inventions of science. And neither can scientific temper be developed by learning how to use the latest technology.
All knowledge systems, including science and religion, are outside of us whereas scientific temper is inside us. Scientific temper does not only show us the way to reject superstitions, magic and mumbo-jumbo, born out of the outdated knowledge systems (religion etc) but it can also help us scrutinise the claims of modern science.
For the development of scientific temper and to stop science from turning into religion, we would have to bring science out of the ivory towers built with corporate capital. Science must be brought to the people, to where it belongs. It has to be subjected to debate, discourse and scrutiny. There is no need to keep it above suspicion. This will make human reason, intellect and common sense, accumulated over the millennia, available to science and that in turn, would make science sensitive and people-oriented. Subjecting science to scrutiny and debate would sharpen the experience-acquired scientific temper of the people and would make science based on incontrovertible and solid facts.
It is not that only the material development of the world has been skewed – with some parts more prosperous than the others. The pace of development of knowledge systems has also been different in different geographical, cultural and social zones of the world. In the case of Varna system (which might have originated in India but holds large parts of south Asia in its grip) this inequality has also been based on the occupations assigned to specific communities. That is why, the privileged sections easily managed to establish their hegemony over new systems as they came into being.
One mandatory lesson of the Covid times is that science should be brought under democratic scrutiny and its development should be made people-oriented. And our education system should lay emphasis on development of scientific temper.

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