One of the most exciting and at the same time frightening developments of recent years has been our ability to collect and analyse vast amounts of data. Something of the sort has always been possible, but it was only with the arrival of cheap personal computers that ologies like epidemiology have been able to move from pencilled clustered tally marks ‘ ‘ analysed with back of the envelop chi-squared tests via the hidden 1s and 0s of computers to massive data sets probed in ways quite unfathomable even only a few decades ago. Back in 1982, the year Dr No qualified, no one had heard of logistic regression or data modelling. Google’s Ngram Viewer — itself a wonderful example of data collection and analysis — shows that both logistic regression and data modelling took off in the mid nineteen eighties. Add the discrete citizen surveillance device more commonly known as the smart phone, and the explosion in social media use, which have together enabled the collection of personal data on a huge scale, and we now find ourselves living in a world where data is everything, and everything is data; a world in which once unique individuals have become transformed into numbers, to be probed, analysed and described at will, not as individuals, but as data.
How do Western democracies become authoritarian, and then totalitarian states? For an answer, we need look no further than Germany in the 1930s. The Germans are a fine people, advanced in their scientific and artistic achievements, with strings of world class composers, philosophers, writers and others to their credit. Einstein, Handel, Marx, Robert Koch and Herman Hesse were all born in Germany. Wikipedia lists well over a thousand individuals on its notable Germans page. It is difficult to conceive of a more civilised country, and yet, smarting in the ignominity of defeat in the Great War, it managed the most diabolical convulsion into at first an authoritarian police state, and then in short order one of the most foul evil regimes that has ever besmirched the face of the earth.
The recent brisk treatment of Professor Allyson Pollock on twitter by fellow medics reminds us of how polarised views about covid–19 have become. Pollock’s chief point, that a positive PCR test for covid RNA doesn’t on its own prove infectiousness is perfectly reasonable, and Dr No agrees. Finding a broken fragment of a needle in a haystack doesn’t mean you can conclude the haystack is a working sewing machine. Yet an army of contrarians queued up, expressing views ranging from astonishment that she ‘would be willing to risk lives like this’ (argumentum ad homicide), and admonition ‘we have been screening pre-op cases for six months – it’s the accepted standard of care…the position of all four surgical colleges is clear’ (argumentum ad authority and populum), through incredulity ‘the whole thread is wrongheaded’ (argumentum ad bonehead) to imploration ‘loved your book but you are absolutely supporting some nonsense here’ (absolutely argumentum ad incredulum). There was, in short, argumentum ad nauseam, but what was conspicuous by its absence was even a single reference to any evidence that a bald positive covid PCR test confirms infectiousness.
One of the most potent core beliefs of the covid activists — those who want to see more done on a grand scale to control the virus — is that, one way or another, we can manage our way out of covid. Whether the action is sharper and harder lockdowns, or bigger and better mandatory masks, or more frequent and wider ranging testing, the core belief is the same: it is by concerted managed effort that we will control the virus. Dr No, ever the sceptic, has his doubts. Might it be that while all this action makes the activists feel better in themselves, the stark reality is that they are blind hamsters running ever faster in their wheels, oblivious to the fact that however hard or fast they run, they will never get anywhere? Could it simply be that there is no grand scale managed solution to covid, and the pretence that there is lies somewhere between foolish folly and reckless hubris?
Along with social distancing, which includes that commedia dell’malarkey that is masking, given a mask is a barrier, covid–19 testing is one of the three bendy prongs of our rubber trident against SARS-CoV-2. The third is immunity, howsoever gained, which may yet turn out to be the only prong with a real tip. Testing, the way it’s supposed to be, serves three aims. The first, where n = 1, is to make a diagnosis in an individual patient. The second, where n = up to a few dozen, is to identify cases, for contact tracing. The third, where n = up to 67 million or so, is to carry out mass screening, or surveillance. It is hugely expensive, and may, as we shall see, come to be the most expensive covid–19 monetary cost of all, and yet, on the face of it, covid–19 testing is a broken arrow. How shall we count the failures? Let us see.
What should we do about fake news? Perhaps nothing, given it has been around since the Garden of Eden, according to the Pope. But what is new is social media, and so the means to spread fake news fast and wide. Before social media, the only things that went viral were viruses; now, any titbit of anything can set off a chain reaction where the R number operates on an industrial scale, spreading fake news around the world at a dizzying rate; and furthermore, the social media propagators are not subject to any of the conventional checks and balances that are supposed — not that they do these days — to inhibit the worst excesses in mainstream media. Indeed, the MSM have gone their own extra mile, by setting up reality checking units, even if some of it looks rather like Joseph Goebbels fact checking the Thousand Year Reich.
There is a priapic triumphalism emergent among the mask-wearing, virus-suppressing, lockdown-touting cognoscenti. As the weather cools down, the war on heresy is hotting up. The Lady with the Blow Lamp is now the Lady with Two Blow Lamps, one in each hand, trained not just on straw men, but also on Dr No and other doctor-outliers, covid-deniers and mask-decriers. One over-heated academic cum hack got so fired up that he dubbed the whole Sikora-Heneghan-Gupta letter writing cabal as a ‘group of fringe scientists, Conservative lobbyists, paid Republican trolls, and’ — for good measure — ‘a COVID-19 death toll falsifier’. Cripes. The less frantic and more restrained whose cups nonetheless overfloweth sing out their alarms with a refined air of self-importance straining their bastions, like the fat lady whose corset is starting to crack open at the seams. But in their rush to certainty, they have forgotten that there is no fool so great a fool as an all-knowing fool, for only such a fool can possibly be sure that they know all there is to know about covid–19.
The recent odious twitter spat between the self-appointed witchfinder Dr Dominic Pimenta and the aggressive broadcaster Julia Hartley-Brewer about covid false positive rates triggered by Hatt Mancock’s assertion that the rate was ‘less than 1%’ has yet again highlighted the rampant confusion that continues to plague the meaning and interpretation of screening and diagnostic tests. Dr No understands this confusion only too well, since he has struggled for many a long hour to get his head round what the test results and their derivatives — the sensitivity and specificity, positive and negative predictive value etc — really mean. So, in the interests of clearing his own head, and, he hopes, helping a few readers to clear their heads, Dr No is going to do a run through on tests, and explain what matters, and why it matters. Inevitably it is a long post, but at the end we do at least have something of a possible, but baffling, answer to the Pimenta Hartley-Brewer spat.
This remarkable photo, apparently first published by The Spectator, begs a thousand captions, none of them polite. In the interests of least offence, Dr No suggests, ‘When I say jump, you jump!’, but really it almost works better without a caption, because it is the expression on the faces, and the fist about to thump the table, that tell the story. Cummings looks as if he has just been shot in the back with a poison dart, and is about to fall face down on the table, Boris looks like a truculent schoolboy, up before the head after being caught having yet another dump in the College rose garden (‘I couldn’t help it, sir, I had to go’), and Mancock looks like the truculent schoolboy’s hanger-on, who knows he too will get flogged, on a charge of common purpose. Or maybe he’s wondering whether the head knows about the spliff he had behind the College bike shed. But whatever the words and thoughts at play as the photo was taken, surely the most remarkable thing is the insight we gain of the disarray at the heart of government.
Listening to the Prime Minister’s speeches on the radio, one hears irregular thuds in the background, as if a workman in a distant room was testing the heft of a sledgehammer. The thuds are in fact the Prime Minister thumping the desk, dispatch box, or lectern, a displacement activity occasioned by his spectacular inability to hit a single covid nail on the head, let alone whack even a solitary virus. One fears the thuds will become louder and more frequent as time goes by, and start to drown out the words, until one day all speeches come to be the cacophony of a multitude of workmen beating a devil’s tattoos with their hammers as they demolish the stony guardians of ancient British liberties one by one, until we become, as Mainwaring almost said, a nation of automatons led by a lunatic who looks like a clown.