The Buddha said: “…do not be led by reports, or tradition, or hearsay. Be not led by the authority of religious texts, nor by mere logic or inference, nor by considering appearances, nor by the delight in speculative opinions, nor by seeming possibilities, nor by the idea: ‘this is our teacher’.(Kalama Sutta)
Sound advice. It is particularly crucial in the midst of a pandemic crisis. There are many reports of cures, speculations and conspiracy theories about this new disease. We cannot afford to be gullible during this critical time. The time to exercise reasonable skepticism, critical thinking and scientific reasoning is now.
A Facebook friend sent me a video, created by an investment manager of Arab origin. He is promoting a conspiracy theory of the coronavirus. This gentleman has no special training in medicine or science. But he makes the claim that China released the virus to benefit itself. He questions why the number of cases of infection in China is declining while the number of cases in the West is skyrocketing. Based on such discrepancy, he alleged that China released the new virus to destroy the West and gain an economic advantage.
This is an incendiary accusation. I am abhorred by his viciousness, ignorance and idiocy. The number of infections has been declining not just in China, but also in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, and South Korea. Note that these places are highly populated. Population density in East Asia is much higher than that of the West. We should also remember that China and Taiwan are not on friendly terms. Why would China help Taiwan to get the virus under control, even if it could?
There are many reasons why East Asia tends to control the situation better. Chinese New Year was January 25th. In response to the new epidemic, China extended the New Year holidays, then switched to online learning in mid February. As far as I know, Chinese schools are still physically closed. Besides closing schools and quarantining cities, the Chinese people also tend to wear masks in public places. I was in New York’s Chinatown six weeks ago, before the situation escalated. I was already seeing people wearing masks everywhere. In the US, on the other hand, the authorities initially discouraged the wearing masks, saying that it is ineffective. That is an awful advice. Masks are not 100% fool-proof. But wearing masks is definitely better than not wearing them. My mom lives in Hong Kong. She is 83. She told me that she is still doing morning exercises in the park. But when she comes to a crowd, such as in the elevator, she wears a mask. Evidence is that the situation is well-controlled in Hong Kong and other Asian cities. This has much to do with the fact that East Asia had acquired much experience during the 2003 SARS epidemic and also has very different cultural practices. East Asians, including Chinese, Japanese and Koreans tend to be more obedient to government authorities.
Research in social and medical sciences is very different from research in physics or chemistry. The problem is that it is very difficult to attribute cause and effect in a complex system where there is a mix of many factors operating, and it is difficult to sort out which is cause and which is effect. When we see a difference in how a disease spreads in two geographical locations, we cannot just attribute malice or foul play. In research design, we emphasize the importance of having a proper control group. We have to make sure that the samples in the experimental group and in the control group are largely the same — the same in demographics, cultural habits, attitudes, etc. Unless the two groups are largely the same, we are comparing apples with oranges.
The Chinese population and the American population are vastly different. Government policies, healthcare infrastructure and the people’s responses to a shock event are different. The people’s hygiene practices, such as the willingness to wear masks, are different. The people’s degrees of compliance to government orders are different. The races and genetic compositions are different. On top of that, the healthcare systems are different. According to my Chinese friend, medical care is quite readily available for the bulk of the Chinese population, at an affordable cost. It is not the same in the US. Finally, it is much easier for China to shut down the schools. In the US, there is much more resistance to the closing of schools because both parents may be working and it is difficult to find affordable childcare service when children are sent home. Besides, many poor children in the US rely on the school system to get free meals.
In the design of experiments and research studies, scientists know the problem of confounding. Confounding has to do with a confusion which leads to the false attribution of cause and effect. We may think that one particular variable (called independent variable) is causing the difference in results. In fact, there is one or more hidden variables, called extraneous variables, which are causing the difference.
This is a good case study of scientific illiteracy and the lack of critical thinking. Because we are living in a very unusual time, it is all the more important to exercise our thinking skills and not make hasty conclusions. I am a statistician by training. I also taught statistics to nursing students for four years. It took me many years to understand how to properly conduct medical and social research, and to explain the importance of research methodology to medical professionals. What is scientific literacy? What does it mean to be a good scientist? It has much to do with one’s critical thinking skills. When I was teaching my students research design, I urged them to think about alternative explanations. Even after obtaining the empirical data and research results, we ought to ask ourselves, “What could have gone wrong? What could be the flaws in the way the study was done?”
I suggest that we spend some time learning about scientific thinking. The alternative is to succumb to idiocy. The Buddha advised against blind faith and gullibility. We must do fact checking and verify claims ourselves.