The age of doubt is upon us, yet again

As the virus reaches the hard-to-reach countries, the world is in a turmoil.

By Shalini Verma

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Published: Thu 3 Dec 2020, 11:03 PM

A tiny virus upturned our lives in 2020. Before this, we thought that jobs meant going to our workplace to work. Education meant going to school or college. Birthdays meant blowing candles in the presence of friends and family. When a family member passed, one took the next flight to grieve with loved ones. An arbitrary cough in a subway train would go unnoticed. Hugs and handshakes would come instinctively. All that has changed.

As the virus reaches the hard-to-reach countries, the world is in a turmoil. The tumult is not just in our health, but also in our philosophy and belief systems. All our assumptions and presumptions are getting recalibrated against new studies and their findings. Our perception of the world around us has been drastically altered. We have entered the age of Doubt.

Conflicting studies on the efficacy of antiviral drugs like hydroxychloroquine and remdesivir on Covid-19 have left us scratching our heads. Large global and regional institutions have been at odds with one another on this issue. While the World Health Organization (WHO) recommends against remdesivir, European Union (EU) has demanded more information about the WHO’s drug trial before it can reverse its guideline. Days before the trial results were announced, EU had concluded a billion-dollar deal with the remdesivir’s manufacturer Gilead.

At a fundamental level, we have no conclusive information on what caused the pandemic in the first place. We have strong opinions and conjectures but no empirical proof to back any of it. So, nothing is off the table.

We have been served many versions of how Covid-19 infection gets transmitted. Initially, we were given to believe that the infection transmission was not airborne. Then studies showed that the virus transmission could be airborne. CDC, the US national health agency updated its guideline to suggest that the Sars-CoV-2 virus was known to be airborne. It subsequently took down the guideline around the time that WHO became wishy-washy about this. More recently, CDC has once again updated its guideline to warn against that the airborne infection in certain circumstances.

Doubt has seeped into public life in unprecedented ways. A few months ago, an entire cross section of Americans spiritedly protested to express their growing doubts about the objectivity of their police department.

More recently, the outgoing US president, Donald Trump sowed the seeds of doubt in the minds of Republican supporters about the legitimacy of the US election process. Yet this is not the first age of Doubt.

Western Europe entered the age of Doubt after Charles Darwin published ‘On the Origin of Species’. His evolutionary theory caused immense intellectual turmoil in Western Europe as deep-rooted assumptions about human origin were shaken and even uprooted. Britain in the Victorian era struggled to synthesise new scientific discoveries with conservative ideologies in both science and religion. Liberal science had a profound and confounding impact on the minds of Europeans. English biologist and educator, Thomas Henry Huxley even advocated the duty of doubt in order to attain freedom of thought. He coined the word ‘agnosticism’ or no belief, which he considered the foundation of science.

Today, there is active scepticism, perhaps as a reaction to widespread ‘radicalism’ that has characterized the global socio-political landscape. Similar to what happened in the latter half of the 19th century, all aspects of life have changed in 2020. Our notions of happiness and purpose have been redefined.

Yet beyond a point, the similarities across the two ages quickly fade. This time around the age of Doubt has its many shades. Sceptics such as anti-vaxxers, coronavirus skeptics and anti-maskers are demonstrating radical postmodernism. Today, scepticism is not just about questioning established doctrines and practices, but also uncommon ones, such as social distancing. Sceptics do not necessarily engage in empirical debates, for example about the efficacy of masks. They simply disregard expert guidelines because it impinges on their lifestyle and personal freedom. Influential statesmen have undermined science by not following the Covid-19 protocol. Their followers have spawned a counterculture of risky behavior, despite the overwhelming evidence.

Active scepticism has been a double-edged sword in 2020. As fake news is upending news from traditional media, we are doubting every piece of news we read. We constantly check the source and the facts. We ask our friends with domain expertise for advice on what we should and should not believe. They sometimes dither because findings are work in progress.

Covid-19 has turned us into doubting Thomases, questioning established norms and new protocols. Our belief systems are fighting ambiguity as 2020 has played poker with our lives. There is a feeling of being in the doldrums because the pandemic led us into a punitive state of suspended ambiguity. We can only hope that through this pervasive skepticism, we achieve freedom of thought as Huxley had envisioned.

Shalini Verma is CEO of PIVOT technologies

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