The Price of Scientific Illiteracy

It is true what they say, Canadians are really nice. Probably because Canada is about as nice a place to live as you can ask for. People from every corner of the world come here, learn to live together, and contribute to the country’s cultural mosaic. 47% of people who live in Toronto weren’t born in Canada. Don’t get me wrong, it is far from perfect, but it is as good a model as any in the world for how people from different places with different beliefs can live together.

Canadians also tend to have a pretty positive outlook on the future. Immigrants are likely a big reason why, I imagine anyone that packs up all their things and moves across an ocean must believe that a better world is possible. That optimism is part of the reason why Canadians, especially the children of those immigrants, are pioneers in many of the emerging technologies reshaping society. Like Geoffrey Hinton, the inventor of neural networks, the branch of machine learning that enabled the modern explosion in artificial intelligence. Or Vitalik Buterin, who at 19 founded Ethereum which is now redefining global e-commerce by bringing smart contracts to blockchains. Canada is also home to many of the people responsible for accelerating advances in quantum computing, synthetic biology, brain machine interfaces and more.  

It’s also a big part of the reason why I am here.

My parents were raised in communist Poland. In their late teens, the country they were born in, where my family lived for as long as records show, drove them and most remaining Jews out of the country. Fortunately Israel existed, where they were accepted and given citizenship. There they met, got married, and eventually set out for life in Kenya where they would give birth to me and my brother.

When I was two they faced a decision that none of my ancestors ever had the luxury of facing – where in the world they wanted to live. They had a lot of options but they chose Canada believing it to be the best place to raise a family. I’ve been very lucky that they made that choice.

After I graduated University I came home and for the first time in my life had no responsibilities and nothing to do. I found it terribly boring. I asked around and learned a few friends were organizing a trip to Africa, four days later I woke up in a smelly rundown hostel in sweltering Accra, Ghana…it felt like home. I spent the next decade living and working abroad thanks in large part to my passport as I found Canadians to be warmly welcomed in just about every corner of the globe. Here are all the places I spent more than a month since graduating:

Then I got diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, I’ve written at length about that on this site so I won’t belabor the point, but I again found myself fortunate to be Canadian. Toronto happens to have what in my humble opinion is one of the best movement disorder clinics on the planet thanks to a broad interdisciplinary staff with some truly world class clinicians and researchers that call Canada home. It also happens to be a leading center in deep brain stimulation, a revolutionary technology that has transformed how we care for people with these conditions.

All of that is to say, I have come to really appreciate my Canadian citizenship. However, I now find that it has become an impediment to my well being thanks to a government that has proven not to have the foresight needed to navigate our present crisis. Choosing instead to rely on a string of reactionary half-assed lockdowns instead of taking the difficult steps needed months before to avoid disaster.

Lockdowns are a particularly bad time to live with a neurodegenerative condition. Social isolation and constricted living spaces are just about the worst things you can do to a person in my condition. I’ve seen it accelerate my disease to the point where I recently decided to go ahead with deep brain simulation surgery. I had hoped the operation would happen soon, but now thanks to an overburdened healthcare system it will probably be delayed. I can’t complain too much though, I can afford to wait. But I think of all the people stuck in their homes for the next six weeks that can’t. What will they do? What lengths will some people be forced to go? Not to mention all those that will be infected and the long-term impact that will have on some.

The worst part is that none of this had to happen. Each wave was predictable to anyone that was paying attention, yet each has been met with surprise by our leaders. This clip, for example, was two months ago.

These missteps have become a recurring pattern. I spent six years in China helping run an education consulting company. I got to know students and parents all over the country, including in Wuhan. In early January last year, I started seeing messages on my WeChat feed of some sort of outbreak. I watched from a world away as the situation quickly escalated. Beijing was soon forced to take the radical step of completely shutting down a city bigger than New York. It was at that moment that I realized how much trouble the world was in as China was doing things few other country could to stop the virus in its tracks, like locking people in their homes, including some of my former students and their families. As crazy as that seems for a country to do to its own people, what if it becomes necessary?

At the time I told some friends and family what I was seeing and considered trying to get a message out to the general public and our leaders. But I thought ‘they must understand this threat, there is no way I could be better informed than they are, they must have some advisors in their ear telling them what’s to come. We’ll be fine.’

But no one did anything, the country just stood there watching as Italy, then Iran, then Spain, then one country after the next went in to panic mode once their hospitals reached critical capacity. The same pattern of behavior repeated itself again this fall prior to the second wave, and now again with the third.

Li Wen Liang, the doctor who first warned the world of what was to come. He was silenced, forced to apologize and then turned into a national icon after he himself died from Covid-19. The quote above says “A healthy society should speak with more than one voice.”

In early February I wrote about how bad I thought thing could get and what Canada should do about it. I sent it to a couple friends but again didn’t really do anything with it because I thought, ‘maybe I could get a few people on the internet to read it, but what impact would that really have?’

Well, enough is enough. For whatever it is worth, it is time to add my voice to the growing chorus of people here calling for a change in leadership. I fear the experiment we call Canada that has given me so much is facing an existential threat. This crisis is not over, it won’t be over after this current six week lockdown is up, and unless the world figures out how to equitably distribute vaccines to everyone this likely will never end. (Though these vaccines have been remarkably effective so far, most strikingly in Israel where the leadership had the foresight to do what was necessary to protect its people. And IMO if these vaccines do continue to prove effective against all the variants of concern they will go down in history as our greatest technical achievement to date.)

Here is that letter I wrote two months ago in which I tried to explain what we face and what might need to be done about it:

Variants and Our Alien Invaders

Does anyone understand the risk we still face?

Think of viruses like really sticky spiky spores, just incredibly tiny. So tiny that you can breathe in hundreds in a single breath and not know it. Once they get in, they float around until they stick to and then enter cells in our airways. Most of us have a strong enough defense system to stop them from doing too much damage, and vaccines boost our defenses. But all this is at risk because of the emergence of variants which have the very real potential of eluding our best defenses. We need to declare war on the virus now.

First step, know thy enemy. The virus uses our own cells as biomanufacturing sites to make thousands of copies of itself. Each time it does so it makes mistakes. Once in a while a mistake will make the virus better at exploiting our vulnerabilities, which in turn enables it to make more copies of itself and get into more people. The question is, just how much stronger will it get? No one knows but the more people that get infected, the more chances there will be for even stronger variants of the variants. This has the potential to lead to a frantic arms race between the virus and our vaccine manufacturing/distribution systems.

All that is to say, the virus poses an existential threat that we need to be taking much more stringent measures to mitigate. We should do as Australia, Taiwan, South Korea, New Zealand and so many other countries have done to quell this thing. We have been reactionary every step of the way so far, we can no longer afford to be.

So, what kind of measures do we need to take? Simple, shut down the country, completely, for one month. Our case numbers are low, if we do this now we can obliterate this virus from Canadian soil by April.

Spend the next month preparing, make sure everyone has enough food and supplies to last. While doing so, figure out what is the bare minimum of essential workers needed to keep the lights on and hospitals staffed. Shut everything else down. Schools. Grocery stores. Construction. Everything. Give every Canadian abroad two weeks to come home if they want. Warn them we don’t know when we will reopen.

Once the virus dissipates, meaning we are down to 0 cases, lift the ban on truly essential businesses and schools, and implement a complete and thorough test, track and trace program till the herd is vaccinated.

This isn’t that different from what an alien invasion would be, only this is taking place on the microscopic level, a world as alien to us as any we are ever likely to find, but it is the programming that our world runs on, and it is under attack. This should be thought of as a wartime effort, for all intents and purposes it is.

February 2nd, 2021

The questions still remain. Why has it come to this? Why did Canada not listen to what the experts were saying? Why did some countries do so much better than others?

I would argue that it comes down to two things, poor science literacy and poor communication. The leaders of a country have to be able to understand a problem for what it is, and then clearly and rationally explain it to people. On both of these fronts, leadership in Canada has failed.

Being scientifically literate has nothing to do with the grades you got in chemistry class. It is the ability to understand the natural world around us for what it is. To be able to look at something like a coronavirus pandemic and conceptualize why it is a threat to society. Then the actions that need to be taken need to be properly justified to the people that need to carry them out. 

The latter has been a failing of not just our leaders, but most of the experts who go on television. For the most part they only try to tell people what to do, rarely do they bother explaining why. Why is hard, it takes a lot more time and it often needs to be repeated, but it is necessary, especially in a democracy. I’ll try but keep in mind that I am not an expert. For any experts reading this, if you see a mistake please comment below.

The virus is doing what life does, what some would argue all matter in the universe does – figuring out how to grow and thrive in its environment. The tricky balance that life has to play is knowing what the limits of it’s environment are and not pushing beyond those limits. If it does it is bad for both itself and its host. A lesson we are also learning through climate change.

The virus is trying to reach a steady state within us, where it can live without killing us. The problem is viruses are really stupid. There is debate about if technically we can even call them life. They are more like single minded replicating machines. Their only tool for figuring out how to survive and what the limits of its environment are is natural selection through random trial and error experiments every time it mutates and hits a wall, in this case those walls are put up by our immune systems, our medications, and our vaccines.

I have to think that anyone who understands the implications of this for us should realize why we need to take this so seriously. Here I think is a helpful visual demonstration of how this process works.

My final message is that if somehow this gets to Justin Trudeau or Doug Ford, it is time you look in the mirror and realize you are not who this country needs to get us through these times. There are plenty of public health experts here that understand the problem for what it is and are forward thinking enough to do something about it. At a time like this they, or a group of them, should be making our most important decisions. Especially since the worst of this crisis may still be yet to come…

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No one knows if this new variant now spreading in India is as bad as the charts above makes it seem, but I’d rather not have to find out. Unfortunately, Canada’s leaders once again seem blind to the threat… (from this article)

“India banned international flights last month, but Canada is one of 13 nations exempted through an “air bridge” arrangement between the two governments”.

Great.

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