Problem-solving alone cannot resolve a crisis. Any epidemic is also a crisis of values. It involves choices. The fact-value distinction breaks down in these moments where game theory does not work. It is at this time you need storytelling, method and discourse to intersect.
One of the things I love about old cities like Lahore, Calcutta or Dhaka is what I call the availability of resident ‘eccentrics’. They are outstanding, outspoken group of people who have lived a full life and now, love to play philosophers- in-retirement. Unlike the retired bureaucrats, they are the ones rarely invoke nostalgia.
There is openness to their conversations and questions. I have loved to answer their questions because they often raise issues, some of us may not have thought clearly of. Whenever I am a bit depressed, which is often in Covid-19 time, I like to call one of them.
My favorite is an old scientist, a student of my demised uncle, who still goes to the science lab, regularly. I asked him what he thought of the Covid-19 crisis and he quickly responded: “Covid-19 is a failure of storytelling and ethics.” The crisis stems from that. I was surprised. Therefore, I had asked him to explain.
He smiled wryly; at least one could sense it. Science often becomes barren in these moments. It gives you facts, but facts without perspectives do not tell you much. One needs literature, the texture of a fable or a parable, to tell you that. Then, he added, “Look at the way the government is pushing all the mush about the new normal, as if it is a mini-utopia. A Kafka could have squashed it in a minute.” He paused and said, “I know I have told this story often but it still has insight. It is, I believe, the only story Kafka wrote about our great subcontinent!
A group of forest natives (people) decided to hold a sacrifice. On the day of the full moon, they traditionally invited the high priest to perform the ceremony, but a tiger sneaked in and ate him up. Undeterred, they waited a fortnight and held the ceremony. This time too, the tiger prowled in and ate the priest again. The two unhappy events put the tribes into a crisis and a meeting was summoned.
One of the people attending the meeting happened to be the proverbial the village ‘idiot’. He raised his hand and offered a suggestion. He said, ‘Why not make the tiger that is eating the priest, part of the ritual?’
The old scientist remarked that the idiot understood the new normal. No logic of numbers can capture that. In fact, numbers as narrative have been one of the first casualties of Covid-19. He explained, “It is not just a question of statistics being value loaded, it is the way numbers let you look at an event. When you talk about an exponential rise of casualties, talk of body counts, the fact of death acquires indifference. You lose your sense of mourning and the sacred. Death acquires inevitability. You lose your sense of mourning and the sacred. Death acquires inevitability.
You begin saying, 50,000 deaths are tolerable, normal for a population like ours. When I was a little boy in Dhaka, I had access to newspaper headlines that had cried: 50,000 dead in cholera epidemic. At least 25,000 people affected by malaria…or small pox. Or, diarrhea!
Numbers actually destroy the potency of storytelling where every individual counts.
“Even science”, he remarked “had lost its sense of storytelling. People talk about science as problem-solving. The American philosopher of the ‘sixties’ Thomas Kuhn has immortalized it in his work. Problem-solving banalizes and makes routine, the aspects of science. We invoke the same method, the same predictable pattern of discovery…..,
Talking normal science, one loses the sense that science today is about risk, uncertainty, an adventure of the unanticipated. You lose your sense of exemplars like Alexander Fleming and Louis Pasteur or Robert Koch. Science as method, reiterating a normal science, loses its sense of fable. “It is the same with policy where the expert pretends to know what he does not. He loses the humility before nature and the life that science demands. But the worst casualty of Covid-19, he claimed, is social science.
In describing Covid-19, social sciences have perhaps lost their sense of the social, a sense of norm, of altruism. Economists tend to forget about the informal economy, of thousands of migrants who became visible. The State has destroyed the sense of old age by treating it as a form of obsolescence. The idea of the social, which forms a grand frame of understanding in Marx, Weber, Durkheim, just disappears. “Covid-19 becomes an abstract story of vectors—without community.
The social scientist had almost nothing to say about Covid-19, apart from playing second fiddle to the State. This is why policy is such a second-rate, voyeuristic form of narrative. Policy is not even a third-person narrative. In fact, it lacks a sense of the person and sounds like a pathologist’s report.”
I shot back to him: “For a scientist you tend to be skeptical of science.” He had smiled and said, “It is my scepticism that makes me a scientist. Skepticism and faith go together. Science has given us a sense of the sacred, of the sense of the limits of a science, which still sustains a sense of mystery.”
He paused and then continued. “In this age where people fetishize the scientific temper as if it is another vaccine, this might sound unfashionable. This much is clear. Method alone does not make science in this age of uncertainty. Science needs judgment; it needs a sense of character. Science without ethics is incomplete today.
Again, ethics is more than table manners. Yet ethics can be as experimental as any science.”
The sad thing is that debates on Covid-19 rarely mention ethics. Ethics is not a catechism of dos and don’ts. “Look at it when the migrants were waiting at the bus stations, you sprayed them with chemicals with an objectivity that was frightening. It was as if you were spraying a troublesome crop.
When death is treated with indifference, all you see is a corpse…. human rights should begin in an anatomy class.”
He stopped, was silent, and then said, “When you managerialize a crisis, you banalize even spirituality. You create handbooks of spirituality as if it is another technology. In Covid-19, psychology, management and spirituality continued to create a feel-good feeling. You sensed it in the colorful succulent supplements newspapers produced. You have a science of well-being for the middle class and the affluent but you had no language of suffering, no sensitivity to pain.”
Cost-benefit analysis has no sense of pain. This is the first time there was no Mother Teresa, no religious group talk of sacrifice. Stories of heroism are few and far between. Science without altruism does not go far.
He then explained problem-solving. The idea is touted as activist but the concepts are routine. Problem-solving alone cannot resolve a crisis. “Any epidemic is also a crisis of values. It involves choices. The fact-value distinction breaks down in these moments where game theory does not work.” He added, “It is at this time you need storytelling, method and discourse to intersect.”
The scientists further went on….and claimed the philosophy of science we read in our own country, wherever we live—does not go beyond Popper, Kuhn. These are textbook variations of science, but textbook science is too insulated to handle a crisis in all its complexity. The idea of the new normal is scientifically flawed and ethically illiterate.
And yet….our leaders spout it like god’s truth. The new normal reflects the mediocrity of ideas in the countries of the subcontinent, including India!
He stopped, then said, “The trouble is Covid-19 should have been a graphic novel, a moral fable, a new kind of case study like the neurobiologist, Oliver Sacks, would write. It should bring out the choices we need to face. Sadly, we operate in the new flatland called policy. We need a return to storytelling. Science and society have their roots, their creative myths, there.”
I listened, spellbound. It was a fine assessment of a crisis.
I merely waited to write it out as the work of an exemplar – And….as the articulation of a different paradigm.
I had truly felt grateful.
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