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The Pandemos | Issue 151


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The Greeks

Michael Baumann imagines what a modern Socratic dialogue might be like.

Socrates, my old nemesis!” Thrasymachus exclaimed. Socrates looked up and shielded his eyes against the sun. “Thrasymachus, my old friend,” he replied. “It’s been a while. Come, come, sit with me.”

Socrates put on his face mask as Thrasymachus sat down next to him.


Socrates by Woodrow Cowher
Portrait © Woodrow Cowher 2022 Please visit woodrawspictures.com

“You know,” Thrasymachus said, “It is a strange thing that you call me your friend.”

“Is it?” Socrates said. “Why?”

“Because of our disagreements, of course.”

“We do have our disagreements. Still, I learn so much from you.”

Thrasymachus looked hard at Socrates. “Do not scorn me, Socrates. For if you do, I shall leave at once.”

“Please stay, Thrasymachus. I have no intention of scorning you.”

“You have done so in the past!”

“And in the past you have scorned me. But that was when we were in company.”

“It is true,” Thrasymachus said. “Besides, I am sure that we can agree on something for once.”

“That the sky is blue, the air warm, and the streets quiet?” Socrates laughed.

“Yes, that too. But I am talking about the hoax.”

“The hoax?”

“The Covid hoax, of course.”

Socrates fell silent for some time. Then he spoke up.

On First Principles

“Do you agree, Thrasymachus, that knowing the truth is preferable to believing a falsehood?”

“Knowing the truth is preferable.”

“And do you agree that knowing the truth means that there is a match between observations and beliefs?

“There must be a match.”

“And that any man will have only limited access to observations?”

“We cannot see and hear everything.”

“And that therefore many observations will reach us through reports by others?”

“It is obvious.”

“And do you agree that these reports may be either true, incomplete, inconsistent, or false?”

“Yes, these are the possibilities.”

“And do you agree that a man who believes everything knows very little?”

“Yes, I do.”

“And do you also agree that a man who believes nothing knows very little?

“He too knows very little.”

“And that therefore knowing the truth requires believing some reports and not believing others?”

“Indeed.”

“So knowing the truth requires examining the reports that inform our beliefs?”

“I see where you’re going.”

“And that therefore we must examine the reports that inform your belief in the hoax?”

“I do agree, Socrates. But I must warn you. I will win this argument, and you will lose it.”

“Let us not talk about winning and losing.”

“So be it.”

On the Burden of Proof

“You say, Thrasymachus, that Covid is a hoax?”

“That is what I say.”

“That there were, or are, no people sick from Covid? That the pictures that reached us from hospitals were staged, that the stories in newspapers were all lies? That all the data collected by scientific institutions, in different countries, within different political systems, are false?”

“I say that the reports are exaggerations.”

“What is the evidence that underlies your claim?”

“What is the evidence that underlies your claim, Socrates?”

“But I have not made a claim, Thrasymachus. You have. More than that, you have made an extraordinary claim, and extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. What is your extraordinary evidence?”

“My evidence is that the government’s goal is to control us and that the pandemic is a means to do it.”

“What you are saying does not constitute evidence. It is conjecture. Shall we examine it, nonetheless?

“You will, Socrates, whether I agree to it or not.”

“There are two questions your conjecture generates. First: Is it the government’s goal to control us? And second: Is the pandemic a means to do it?”

“Okay. Those are fair questions.”

On the Purpose of Government

“Do you agree, Thrasymachus, that some people are selfish although many are not?”

“Yes, some people are selfish.”

“And do you agree that selfishness rewards the one and deprives the many?”

“That is selfishness by definition.”

“And that if selfishness is rewarded, it will result in more selfishness?”

“That is the consequence.”

“And that a society comprised of the selfish will live in con flict?”

“By necessity.”

“And that conflict creates misery?”

“Yes.”

Socrates paused for a while.

“Do you also agree, Thrasymachus, that we live in a democracy?”

“You know we do. And I know that you do not approve of it.”

“Nevertheless, do you agree that in a democracy the government rules by consent of the citizens?”

“That is democracy by definition.”

“And that if the government’s actions result in the happiness of the citizens, the citizens will give their consent? And if the government’s actions result in the misery of the citizens, they will take away their consent?

“In the next elections, yes.”

“And that therefore the interest of government is to create happiness and destroy misery for the citizens?”

“Yes, that is their interest.”

“And therefore, the government must control the selfishness of the few in order to protect the happiness of the many?”

“The tyranny of the majority, Socrates, that’s what that is.”

“And therefore, in a democracy the purpose of government is to control selfishness.”

On the Deep State

“Maybe the purpose of government is to control selfishness,” Thrasymachus conceded. “And maybe there is accountability in government, if only through the next elections. But how about the unelected government bureaucrats who seek to control us – the Deep State?”

“By unelected bureaucrats, do you mean the civil servants and the experts that work for the government?”

“Yes, them.”

“Do you agree, Thrasymachus, that we can elect and dismiss governments?”

“Yes, Socrates, by giving or taking away our consent. I have already conceded that.”

“And do you agree that governments can hire and sack their experts?”

“Yes, they can.”

“And that therefore those experts are also accountable to us citizens?”

“But how can we know that we can trust them?”

“Do you agree, Thrasymachus, that a farmer knows more about farming than other citizens who are not farmers?”

“Of course. Why even ask?”

“A sailor more about seamanship? That a soldier knows more about warfare?”

“Who else?”

“So we have concluded that an expert knows more about their field of expertise than a layman?”

“That is an expert by definition. Why do you torture me with definitions?”

“Do you also agree that you yourself seek the services of experts on things you know nothing about?”

“Of course, I do. I am not a fool.”

‘‘And do you trust your doctor that he is not prescribing you rat poison, the engineer that he knows something about building bridges, your pilot that he is not drunk? Do you trust your waiter that he did not spit in your soup, your lawyer that he is not overcharging you, the zookeeper that he has locked the tiger cage?’’

“I do.”

“So you agree that in fact trust is the foundation of civil society?”

“If only because it is in their interest not to fail in their profession.”

“Do you agree then, Thrasymachus, that a wise government will seek the services of experts on things it knows nothing about?”

“Of course, it is.”

“Do you agree, moreover, that it is in the interest of experts to remain employed?”

“It is.”

“And that is therefore in the interest of experts to do their best?”

On Expertise

Thrasymachus looked as if he had just bitten into a fresh lemon from Syracuse. “But experts have been wrong in the past, Socrates. Remember when they said that face masks do not prevent Covid infections?” he replied.

“They do not.”

“But why were we wearing masks, then? And why do many still wear them?” He nods towards Socrates’ own mask.

“Because they reduce the probability of infection. And if we cut the chance in half, we will have half the infections.”

“So you agree that wearing a mask does not guarantee protection?”

“It does not. But do you agree, Thrasymachus, that it is possible to both know something, and to lack knowledge about other things?”

“That is self-evident.”

“And do you agree that a man can always know more than he already knows?”

“Nobody has perfect and complete knowledge.”

“And that knowing more may change your belief?”

“If the evidence changes, the wise man will re-examine his position, yes.”

“So, tell me, Thrasymachus, what else can experts provide but their best knowledge at the time?”

“My point is that they have been wrong in the past.”

“Of course, they have. But do you know who has been more wrong, more often, on the matters upon which the experts, although fallible, are experts?”

Thrasymachus shrugged his shoulders, “No.”

“Laypeople,” Socrates said.

Covid Spreads Its Grip
Covid Spreads Its Grip by Friedrich Farshaad Razmjouie, 2022

On Vaccines

“Hah, Socrates, you just steered yourself into a trap!”

“How so, Thrasymachus?”

“I am talking about the Covid vaccine, of course.”

“Do you believe that Bill Gates is trying to implant microchips in our bodies? Or George Soros? Or Hilary Clinton? That Google is trying to make a fortune selling useless vaccines? Or Amazon? Or Apple?”

“You said you would not scorn me, Socrates. And now you are insulting me.”

“What is it then that you believe, Thrasymachus?”

“You must agree that more observations will increase what a man already knows?”

“Such is the nature of investigation.”

“And so you must agree that even if scientists believe that something is beneficial now, it may turn out to be harmful later?”

“I do agree.”

“You must therefore agree that the wise man will wait to hear about the long-term results of the vaccine.”

“Wait until when, Thrasymachus? Until knowledge is perfect and complete? Do you not realize that a good decision made an hour too late is really a bad decision? And that in order to make a good decision in time, you must make a comparison?”

“Compare what with what?”

“Do you agree, Thrasymachus, that if you want to know the cause of an effect, you must observe situations where the supposed cause is present and compare it with situations where it is absent?”

“Yes, you must compare these situations.”

“So, if you want to know if drinking hemlock can cause a man’s death, you must compare men who drink hemlock with those who do not?”

“Yes, I understand. Go on.”

“And if you want to find out whether receiving a vaccine is beneficial or harmful, you must compare men and women who receive the vaccine with those who do not?”

“It is obvious.”

“And if you find that the fraction of people suffering harm or ill-health is the same in both groups – for those who received the vaccine and those who did not – you must conclude that the vaccine is at least safe?”

“If the groups are large enough and varied enough, yes.”

“And if you find that the fraction of people falling ill with Covid is much lower in those who received the vaccine, you must also conclude that the vaccine is effective?

“Yes, if that is the case.”

“But that is exactly what the vaccine experts did find.”

On Long-Term Effects

“But what I am saying is that the groups studied were not big enough, and the studies not long enough.”

“How big then, Thrasymachus, should the groups have been? Ten, a hundred, a thousand citizens, randomly assigned to either treatment or placebo?”

“I do not know the numbers. I am not a scientist, Socrates.”

“Do you agree that therefore it is scientists who will know the group sizes that are needed for a valid inference from the trial experiments?”

“Yes, of course.”

“The same experts who you called the ‘Deep State’ earlier?”

“You want a number, Socrates?” Thrasymachus suddenly yelled. “I’ll give you one: At least ten thousand, in each group. What do you say to that?”

“I say that it was twenty thousand citizens they tested in each group.”

“It does not matter, Socrates – the vaccine was rushed. We lack information on the long-term effects.”

“It is true, the approval process by the health authorities was expedited, but the study was not rushed. I am sure you see that there is a difference.”

“I see that the long-term effects of the Covid vaccine are unknown.”

“Yes, the long-term effects of the Covid vaccine are unknown. But we do understand how the immune system works and what vaccines do. And even if we did not, we know the success that vaccinations have had in both humans and animals, in terms of smallpox, and polio, and rabies, for example.

“All propaganda, Socrates. I am surprised you believe it.”

“Well, do you agree, Thrasymachus, that we know more about vaccines than we know about coronaviruses?”

“It is probably true.”

“And do you agree that we have learned a great deal about vaccines since the invention of the first vaccine over two hundred years ago? And that we know a great deal about the real risks of vaccines – contamination, allergies, and side-effects? And that we have methods to assess the risks, and procedures to minimize them?”

“If you say so.”

“And also that, quite apart from the deadly short-term effects of coronavirus, studies also suggested serious long-term health effects from Covid infections? Like on-going fatigue, shortness of breath, and loss of smell or taste?”

“I do not know about that.”

“Ignorance does not make you immune to disease, Thrasymachus – vaccines do. But do you at least agree that the best way to test the consequences of an action is to observe those consequences?”

“Yes.”

“And do you not think that that is what health authorities do?

“They probably do.”

“So the health authorities monitor both immediate side effects and long-term effects of the vaccine, alongside the long-term effects of Covid itself?”

On Natural Immunity

“Still, I’d rather rely on living healthy and strengthening my natural immunity.”

“Do you not understand how the immune system works, Thrasymachus?”

“As much as you do, Socrates, I’m sure.”

“Then do you agree, Thrasymachus, that the immune system is strengthened by being exposed to disease agents, such as bacteria and viruses?”

“I do. Whatever doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.”

“And do you agree that vaccines are nothing more and nothing less than inactivated forms of disease agents?”

“Or that the vaccines produce these inactivated forms – yes, I do.”

“And do you agree that therefore receiving the Covid vaccine means being exposed to the disease agent in its inactivated form?

“Yes, I do.”

“And do you agree therefore that receiving the Covid vaccine will strengthen your immunity?”

“But it is not natural.”

“Do not play the fool, Thrasymachus. What else in our lives is natural? The wheel, our clothes, our houses? Besides, strengthening your natural immunity will not prevent other serious diseases. Think the plague, or tuberculosis, or HIV. Why would you think that natural immunity would help against Covid?”

On the Media

“Still, I read somewhere that three women died in Portugal after receiving the Covid vaccine.”

“There are two issues here. First, did you not earlier dismiss newspaper reports as exaggerations?”

“Some of them are true.”

“Are those the ones that support your beliefs, Thrasymachus? You can do better than that.”

“What is the second issue, Socrates?”

“Accuracy. The match between reports and facts.”

“How can I know that?”

“Do you agree, Thrasymachus, that the average day in the life of the average citizen is boring?”

“I do.” He yawns thinking about it.

“And do you agree that the average citizen detests boredom, and is therefore interested in the extraordinary?”

“I do indeed.” He thinks about last night at the theatre and the symposium.

“And that the media are in the business of selling stories?”

“Yes, that is their business.”

“And that they sell more stories if they report on the extraordinary rather than the boring?”

“Yes, I do. They will sell more stories by reporting on ‘Man bites dog’ rather than ‘Dog bites man’.”

“Then should we be surprised when the media reports on the Covid vaccine occasionally killing people rather than frequently saving them?”

“Hah! So you agree that three women died in Portugal after receiving the Covid vaccine!”

Socrates could hear the triumph in Thrasymachus’ voice. “I do believe it. In fact, I would be surprised if not many more women and men have died after receiving the Covid vaccine. Which brings me to the accuracy of the report.”

“Go on, Socrates.”

“Do you agree, Thrasymachus, that at the end of their lives people die?”

“What a foolish question!”

“Foolish or not, answer me.”

“Yes, by definition, people die at the end of their lives.”

“And do you agree that people die of different causes?”

“Yes, like heart disease, or cancer, or an accident,” Thrasymachus said. “And infectious diseases, and poisonings.”

“And that a woman or a man may receive a vaccine, and then die from any of the causes you just listed?”

“Of course, of course.”

“And that any event that precedes another event may be interpreted as the cause for the later event, whether it was or not?”

“Yes, that frequently occurs.”

“And that therefore receiving the vaccine may not have been the cause of death?”

On Civic Duty

“Whatever, Socrates. I believe that receiving the Covid vaccine is too great a risk. Therefore, I refuse it. It is my body, and the government cannot force me.”

“There are real risks, as we discussed, Thrasymachus, just as there are real risks with your last tetanus shot and antibiotic, just as with your mobile phone and the brakes in your car, just as with the chemicals in your beauty care products and the vitamin supplements you take. But what I am talking about is civic duty.”

“Civic duty? What should be my civic duty? To receive the vaccine?”

“Do you agree, Thrasymachus, that if you want to benefit from public services, you must pay your taxes?”

“What public services?”

Platos Academy
Mosaic of Plato’s Academy, found in Pompeii

“Streets and bridges. Schools and universities. Emergency services, healthcare, social services.”

“There are people who do not agree.”

“There always will be. But the question is this: What kind of person do you want to be?”

“Yes, I agree, if I want to use the public services, I must pay my taxes.”

“And do you agree that if you refused to pay your taxes, the public services would still run?”

“Yes.”

“But that if everybody refused to pay their taxes, the public services would cease to run?

“Yes, for who would pay for them?

“Then do you agree, Thrasymachus, that if you want the Covid epidemic to end, you must make your contribution to it?”

“That is different, Socrates. I will not forgo my rights and freedoms. And what you call ‘duty’ here is nothing more than a preference.”

“That is the virus’s advantage, Thrasymachus.”

“Explain, Socrates.”

“Your rights and freedoms as a citizen allow you to indulge in your ignorance and your selfishness. The government needs your co-operation. If you refuse, there is little they will do, although there are some things they could do. But the virus does not need your permission to infect and to kill. That’s the virus’s advantage.”

“That’s scaremongering.”

“That is reality, my friend.”

“Leave me alone Socrates! You’re exasperating me!” He got up to leave.

In Conclusion

“Before you go, Thrasymachus, may I ask you one last question?”

“You will ask it, Socrates, but I shall warn you, I may refuse to answer.”

“Which is your prerogative, of course.”

“It is. But ask away.”

“What kind of evidence would you need, and from whom, to start believing the exact opposite of what you believe about Covid? To acknowledge that Covid was and remains a serious a threat, that millions of people have died of it, and that millions more will yet suffer from its long-term effects, and that it is your duty as a citizen to stop its spread? And, moreover, that the vaccines are safe and effective?”

“What kind of evidence would change your mind, Socrates?”

“I have laid out before you what would be needed. But you have not.”

Thrasymachus fell silent for a long time, before concluding: “I guess, Socrates, that I cannot even imagine such evidence.”

“That is what I mean, Thrasymachus. I learn so much from you.”

© Michael Baumann 2022

Michael Baumann is a faculty member at a Canadian university. Before that, he spent a lost decade as a mid-level university bureaucrat. In 2003, he returned his PhD in protest to the University of British Columbia.

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