Home Forum Political Economy The “Science” and Math of COVID Minimization.

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    I am interested in feedback on this, particularly but not only from Blair Fix. Have I made any glaring or hilarious errors of fact or logic? Does this critique over-reach scientifically or rhetorically?


    Full Title: A Short Note on the “Science” and Math of COVID-19 Denialism.


    COVID-19 denialism I define as the attitude that COVID-19 is either not a real disease or it is not a serious disease. This can encompass views that the morbidity, deaths and sequalae from COVID-19 disease are also not real or that they don’t really matter because it is only the vulnerable and elderly with preconditions who die and they were due to die soon anyway. None of these views of Covid denialists are factually correct nor are they ethically supportable. COVID-19 denialism (sometimes called “minimising”) has nothing to do with the epidemiological concepts of elimination and eradication. Indeed, COVID-19 denialism and minimization of the disease’s seriousness function ideologically and socially to further and greatly spread the dangerous mutating and evolving pathogen, SARS_CoV_2. COVID-19 denialism is a recent development of  health supremacism as a general ideology. Health supremacism is an integral part of ableism and eugenics and thus of the full spectrum of supremacist and fascist ideologies. A good article on this is:

    “Loathe fascism? Then don’t be a health supremacist.” by Maarten Steenhagen.



    However, in this note I want to focus on the insidious methods of rationalization and data cherry-picking employed by the scientifically literate, but ethically challenged, in their effort to concoct a scientifically and logically compelling deception of COVID-19 minimisation. They do not always use pseudoscience or pseudo-math though some do. The more intellectually Machiavellian use a misapplication of science and math to get a predetermined QED. The misuse of math is particularly interesting. As a specialized and somewhat arcane language, what math (as opposed to mere arithmetic) says or proves is not open to refutation by the math-illiterate. Furthermore, as a precise language, the math qua math, if accurate, is not open to refutation at all. However, if the math is ill-applied to the real situation it can still be completely fallacious and dishonest. This process is often effected with calculus (differential calculus & integral calculus) because calculus is difficult enough to bamboozle the arithmetic-literate who are yet math-illiterate. Strictly speaking, calculus ability is not necessary for a basic logical assessment which is able demonstrate where the math is being fallaciously or dishonestly deployed.

    simply First, one needs to understand what calculus does. It permits calculation, or estimation, of change in a dependent variable over time. It does this via equations with a finite number of terms (variables or parameters). For scientifically applied mathematics, the terms or parameters must relate to something measured in real scientific quantities or the so-called “scientific dimensions”. One can refer to the International System of Units (SI) for these real “scientific dimensions” and their units. These units are well established as scientifically, empirically valid and dependable. Units derived from combinations of such units are also valid (eg. meters per second). There are also cases where ratios or dimensionless quantities are valid. Here’s a useful list of the latter.


    We can note that this list is not exhaustive because R(0), the basic reproduction number of an infection, is not listed. The R(0) is a scientifically valid dimensionless quantity. It is a theoretical, predicted ratio of infected persons to persons infected in the next cycle of infection. R(eff) is the effective ratio observed from a real, empirical event. Any equation with R(0) in it, is NOT theoretically invalidated by that sole fact. It may be empirically invalidated as an estimate by later real outcomes.

    How and when may a valid equation or valid calculus equation with R(0) in it be scientifically invalidated or highly dubious? First, it could be invalidated by not recognizing/admitting that the R(0) is estimated, thus giving a false impression of objectivity and real applicability to the theoretical exercise. The estimate is context relative (to the real population context) but it becomes invariant to subsequent context once estimated and then adhered to for multi-cycle calculations. To project forward with an invariant R(0), it must be assumed that the dynamic context in and of the system will not vary even if individual and collective behaviours likely will vary as infections proceed and spread. This is a mathematically heroic assumption to say the least. In addition, the other parameters or variables employed must be relatively small in number or the whole equation becomes immense and unwieldy. It can become one of multiple interacting variables which could differentially affect each other: a nightmare of  multi-function calculus one might say. So any neat, “physics-simple” R(0) equation may well be pretending to be something it isn’t.

    I say “physics-simple” not to denigrate physics. Physics can and does derive simple, elegant and very powerful equations. This is not always the case however. A consideration of the 3-body or n-body problems illustrates the point. Any R(0) style equation that is used to project future pandemic waves will have made a great many greatly-simplifying assumptions. One major assumption inheres in the fact that many potential, radical, “known unknown” change factors are excluded like mutations. Pandemic projection is a a wicked “n-body” physics problem. Fundamental laws don’t change in physics or at least not in orbital physics for example (outside of quantum effects introducing probabilistically induced chaos perhaps?). The “fundamental” chaos dynamics of the observed large, non-homogenous population system in an R(0) problem do change and can change; among other factors they from the unpredicted emergent evolutionary trajectory of the pathogen. Researchers of molecular evolutionary genetics analysis are now working with brute force calculations on supercomputers to attempt to predict the evolutionary possibilities. This would only increase the combinations and permutations involved in attempting to predict how these would interact with human immune systems, let alone how it would affect pandemic population dynamics.

    We are forced in the case of this horrendous real complexity to resort to more basic logic, heuristics and even to straightforward consequentialist ethical precepts. We should not let mathematicians, physicists or even epidemiologists of minimizing intent baffle us by throwing mathematical bulldust in our eyes. There is a real and very near limit to what they can predict about the future of such super-complex real world biological systems. A simple fact is that every infection stopped then stops n more infections where the relevant theoretical function is R(n). Trying to “scientifically” and “mathematically” finesse our way through a dangerous pandemic by calibrating titres of acceptable hospitalizations, acceptable deaths, acceptable quantities of disabling and so on and is a piece of breath-taking and callous hubris that is profoundly dishonest at all levels: a dishonest pretence by some self-appointed experts or by oligarch appointed, enabled, paid and captured experts (hired guns), that they know and can predict a lot more than they can really know and predict.  This is basically true because we can’t accurately perform n-body or n-parameter style pandemic trajectory projections where n is a very large number and the number of further unknown parameters is also large.

    This pushes us back to the realization that suppression / elimination of the SARS-CoV-2 virus (always and still realistic if ideology, fatalism and defeatism are rejected) is the correct and only path to reject and obviate the emergent, insoluble combinations and complications (mathematical and real) of a dangerous, highly mutable pandemic pathogen when it is permitted nearly unlimited evolutionary space to evolve in with nearly 8 billion humans as handy evolutionary reactor vessels.

    I have reached such a point of exasperation with some narrowly based experts in the mainstream, captured it seems by the ideological far-right, that I feel I have to point out the above to, or at least about, such scientists and mathematicians. Some of them are becoming mere useful idiots for eugenicism and social murder or democide. To possess extensive science and math technical knowledge without understanding the nature of the ontological interface and the epistemological limits involved at the boundary between applied mathematics and complex relational system empiricism is a sad, sad cul-de-sac of over-specialization and an ossification of that kind of extensive learning and imagination necessary to sense new paradigms arising in the latest research and in current historical-empirical events. What’s even worse is these said scientists’ and mathematicians’ complete loss of any vestigial ethics. Science/mathematical genius combined with moral idiocy is an extremely dangerous combination.

    • This topic was modified 6 months, 3 weeks ago by Rowan Pryor.
    • This topic was modified 6 months, 3 weeks ago by Rowan Pryor.
    • This topic was modified 6 months, 3 weeks ago by Rowan Pryor.
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    • #248289
      Blair Fix
        • Topics started: 6
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        Hi Rowan,

        It seems as though the epidemiology experts mostly accept your criticism of R0. Here’s what the CDC has to say about it:

        In the hands of experts, R0 can be a valuable concept. However, the process of defining, calculating, interpreting, and applying R0 is far from straightforward. The simplicity of an R0 value and its corresponding interpretation in relation to infectious disease dynamics masks the complicated nature of this metric. Although R0 is a biological reality, this value is usually estimated with complex mathematical models developed using various sets of assumptions. The interpretation of R0 estimates derived from different models requires an understanding of the models’ structures, inputs, and interactions.

        So basically, R0 is a model parameter, the usefulness of which depends on how much you trust the underlying model. Same goes for basically any parameter in observational science.

        The concept itself seems to me to be sound. Some viruses are more infectious than others. We ought to be able to measure this difference. The trouble is doing so directly — by setting up an experiment with controlled conditions in which you try to infect people — is unethical and will never be done. So we’re left estimating infectiousness from the observed spread of a disease, which is affected by many many factors that scientists must model.

        In other words, any model-based estimate of R0 comes with a host of caveats, which non-experts rarely discuss. Still, I’m not sure I understand your bigger point. At this point, COVID is far too widespread to ever be eliminated. So we are stuck living with it.

        On that front, as a scientist I am interested to see how the evolution of the virus plays out. From the theory of multilevel selection, we get a clear prediction. What is best for an individual virus is to replicate as fast as possible. However, that isn’t good for the virus as a group, since the faster you replicate, the faster you kill your host. And when the host is dead, you die.

        So the thinking is that diseases should evolve towards being more infectious— spreading between hosts easily — but being less deadly. The ‘equilibrium’ point, though, depends on the mode of transition. Water-born diseases like cholera can spread long after the host is dead. So there is little pressure to reduce deadliness. But with airborne diseases, transmission needs close contact with a living host. So these diseases should become more infectious and less dearly with time. That seems to be exactly what has happened with COVID (regardless of how accurately we know R0).

        If the theory holds, then long term, we expect COVID to fade into a background virus like the common cold or the flu. (I’m told that some cold viruses are actually corona viruses.) I guess we shall see what happens.

      • #248290
        Rowan Pryor
          • Topics started: 18
          • Total posts: 88


          Thanks for replying. You write, “Still, I’m not sure I understand your bigger point.” I agree that I did not make it clear. The post was one of those things one dashes off in a white heat and thinks is crystal clear; only to discover upon re-assessment that it is very muddled and unclear. I hope I am not the only one this happens to.

          My intended technical point was that in the hands of some advocates for “living with the virus”, basic SEIRS equations are used to derive a future pandemic trajectory in a manner which almost implies the equations are referring to reliable fundamental laws, like the laws of physics. Such use often projects a simple sine wave of extant cases over time which then damps or decays to a near flat line at a low base. The rhetorical implication seems to be that the science indicates the pandemic will inevitably dampen into tolerable low-level endemicity. There’s an intellectual dishonesty in this and it is part of the advocacy for “living with the virus”, in my opinion. The intellectual dishonesty inheres in the fact that real pandemics are much more complex than that. The nature of the pathogen including its evolution, the nature of human immunity, the nature of population dynamics and even of political economy relations and reactions to the pandemic, all modify the pandemic waves. There is no simple “law of the pandemic wave”. As you point out, the R(0) is a model parameter and no doubt complex compartmental models of the MSEIRS type produce far more complex modelled dynamics. I am not aware of any of these models which have got any predictions right so far but I am not a scientist in this field, or any field for that matter.

          To go back to the start, my moral point was very much that of Maarten Steenhagen who makes the case far better than I. As I sum it up, “COVID-19 denialism is a recent development of  health supremacism as a general ideology. Health supremacism is an integral part of ableism and eugenics and thus of the full spectrum of supremacist and fascist ideologies.” This view may seem to many to be (a) unrealistic and (b) a kind of moral purity extremism which would hold people to an impossible ideal and then start demonising them as “fascists” for non-compliance. If my view is unrealistic, or worse factually false, then point (b) would hold . It would be a kind of moral purity extremism demonising the “live with it” position and its adherents.

          However, the COVID-19 disease pathogen, SARS_CoV_2, is not intrinsically invincible or unstoppable. My case is that it is only unstoppable under the conditions of late stage or neoliberal capitalism: conditions which sabotage control measures very much in the Veblenian sabotage sense. We only have to look at the extended IP battle over the mRNA vaccines. I mean not just the recent Moderna / Pfizer legal case but the jealous guarding, from the outset, of patents and IP (often state developed or at least state funded and then handed to big pharma for monopolization or oligopolization) such that the third world or developing world is still massively under-vaccinated.

          Of course, it is not just neoliberal capitalist ideology and the rituals of capital, in their expression on the ground, which make COVID-19 very hard to stop. There is also our huge global population, its concentration in cities and its high mobility. Further, SARS_CoV_2’s intrinsic and emergent nature makes it hard to stop as it is a highly contagious airborne pathogen: hard to stop but not impossible to stop. The construction “impossible to stop” is very much a neoliberal capitalist construction. The correct construction is “impossible to stop while we maintain neoliberal individualist ideology and the demand that the rituals and circuits of capital continue in their current elite-ordained ways”.

          A combination of  pharmaceutical and non-pharmaceutical measures as layered controls could and can stop the COVID-19 pandemic waves and finally eliminate the virus, although at this late stage this has become more and more difficult. A pandemic is like a forest fire in this sense. Stamping out a spark early on is a lot easier than fighting a widespread super-conflagration. With reference to your statement, “At this point, COVID is far too widespread to ever be eliminated. So we are stuck living with it.” I respectfully but profoundly disagree. To my mind it is the very defeatism of this view and its acquiescence to capitalist modes of production and consumption which make continued pandemic waves a self-fulfilling prophecy.

          There is no living with this virus. There is only increased dying from it. I mean in all probability. The chances of it decaying to benign endemicity in the short to mid-term (meaning in anything less 30 years or about one human generation) are low. This is due to the nature of the virus and the nature of the evolutionary forcing pressures on it. It is widely accepted in evolutionary science and virology that there is natural selection or evolutionary forcing for increased contagiousness and increased immune escape from both natural immunity and vaccine-induced immunity. There is however no necessary natural selection for “mildness” or low intrinsic severity. This is much more of a random walk of variants. This is the case where there is a long enough infectious stage (especially an asymptomatic infectious stage which also can be a natural selection result) before the potentially serious or fatal stage. With widespread infection, we are simply spinning the roulette wheel numerous times for the chance of a variant with a very serious IFR (infection fatality rate). In any case, all endemicity is not benign. Endemic malaria has never been called benign.

          It gets worse. COVID-19 has serious long term impacts on that significant proportion of the population who suffer “Long-Covid”. For a proportion of them, Long-Covid becomes a seemingly interminable and highly disabling condition. It is already a mass disabling event. Then matters get worse again. COVID-19 can cause long-term damage and dysregulation to the immune system (and also the brain and other organs). Catching COVID-19 multiple times will likely compound that damage. Of course, people will catch COVID-19 multiple times, without taking more measures than vaccination, because the current vaccines are non-sterilizing. They do not reliably prevent re-infection.

          Immune system dysregulation, especially T-cell dysregulation, is not just for the period of initial illness but persists as a feature in Long-Covid and likely even in some of those seemingly fully recovered. Some of this is still a matter for hypotheses, controversies and further study. But the basic facts of T-cell dysregulation in the initial disease phase are not in dispute. Neither is it any matter of dispute that the thymus (which produces T-Cells) atrophies in ones’ early twenties or thereabout and after that adults have their full complement of T-cells which must then last them for the rest of their life. These get “used up” or rather allocated to specific immune memory purposes against specific pathogens and even against specific variants. They cannot be re-purposed after that point. At least that is my understanding. Antibodies which fight  infection are short-lived by comparison. That is why immunity wanes from current infection and/or vaccination and we know the virus continually evolves new spike structures etc.


          All this is to say that the simplistic tale of herd immunity for this pathogen is false (promoted as it is by the interests of neoliberal capitalism, big capitalists, petty capitalists and product-addicted consumers alike). Also false are the simplistic tales of  supposedly inevitable evolution to mildness (any time soon) and the notion that are no long-term sequalae worth worrying about, at least so long as one is vaccinated. Finally, the capitalism-serving myth that the disease is undefeatable is the most pernicious of all. We should, in my opinion, pull out all stops to eliminate COVID-19 just as we should pull out all stops to slow and halt climate change. No operation of capitalism or any other political economy system should be sacrosanct or exempt from radical change to meet these goals except those that provide the absolute essentials of life. The rest of our culture, apart from reliable scientific knowledge and low ecological impact art and culture with genuine “aesthetic or social value” to use that phrase, should be jettisoned – thrown overboard – in the face of  these extinction threats. We have now entered the Pandemicene as well as the Anthropocene. New pandemics and resurges of old pandemics will now become commonplace under capitalist business-as-usual. That is my and not only my prediction. Climate change and climate zone change are driving novel pandemic emergences. We must meet these challenges or go extinct. That is my larger point.

          Footnote: I highly recommend this paper.

          “Necrosecurity, Immunosupremacy, and Survivorship in the Political Imagination of COVID-19” – Martha Lincoln
          From the journal Open Anthropological Research


          Here’s the abstract as an introduction:

          “Abstract: The neologism ‘necrosecurity’ describes the cultural idea that mass death among less grievable subjects plays an essential role in maintaining social welfare and public order. In the early months of the novel coronavirus pandemic in the United States, this perspective on the social value of death emerged in diverse contexts, particularly in claims that deaths were a necessary consequence of returning economies to normal. Necrosecurity discourse encourages audiences to perceive coronavirus fatalities as neither preventable nor exceptional, and to perceive themselves as facing little risk of infection or death. Overlooking the realities of infectious disease epidemiology, these accounts portrayed COVID-19 as a mild disease and imagined a population of robust and physically normative individuals who would survive an epidemic unscathed and ready to return to work. These appeals articulate with powerful  cultural tropes of survivorship,  in which statistical calculations of relative risk and life chances—ostensibly cited to  inspire hope for an individual outcome—conceal a zero-sum calculus in which ill or susceptible individuals are pitted against one another. In contrast to the construct of biosecurity—the securing of collective life against risk—necrosecurity paradoxically imagines the deaths of vulnerable others as a means of managing shared existential dangers.” – Martha Lincoln.

          • This reply was modified 6 months, 3 weeks ago by Rowan Pryor.
          • This reply was modified 6 months, 3 weeks ago by Rowan Pryor.
          • This reply was modified 6 months, 3 weeks ago by Rowan Pryor. Reason: Added another linked paper
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