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Ways of knowing
Covid misinformation, and Herodotus’s Histories
The Washington Post Magazine’s 2022 Year in Review opens: “it’s time to don surgical gloves, reach deep down inside the big bag of stupid that was 2022, and see what we pull out, starting with: January, which begins with the world entering the third or possibly eighth year — nobody remembers anymore — of the pandemic. The American public is seriously divided: Everybody who is wearing a mask hates everybody who is not wearing a mask, and vice versa. Both sides are 100 percent supported by The Science.”
As a scientist with experience and specialization in life science, public health, and data science, you can predict my beliefs about, for example, Covid-19 vaccines: that they are safe and effective and an overwhelmingly good idea, both from a personal point of view and from a public policy point of view.
I think it is tempting for scientists like me to attribute our beliefs about Covid-19 vaccines to our scientific knowledge. I know some things about biology, so I feel more confident that RNA vaccines could work. I know some things about public health, so I have an understanding of the immense positive effects of vaccination for other diseases, like measles. I’m familiar with statistics and clinical trial design, so I have a sense of how the vaccines were tested, and how certain or uncertain we should be about their beneficial and negative effects.
However, I think my belief in vaccines is merely supported by my scientific knowledge. Instead, the bedrock of my belief in vaccines is a belief in systems and institutions, which in turn is built off of my experience with individuals. I believe vaccines are safe and effective because there were clinical trials, and I believe the clinical trials were stupendously rigorous because I’ve read about the regulations and sample sizes involved.
But the reason I believe those regulations and sample sizes are actually the ones that got put in place, and that there wasn’t a whole bunch of funny business, is that I’ve known people who worked in biotech and in government. I’ve known a lot of people who are scientists or scientists in training.
Getting a PhD in a hard science can lead to lucrative, steady employment, but it is not really a great path for fame or fortune or power. If you want to get rich, you go into law or finance, or you become an entrepreneur. If you want to be powerful, you go into politics, or into law or finance so you can later go into politics with money. The total number of US presidents with science PhDs has been zero; the total number of Senators, in all US history, is 1. About 1% of Representatives have science PhDs. (A more substantial number of Senators and Representatives are medical doctors, but a medical training –with due respect and apologies– is mostly about how to treat an individual patient, not about how to determine if a mass of evidence supports one conclusion or another.)
In short, it’s hard for me to believe that there is a massive conspiracy to foist ineffective or subversive vaccines on the American populations, because such a conspiracy would involve hundreds or thousands of people, and I simply haven’t met any scientist who I can believe would be part of such a conspiracy. Scientists are mostly people who want to nitpick data and to discover things. Career government workers are mostly people who want to serve their communities and have a steady job. There isn’t a lot of space in my personal experience for massive conspiracy.
Without this personal conviction that I’ve developed from personal interactions with scientists, biotech employees, and government workers, I would need to independently have trust in institutions and sources of knowledge. As a society, both in the US and across the world, this kind of trust has been declining in recent decades. The RAND Corporation calls it “truth decay.”
Almost 2,500 years ago, Herodotus was writing his Histories. He was a Greek from what is now the west coast of Turkey, and it seems that he traveled all around the Mediterranean, collecting the information that made up the Histories. The main topic of the Histories is the multi-part conflict between Persia and Greece, including the famous battles at Marathon and Thermopylae.
The Histories are an immensely important part of Western culture. They tell a story about wars that shaped Western history. From a scholarly point of view, the Histories were crucial to defining what “history” is. We now translate the original title Ἱστορίαι (Historiai) as “histories,” but for Herodotus, the word literally meant something more like “enquiries,” because he was trying to figure out the meanings and causes of the events that happened in the past. Our current notions about how a story about the past gets told, how events are explained, and what should be included or excluded in such a story, were all shaped by Herodotus (and some of his important contemporaries, of course).
Overall, reading the Histories is not easy. My copy is 500 pages of very densely printed text. One scholar counts 940 named characters in the Histories. The Herodotus scholar John Gould says that “to confront the detail of Herodotean narrative, to attempt to grasp its scale and shape and see order in the mass, is a mind-blowing and overwhelming experience. The first impression one has is of being buried under an avalanche of facts and at the same time utterly lost in a landscape bewilderingly cross-crossed and looped by stories without discernible paths or sense of structured connection.” (While that is all true, there are also lots of juicy anecdotes, world-building, and curious story-telling. I might say it’s like reading the unedited notes that would later get trimmed and streamlined into Game of Thrones or Wheel of Time.)
One of the notable parts of the Histories is how Herodotus chooses what to report. Herodotus didn’t observe most of the events in the narrative, and there were only a few places where he can cite a written source, typically a monument with an inscription that poetically chronicles a particular battle. Instead, he mostly relies on people’s stories, either from high-born families who relate the glorious deeds of their ancestors, or from unnamed town locals.
It may seem naïve to us, who have Wikipedia and libraries full of books and universities full of experts, to write a history based off of what people say. But at root, whether you’re Herodotus asking someone what their grandfather did in the Persian Wars, or if you’re a scientist-in-training reading a textbook about how clinical trials are run, either way you are counting on some person telling you the truth.
Herodotus often found that different people had different narratives or explanations for the same event, and he had a way to deal with this:
I however am bound to report that which is reported, though I am not bound altogether to believe it; and let this saying be considered to hold good as regards every narrative the history… (VII.152)
Here is one short, amusing example of this approach:
[There was] a man of Skionē named Skyllias, the best diver of that time… This Skyllias, it appears, had had an intention … of deserting [from the Persians] to the side of the Hellenes, but it had not been possible for his to do so… In what manner after [one attempt to defect] he did actually come to the Hellenes, I am not able to say with certainty, but I marvel if the reported tale is true; for it is said that he dived into the sea at Aphetai and did not come up till he reached Artemision, having traversed here somewhere about nine miles under the sea. Now there are told about this man several other tales which seem likely to be false, but some also which are true: about this matter, however, let it be stated as my opinion that he came to Artemision in a boat. (VIII.8)
In a more involved case, Herodotus questions some fundamental facts about the Trojan War, which took place some 800 years before Herodotus lived. The classic story, told by Homer in the Iliad, had a quasi-religious status among the ancient Greeks, who worshiped “heroes” like Achilles in a way that defies a naïve distinction between beings who are purely gods and those that are purely human.
In Homer’s version, Paris, a prince of Troy, abducts Helen, the queen of Sparta. The Greeks sail to Troy to demand Helen’s return. Paris’s father Priam, the king of Troy, refuses, so the Greeks lay siege to Troy. Many of Priam’s sons, including the great Hector, die in battle before the Trojans are eventually defeated and the city is burned down.
Herodotus, in his travels in Egypt, hears a different story. Egyptian priests told Herodotus that Paris did indeed abduct Helen, but on his way from Sparta back to Troy, he gets blown off course and lands in Egypt. The pharaoh learns of the abduction and is disgusted by Paris’s behavior. He takes Helen under his protection, dismisses Paris on pain of death, and waits for the Greeks to come and collect her. In this version of the story, Paris returns empty-handed to Troy. When the Greeks show up demanding Helen, Priam says they can’t give her back, because she’s actually in Egypt with the pharaoh. The Greeks think this is a lie, and so they lay siege.
Herodotus does some textual analysis of the Iliad and other Homeric texts to support his hypothesis about how the Trojan War started, but it seems the most important pillar of his belief is his understanding of human motivations:
Thus the priests of the Egyptians told me; and I myself also agree with the story which was told of Helen, adding this consideration, namely that if Helen had been in [Troy] she would have been given up to the Hellenes, whether [Paris] consented or no; for Priam assuredly and the others of his house were not so mad that they wanted to run the risk of ruin for themselves and their children and their city, in order that [Paris] might have Helen as his wife. Even supposing that at first they had been so inclined, yet when many others of the Trojans besides were losing their lives as often as they fought with the Hellenes, and always two or three or even more of the sons of Priam himself were slain when a battle took place (if one may trust the Epic poets at all), when things were in a bad way I consider that even if Priam himself had Helen as his wife, he would have given her back to the [Greeks], if at least by doing so he might be freed from the disaster which oppressed him. Nor was the kingdom passing to [Paris] next, … but Hector, who was both older and more of a man than [Paris], would certainly have received it after the death of Priam; and it was wrong for him to allow his brother to go on with his wrong-doing, considering that great evils were coming to pass on his account both to himself privately and to all the other Trojans. In truth however they lacked the power to give Helen back; and the Hellenes did not believe them, though they spoke the truth… (II.120)
My goal in this comparison is not to create sympathy for Covid misinformation. Vaccines and masks work; ivermectin doesn’t. My point is to emphasize the role of perceived personal intent. Herodotus found it much more plausible that the Trojans simply didn’t have what the Greeks were after, than that they chose to fight a deadly and destructive war to preserve an illicit love affair. I find it much more plausible to believe that vaccines work, that hundreds and thousands of scientists and doctors are doing their best to help people, while a handful of politicians are degrading communal trust to advance their own personal power, rather than the reverse.
Herodotus was able to discount Homer’s account of the Trojan War and instead trust his own belief in the fundamental rationality and morality of people. He did not conclude that Priam was simply evil, so that it made sense that he would destroy his own country for no reason, and therefore Homer was right all along. He concluded that Homer, who had written one of the closest things the ancient Greeks had to a holy book, had gotten the story wrong.
Herodotus’s reasoning makes me skeptical that disinformation can be beaten with mere information. Simply hearing the Egyptians tell their version of story, where Helen comes to Egypt, wasn’t enough to change Herodotus’s mind. He also trusted the institutions of the family and the city-state, and he trusted Priam’s and Hector’s individual morality.
Only when some hears that vaccines are safe and effective, and has a reason to believe that they are being told the truth, will we get these life-saving shots to everyone.
As for how to do all that, I’ll quote Socrates: what I do not know, I do not think I know either.
Any views expressed here are my own. Or Herodotus’s.