We can reach deeper levels of understanding by taking into account developments on the frontlines of science. For the first time in history it is possible to see the mechanisms operating in our brains and the profound significance of social interactions. These deeper levels of understanding, known as consilience, open our eyes to limits of reason and the value of collective sensemaking.
Do you believe in vaccines or ivermectin? How you answer this question will touch on narratives and tribal loyalties that expose a breakdown in the systems that have traditionally helped us understand important news. On the one side are those who get their news from the corporate press and believe we should listen to experts and everyone should get vaccinated. On the other side are those who are skeptical of the mainstream narrative that lockdowns and the jab will defeat the pandemic and reckon that ivermectin should be part of the discussion about handling COVID-19.
The two sides are separated by what David Fuller, a journalist and host of the Rebel Wisdom forum, calls an “uncanny valley.” The gap has been widening because, as he explains “the mainstream refuses to platform ‘heterodox’ opinions for fear of giving ‘fringe’ perspectives too much prominence and a false equivalence with medical consensus.”
Those who have spent time studying the question of which side is correct know there are no simple answers. I won’t attempt to settle the question here because the subject has become tribal and emotionally charged. Arguing the matter at the moment would be like meeting in a shell crater during the Battle of the Somme to discuss which side in the Great War was right. Instead, I’ll explain a new way to understand the battle — specifically, by using consilience. Consilience is a bottom-up perspective; that is, it takes into account what is happening in the human brain and the dynamics of organizations in any attempt to understand socially divisive situations.
My perspective comes from a career of crafting communications messages for corporations, including brand messages on the packaging of pharmaceuticals such as ivermectin and Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine as well as documentation that sales representatives use to persuade doctors and pharmacists to prescribe and stock the products. I have been involved with over 20,000 projects and generated over $5 billion in brand value, including by creating and promoting brands found in most households in the Western world, as well as brands that are, or have been, part of Pfizer’s portfolio. Consequently, when the ex-professor of evolutionary biology Bret Weinstein muses about the decision-making process in large companies to promote an innovative vaccine, sidelining the off-patent drug ivermectin, I have little trouble visualizing the organizational dynamics.
First, let us briefly summarize what has been happening on the frontlines of the battle. Since December 2020 the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Centre for Disease Control (CDC) along with the governments of most Western countries have been championing mRNA vaccines as the best way to combat SARS-Cov 2 — to the apparent exclusion of other ways of treating patients. The matter has become tribalized to the point that doctors who express contrarian viewpoints about how to treat their patients have been disciplined or lost their jobs. Scientists, journalists and other commentators find their posts on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter flagged with warnings and downranked and, in more extreme cases, demonetized or deplatformed.
Ivermectin is a therapy that has been prescribed over 3 billion times as an antiparasitic. Some doctors claim that if administered early in a coronavirus infection it alleviates symptoms. It might also be effective as a prophylactic that cuts infection rates.
The question of vaccines versus ivermectin invaded the pages of Quillette with an article published on July 6 by Claire Berlinski and Yuri Deigin, titled “Looking for COVID-19 ‘Miracle Drugs’? We Already Have Them.” The article attacked Weinstein for “entertaining theories that might not be right but could do no harm, to theories that cannot be right and are sure to do harm.” They stated, “His promotion of outright quackery, during a pandemic that has killed more Americans than any catastrophe since the Civil War, is immoral.” Articles in Quillette can be broadly categorized as heterodox and skeptical of mainstream narratives. This one didn’t fit the pattern and was unusually strident and personal.
The debate escalated on social media. The editor-in-chief of Quillette, Claire Lehmann, summed up the tribal confusion with this tweet: “Anti-vaxx conspiracies represent this weird horseshoe effect where the naturalistic fallacy of the hippie left intersects with the anti-establishment anxieties of the libertarian right.”
Lehmann explained her position in The Australian on July 19 under the headline “Social Media Gurus’ Put the ‘Con’ in Conspiracy.” She wrote, “Modern ‘wellness’ gurus tout ‘natural remedies’ for all of our modern ailments, including Covid.” She likened them to 19th-century quacks who “saw an opportunity to make a buck” and were reined in with legislation “to tackle medical quackery.”
I am sympathetic to this perspective, both as a consumer of products and also as a marketer of many not-so-nefarious remedies. It brings to mind one project my agency handled between 1992 and 1996 for a brand of multivitamins called Centrum. The brand had been created by the company Lederle, which over the years has been swallowed by progressively larger companies until it became part of Pfizer and then spun out in a joint venture with GlaxoSmithKline. At the time, frontline researchers were discovering that the vitamins A, C and E, and the minerals copper, zinc and selenium had antioxidant properties. The science appeared to be straightforward; antioxidants prevent cell damage in much the same way as treating a piece of iron with a coating of zinc paint stops it from rusting. In the absence of regulatory oversight we would likely have added a flash to the packaging saying, “Now with antioxidants that protect cells and cure the ravages of aging. Stay young and healthy.” Food and drug regulations are absolutely clear. One cannot use words like cure to promise emotionally charged benefits unless there is unambiguous scientific evidence. In Canada, just as in most countries around the world, regulatory bodies force companies that break the rules to remove products from formularies and store shelves.
When I consider the vaccines vs ivermectin controversy, it is clear that the headlines cannot account for the underlying organizational and scientific complexities. As a brand creator and marketer, with a degree in neurophysiology and biochemistry, I hear the words “Pfizer vaccine” differently than most other people. Many of us know what they mean, but to me Pfizer is a brand name that represents an ecosystem of employees, investors, agencies, supply chains, regulatory and medical personnel numbering in the many millions. I can picture various meetings where the remarkable technology of a synthesized mRNA therapy is deliberately positioned as a vaccine, rather than a novel injectable, perhaps with the coined name Jabusol.
How can one determine whom to believe and which facts are correct? I argue there are three levels of facts. The first are high-school level facts. The second are postgraduate level facts. The third and deepest level of understanding can be explained through consilience. To understand at the level of consilience, we need to take into account how our brains actually work, that is, how the brain handles the complexity around us in order to react instantly. This matter is confounding because the findings of frontline scientists conflict with narratives dominant in academia.
Facts at the high-school level are the easiest to comprehend. It is a fact, for instance, that vaccines have saved many millions of lives and helped eradicate diseases, including smallpox, tuberculosis, polio and diphtheria. It is also a fact that many people have died prematurely because medical therapies thought to be beneficial were actually harmful.
At a postgraduate level the efficacy of vaccines is broken down into specifics. When I was a nine-year-old I gladly ate a sugar lump carrying a drop of denatured poliovirus. As a consequence, neither I nor any of my schoolmates suffered the cruelty of polio. Many questions can be explored: Was this a vaccine? Did it work with mechanisms identical to other vaccines? Are all other vaccines similarly effective? What were the unexpected or adverse effects of each? Why is this form of immunization no longer employed? We cannot begin to touch on the answers here. Suffice to say that to understand the situation it would be necessary to spend a lifetime or longer studying pharmacology and the wonders of immunology. If history is our teacher it is certain that with each discovery we’ll see even more that needs to be studied. At every stage, with hindsight, we’ll realize how we collectively overestimate our ability to understand and control complex matters. True experts understand how little we know compared to how much more there is to discover.
None of us has the time or inclination to study the details of every therapy and product we use, and so we rely on various specialists, including marketing practitioners, policy wonks and health professionals, to distill the complexity into easy-to-understand messages, such as “the SARS-CoV-2 vaccine is our best hope for defeating the pandemic — so get vaccinated immediately.”
We also rely on a system of experts and truth-tellers to argue for contrarian headlines. One may be, “It is delusional to believe a fast-developed novel therapy will defeat coronavirus disease.” The headline writer would then need to defend their position with a coherent argument supported by facts.
Challenges arise when various experts select the facts they consider pertinent. Inevitably, many facts don’t fit simple narratives, nor support their perspectives and immediate goals, and so these are set aside. Only with experience and hindsight does it become possible to discern which messages are closest to the truth.
Weinstein and Dr. Pierre Kory have championed ivermectin on various podcasts, including Joe Rogan’s, where they cited studies and the experiences of frontline health workers. Their claims can be fact-checked, and indeed a tech-journalist combo, Alexandros Marinos and Eva Tallaksen, set up a process called Better Skeptics, where everyone so inclined could take part. Their vision is to evolve “a new set of sensemaking tools, ones that instead of centralized gatekeepers rely on principles of distributed trust and bottom-up transparency.”
The process they proposed however cannot steer around the issue of personal bias. The three selected referees need to filter the information and make judgements about what is pertinent and makes sense, or irrelevant or incorrect. They, and each of us, operate in accordance with what each of us has learned — much of it in an academic setting. We are unable to see our biases because, like the air we breathe, we cannot know what it would feel like to be without them.
Can we depend on facts generated by empirical observation? The short answer is no we cannot. The existence of facts is a useful belief, but we cannot appeal to the existence of absolute facts because they are never independent of the minds that know them — and we are all different. To comprehend how facts take shape in our minds, we need to appeal to consilience. This requires going into some detail about how we understand, because the conclusions contradict prevailing academic paradigms.
Consilience is a Deeper Level of Understanding
Consilience sounds nice, evoking reconciliation and consultation, but that is not what the cleric, professor and polymath William Whewell had in mind when he coined the word in 1840. He combined siliens, which in Latin means jump, and com, which means together, to express how an insight can “jump together” domains of understanding that would otherwise remain disconnected.
Consilience is occurring because frontline scientists have uncovered many of the processes at work in the human body, including the brain, in remarkable detail. While we view different realms of life, such as politics, science, art and spirituality as completely dissimilar, each is made up of micro-behaviours that, at the level of neuronal mechanisms, are essentially identical. By understanding our biology, the commonalities among different realms of our life become easier to see — jumping them together.
In the 1998 book, Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge, Harvard professor and expert on social insects, Edward O. Wilson predicted the unification of different academic disciplines, bringing the sciences and the humanities together. And indeed, we are at a point where there is no longer a clear demarcation between physics, chemistry and biology. These sciences are overlapping with evolutionary biology, which then blend into archeology, geography, economics, history and psychology. The borders between the sciences and the humanities are blurring together.
Consilience is arriving, but not in the way Wilson presumed. He believed that scientists would eventually decode human behaviour and explain the arts and religion by using scientific methods. Confoundingly though, human reason is not ending up as the basis for consilience. The discoveries of frontline researchers, including geneticists and developmental biologists, have revealed that the human brain is, in its details, astonishingly similar to the brains of other animals. If one ascribes to scientific objectivity it becomes impossible to view the human brain as exceptional. The brains of other animals do not operate by reasoning and manipulating facts and, to the extent we generally imagine, neither do ours.
Consilience is seen in the process of academic silos growing together through integration of previously unrelated subjects. It is also the mechanism at work when our brains jump together ideas that give us those feelings of “Aha, I understand.” These feelings occur when we fit a new experience into patterns of thinking we learned through past experience and, in turn, arrange them into a narrative that lessens anxiety. This aspect of consilience is challenging to comprehend because the findings of frontline researchers as described in scientific monographs do not fit the established paradigm of how we believe we learn, understand and behave.
Our commonsense belief in how we learn, understand and behave has been built over hundreds of years through adoption of philosophical concepts in the modernist and enlightenment tradition, as well as through the reasoning of scientists and other idea-creators. Many have worked in academic institutions, and consequently the mode of thinking runs like this: education imparts knowledge and an ability to reason; knowledge is separate from people’s minds; it is made up of facts that are right or wrong; and the ability to manipulate facts using logic enables individuals, particularly those who are intelligent, to progress up a ladder of expertise towards success and fulfilment. This mode of thinking has become how educated classes, including, I would guess, most who are reading this, organize the many ideas they encounter, integrating them into a coherent landscape of meaning. Each time we encounter a new idea, we assess how it fits. If it fits we judge it to be believable and likely true. If it doesn’t fit we reject it as incorrect. Not only does this personal paradigm provide a landscape onto which ideas can be arranged, it also enables us to define a path forward. Many would agree that the acquisition of knowledge allows us to collectively progress towards higher states of good order and wellbeing. The products of science, engineering, computing and medicine provide the infrastructure of modern life, thereby substantiating the solidity of this narrative.
We’ll term this paradigm Climb Higher. One hundred and eighty years ago Whewell, who had written a meticulous three-volume history of intellectual and scientific advancement, would have considered it naive. He realized that observation and scientific measurement became meaningful through insights. “We do not see (ideas), we see through them,” he wrote.
One of the fundamental precepts of the Climb Higher paradigm is that objectivity is possible. Indeed, the word empirical is scattered through discussion threads to mean that evidence becomes unassailable once it has been repeatedly quantified. Implicit in this way of thinking is that the various objects we observe with our senses and with the help of scientific instruments can be unambiguously labelled with words, and the words are then stored in our brain, or elsewhere, as information. And therefore, facts exist independently from the minds that know them.
The Climb Higher paradigm is supported by a seemingly scientific account of the evolution of the human brain. The account goes like this: The wrinkly structure, the cerebral cortex, that in humans is the largest part of the brain, is a relatively new evolutionary invention that controls our behaviour through conscious thought processes — having subsumed the instinctive reptilian parts of the brain. The cortex is computer-like and modular, enabling us to think and act rationally. This account, however, is not substantiated by frontline researchers. In fact, it is incorrect from beginning to end. The biological building blocks for consciousness began evolving over 500 million years ago to enable animals to mentally construct a dimensional representation of their surroundings and model alternative courses of action forwards in real time. And intriguingly, although everyone knows the brain handles information, no neurophysiologist has ever found any direct evidence of “information” existing in human brains or the brains of other animals.
Let us take a brief look at how our senses actually work and the nature of perception. First, we need to disabuse ourselves that the eyes work like video cameras feeding images to a brain that decodes them. While we perceive the world around us in super high definition, the retina and optic nerve are not up to the job of transmitting gigabytes of information every second. Instead, our eyes are like theatre prompters reminding an actor of their lines. Their stream of whispers lead us to relive previously experienced multisensory encounters. We term the resulting sensation consciousness. Aside from connotations of spirituality, consciousness is a practical capability that makes it possible for us to move rapidly and purposefully in response to what is happening around us.
When we glimpse something for just a moment, say an apple, we instantly know a lot about it. We know what it would look like from different vantage points, we know what it would feel like if we ran our fingers over it, we know how heavy it is and, if it was released, that it would fall to the ground and make a predictable sound. The reason we know so much is because our neuronal systems instantly recall every time in our life that we encountered a similar object.
Important to note is that the eyes register just a jumble of impulses that are enough for neuronal mechanisms to pattern-match with earlier similar experiences. The ability of neurons to jump together those impulses with ones generated when we hear the word apple, or see it written, happens instantaneously and subliminally. The processes at work do not map onto the words historically used to describe perception. “Seeing” something is not just visual, it is creative and multisensory. It is neither completely subjective nor completely objective.
Our neurons jump together particular sensations with specific reactions, which evoke different sorts of emotions. This process is not the result of deliberative thought processes; instead it happens in-the-moment. Contrary to our self-image, conscious reasoning happens too slowly to play a starring role in our behaviour. Reasoning takes upwards of half a second, whereas physical movement unfolds in hundredths of a second. Although we might spend time pondering various courses of action, it is better to conceptualize behaviour as a moment-to-moment response to everything happening in and around us that has pertinence for our wellbeing.
The neurons jump immediate sensations together with other similar ones previously experienced, which in turn become connected with appropriate reactions and then associated with words. We conceptualize the process in terms of macro-level intentional behaviours, like “I will eat that apple.” Our neurons, however, work as a hierarchy of micro-behaviours and sequences that include looking, breathing, balancing, stepping, reaching, grasping, biting, chewing and swallowing. We are completely oblivious to the under-the-hood sophistication of these micro-behaviours and how social interactions influence their deployment.
And so, for example, we react with instant fear to tubelike animals, irrespective of their wide range of sizes and markings. We call them “snakes.” Short lengths of garden hose lying on the ground that look almost identical don’t evoke the same reaction. We see that people react with alarm to snakes but not towards other similarly shaped animals that we call “worms.” Because we react to snakes, lengths of hose and worms in different ways, we categorize them differently and react accordingly — instantly — without the need for schooling and conscious deliberation. The visual sensations registered by our eyes and the associated words, snake and worm, evoke markedly different emotions.
This jumping together goes further. We use categories of experience as metaphors to help us understand other people. When we hear someone say a person is “like a snake” we know it means they should be feared, although the person is not venomous and looks nothing like a snake. The same mechanism operates when we consider groups of people and organizations. When a politician states that Republicans are anti-science or that Democrats are authoritarian we know what they mean, although their statements should be instantly rejected as unwarranted generalizations.
Metaphors aren’t merely literary devices; they are significant because they let us jump together different sensory experiences, along with their labels, and consequently we feel we understand them. For example, in textbooks a cross-section of an eye might be shown next to a diagram of a camera. Their structure and focusing lenses are similar, and because there is little mystery about how a human-built camera works, we might feel we understand how our eyes work. This metaphor jumps together two distinct domains — a camera and the eye — but, in this case, the feeling of “got it” is largely unwarranted.
Our collective belief in empiricism and the veracity of science is grounded in a remarkable, and as yet unexplained, correspondence between the behaviour of things in the physical world and mathematics. Consilience allows us to see that mathematics is metaphorical, and therefore science itself is constructed in the human mind by jumping together ideas that otherwise would be disconnected.
When we hear words such as science and vaccine, various ideas instantly jump together in our mind. In the context of the pandemic, these words relate to personal safety and therefore evoke strong emotions. Let’s explore how these words become banners that signal tribal allegiance.
Scientists have largely figured out the mechanisms whereby eyes, ears, nerves and muscles work at anatomical and cellular levels. Also, through analysis of DNA and RNA, they can describe relationships between different species. Far from showing that the human brain is special, it is evident that the brain’s cellular mechanisms have changed little over evolutionary timescales. From early in their evolution the neuronal systems of animals evolved to react appropriately — moving towards food and away from danger — instantly. Movements always have a purpose or goal, and they are expressed as a dipole, like a magnet that is attracted positively or repulsed negatively.
Human neuronal systems are no different. Ours operate in-the-moment, tending towards dipolarity and always with a goal or point. In humans this functionality expresses itself in a variety of ways: how we respond yes or no; what we like or dislike; how, in extreme situations, we feel love or hate; and how our systems prepare for fight or flight when there is danger.
The word tribalism is often used to refer to the baser human instinct towards racism and violence, but in the context of neuronal systems it describes mechanisms that apply to everything we encounter that might affect our wellbeing — especially the people around us.
When we interact with others, we are constantly ascertaining, at least subconsciously, their motivations. When they say something, what point are they making? Are they with us or against us? The unfolding situation, and each word they utter, builds a picture of their potential actions that affects how we feel towards them. We judge the intentions of those we converse with, and as social animals, we try to get on the same wavelength so we can align our actions and cooperate. As we collaborate and share experiences the meaning of the words we use evolves into a shared landscape of meaning that is mutually affirming.
Our affinities can change in a matter of seconds. When someone says something we judge to be threatening, unfair or demeaning, the negative dipole is stimulated, and we feel impatience, anger or fear. In the public arena, opinions that don’t align with our mental landscape trigger irritation. On social media — which is a misnomer because it is not structured for a meeting-of-minds — posts are reacted to with immediate thumbs up and hearts, or thumbs down and dashed-out epithets.
Words that originally were relatively non-tribal, like lockdown and vaccine, over time become tribal banners that instantly signal a tribal allegiance. Given how neuronal systems build understanding through social interactions, we have to acknowledge that these words, and every other word, mean different things to different people. Their meanings change with context and from moment to moment, and their dictionary definitions evolve — sometimes erratically.
Shared Landscapes of Meaning
Our tribal instincts are awakened when we see headlines about the pandemic. Who is right: Weinstein or Lehmann? When Weinstein argues that our goal should be to “drive COVID-19 to extinction,” does he believe this is possible and that his statement can be validated with scientific evidence, or is he using a rhetorical device to head off accusations that he is not serious about the pandemic?
The answer matters less than the dialogue for two reasons. First, matters of public policy are built on landscapes of shared meaning. The Better Skeptics initiative has not been set up to explore these overridingly significant metanarratives. When Weinstein says, “you would expect a pathogen to limit itself to infecting tissues that actually advanced its cause… malaria wants you incapacitated,” it betrays his belief that evolution is a God-like constructive force. If that was true Mother Nature has our backs, but that is not what ecologists observe. Ecosystems are never stable. I would argue that political ideologies that presume societies can live peacefully and in balance with nature are not realistic.
The second reason is that through dialogue we build shared landscapes of understanding. The objective is not to agree or to imagine that our ideas are absolutely correct. Through discussion we can build feelings of common purpose and unity.
Consilience undermines the Climb Higher paradigm. Facts are communicated with words and their meaning does not exist outside the minds that embody them; information is meaningful only when it is understood by individuals. Confidence in the wisdom of academic, government and multilateral bodies is misplaced. Their distillation of facts results from each organization’s dynamics. No individual or organization has a lock on virtue. Each time we hear phrases like “listen to the experts …” or “the scientific consensus is …’’ we should immediately be skeptical.
Does consilience put us at the top of a slippery slope to postmodernist solipsism where uninformed and mangled opinions are just as valid as expert knowledge? Absolutely not. Facts at the level of high-school and postgraduate education are useful and productive. At the same time, we need to acknowledge the realities of human biology and our social nature, rather than subscribing to age-old mythologies about the purity of human reason.
A more significant matter than questions about ivermectin are the moves by governments to limit the speech of dissenting citizens. “This is exactly what the founders feared,” Weinstein tweets. “Disinformation portrayed as unassailable truth gives it an unmistakable Orwellian signature. Beware those cheering the censors or parroting their claims.”
Through history, educated elites have believed in ideas that were logical at the time but with hindsight make little sense. A few examples are the four bodily humors, bloodletting, phlogiston and the modular computational brain. It is too early to know how future generations will judge how we handled the pandemic. Let’s work to ensure they can discuss the matter freely without fear of censorship and retribution.
Tom Beakbane is president of a brand marketing company in Toronto. With an honours degree in biochemistry and neurophysiology from Durham University in England, he was puzzled by the gap between textbook theories of human behaviour and his experiences creating business communications. He closed the gap by tapping into developments at the frontiers of science, explained in the recently published book How to Understand Everything. Consilience: A New Way to See the World. You can follow him on Twitter @TomBeakbane.