Apramāda

Buddhist perspectives on society and culture

A Good Heart is not Enough – part 3

Posted in: Culture, Politics
This article is part of the series A Good Heart is not Enough. Articles in the series are:

Policymaking in the shadow of the pandemic

In the preceding parts of this essay, I placed policymaking in the context of Buddhist ethics, emphasising the need for a wise head as well as a loving heart. I suggested that wise policymaking could be tantamount to a spiritual practice for leaders of Buddhist communities, and was without doubt a beneficial activity for the world. I then proposed a set of five principles of policymaking. I promised to discuss these principles in the context of faith communities, and to illustrate them by reference to the Covid-19 pandemic. Parts 1 and 2 fulfilled that promise with regard to the first four principles.

In this, the third and final part of the essay, I explore the last — and the most far-reaching and challenging — of my five principles.

Principle 5: Hone Your Truth-Seeking Ability

My first four principles take it for granted that there is such a thing as objective truth, and that the human mind has the capacity to discern it. In our postmodern era of ‘speaking my truth’, it may be necessary to rebuild our confidence in that capacity to discern objective truth. Not only do we have such a capacity, but also it can be significantly developed with training and practice. This is vitally important for policymaking. Of course, we might sometimes hit upon good policies from faulty premises or flawed logic. Nevertheless, good policy is far more likely to emerge from clear thinking, built upon reliable evidence.

It may be necessary to rebuild confidence in our capacity to discern objective truth

Although there is such a thing as objective truth, it is also undeniable that there are many barriers that stand in the way of our approach to it. My third and fourth principles had much to say on the subject of those barriers. In Principle 3, I urged policymakers to identify and examine their assumptions. We all hold beliefs that we uncritically assume to be true, but may turn out to be false. In our daily life, of course, we cannot constantly be examining everything we hold to be true. And in any case, perhaps some of our false assumptions do not bring us any great harm. But those of us who are policymakers — making choices that bear heavily on the lives and welfare of others — have a duty to examine not just the superstructure but also the foundations of the policy structures that they build.

In principle 3, I also argued that, in the case of the Covid pandemic, some important assumptions descended on us from above — that is, from authoritative institutions and official experts — rather than from the grass roots of public opinion. I have used two of those assumptions to illustrate this essay. One is the assumption that enforced lockdowns were necessary, and would not have detrimental consequences that would ultimately outweigh their benefits. The other is the assumption that the vaccination of the whole population — not just vulnerable groups — was necessary, and that coercive methods, such as the exclusion of people from their jobs or from travel, were justified as means to that end. Both of these assumptions, though not universally operative, dominated public discourse and government policy in many countries. Underlying both, there was a deeper assumption that went unexamined among policymakers in many countries — namely the assumption that ‘policy’ could be equated narrowly with massive interventions in citizens’ lives by an increasingly authoritarian welfare state.

Principle 4 was entitled ‘don’t blindly follow the herd’. Our tendency to hold assumptions uncritically is in large part a social phenomenon. In the Covid pandemic, the stampede towards lockdowns and universal vaccination was led ‘from above’ by public health authorities and officially sanctioned experts. I dared to suggest that policymakers in faith institutions can no longer uncritically trust the claims of such authorities and experts. The well attested phenomena of regulatory capture and the replication crisis give grounds for a measure of healthy scepticism towards their deliverances. To apply such scepticism is by no means to entertain ‘conspiracy theories’, and it is certainly not to reject science as a whole.

Here then, in my final principle, I am going to outline some thoughts on how policymakers can gradually break the spell of assumptions, cease following the herd, and instead hone their truth-seeking ability. My starting point is a Buddhist epistemology — an ‘approach to knowing’ — derived from the grounds for faith in the Dharma. The schema suggests four steps towards knowing whether something is true or not. These are (1) intuition, which must be (2) grounded in reason, and (3) confirmed in experience, aided by (4) the testimony of the wise.1

A great deal might be said about each of the four steps, and what follows is not intended as an exhaustive guide. In the present context I will only offer some indications of how the steps might be applied by policymakers in a situation such as the Covid pandemic. Within the framework of the four steps, I will offer eight specific suggestions.

The Testimony of the Wise

Though the last of the four steps, it makes sense to start with ‘the testimony of the wise’ — if only because in practice we usually start there. In any policy question, we rarely break virgin soil. We start by acquainting ourselves with facts gathered and judgments formulated by others, who at least in terms of their precedence must be counted ‘wiser’.

In any policy question, we rarely break virgin soil

Suggestion 1: seek facts and opinions from a range of sources

In a crisis such as the Covid-19 pandemic, policymakers should look for a range of expert opinion, not just the names that get through the filter of the media. The first step is to face up to the truth that official authorities cannot always be trusted — for the reasons I outlined under principle 4. We must therefore distinguish the wise from the presumed wise. In our technocratic era, it is tempting to rely on the latter, and even to adopt a quasi-religious faith in official ‘experts’. But, as we have seen, institutions that are meant to serve the public, and even science itself, may sometimes be in thrall to vested interests and to forms of cultural capture.

In seeking a range of relevant facts and opinions, we are both lucky and unlucky to live in the era of the Internet. Unlucky because it makes us vulnerable to overload and misinformation; but simultaneously lucky because the Internet gives us historically unrivalled opportunities to access information and ideas from a variety of sources. Of course, one’s use of the Internet should be intelligent and cautious. Any search for names or ideas that challenge current orthodoxies is likely to stumble into an avalanche of low-quality journalism, not to say a hail of ‘hit pieces’. Then there is the knotty problem of Wikipedia. This addictively useful website has become the first port of call for anybody looking to bone up on an unfamiliar topic. And indeed, it is undoubtedly a mine of useful information on neutral subjects. On any issue that is politically controversial, however, Wikipedia shows unmistakable signs of cultural capture. But rather than take my word on the question of Wikipedia’s bias, you could listen to what its co-founder, Larry Sanger, has to say about the direction it has taken since its inception.2

Despite these problems, judicious use of the Internet allows us to review the qualifications and track-records of a wide range of experts, and to find source material for their lines of argument. Such source materials may include important books that don’t get reviewed and leading thinkers whose names don’t get mentioned in the media channels we may have relied on hitherto.3 Thus, the good news is that whilst vested interests often try to discredit or suppress alternative views, they have not yet succeeded in establishing a monopoly over all information.

Suggestion 2: look for warning signs of bad policy-making

But if we are to consult a range of opinions, how are we to choose between them? How can we decide whose testimony is truly wise? One effective strategy is to look for the weaknesses that reveal the unwisdom of the presumed wise. There are often warning signs that suggest their testimony springs from dubious motives or relies on flawed arguments.

There are warning signs that may alert us to the unwisdom of the presumed wise

As an outline guide to such warning signs, may I humbly commend the first three principles of this essay? Following these principles, one should ask, firstly, do the supposed authorities view a policy challenge from a single angle, rather than in the round? Secondly, do they seem eager to impose a ‘solution’, while indifferent or oblivious to its trade-offs? Thirdly, does their account of the problem (or of its solution, or both) depend upon questionable assumptions? If the answer to all or any of those questions is ‘yes’, the testimony under consideration is, in all likelihood, less than truly wise.

There is a further warning sign that may alert us to the unwisdom of the presumed wise. They can sometimes be identified by the tactics they use to dominate a debate. Throughout the pandemic, there were repeated attempts (by mainstream media and public authorities) to silence or discredit highly qualified individuals who disputed the official narratives. Among these were scientists with excellent academic reputations in fields closely relevant to policymaking on Covid.

As an example, we can once again look at the policy of lockdowns. From an early stage of the pandemic, certain experts argued that this was an unwise strategy, and would do more harm than good. Among other things, they argued that lockdowns would cause long-term medical, psychological, educational, and economic harms that might easily outweigh any advantages gained from slowing the spread of infection. Instead, they recommended focussed protection of vulnerable individuals, together with voluntary measures of social distancing to limit the spread of infection. Also — and unlike most official narratives and media reports — some of these lockdown sceptics didn’t attend only to the domestic balance sheet. They also considered the damage that lockdowns in rich countries caused to poor countries by disrupting supply chains, reducing the income of people whose livelihoods were already precarious, and whose access to supportive welfare systems was much more limited than ours.4

Once again, I stress it is not my purpose here to argue whether or how far the lockdown sceptics were right or wrong. My point is that they were credible and important voices that should have been heard with openness and respect. But for the most part, the wider public never got to hear them at all, or only heard negative accounts of them.5 In some cases they were subject to harassment and smear tactics.6 Nevertheless, their message was available to any policymaker willing to take the time to seek out smaller, independent media outlets.

Suggestion 3: build networks of knowledge and wise judgement

Our appropriate use of testimony of the wise will be augmented if we build opportunities to participate in networks, where we can tap into the expertise of people more knowledgeable than ourselves. Buddhist policymakers should be eager to form networks of mutual support with other individuals with independent minds. They should seek collaborators who share their desire for the good, and are equipped with greater expertise in fields relevant to the crisis. Knowledge and insight can be shared.

Intuition

Suggestion 4: don’t ignore, but do test, your intuitions

Intuitions are moments when a new understanding dawns, without yet being able to explain or justify itself. Intuition probably springs from an unconscious recognition of patterns subliminally registered over a lifetime: we ‘see’ something before we can articulate what we’ve seen.7

Throughout the pandemic, intuition sounded alarm bells for many thoughtful people

Intuition cannot tell us anything about the risk associated with a virus or the medical efficacy of a treatment (unless we happen to be specialists in the relevant areas). However, intuition can alert us to many of the human factors that impinge upon society’s response to a crisis such as Covid. Throughout the pandemic, intuition sounded alarm bells for many thoughtful people about the policy choices being made by governments. No great knowledge of medicine or science was required for one to sense troubling contradictions, inconsistencies, or gaps in pronouncements from governments and health authorities about both the pandemic and the measures to limit its spread or defeat it.

Take for example, the way that strict lockdowns were justified. TV and newspapers showed us anxiety-provoking graphs of possible mortality from the disease, modelled by statistical epidemiologists. Yet we were given no comparable expert modelling of the problems that lockdowns might cause. One didn’t have to be to any kind of expert to intuit that shutting down society, while perhaps solving or mitigating one big problem (the spread of infection), might cause numerous other problems. Or that those in positions of responsibility ought to be trying (whatever the difficulties) to define and quantify those potential problems as well as the supposed gains in terms of slowing rates of infection. But if anybody was trying, we heard next to nothing about it. (As I write this, Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor of the Exchequer throughout the height of the Covid crisis, has at last frankly admitted that the British government never undertook a proper cost-benefit analysis.8)

For some of us at least, intuition sounded a warning bell about that lack of comparison between scenarios. Were the authorities responding wisely? Or were they perhaps panicking? Or, worse still, were they entangled in a web of groupthink, in which the true public interest was no longer distinguishable from an array of vested interests, whether political, bureaucratic, or corporate?

Similar intuitive misgivings should have accompanied the stories we were told about vaccine development. First, we were told that effective and safe vaccinations would take years to develop. Then we learned that they had been developed in just one year. But wait: wasn’t part of the reason for that long development period to do with the need for testing? And as the technology used was profoundly novel, should we not have expected the testing period for these vaccines to be protected, perhaps even extended, rather than compromised? Instead, the processes for approval of the vaccines were rushed or abridged. Perhaps that was justified for those at severe risk, yet, in a relatively short time, the vaccines were also being urged upon all age-groups and upon the healthy and the unhealthy alike. How did all that add up?

How many of us had such intuitions in connection with lockdowns and vaccines? Whether or not an intuition proves correct in the long run, it is unwise to ignore it in a case where much is at stake — just as it is unwise to leap to premature conclusions from it. Yet many of us did ignore our intuitions, spellbound by trust in authorities.

Grounded in Reason

Suggestion 5: systematically cultivate critical thinking

Having been warned against suppressing intuition, we must also recognise that it is a blunt instrument — the least reliable of faculties, the one that most easily leads us astray. That is why the Buddhist epistemology specifies that our intuitions must be tested in reason and experience (and, as we’ve seen, checked against ‘the testimony of the wise’). Let’s consider reason next. Reason is the ability to produce, or to evaluate, a cogent line of argument. It includes our capacity to form a theory, to identify and audit premises, to apply inductive and deductive logic, and to conceive real-world tests to assess the veracity of our conclusions.

Intuitions must be tested in reason and experience

Now let’s go back to our intuition that we weren’t being given the whole story about the case for lockdowns. The faculty of reason could unpack that intuition in detail. If people are told to stay at home and ‘protect the NHS’, they might evade Covid for a time, but will they miraculously be free from the other natural shocks that flesh is heir to? Will they not lose vital opportunities for the diagnosis or treatment of other serious medical conditions, such as cancer or heart disease?

And what about education? What happens to learning if schools are closed, and children left to learn as best they can online — in the absence of the routine and discipline of the classroom, and amid all the distractions of home? How will that affect the rest of their lives? Similar questions might be asked about the psychological harms of social isolation, or the inflationary costs of paying workers not to work for weeks or months on end. To ask these questions, one need not be a qualified epidemiologist, educationist, clinical psychologist, or economist. One simply needs an ordinary familiarity with the world, illuminated by some capacity for reasoning.

For policymakers, including those who lead faith communities, reasoning skills are not a luxury. Such skills can be developed with applied effort and guidance. Accordingly, I would urge policymakers in faith communities to undertake some formal study of logic and critical thinking. For Buddhists, such training could be seen as a working-out (in the complex conditions of modern society) of the fundamental teaching of pratitya samutpada. This is the insight that everything arises in dependence on conditions, and not by either the random operation of chance or the mysterious ministrations of a divine will. There are regularities in the processes of arising — regularities that we can observe, and from which we can learn to anticipate the future. That is the very essence of reasoning. It is true that, for Buddhism, reason alone cannot adequately capture the ultimate truth of things. Yet of all religions, Buddhism is the most reasonable — in the sense of ‘rational’. And this is precisely because it bases its teaching upon the arising of all things in dependence upon conditions.

To give some concrete examples, a training in critical thinking can acquaint us with the various types of logical fallacies, which lie in wait to ambush policymakers on route to their conclusions. One example of such a fallacy is the common assumption that ‘correlation is causation’. For instance, in 2021 the falling rates of Covid infections were used as evidence of the effectiveness of vaccines, despite the fact the infection rate (which varies with seasons and with the natural progress of an infection through a population) had fallen in a similar fashion the year before, when no vaccination programme was present.

Another common fallacy or error is that of ‘equivocation’. An apparently cogent argument may be fatally flawed by the use of a single word in two different senses, with the changed meaning going unnoticed. Consider, for example, the word ‘vaccination’. Does it connote an intervention by which full immunity is conferred? In standard medical usage, yes it does — as in the cases of smallpox, polio, or MMR vaccinations. While the Covid vaccines were being developed, there was a common assumption that they would be vaccines in this sense. Yet since the rollout, it has become ever clearer that at best they reduce (rather than eliminate) transmission or severe illness, that their protective effect (in terms of antibody levels) decays rapidly, and that they are not equally effective against all variants of the virus. Hence the official drive to repeat ‘vaccination’ through a potentially endless series of boosters.

Another equivocation error was the change in the definition of ‘case’. A ‘case’ originally meant an instance diagnosed by a qualified doctor, but it came to mean a positive lateral flow or PCR test. Statistics on ‘case numbers’ therefore became contingent on testing rates, which in turn were contingent upon the availability of test kits. They were also compromised by the failure to publish the false positive rate.

We need to test all arguments with basic logic

We need to test all arguments with basic logic. In the case of Covid, one may not be expert in virology or epidemiology, or any of the relevant fields, but one can learn to detect gaps, inconsistencies, and blatant contradictions in the way that these things are talked about. We can see when things don’t add up. For example, if a vaccine confers immunity and the vulnerable have been vaccinated (or at least, those who are willing to be), why press vaccination upon others for the sake of the vulnerable? And if Covid is known to be less dangerous than the flu for children (as indeed it is) why would vaccination against it be recommended for children?

Confirmed in Experience

Suggestion 6: never forget that ‘experience’ means real-world observation

But critical thinking skills are not enough. The postulates produced by intuition and reason must be checked against real-world observations and data. This is where the rubber meets the road: we move from the abstract to the concrete and draw on empirical observation. This means not waiting passively for experiential data to find its way to us. We must constantly ask ourselves, ‘If this is accurate, what will I observe?’ And then we must actively look for data that either supports or contradicts the resulting expectation.

This is resonant with the Buddhist tradition, which suggests the Buddha urged his followers to test his teaching as rigorously as a goldsmith would test gold. Likewise, in the Kālāma Sutta, the Buddha recommends judging teachings by experience. He urges the Kālāmas to ‘know for yourselves’ whether teachings are beneficial or harmful when put into practice. But in a situation such as the Covid pandemic, how are we to ‘know for ourselves’? This question leads me to my next, more specific, suggestion.

Suggestion 7: learn to think quantitatively

Looking only at one’s individual experience cannot give certainty about what is generally true. How can we know whether we are like or unlike people in general? When the Buddha refers the Kālāmas to their own experience, he is in effect asking, ‘What typically happens when X happens?’ He illustrates this with reference to Buddhist moral principles. For example, what typically happens whenpeople get what they want by violence, or by seizing other people’s property? Or what typically happens when they seek pleasure and release in drink or drugs? To ask what typically happens is to situate the question in the context of a whole community — which of course is precisely what the Buddha was doing in his dialogue with the Kālāmas. The Buddhist appeal to experience therefore contains within itself a rudimentary quantitative element.

Modern science has elaborated and systematised this common-sense quantitative approach to experience. In the scientific method, the quantitative principle is present, for example, in the demand for replication — which means that confidence in a finding accumulates in proportion to how reliably it can be repeated. In any question involving populations, whether human or non-human, the quantitative approach entails the use of statistical data. In popular opinion, statistical measurement has a mixed reputation (hence the old saying about ‘lies, damned lies and statistics’). Nevertheless, if we want to get to grips with a crisis such as the Covid pandemic, we can’t get away from statistics. The challenge is not whether to use quantitative data; it is to learn how to interpret and apply them rightly.

The challenge is to learn how to correctly interpret and apply quantitative data

Through the course of the pandemic, a grasp of the use and misuse of statistics might have been very helpful to policymakers in faith communities. It would have helped them to grasp certain important items of information that, for the public at large, either went under the radar altogether, or if picked up were not fully understood. I have already referred to some of these in the course of this article. One example is the difference — in relation to vaccine efficacy — between absolute and relative risk reduction.9 A second example is the misleading nature of the type of statistical modelling (of infection rates, for instance) that considers only worst-case scenarios and therefore repeatedly overestimates likely figures for hospitalisation and death.10 Another is the capacity to distinguish between significant numbers that the unwary might easily confuse with one another, such as the Case Fatality Rate, the Crude Mortality Rate, and the Infection Fatality Rate.

I fully realise that my suggestions, and this one in particular, amount to a pretty tall order. With a phenomenon such as Covid, the task of gathering and assessing experience takes on a magnitude and complexity that even the Buddha could not have foreseen. For the Kālāmas, the experiential testing of the moral precepts was straightforward because violence, theft, and so on are rooted in everyday experience. Anyone can validate these universal moral principles in the course of an ordinary life in any era. In contrast, the Covid pandemic was a ‘black swan’ event, unlike anything seen for a century.11 Furthermore, it spread its wings over not just one community, like that of the Kālāmas, but the whole world (though with varying impacts in different places). In such a case, wise policymaking must be informed not just by one’s personal experience, nor even the experience of one’s local or national community, but by scientific and statistical data of global scope. Of course, policymakers in faith groups will hardly ever be in a position to collect their own scientific or statistical data, or to read everything that might be relevant. But what they can usefully do is learn something about how to find, interpret and assess relevant data collected by others.

Suggestion 8: stay open to new argument and experience

I often call to mind some wise words spoken by a friend of mine. I was apologising because I had mistakenly judged him too harshly for some past events. He generously replied, ‘No need to apologise – you could have come to no other conclusion based on the information you had.’ This is apposite for policymakers, who are ever at risk of reaching wrong conclusions through the lack of relevant information. Capable policymaking demands an active quest for necessary experiential knowledge.

Under this, my fifth principle, I have argued that policymakers should seek information from a range of sources, and learn how to assess it — including, for example, how to spot warning signs that reveal bad motives or flawed logic. They should neither suppress their intuitions nor jump to conclusions from them. Rather, they should clarify those intuitions with critical thinking, and test them in experience. To do this ever more effectively, they should train themselves in relevant skills — learning to think both critically and quantitatively.

Policymakers should learn how to spot warning signs that reveal bad motives or flawed logic

Yet having reached some conclusions on that basis, policymakers still should not hold to those conclusions too tightly, but remain open to new evidence and logic. The Buddha taught that we humans tend to cling to things that we like, and this clinging is a major cause of our suffering. He also pointed out that our views figure prominently among the things we cling to. We treasure our views because they are part of our identity. They usually form part of our emotional bonds with our family and friends. They boost our sense of self-esteem and belonging. Modern psychology confirms the point. Once we have ‘picked a side’, we tend thereafter to be interested only in information that confirms our choice, eager to protect our self-esteem and our membership of a group rather than the truth. This is called ‘confirmation bias’.

To overcome an attachment to views is not easy, requiring as it does the persistent honing of our truth-seeking faculties. But then, as I mentioned at the start of this essay, nothing about policymaking is easy!

Conclusion: A Good Heart is Not Enough

L’enfer est plein de bonnes volontés ou désirs’ — ‘hell is full of good intentions and wishes’ — wrote a Christian saint centuries ago.12 The idea is proverbial in English too, but we begin with ‘the road to hell…’. With such precedents, I can make no claim to originality in the central theme of this essay: that a loving heart, well furnished with good intentions, does not suffice to guarantee a happy ending. Indeed, such intentions, though they might not literally lead to hell, can undoubtedly make a bad situation even worse if they are not accompanied by relevant worldly knowledge and experience, coupled with a capacity for critical thinking. We need a cool, clear head as well as a warm heart when we make choices that will shape the future.

Samsara (the Buddhist word for our conditioned world) is to some degree predictable. As already stated, things arise in dependence upon conditions, and there are regularities — or patterns, to put it plainly — in the way things arise. That is precisely why, following the Buddha’s advice, we can test teachings in experience. Yet samsara is also to some degree unpredictable because of the infinitely complex, ‘assembled’ nature of phenomena. In short, groups of events may have a family resemblance to each other, but no one event is exactly like another. Because of the unpredictable side of samsara, we can never know with certainty how our policy choices will unfold. The best we can do is to make those choices according to wise principles. To that end, I have suggested in this essay a set of five principles.

I do not claim that the set is an exhaustive guide to policymaking. I have chosen these particular principles because to my eye, they emerge clearly from the way that most nations have handled, or rather mishandled, the Covid pandemic. Specifically, I have been looking at two key measures deployed by governments to combat that pandemic. Those measures were lockdowns and vaccination mandates. 

Thus, my principles derive from a particular scenario. Furthermore, I have applied them to policymaking in a particular context: that of faith communities. But if they are valid for Covid, they will also come in handy for any future pandemic — an eventuality which sadly is all too likely in our globalised world. And looking beyond such crises of public health, I dare to think that the principles are wide-ranging in relevance to all sorts of problems, whether personal, local or global.

The journey to this conclusion has led us far and wide. For that reason, a retrospective summary of the main points of my essay should help readers to crystallise in their minds what is essential in it. I shall therefore end with a brief recapitulation of my five principles.

Firstly, policymakers who are confronted with a problem should view that problem in the round, and not from a single angle. Never mind if a single angle is dominating public discourse to the exclusion of other valid perspectives. In a crisis such as the Covid pandemic, viewing the problem in the round means formulating policy responses not only from a medical viewpoint, but also from the perspectives of economics, civil liberties, and social cohesion. Above all, a faith community should surely view the problem through the lens of the values and principles that the community itself, perhaps uniquely, has to offer to the world. For Buddhists these include spiritual friendship (kalyāna mitratā), which can hardly thrive when association is hampered by draconian lockdowns. They also include the cultivation of fearlessness (which is not the same as recklessness).

Nothing in Buddhism leads us to expect that every problem will have a solution

Secondly, in choosing policy solutions, policymakers should anticipate trade-offs. Just as all medicines have unwanted side-effects, any policy solution will entail some loss or damage alongside whatever good it brings. We should strive to foresee the downside of any policy option, and weigh the costs (financial, moral, reputational, and so on) with the benefits. Nothing in Buddhism leads us to expect that every problem will have a solution; or that where a solution is available, the price for it will be worth paying. On the contrary, human existence is unsatisfactory (dukkha) by its very nature. Buddhism therefore does not sit very comfortably alongside a worldview that assumes that technology or political ideology can provide us with a cure for every ill. 

Thirdly, policymakers should seek to identify and audit their assumptions. They should understand that in the culture we presently inhabit, erroneous assumptions may flow not only from below (which is to say, from folklore, superstition or prejudice) but also from above — in other words, from ‘authorities’ such as ministers, public bodies, and official experts, including highly qualified scientists. Consequently (and fourthly) policymakers will be wise, to apply a measured dose of healthy scepticism to the deliverances of such authorities. They should be mindful of two things that may vitiate such pronouncements. The first is the material and cultural ‘capture’ by vested interests of bodies supposed to protect the public interest. The second is the replication crisis in the sciences. To sound this warning is not to indulge in a conspiracy theory; nor is it to deny the importance of science.

Fifthly and finally — and precisely because of the difficulties defined by the third and fourth principles — policymakers should engage in an open-ended endeavour to hone their truth-seeking ability. In the case of Buddhist faith groups, Buddhist tradition provides the outline of an epistemology for evaluating the truth of any proposition. Policymakers should attend to the testimony of the wise, but they must learn ways to distinguish the truly wise from those merely presumed so. They should not ignore their intuitions, but should submit those intuitions to the test of reason, and find ways to confirm or disconfirm them in experience.

The Buddhist endeavour is ultimately to achieve transcendental insight. That wisdom is beyond mundane knowledge or reasoning. Nevertheless, our ordinary human capacity to know the world and to think clearly about it forms part of the foundation of such wisdom. Conversely, the attainment of transcendental insight will bring with it a clarity that can only strengthen and purify the exercise of rational thought. I have heard it said that Sangharakshita (the founder of the Buddhist fellowship to which I belong) when asked on one occasion what he considered his legacy would be, replied, ‘An example of clear thinking’.  

For those in positions of leadership or influence within faith communities, the effort to formulate wise policy is one of the most challenging, yet potentially fruitful, aspects of their task. To the extent they participate in wise policymaking, they will help bring something rare and precious into this world.

Footnotes

  1. Intuition, grounded in reason, confirmed in experience, testimony of the wise: derived from Sangharakshita’s ‘A Survey of Buddhism’ 9th edition 2001, pp 319.
  2. Wikipedia co-founder: I no longer trust the website I created – YouTube Also, for a first-hand account of how a website has the power to destroy a reputation but escape accountability for doing so, see Wikipedia and the War on Science: Bret Speaks with Norman Fenton – YouTube
  3. On this matter, a search of the BBC News website can be revealing. Try searching for the name of the Thomas Sowell (whose work I have mentioned appreciatively in this essay, especially in principle 2), and you will find nothing. But if you search for a different Thomas — Thomas Piketty — you will find no less than 16 items — many giving a sympathetic account of Piketty’s views, or defending him against critics. Both economists are significant and original thinkers. Both have been mentioned as potential winners of the Nobel Prize. Yet Sowell is older, has published far more over a long lifetime, and has even produced more books than Piketty in the course of the last decade (the time during which Piketty has become famous). Sowell’s views are towards the libertarian and free market end of the spectrum, whereas Piketty favours state intervention to remedy inequality. Both are legitimate views, but it is fair to ask why the BBC has paid such diligent attention to one thinker and none at all to the other.
  4. Among the voices raised on behalf of one or more of these views were, for example Sunetra Gupta, Carl Heneghan and Karol Sikora (in the UK). In the USA, similar positions were taken by Jay Bhattacharya, Martin Kulldorff and John Ioannidis. The high standing of these names in fields relevant to the questions associated with lockdown can easily be established by anyone who cares to spend some time on an internet search. The same search will reveal the dismissive or outright hostile treatment they received from politicians and media outlets.
  5. This point is particularly relevant to the UK. For evidence of this, readers might try once again going to the BBC News website (as I suggested in note iii, above) and searching for any of the names mentioned in the preceding note. The search will produce nothing, or at least nothing relevant to the Covid-19 pandemic.
  6. For example, public health officials in the USA are known to have ordered a ‘quick and devastating public takedown’ of the authors of the ‘Great Barrington Declaration’ (Jay Bhattacharya, Martin Kulldorf and Sunetra Gupta). They became subject to ‘hit pieces’ in the press. See the interview with Dr Bhattacharya at  Covid Dr. Jay Bhattacharya on Our Covid Response – YouTube]
  7. In the traditional Buddhist view, intuition may also draw on siddhis — sensitivities that may develop with spiritual practice and cannot be explained in terms of present cognitive science. In the present context, however, it is not necessary to go into this possibility. I therefore treat intuition simply as a kind of rough-and-ready, inarticulate form of reason: it senses a conclusion without being able to spell out the intermediate steps by which that conclusion can confidently be reached.
  8. This was first reported by Fraser Nelson in the Spectator on 25 Aug. 2022: see The lockdown files: Rishi Sunak on what we weren’t told | The Spectator. It has subsequently been reported across a range of media outlets. At the height of the pandemic in the UK, there were some fleeting reports of government agencies estimating deaths that might be caused by lockdowns. See, for example, the Daily Mirror report at Impact of UK coronavirus lockdown may cause 200,000 extra deaths, report finds – Mirror Online. However, such reports generally presented such deaths as part of the overall impact of Covid itself — as if there were no question over the actual necessity of lockdowns.
  9. For example, at the initial stage of testing of the vaccines, a figure for risk reduction of 95% was publicised for a certain vaccine. Inevitably, this was widely understood as meaning that it reduced one’s chances of contracting Covid by 95%. In fact, the 95% reduction was not absolute, but relative only to a control group over a short period in a randomised controlled trial. Each group (vaccinated and placebo) comprised approximately 18,000 people. In the vaccinated group, 8 people (0.04% of the group) contracted the disease by seven days after the second jab. In the control group, the number was 162 (0.88%). Therefore, the figure of 95% refers only to the difference between these two small percentages. The absolute number of people who contracted the disease in either group was very low and the Absolute Risk Reduction was less than 1% (0.84%). See the video by the Canadian Covid Care Alliance at Relative vs Absolute Risk Reduction (rumble.com).
  10. For plentiful examples of overestimation by SAGE (the UK’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies), see the Spectator data tracker at The Spectator Data Tracker | Sage | The Spectator. For evidence of an over-focus on worst-case scenarios, see the note in Part Two of this essay about the journalist Fraser Nelson’s correspondence (reported in the Spectator) with the chairman of the SAGE Covid modelling committee.
  11. Whether Covid-19 was in reality a ‘black swan’ event is itself open to doubt. But my point is that when a crisis is or even just appears to be global, the task of gathering data is bound to be formidably complex.
  12. St. Francis of Sales in Correspondence: Lettres d’Amitié Spirituelle (1640). Francis believed he was quoting St. Bernard of Clairvaux, but no source has been found in Bernard’s writing. Hence there is some uncertainty about which Christian saint and how many centuries ago.
Achara

A Chartered Engineer by background, Achara's first love is uncovering ‘how things work’. This explains his thrill on discovering the Dharma, becoming especially intrigued by the law of conditioned co-production. He recently founded an agency specialising in obtaining high quality data.

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