When “I don’t know” is the truth

As we all grapple with unknowns of life in the COVID-19 era, I am reminded of a parable I learned in a theology class, A Faith to Die For, taught by Michael Baxter to Notre Dame’s undergraduates seeking Catholic Faith in all avenues of life. The parable is about knowledge, and I associate this parable with standard unknowns of life like the creation of the universe and what happens after death. These themes seem more apropos than ever.

The parable goes as follows:

Three referees are sitting at a bar having a beer after a game. A genial, balding referee says to the rest of the group: “I gotta admit to you guys, I call those plays as I see ‘em.” One of the other referees laughs, the other looks quite serious, frowning. The frowning referee says, “I call those plays as they are.” The last referee, still gently laughing says “both of you are wrong, those plays are nothing until I call them!”

This parable is a perfect analogy for the nature of knowledge, especially scientific knowledge, because our three referees offer a guide for advice in the COVID-19 era.

We all wish Dr. Fauci would come out and tell us the complete, exact details of this virus. Six months after its emergence, we have watched research papers be published and retracted. Just recently Dr. Fauci said, “I thought HIV was a complicated disease. It’s really simple compared to what’s going on with COVID-19” (Edwards, 2020). Fauci calls it as he sees it. He gives us only what he can tell us with certainty, which isn’t as much as we would like. He is the first referee, who knows the limits of his own observations.

The second referee believes he or she sees information exactly as it is. There is no consideration that his interpretation of the data could be wrong. We like people like him, because there is no trace of uncertainty when we receive their recommendations. After all, wouldn’t it be nice to know exactly what would defeat COVID-19 for good? While confident and charismatic recommendations may have been popular this spring, right now, with the second wave of infection — which really is just the continuation of the first wave — people are realizing that recommendations stated the most confidently are not necessarily the most accurate.

Where does that leave us with the third referee, a known player in the game who shapes the eventual result? The first two referees see themselves as unbiased officiators of the contest, regardless of how they assess the fallibility of their observations. The third referee knows that he has the power to call the plays as he sees fit, affecting the outcome. One could see people like him as chaos actors of the modern age, but it really could be anyone who benefits from his deceit. Why else would the third referee claim power over the course of the game? It’s either for his or someone else’s benefit. The recently updated CDC guidelines that removed the obvious fact that virtual school activities conveyed the lowest risk of virus transmission looks very similar to a strike being called a ball (Kamenetz, 2020). This author can only offer that the new guideline that implicitly encourages in-school instruction over virtual studies is an attempt to return the US normalcy, the GDP included.

The moral of this parable is that it is not the most confident assertion that is most accurate. In a digital environment where we are bombarded with both sides of every story and then some, trust is hard to build. The people who assert the most specific claims about COVID-19 (such as “It is the flu”) often are pedaling something else entirely. In the coming year, we will be challenged to listen to those who don’t always make us feel the safest (what if no vaccine ends up being effective?), because everyone knows what everyone else wants to hear by this point. We must, as a nation, move toward an understanding that there are huge unknowns in our future, and that the margins of error in scientific data translate into real life.

Acknowledging this, we can see that our only tenable solution is to be there for one another in a way that we never have by adapting social and economic customs. We must do as Europe is doing and pay people to stay home until a vaccine is available. The coming wave of evictions following the expiration of the Federal unemployment benefit will illustrate what is necessary in future COVID relief bills. We must acknowledge that we are all going to take a hit this year one way or another. GDP is going to be drastically reduced for 2020 and hopes for a recovery in the second half of the year are waning (Casselman and Tankersley, 2020). In the same way, I hope that belief in unsupported opinions, stated with complete confidence, also takes a hit. Then, when a trusted expert says, “I don’t know,” we might accept that this is the extent of human knowledge on the topic and the extent of our certainty about the truth.

Casselman, B. & Tankersley, J. (2020) “A Resurgence of the Virus, and Lockdowns, Threatens Economic Recovery.” Retrieved from: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/15/business/economy/economic-recovery-coronavirus-resurgence.html

Edwards, E. (2020) “Fauci: HIV is ‘really simple’ compared to COVID-19”. Retrieved from: https://www.nbcnews.com/health/health-news/blog/2020-06-09-coronavirus-news-n1228071/ncrd1228796#blogHeader

Kamenetz, A. (2020) “In Reversal, Trump Says Schools in Coronavirus Hot Spots Should Delay Reopening.” Retrieved from: https://www.npr.org/sections/coronavirus-live-updates/2020/07/23/894926364/trump-announces-new-guidelines-for-reopening-schools

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David Duniven

Dentist in the Southwest, trying to make the world a better place.