Belief or Not in Science and By Circumstance Sars-Cov-2 and Related Suggested Management

Reading Time: 5 minutes

In the late 1650’s, the French polymath and renowned scientist Blaise Pascal, having undergone a religious experience that transformed him into something of a zealot, suggested the following logical strategy regarding belief in God: If there is a God, then believing in him will ensure you an eternity of bliss, while not believing in him could earn you an eternal sentence to misery.

On the other hand, if there is no God, believing in him anyway will cost you very little, and not believing in him will mean nothing in the non-existent after life. Therefore, the only sensible bet is to believe in God. This has come to be known as Pascal’s Wager.

The wager has a surprising number of applications beyond concerns for a comfortable afterlife. There are many things for which the value of believing something or not can be utilised as a ‘cost-versus-likely-benefit’ wager, often without regard to the actual truth of the matter.

Since science does not profess to have a final truth, and in many areas freely admits its incomplete knowledge, Pascal’s wager can provide a useful method of deciding between two alternatives. In this article it is the validity of the Sars-Cov-2 virus as a causative agent of global illness and the benefit or not of two of the most common non-pharmacological strategies and lifestyle proposals for its related management.

Social isolation or at least reduced exposure to family, friends, colleagues, and strangers via physical distancing is predicated on the principle that viral particulates, especially those of a respiratory tendency need human to human contact to survive and thrive. Using Pascal’s model, we can apply the related decision tree to the application of this policy and related benefit.

To further expand – Pascal’s Wager Adaptation: Pandemic Edition

  1. You stay home and respect distancing because you accept that the disease is real and very bad, and that is in fact the case, so you avoid infecting and possibly killing yourself and others.
  2. You stay home and respect distancing because you accept that the disease is real and very bad, and that is in fact not the case, so it is moot.
  3. You do not stay home and respect distancing because you do not accept that the disease is real and very bad, and you are wrong about that. You run a very high risk of infecting and possibly killing yourself and others.
  4. You do not stay home and respect distancing because you do not accept that the disease is real and very bad, and you are right about that. You dodged a bullet. (Hint: this is not a possible outcome in the current real-world situation.)

Staying at home and being isolated does not of course have no psychological consequence. The mental health effects of COVID-19 are already visible and even by conservative estimates they are yet to reach their peak and likely to considerably outlive the current pandemic. As such this analogy has limited its impact to transmission and infection risk only.

It may feel that this analogy is stretching the original argumentative structure beyond what is reasonable, but it is the same basic structure as applied to his theological position: a binary choice and a binary of possibilities make four possible outcomes. The following are true statements about both applications of this structure:

  1. In the first case, you inconvenience yourself to some extent, maximise good and minimise harm done.
  2. In the second case, you inconvenience yourself to some extent, and it turns out to be moot.
  3. In the third case, you maximise the risk of a bad outcome, minimising good and maximising harm done.
  4. In the fourth case, you basically dodge a bullet and breathe a sigh of relief. (Again, this might work with theology, but it will not work with Sars-Cov-2.)

The results suggest you can be responsible and inconvenience yourself to reduce harm overall, or you can choose not to be responsible and participate in (probably) causing various levels of harm. The choice seems obvious, doesn’t it?

Albeit the people who like to attach themselves the Barrington Declaration suggest that isolation of ‘risk associated’ people would mean that inconvenience would only have to extend to the vulnerable. Attractive as this may be to the ‘non-vulnerable’, a similar exercise is occurring post-Christmas in the UK with current lockdowns, and at the point of writing this, the pressures on the NHS have continued to reduce its ability to meet all patient needs as effectively as normal.

Overall death rates are high, and the FT has presented a compelling video explaining why the position is not the same as a bad flu and winter combination.

There have of course been criticisms and responses to Pascal’s wager, but you can also apply his wager to the value in mask wearing. Consider:

Note that whilst it has not been conclusively proved that masks work scientifically, a paper out on the 19th Jan 2021in The lancet Digital found  that communities with high reported mask-wearing as well as physical distancing are the most likely to be able to control transmission.

Rather, we are doing a rational cost-benefit analysis to determine what the best strategy is. Wearing masks correctly would be in our best interest. If this is wrong, then it is a minor inconvenience. But if right, then we have prevented contributing to the spread of the SARS-Cov-2 virus which has wreaked havoc on many lives all over the globe. Surely, it is better to bet on wearing masks than not to.

Consuming nutrients and following good lifestyle practice for self-protection

As previously explained, supporting an effective integrated immune response with micro and macro nutrients provides a safe and potentially effective way to reduce risk of, and severity of infection, with improved recovery and function. Pascal’s wager can be applied to this model also.

What Does It All Mean?

If you inconvenience yourself by social distancing, wearing masks supplementing nutrients, doing your best to keep healthy and being responsible about this whole pandemic thing, the absolute worst-case scenario is that it has no impact, good or bad, on the statistics. The other possibility is that it affects things in a good way.

If you refuse to inconvenience yourself or engage in good health practices including the ingestion of foods that favour GI bacterial diversity (an area of increased risk for infection) as suggested, the consequences range anywhere from neutral to abjectly and unnecessarily terrible.

Rationalising Pascal’s wager in these matters can be challenging in the face of competing and often emotionally charged alternatives on social media and by groups with opposing narratives to promote.

It is perhaps worth noting that social media supercharges the mental habits by which people seek emotional stimulation and comfort, which means losing the distinction between what feels true and what actually is true.

The proposals recommended here, are safe and likely effective, worth keeping in mind when determining if the alternative proposal you are reading seems equivalently viable!

4 Comments. Leave new

  • Before I begin I should say I work for the NHS and see what is happening in my region.

    Although I agree there is almost zero downside to social distancing, masks (except for sore throats), eating well and supplementing with nutrients. I would argue the true social and economic costs of lockdown range from benign to devastating. For e.g. Business owners, hospitality workers with families etc…who are not eligible for furlough and are struggling to afford food etc…The debt ceiling and inflationary impacts may lead to increased taxation and reduced standards of living.

    Covid highlights the desperate need to shift the way we address health. Most Western governments observe Covid through a lense of reactionary management, intervening on day 10 when a patient deteriorates. As Pascal’s Wager suggests, what is the downside of providing the majority of the population with a dosette box containing nutrients proven to have anti-viral effects such as Zinc etc….on day 1? It would cost pence per patient. Best case it keeps a patient outside of hospital, worse case nothing.

    There is more to life than avoidance of death and if the cost of being alive is to suppress everything that is worth it, then the cost is simply too high.

    As Jonathon Sumption once said ‘There are no absolute values in this area, only pluses and minuses. You’ve got to value the saving of lives against the value of blighting the lives of people who are going to survive’

    Mike, could you please do a post about why the Taiwanese had zero cases in 200 days (that’s changed now), but it would be interesting to know what they do differently and why we can’t simply copy them?

  • Sophie Driver
    22, January 2021 14:13

    I think that the effect on mental health of millions of young people, teens and children isolated and looking at screens all day, especially now there’s so little daylight is already huge and to simplify this situation with the above belittles it.

    • Hi Sophie – your comment was very prescient, on reviewing the piece I noted that on the last proofread a paragraph and related link to research paper on this exact point had been lost – moving documents between people for proofing sometimes means that the master document is edited and then not saved! I have added it back in, and trust that whilst this piece has only touched on the subject, you can see it is recognised, and will feature in a future article.

  • Carrie Decker
    22, January 2021 18:10

    A wonderful balanced way to look at the situation, thank you Mike! I would make one change from my perspective – that the wording in the first grid substitute the word “by” for “and” –> “Least possible death BY infection”. The mental health crisis, substance abuse, physical abuse, homicides are dramatically higher especially in my region (Portland, OR), and we won’t know of course how the stay at home order (and other stresses of this year) have truly impacted that death rate for years to come. Findings from SARS-1 studies suggest that mental health will continue to deteriorate; it is crucial to be diligently looking at ways to address this for us all on a daily basis. Even things like re-integration – for children, particularly the vulnerable ones, this also will not be easy. I digress! We wrote about psychological resilience early on in the pandemic, and how things played out with SARS-1:


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Fill out this field
Fill out this field
Please enter a valid email address.
You need to agree with the terms to proceed

In this article:

COVID-19, Pandemic