Nobody really knows: a Trumpworld dreamscape

“I'm very open-minded. I'm still open-minded. Nobody really knows. Look, I'm somebody that gets it, and nobody really knows. It's not something that's so hard and fast”

Donald Trump on climate change, during an interview on Fox News Sunday, 11th Dec 2016

It had been a long day. The rain fell incessantly as a gale rose from the south-west. I had read a couple of new peer-reviewed papers as one attempted distraction, chatted online with a few fellow climate campaigners as another, argued with a few of the usual suspects and their followers as a third, then finally settled down into a prolonged stint of editing a book-chapter. Darned word-limits!

After a late supper I had a quick trawl through Facebook, scrolling past the photos of people's cats, interspersed with a multitude of political posts, almost entirely concerning either Trump or Brexit. You don't see much else these days. There was the odd one mentioning Arctic sea-ice (still at a record low and now beginning to fall again) and I put right a commentator who was arm-waving about the Antarctic, but who hadn't bothered to check the latest data. Oh well. I took a quick look outside. The wind had veered north-west and dropped. Ragged clouds drifted past the Moon. The air felt unusually warm but damp. Owls called in the unseen distance, whilst closer by, the enthusiastic croaking of frogs reminded me that spring had officially arrived. "Pruitt, pruitt, pruitt", they went, on and on. "Brexit", said another, quite distinctly. "Poor thing", I thought. "It must have a sore throat". I closed the door and turned in with a favourite book, but I was knackered. Before I was halfway from Bree to Rivendell, dodging Black Riders, reality had drifted away....

Nobody really knows... Nobody really knows....

Nobody really knows how it began. People move around the globe in vast numbers in the 21st Century, each airport a hub, an exchange centre for pathogens from pretty much every capital city in the world. Perhaps it was a businessman, browsing a Hong Kong street market for gifts to take on his homeward flight and passing too close to a stall selling live poultry. Or perhaps it was that careless traveller, bitten as he mishandled an unfamiliar rodent in the final days of his Amazon rain-forest trek, who paid the true price for his misadventure. All we knew back then was that someone had brought something new to science into the heart of the United States and that something was a) very unpleasant and b) readily transmitted between humans.

By the time a few cases had become a major outbreak, we had learned one important thing about this new disease. It had a long incubation period of at least two weeks. People were infectious yet for that period they showed no symptoms. Since nobody really knew any better, that first critical fortnight allowed affected individuals to take the infection to pretty much every corner of Planet Earth. Virtually nowhere was immune.

Symptoms showed a rapid onset once triggered, with severe fever and collapse. Mortality was high: 62% of those showing symptoms died within days. The high level of infection meant that infrastructure was increasingly coming under strain.

One problem was that this infection had never before been examined by virology specialists: without knowing its weaknesses they could not take down its defences. Another major issue was that, thanks to some of the more extreme characters in the early days of the Trump administration, many of the relevant research bodies had been cut back in their operational capabilities almost to the point of emasculation. Some researchers had already moved themselves and their work overseas, to China and other rapidly-developing countries, where they were welcomed. As it happens, that was to prove most fortunate. Some countries were far better-prepared for this challenge than others.

You see, nobody really knows. Nobody really knows what they are dealing with. Or do they? Some basic questions can be easily and confidently answered. Yes it is a virus, yes it is highly contagious between humans, yes it has a long incubation period and yes mortality is high: we really do know the basic principles. It is the fine details that are elusive: how it first jumped species, why it is infectious before symptoms, what process triggers the onset of symptoms, why some people make it and others do not.

In many scientific fields of enquiry, the basics are straightforward and well-agreed. Earth goes around the Sun in a cyclically variable orbit. The gravitational pull of the planet makes you fall swiftly to the surface if you jump out of a plane, hence parachutes. Greenhouse gases have prevented Earth from cooling into a perpetual iceball. There is broad scientific consensus on all of these things. It's all the little variables, all the little gaps to fill in, the nitty-gritty, that are our focus of attention.

It was quickly understood by world leaders that because nobody really knew about the strengths and weaknesses of this thing, we had to find out as quickly as we could. The global research effort was vastly increased as soon as it was evident that we had a major problem. Stateside, hundreds of specialists were lured out of early retirement with the promise of funding they could only have dreamed of just a few months ago. They joined forces with teams working in isolated clean-room conditions at centres all over the world. And yes we are making some progress. We have tested a new blend of antiviral drugs that are showing promise: the mortality rate has started to fall sharply. But we need to stop it spreading in the first place: above all we need a vaccine.

Predictably, some cult-like groups protested against the up-graded research, arguing that the infection was simply the will of whatever deity they followed, so that it was insulting to them to go against that will.

Others took a different stance, preferring a wide variety of alternative hypotheses. Some claimed that government forces had been spraying the infection into the atmosphere from aircraft. Some insisted that it had been the result of a mishap at a top secret military research facility. Yet others opined that it was all a big scam to raise taxes to pay for healthcare - despite the growing numbers of recently occupied houses along their streets, now vacated, their inhabitants having passed on. It was even suggested that the occupants of said houses had not been taken out by a virus, but instead taken away at night, to secret camps. Online forums were ablaze with these and a host of other rumours, most of which contradicted one another, not that their proponents particularly cared.

But there will always be those who spend their days banging out angry messages in all-caps. Meanwhile, thanks to repeated and detailed briefings from leaders in the field of viral medicine, President Trump had come to his senses quickly. In a press-conference on December 11th 2017, he spoke plainly and directly to the American people:

“Nobody really knows. Nobody really knows so we're gonna find out. That's the only way. We've got people, we've got great people, the best people working on this. Those scientists are working so hard. Those special, amazing scientists. They're gonna do a phenomenal job. They're so great, they really are.......”

The alarm clock rang. “It's six o'clock on Tuesday the twenty-eighth of March twenty-seventeen and you're listening to the Today Programme. And here is the news”, the radio told me helpfully. “Dang it”, I thought. “He was being all pro-science. That was just getting really interesting”.

I walked to the bathroom and stuck my head under the cold tap. On the radio, something about Trump and the media - couldn't quite catch it but it's the same most mornings these days. I dressed, came downstairs, boiled the kettle and made coffee. I switched on the downstairs radio. On the Today Programme, presenter John Humphrys was interviewing someone:

“I'm joined now on the line by Scott Pruitt, new head of the U.S. Environment Protection Agency, or the EPA as it's often called. Now, Mr Pruitt, I've got a very simple question for you. Does man-made climate change exist or not?"

Outside, the landscape lay hidden in the early-morning darkness, indiscernible but very much there. The wind had risen again. I could hear the swirling of the rain-laden squall around the folds of the hills, its gusts hissing through the swaying trees. I switched on the PC. There was work to do: there would be work to do every day, just as surely as the sun comes over the eastern horizon each morning, whether it may be seen or not. Onwards and upwards....

 Thanks to Baerbel W for the idea behind this post.

Posted by John Mason on Wednesday, 29 March, 2017

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