Opinion: 2 important revelations emerge during pandemic

Two months ago, on Saturday, Feb. 22, Mike Hughes climbed into his homemade rocket on a launchpad in the desert near Barstow, Calif., and blasted off. His mission? To fly, he said, to the Earth’s “edge of outer space” to check whether “the world is flat or round. I don’t want to take anyone’s word for it.” He never got his answer. The steam-powered rocket shot up into the blue sky, keeled forward, then hurtled down and crashed, tragically killing Hughes.

There are excellent scientific reasons to build and launch a rocket. But to test whether the Earth is round or flat is not one of them. Hughes used physics and mathematics to design and build his rocket, then abruptly abandoned the very same physics and math that revealed a spherical world to Greek philosophers in the 5th century B.C., and to satellite cameras orbiting the Earth in the 21st century A.D.

This readiness to abandon science for out-and-out hogwash is evident daily in the COVID-19 pandemic. Although its cause is infection with the SARS CoV-2 virus, some in the United Kingdom are blaming — and burning down — newly installed 5G cell towers. Similar hokum pervades claimed cures for COVID-19: eat garlic (China, England); snort cocaine (Europe, Africa); drink or rub yourself with coconut oil (England); drink cow urine and rub yourself with cow dung (India); drink methanol (Iran); wear warm socks and mustard patches, and rub your chest with goose fat (Estonia); spray your mouth with salt water (South Korea). The U.S. isn’t immune to this anti-science malarkey. The QAnon movement recommended gargling with chlorine dioxide, a chemical used in industrial bleach. Our president mused about injections of a cleansing agent. Federal and state authorities were forced to stop two conspiracy quacks from peddling their quack remedies: silver-infused toothpaste hawked by Sandy Hook hoax-monger, Alex Jones; and a colloidal silver drink marketed by televangelist and convicted fraudster Jim Bakker of PTL Club fame. Pastor Rodney Howard-Browne, of the River Church in Tampa, Fla., called COVID-19 a “phantom plague” plot that can be defeated only by supernatural intervention. Another televangelist, Kenneth Copeland, told viewers to touch their TV screens to receive his direct spiritual healing for COVID-19.

Faith is rewarding, but so is common medical sense and epidemiological science — a sermon not being preached by a number of evangelical pastors. Howard-Browne challenged his hundreds of parishioners to be “revivalists, not pansies,” defy the state’s health quarantine, attend church service, shake hands and embrace one another. Other evangelical churches held Sunday in-person services in Kansas, Ohio, California and Louisiana — the latter proclaiming that “Satan and a virus won’t stop us.” Tragically, one parishioner died three days later. Another is in ICU. Apparently, these churches and their gospels cannot abide the worship of deity with distancing, even when the common good is at stake.

Two revelations should emerge from the tragedy of the COVID-19 pandemic. The first is not new: Science, not superstition, detects, curbs and cures disease. It’s the best vaccine to inoculate against claptrap. Thankfully, we can count on the responsible media for our daily dose of facts about viruses, antibodies, genomes, clinical drug testing and the mathematical modeling of disease spread, a highly complex biological and social phenomenon.

The second revelation is staggering. It emerges from our global lockdown of human industry and commerce. We’ve noticed that the world’s seismometers have suddenly gone quiet; the Earth’s crust has quit vibrating. With the engines turned off in our cars, trucks, semi-trailers, factories and plants worldwide, the land, literally, has quit shaking. From space we see that the waters in the canals of Venice have cleared, the skies over China have opened, and in India’s Punjab region, the thick, impenetrable, polluted pall has lifted, allowing the snow-covered Himalayas to be seen for the first time in 30 years. The pulse of our mechanized civilization now beats more slowly, more quietly, more cleanly.

This abrupt “human pause” forever transforms our sense of place and time and ethic on Earth. It demonstrates beyond doubt that we live in the Anthropocene, a geological epoch of our own creation, in which Homo sapiens is the most powerful force in shaping the planet — rumbling its continents, shrouding its mountains, fouling its waters, blackening its air. The smart imperative now is to re-engineer that force when we restart and re-enter the post-pandemic world. Kansas has shown that smart way forward. For the first time, wind power, not coal, is now the top source for electricity in the state.

— Leonard Krishtalka is a University of Kansas professor and director of KU’s Biodiversity Institute and Natural History Museum.

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