Talking in three languages about Covid vaccines

I had long thought that the phrase “to babble” had its origins in the Genesis story of the Tower of Babel. Instead, you can find linguists arguing for Western European or Latin roots with the meaning of “to prattle” or to imitate baby talk (“ba-ba-ba”). By any definition, there is a lot of mutually-incomprehensible babbling going around that is as socially viral as the coronavirus has been medically.

As the “TV talking head” conversation has moved from the (continuing worldwide) havoc caused by the coronavirus into an often-stranger conversation about the vaccines, I play this game with myself when I see the topic come up on television news and social media feeds. I listen to the language that the speakers employ in making their points and try to place them on this Venn diagram:

religion-science-politics

We assume that everyone in this country “speaks English” but there are at least three often-incompatible “languages” going down here, not to mention many dialects of those languages. And just like Americans and their language skills in general, there are a lot of “monolinguals” walking around talking Covid and vaccines. Let me suggest that because of this, “communication” is just not happening.

During my tenure living in England, I learned quickly that there is not a “British accent.” Rather, there are dozens of regional and class-based dialects on that one small set of islands making up the United Kingdom, and as the only American in my office, they were all “foreign” to me. Some of them I never did learn to interpret, and so I still watch Britbox television shows with the English captions turned on.

We generally think everybody around us is speaking English, but there is a key reason why “good people disagree” (as well as some not-so-good people) about everything from the reality of the coronavirus to the multiple options for its mitigation and (if we can communicate) quashing. Within our common language we speak these “sub-languages” that may sound like English, but may as well be a “foreign language” to you if you aren’t up on the lingo and culture behind it. I’ve selected three here.

Science languages

“The good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it.” ― Neil deGrasse Tyson

That quote bugs some non-scientists, but it reveals a lot about the “language of science.” I try hard to keep up on what the scientists and mathematicians are saying about this virus pandemic worldwide and the progress the vaccine is making in its decline (in some places more than others). But the reality is that the majority of Americans just do not speak this language, and millions really do not want to.

Especially for religious folk of a fundamentalist stripe, the materialist philosophy shared by most scientists may even be seen as sacrilegious, and Dr. Anthony Fauci becomes reviled as “the enemy.” A similar thing happened to renowned climate scientist Michael Mann two decades ago, where technical “science language” discussions among climate practitioners became fodder for public attacks by people who could not find the science-language equivalent of the baño if they tried.

Scientific materialism in regard to this virus is the perspective that this is a physical object, a thing, defined by the rules and math of biology, organic chemistry and physics. It is a product of evolution, and it can be substantially mitigated by science-based rational and math-aware interventions such as masking and social distancing. It can also be dramatically tamped down by vaccines, as we have successfully done with polio and smallpox. When you hear that kind of rationalist language in the media, usually from the best science-based physicians, you can check off that red circle.

Good scientists disagree at times, even on the efficacy of the various proposed interventions, but the entire process of scientific exploration does a pretty good job at eventually weeding out the false trails and moving toward informed consensus over time. Good scientists like Anthony Fauci are often “Bayesian” thinkers, constantly feeding new evidence back into their own thinking to “tweak” their recommendations and view of “the current odds,” although they then may get criticized for “changing their minds.”

Bayes Theorem

There are also faux scientists out there, and some have emerged in this debate. But they usually give themselves away by discarding standardized methodologies, speaking instead more in “miracle cure” terms. While we have often been taught about the “lone scientist” making great discoveries in our past, that portrayal is largely myth. Science has long been a collective enterprise, with people learning primarily from each other’s discoveries and, importantly, failures.

Religion and spirituality languages

We have commonly heard interviews of maskless attendees at early public events, and now at “anti-vaccine” rallies, who assert that “God will protect me,” or that they will “pray the virus away.” My empirical mind then shouts at the television, “Do you realize that the large majority of the 600,000 American Covid dead considered themselves to be believing Christians as well?” But I am missing the point of their expression.

As I have written in the past, I see religion as not so much as about beliefs, which vary all over the map, even for purported Christians, but rather as language. My go-to point is that an Episcopalian woman from Massachusetts and a Baptist man from Alabama will agree on almost nothing, whether sacred or secular. This disagreement likely carries to the coronavirus and its mitigation, and yet both are speaking their own dialect of “God language.” And both will freely call themselves “professing Christians.” Neither one is lying.

I contend that religion “on the ground” is more about the cultural and historical words and phrases that we quote to describe our greatest hopes and our deepest fears. Most of us learn one of the many dialects of this religious language at a very early age. Even though the Episcopalian and Baptist ministers are both preaching from the same (or similar) Bibles from the pulpit, each Christian denomination can be pretty well defined by which of the Bible’s thousands of verses get emphasized in the different churches on any given Sabbath day

When I was studying ethics as a non-Catholic at a Jesuit university, professors would casually toss in the names of long-ago popes and phrases from Medieval theologians as “shorthand” for theological innovations from their times, creating a Christian sub-language that most non-Catholics find “foreign.” Latter Day Saints will supplement common Bible quotes with selections in their own language unique to their additional scriptures. A devout and pacifist Muslim employee of mine in England would toss off adages from the Koran in casual conversation.

I often think of this unfamiliar language as being like a movie quote from a popular film that I did not see, even though it is now deeply embedded in popular culture. Or perhaps like an American listening to a British cricket play-by-play. I know they are speaking English, but I cannot really process those sentences in my head (and they experience the same with baseball).

Standing maskless at an anti-vaccination rally while professing religious faith as protection against the coronavirus is more about using the religious language that we have at hand to express our solidarity with our religious “tribe.” I personally “don’t get it” because my own tribe has found ways to reconcile religious tradition with most modern rationalism.

For many coming at this virus while speaking in “God language,” science has little to do with it. The coronavirus is instead an expression of retribution or testing on all or some part of God’s creation, usually to “those other people.” This is “blue circle” language. But so also are the “ethical” expressions of compassion and personal sacrifice in Bible quotations from the other side of the religious spectrum. The world’s scriptures are full of this alternative language as well, but it has received much less media emphasis. The best and the worst of humanity can be found within those pages.

Crossing the boundary

Ever since the time of the Greek philosophers, and especially since the scientific revolution of the 16th century onward, many attempts have been made to reconcile these two worldviews. The 12th century Jewish philosopher Maimonides claimed reconciliation of the two by asserting that there could be no lasting impasse between “the truth” as derived from the natural science and “the truth” as derived from the Torah. If there are apparent differences, he said, it is the human interpretations that are instead flawed. Ah, but whose human interpretation is flawed, yours, or mine?

Baruch (also called Benedict) Spinoza (1632–1677) made a famous (among philosophers anyway) attempt at bridging the gap between 17th century science and religious language. [1] Spinoza was the son of Portuguese Jewish parents who had fled the Inquisition, settling in the more tolerant Dutch Republic. In Holland, his writings equating “God” with all nature itself managed to get him ejected from his synagogue for threatening the fragile pact of tolerance between Christians and Jews in his parents’ adopted homeland.

Spinoza had no less of a disciple than Albert Einstein (1879–1955). Einstein often aggravated many of his physicist friends by invoking “God language” like “the Old One” when communicating his theories of cosmology to non-scientific audiences, and also when describing his numinous passion for playing Mozart on his violin. To Einstein, E = mc2 is “the language of God” revealing to us the relationship between energy, matter, and time itself.

In more recent years, some religious writers, even very conservative ones, have written about rising environmental issues using religious terms like “the stewardship of God’s creation.” Recall that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was created by Richard Nixon in 1970, so this area of science once had conservative as well as liberal advocates.

My point here is that these two languages, science and religion, are not as irreconcilable as recent religious divisions may suggest. The coronavirus poses one of the gravest threats that humans have faced in many years. It unavoidably inserts itself into the “Big Questions of Life” that humans have talked about for thousands of years, mostly using religious languages. Some people can be “bilingual” here with some effort.

Political language

In its best sense, politics is the art of bringing people with conflicting priorities together into a functioning society. On good days, it is the language of advocacy, consensus, and negotiation. On the more common bad days, it is about the naked exertion of power, brinkmanship, and personal attack. Perhaps you can think of politicians who prefer one strain of political language over the other.

Political speech now dominates cable television news and the internet. The days are gone when rival politicians like my childhood Republican congressman Jerry Ford and Democratic House Speaker Tip O’Neill were personal friends when off the floor of the House of Representatives. The “better side” of politics was often hashed out on the golf course (or sometimes more deviously in “smoke-filled rooms”). On January 6, 2021 it devolved into open warfare.

It is quite easy to check off the “green circle” when watching the news. Most of the pundits who are now regathering around the table on CNN, Fox News, or MSNBC on any given day try to steer away from the landmines of religious language. And most are pretty bad at communicating science talk, so the conversation pares down to the day’s expressions of political power. CNN and MSNBC have done a decent job at putting bona fide virologists on the air, although usually not in the ubiquitous panel format. Fox News, on the other hand, has given airtime to a variety of pseudoscience hacks and outright nutcases, and has begun an overt campaign trying to trash Anthony Fauci.

The political language overlaps

But it is the rare pundit who can speak multilingually in two, or all three, overlapping spheres of these languages. Astute religious viewers quickly perceive whether the pundit is talking in the viewers’ own religious “dialect.” Great scientists are often clumsy in their political expression and, even though a large number of scientists profess a religious faith of some kind, they know that it can be academic suicide to be publicly seen as too sectarian. Francis Collins, the current director of the National Institutes of Health, has publicly walked this fine line for many years, sometimes more successfully than others.

It is understandable that most people prefer remaining in their comfortable language “sphere.” But future dialogue in the community is increasingly dependent on people listening to the language of others and trying to understand where that language comes from.

But then, where do I put the language of conspiracy theories, so rampant right now with the Covid vaccine? I personally put most conspiracy theories in the bucket of “brain malfunction,” or more generously as “bad math skills,” but that takes some more explanation…


Notes:

  1. See Stewart, Matthew. The Courtier and the Heretic: Leibniz, Spinoza, and the Fate of God in the Modern World. Yale University Press, 2007. This is a fascinating account of two of the great minds of the 17th century, Baruch Spinoza and Gottfried Leibniz (a co-inventor of calculus) coming together in conversation.

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