Tell me your truth

Jesus answered “…for this I have come into the world, to bear witness to the truth”
…Pilate said to him, “What is truth?” (John 18:37,38)

Philosophers have argued long and hard about Truth. Is there such a thing as a true statement? What do we mean if we say that something is true? In everyday life, “true” is contrasted with “false”. If I say that my new car is red, then we can check – is it red or is it, in fact, orange? (Philosophers will, of course, ask what we mean by “red”…)

In science, notions of truth and falsity tend to be uncomplicated. When I formulate a hypothesis, and design an experiment, I’m aware that Nature will dispense its verdict: the results will either be consistent with the predictions of my hypothesis, or they will not, in which case it will be falsified.

Karl Popper provided the most influential model for describing scientific progress. According to Popper, science is a process of conjecture and refutation: we formulate hypotheses (make conjectures) and we test their predictions. If a hypothesis fails the test, it is falsified; if it passes the test it is corroborated.

For Popper, it was a characteristic of scientific hypotheses that they were always subject to possible falsification: a hypothesis should always specify the conditions under which it would be considered to be falsified. Thus, corroboration does not mean “true”, still less “proven”. Even such well-established hypotheses as the laws of thermodynamics, which have been subject to millions of tests without any known failures, are not “proved” according to Popper.

Importantly, however, corroboration increases the degree of confidence that we have in a hypothesis. Newton’s laws are very highly corroborated and we happily board aircraft despite the fact that the principles used in their design are fallible.

But if theories are not true, where does all this confidence spring from? Popper argues that science is fundamentally grounded in realism – the idea that there is an external reality that exists independently of our perception or understanding of it. As scientific knowledge advances, hypotheses are replaced by better hypotheses that explain more and that provide more accurate predictions; thus knowledge evolves.

Popper was a proponent of the correspondence theory of truth: truth in a theory consists in correspondence between the objects in the theory and objects in the natural world. Thus, scientific progress through the process of conjecture and refutation leads to theories that correspond ever more closely to the structures of the real, external world: they become more truth-like, even though we can never say that they are true.

Popper went further: he argued that while science, with its experimental method, allows us to test hypotheses in a particularly efficient way, the essential methodology can be extended to other areas of human discourse. He propounded a philosophy that he called “critical rationalism”, based on the idea of “mutual control through rational criticism”. Once we accept the tenet that there is an external reality, and that our hypotheses can approach greater verisimilitude through an evolutionary process of conjecture and refutation, then it no longer remains acceptable to merely believe whatever you want.

In my career as a scientist I have encountered very few scientists who did not, consciously or unconsciously, adhere to some form of the correspondence theory of truth. Realism is an unavoidable consequence of doing experimental science: to persist in adhering to a falsified hypothesis is not seen as heroic, but as ridiculous.

Thus, we arrive at one of the great culture clashes of modern times: in stark contrast, post-modern theory regards the idea of truth as correspondence to an objective reality as a totalitarian hangover from enlightenment rationalism. Our perceptions of the world are contingent on our perspective as observers; to offer external criticism of another’s understanding is to deny the validity of their perspective and experience.

Although there has been widespread academic criticism of post-modern thinking, it has played a dominant role in shaping public discourse and it has seeped deep into popular culture. When Oprah Winfrey invited Meghan and Harry to “share your truth” she was accepting implicitly that truth is not an objective reality, but something particular to each individual. Did somebody in the Royal Family behave in a racist way? Richard Dimbleby, the respected journalist, pointed out that there might be another perspective on the conversation that was alluded to by Meghan but certainly not examined critically by Oprah. Dimbleby said he was astonished that former colleagues at the BBC appeared not even to want to enquire what actually took place; there was no attempt to establish the truth of such explosive allegations.

In the post-modern world, personal truth is granted an unassailable status even if it appears to clash with reality, thus the concept of reality is undermined by the post-modern view of truth. Apparently without trace of irony, Kellyanne Conway offered “alternative facts” as evidence that what was false was true. Mutual control through rational criticism becomes impossible when evidence can be created ex nihilo to justify the hypothesis.

The explosion of social media has provided the perfect expression for this post-modern approach to truth. Soundbites articulating reactions and emotions, propounding personal truths free of any accountability, supported by powerful algorithms that create echo chambers which offer affirmation, not criticism, have provided the Petri dish in which falsehoods can appear, be nurtured and eventually impact the real world.

Since Joe Biden became president, the US Covid-19 vaccination programme has proceeded at great pace. But now it is slowing. States are asking for fewer doses, not more, because the United States has incubated some of the most egregious falsehoods of the pandemic and, in their transition from virtual echo chambers to the public imagination they have persuaded millions of Americans to take actions that harm themselves and their fellow citizens. Myths about Covid abound. Even as mass graves were being dug in New York, many were saying “its just like the seasonal flu”. Jair Bolsonaro, perhaps the most malignant and amoral of all the populist demagogues, still maintains this ludicrous falsehood despite a terrifying death rate among his fellow citizens.

The UK’s Office for National Statistics provides clear data on the spread of Covid-19. In the UK, 1 person in 500 died because of Covid in the first year of the pandemic; by January 2021, 1 person in 5 had been infected. (Since the UK Government relaxed Covid regulations in March, there has been an explosion of transmission). The number of deaths in the UK since March 2020 due to Covid approaches the total number of deaths from cancer in the same period. Would we say that cancer was just “a little flu”? The figures are similar in the US, and in much of the developed world. And now we witness the horrors unfolding in India.

Some people resist vaccination because of twisted political principles: it is an expression of their freedom to endanger themselves and their fellow citizens. One might argue that fascism can be rational even if it appears to be morally bankrupt. But most vaccine hesitancy comes from an acceptance of falsehoods that appear to be able to survive untroubled by serious criticism.

This postmodern approach to truth – based on alternative facts and personal truths – has led us into a dangerous twilight zone. And yet the greatest of liars perhaps fear – deep down – that there is in fact a reality. Trump’s election rallies spread Covid with gay abandon, and he humiliated and undermined his scientific advisors, but quietly, under the radar, everybody who attended events that brought them in close contact with the President was tested for Covid. The hidden machinery was not so devil-may-care as it was projected to be – another falsehood. The President’s close social interactions were stage-managed, and his protection was integral. When, eventually, he succumbed to Covid, no expense was spared as the very best medical resources were directed to his care. One would imagine that humility would follow, a recognition that the virus is real, but no such thing: instead, hubris and lies. And demonstrating the power of the lie, millions of Americans, despite the deaths, their former president’s fallibility and the evidence for all to see, refuse the vaccine.

Covid-19 is a small challenge compared to climate change. The evidence that climate change is happening is abundant: glaciers are melting, submarines can travel under the North Pole in Summer time, and there are floods and droughts. If the machinery of social media and vested interests can wreak such havoc with the truth about a pandemic, what hope have we of dealing with this much bigger and more pressing challenge? How do we get past “your truth” towards a notion of “the truth”? We must never say that we have “the truth” but we can say with confidence that examination of evidence and rational criticism are the only sure ways to approach it.

Ten months later…

For those of us girls who have become used to getting out and about, being locked down brings challenges. There are no opportunities for social interactions in the UK at present. The best I seem to manage when I do get out is a visit to the supermarket, or a walk in a park.

I’m shocked that it is 10 months since I last posted! Friends will know that I have had some additional responsibilities at work for the last three years. These come to an end soon, and consequently, I hope that my life will become more normal again – at least as normal as is possible in the middle of a global pandemic. But perhaps the unreasonable workload I have shouldered over the last year has been a blessing in some respects. Immersed in my work, I have not been aware of weeks passing without my alter ego taking physical form.

To dress or not to dress? That is the question…supposing one has the space in which to ask it. Getting all dressed up to sit around at home feels strange – it’s not something I would normally do. I get dressed to go out and do something, but there is nothing to do; being dressed to stay in feels a bit like the closeted experience that defined what “trans” meant for me before I made the transition to being out and about in the wide world. It’s strange to find myself dressing with not much more to do than to take a walk.

It is easy to feel negative about this, and from what friends say, I’m not the only one struggling with the dilemma. And yet, for all that it feels like a step backwards to an earlier stage in my trans journey to dress at home, I have discovered that it is nevertheless important to me; because the other, unhealthy dimensions to my earlier closeted life – the repression and self-loathing – seem associated not with dressing at home, but with not dressing at all.

Having learned to accept myself as trans, and lost completely any remnant of the desire to “cure” myself, the enforced purge of lockdown and isolation at home is awakening the buried, internalised transphobia that all those years of struggling created. The cure, as ever, is to be who I am; to put aside the peculiarity of dressing just to stay at home, and to enjoy expressing my femininity, knowing that it is a part of me, something that I need to do, and not something that needs to follow any pre-defined model.

As it happens, on the day this photo was taken, my walk today took me to the Botanical Gardens, and on to the supermarket, with a taxi journey home at the end of the excursion – so not as closeted as all that! Besides affirming my femininity, it was wonderful to feel the sun on my face and to be reminded of the lesson I’ve learned over the last decade: it’s OK to be me!

Cross-dressing in the Time of the Virus

There was a time when I only ever “dressed’ in secret. As a small child, I dressed in my mother’s (hopelessly outsized!) clothes, played with my sister’s dolls and read girls books carelessly and unreflectively; they were simply the things I preferred to do, However, as my age approached double figures, I became increasingly aware that this sort of behaviour was not only unusual (specifically: engaged in by nobody else that I knew!) but even regarded as transgressive. In those days, people who did not conform to sex and gender norms were “perverts”. And so began a transition to “dressing” only when nobody else was there to see.

Sheffield_17_04_20As adolescence got under-way, I became adept at judging when I might be at home long enough to transform myself, and made sure that I took advantage of every viable opportunity. I developed finely-honed tradecraft, enabling myself to “borrow” items and return them without leaving a trace of evidence that they had recently been removed.

For all that my dressing was concealed from the rest of the world, this secrecy, with the concomitant suppression of deep-rooted and quite fundamental aspects of my personality, left scars on my psyche that have proved indelible. While much of what people percieve to be good in me can be associated with the feminine traits in my personality (the man who is empathetic, comfortable with feelings, kind and uncompetitive), in my inner life, I have struggled with a legacy of self-hatred that comes from decades of struggling to convince myself that I am not what I am, and to try to cure myself of being who I am. There are demons who haunt me still.

Emerging into the clear light of day in my forties, going shopping, drinking espresso in a coffee shop, being welcomed in my favourite local restaurant – even made a fuss of. It’s very hard to express what this means to somebody who has spent most of their life trying to cure themself of being who they are.

Many deal with their gender dysphoria by going “full-time”, by transitioning, but as I have written about elsewhere in these pages, that was not the path for me. The arrival of Covid-19 has presented challenges for all of us, and many people are finding that remaining in good physical health does not mean good mental well-being. For me the challenge is that I cannot express myself in the way that I would otherwise like.

My wife is profoundly uncomfortable with this aspect of myself; under normal circumstances, I lead two parallel lives, which is undoubtedly a compromise, but one that allows us to resolve the challenges in our relationship while facilitating some expression of my feminine self. It is a way of living that has given me substantially greater inner peace without destroying a relationship that is important to us both.

However, it is impossible to maintain this tenuous compromise under the conditions of a lockdown, in which we are both working from home. The lockdown follows hard on a lengthy period of convalescence at home for my wife following hip replacement surgery, which has further extended the duration of the period in which our usual compromise has been curtailed. I find myself strangely catapulted back into my own past: I must sieze opportunities to dress whenever they arise, but they are solitary experiences. I have become accustomed to dressing only when I have somewhere to go, or sombody to meet; but now I dress only for my own company!

At least my wife’s work does take her out of the house from time to time still, however. One such opportunity presented itself on Friday. I took my permitted daily exercise, walking and enjoying the views of distant hills. And for all that it may seem strange to say so for anybody who is not afflicted with gender dysphoria, it lifted my spirits to do so. It was as though a fresh breeze blew through a musty room. For a day I could be myself in whatever way seemed most fitting.

I cannot explain or rationalise properly why this should matter so much to me, but it does, and I was grateful for the opportunity presented to me. When the lockdown will end, it is very hard to say. While it continues, quite a lot of making do and putting up will have to be done. But when, eventually, it does end, there will be drinking and dining and dancing with friends…

Life in the Time of the Virus

There are those who like to doubt there is anything to be afraid of: climate change is a Chinese hoax; and Covid-19 is “little worse than the flu”. Such perspectives always lead to a call for inaction; the virtuous thing is to stand back and watch in amazement as well-intended fools rush round campaigning for “action”. The President of the United States began by dismissing Covid-19 as a hoax, then as a Chinese disease, before moving to reassuring promises that it would all blow over soon. Now the United States has about a quarter of global cases, and there is no evidence of any immediate relief from suffering. Our TV screens show emergency rooms overwhelmed by large numbers of critically sick patients, and doctors struggling to cope. Reality has intervened and asserted itself. For Covid-19, Reality’s decisive interventions have come comparatively quickly – within a few short weeks of the predictions of global pandemic. With climate change, it may be years before we reach the point at which even the staunchest doubters have no option but to come to terms with Reality – but by then there is a risk that we will have begun an irreversible slide towards a much greater catastrophe.

At least in relation to climate change, there is a global scientific consensus on the broad nature of the problem and the mitigation strategy that is required. The Covid-19 pandemic has exploded globally without clear consensus about the best way to mitigate its consequences. The World Health Organisation (WHO) is firmly of the view that the solution is to “test, test, test”: identification and isolation of infected individuals holds the key to slowing the spread of Covid-19. A study in a small Italian town, where the entire population was tested, found that tracing and isolating infected individuals – including those who were asymptomatic – enabled the infection to be controlled.

But small towns are poor models for nations of tens or hundreds of millions. Controlling and  monitoring who enters and leaves a small town is feasible, but achieving the same control for a city of 100,000 or a million inhabitants, with a multitude of routes leading in and out, is a challenge that is immensely more difficult.

Moreover, Covid-19 is a new disease. Yes, coronavidae is a class of many related virions, but Covid-19 presents a very important new challenge: infected individuals may be asymptomatic for as long as two weeks, and, indeed, may never develop symptoms. In ebola, infection leads rapidly to the onset of a severe illness and often to death; in contrast, Covid-19 leads to mild symptoms in the majority of cases, and no symptoms at all. In contrast to the WHO, many scientists are arguing that the genie is out of the bottle: Covid-19 infection is probably endemic and in dramatic contrast to ebola, its spread cannot any longer be prevented. The question is about how best to control the spread so that health systems are not overloaded.

In the UK a debate rages between on the one hand, the public health community, who favour the WHO’s approach; and on the other hand, epidemiologists who use powerful mathematical modelling tools to predict the development of infection. I have no specialist expertise, although the nub of the problem here is surprisingly close to many in my own academic discipline: the rate of growth of infected people will be the product of the rate of contact between people and the probability that contact leads to viral transfer. Biologists are only beginning to assemble the tools required to furnish a proper understanding of these fundamental parameters.

The final challenge in all of this is to understand the interface between epidemiology and public policy. There is a global shortage of Covid-19 test kits; there is no government on the planet that can test everybody who is suspected of infection and their immediate contacts. Moreover, the best test available, based on the detection of nucleic acids specific to Covid-19, only detects about two thirds of infections at the height of infection. There are no data on the efficacy of testing in the pre-symptomatic stage. On top of this, many tests being sold have been “falsified” by the WHO. And then there is the very difficult question of how Governments ensure the continued compliance with policy. For example, how dependent is the South Korean model, in which rigorous testing and contact tracing has apparently enabled the Government to control rates of infection and keep them low, while maintaining noral life, dependent upon a deeply-rooted national culture and a very specific relationship between the people and the Government?

We do not know the answers to these complex questions. For now Governments have to act. The illness is real, and real accident and emergency units are overloaded with real people who are suffering and dying, causing real grief. I do not envy politicians at this time. The UK Government is leaning on science for guidance, as it should, while scientists are struggling to achieve a consensus about the nature of the problems and the impact of the different solutions. Somehow Governments must lead us through these uncharted and stormy waters. These are difficult times. For my part all I can do is to follow as carefully as possible the Government’s guidance, and feel profoundly grateful for the selfless commitment to duty of hundreds of thousands of workers in the National Health Service.