A recent spike in cases in India notwithstanding, the pandemic’s impact in certain countries such as India has been significantly lower than expected, certainly lower on a per capita basis compared to several developed countries, especially the US and Western Europe. Like many things about the coronavirus, there is still no clear explanation for this differential impact across countries. In this piece in the New Yorker, Siddhartha Mukherjee explores all popularly ascribed reasons such as demographics (age), prior immunity, warm climates resulting in lower viral loads, stricter government action among other things. Whilst it is a well-researched piece with quantitative data and anecdotes alike, Siddhartha also shows his Pulitzer winning skills (he won the Pulitzer for “The Emperor of All Maladies,” and his latest book is “The Gene: An Intimate History”) likening this multi-factor explanation to Agatha Christie’s “Murder on the Orient Express”.
“William of Ockham was a fourteenth-century theologian who was educated at Oxford and wrote on a range of topics, from logic to theories of knowledge. But if his name is remembered today it’s because of “Ockham’s razor”: the idea that, when seeking the cause of an event, we should favor the most parsimonious solution—the simplest one. Centuries before Ockham, and centuries after him, a host of thinkers argued for shaving away extraneous hypotheses to arrive at a straightforward and singular explanation for whatever they were puzzling over. It’s among the strange ironies of intellectual history that if you ask “Who thought of Ockham’s razor?” you’ll wind up with not one but a plurality of answers.
The principle of parsimony has a special premium in the realm of science. We worship an elegant universe; we don’t need to invoke multiple causes for why the planets move in geometrical orbits. Natural selection explains why the bones of human fingers look like those of a gorilla, just as it explains why new viral variants that have higher degrees of infectiousness can arise in the midst of a pandemic. Delving into mysteries, scientists are compelled by the logic of the classic mystery tale: one murder, one murderer, one weapon. In the pages of Agatha Christie, Hercule Poirot might unveil the solution with the flourish of a magician, and Miss Marple might murmur it into her pilled cardigan, but we finish such stories with a satisfying sense that all loose ends have been tied up, all oddities neatly accounted for.
Yet parsimony has its own perils, and the work that best helps me remember those perils, as it happens, isn’t some meditation on the scientific method; it’s Christie’s “Murder on the Orient Express.” A man has been found murdered on the train, his body perforated by multiple stab wounds. Poirot, on the train by happenstance, sets out to determine which of the passengers was the culprit. But the usual process of elimination fails him. Eventually, Poirot realizes that the murder is a long-planned act of collective revenge. There wasn’t one murderer; there was a plurality of murderers.
What researchers have described to me as the pandemic’s most perplexing feature may turn out to be the epidemiological version of that mystery on the Orient Express: there’s no one culprit but many. With respect to the raw numbers, underreporting is an enormous problem; differences in age distribution, too, make a very deep cut, and perhaps the models must further calibrate their weightings here. Plainly, certain countries have benefitted from the strength of their public-health systems, fortified by a vigorous government response.”
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