A Populist Writer and Critic – How Intellectual Bogus Leader Richard D. Precht Misleads Us Once Again with Nonsensical Arguments, this Time on Corona

The core of scientific work is methodological doubt. Scientific models and theories are always put to the test, existing views are critically questioned and thus existing false knowledge is corrected as quickly as possible. For historically, the vast majority of things declared to be true by authorities have ultimately proven to be false. And in fact also almost all scientific theories have at some point been recognized as incorrect to be wrong or at least in need of correction and expansion.

This obligation to rigorously question scientific „truths“ does not mean, of course, that every counter statement to an existing scientific consensus must be considered credible and be dealt with by corrections (or even complete revisions). In fact, what is critically and controversially discussed among scientists today rarely reaches the public. Meanwhile, the issues are simply too complex for that. Rather, among non-scientists, all too often those scientific topics are in a broader social discussion field that the scientists themselves hardly discuss much anymore, because there is a broad consensus among them (example climate discussion). But of course, even under these circumstances, a scientific theory can be questioned. But the likelihood that the criticism will turn out to be substantial, when the critics have no idea of the scientific background of the subject, is most often very, very small. In the case of many critics, unfortunately, a statement disguised as scientific is often mixed with special social demands, individual need for recognition or even special political or economic interests.

For some time now, this can be observed very well in the current Corona crisis. Many of those who believe they have to address the public with Corona-sceptical statements, articles and videos, often referring to the scientific scepticism of certain self-declared experts, often non-scientific themselves, could not be more wrong. Here it often involves rather general ignoramuses and pure polemicist instead of serious participants in a discussion over a very complex topic.

As the most current example we have these days once again heart in his podcast with Markus Lanz on October 2021 the popular, self-declared philosophical opinion leader Richard David Precht, actually a Germanist, who studied philosophy only as a minor subject and did his doctorate on the Austrian writer and theatre critic Robert Musil, who was active in the early 20th century. Nothing natural scientific ever appears anywhere in his education. Lack of expertise has, however, never prevented Precht from expressing a decided and not infrequently very controversial opinion in very many scientific or technological fields, such as artificial intelligence, digital systems, the future of automobiles, biology, and numerous others.

Now Precht has also expressed himself in a correspondingly controversial way on the subject of appropriate corona measures. His basic demand is that the government should cut back much more in this area. He pleads for a „position of the middle“ and thus puts the ignorant sceptics of corona vaccination on the same level as the experts, some of whom have been working in this field for decades:

„There are people who hear the word vaccinate and immediately think, ‚That’s the devil.‘ And there are people who hear the word vaccinate and immediately say, ‚It’s all safe.‘ Yes, and both poles are total nonsense.“

Then he asserts:

„We can no more estimate the side effects of vaccination than we can estimate the danger or the effect of the coronavirus.“

This is, to name it once with a direct formulation, bare nonsense and testifies the ignorance of the author.

And then he comes to children and says that he

„would never have children vaccinated anyway […] to work on a developing immune system with that vaccine there, well, I would never do that.“

Since the beginning of the spread of the new virus about 24 months ago, researchers have done an admirable job of identifying in record time many significant features of the virus, including its genetic structure (only took a few days), its infectivity, its effects in the human body, and thus the many aspects of its dangerousness. We now know very definitely that the latest mutations of the corona viruses pose a danger even to younger people including kids. Precht disagrees and even questions the scientific research of Corona vaccines for children as a whole. When he is then told that in many questions about Corona, vaccine research can answer many questions very reliably, and that his statements here hardly prove to be correct, Precht then calls vaccination „genetic engineering“ with clear polemical intent, which, as he probably hopes, will silence the opposing side, since genetic engineering is after all seen as critical by many people (without knowing what enormous medical advances are just emerging here):

„Of such genetically engineered vaccines, we don’t have a single long-term efficacy study.“

This interview seems almost like the complete intellectual downfall of Richard David Precht: He talks highly sceptically about vaccination and obviously has no idea at all about the scientific background of the topic.

At the same time, even for strong supporters of mRNA based corona vaccination, the necessity of freedom to choose vaccination is obvious. There must be no obligation to do so. Nevertheless, we keep coming up against a central problem, and it is worth taking a real philosophical look at it: How can we do justice to the complexity of social reality in our open societies today, especially in the face of a crisis like the one caused by the Covid virus?

Here it is worth taking a closer look at the philosophy of Karl Popper. His philosophy of the open society stands on the foundation of his book „The Open Society and its Enemies“ from 1945. His thoughts in it are based on his work published a few years earlier (1934), „Logic of Research. On the epistemology of modern natural science“. The necessity to be able to correct political decisions and to vote governments out of office without violence finds its counterpart in the possibility to falsify scientific statements and to correct them again and again. According to Popper, this path already described above is the merit of scientific thinking: not insisting on an ultimate truth, but the dynamic of a constant questioning of the status quo of our own intellectual soundness and the never-ending critical reflection of our present thinking, knowledge and opinions are at the centre of the scientific method. There is little room for fixed and eternally immutable truths. Only this methodical basis of doubt and constant questioning, and thus the cautious approach to the multi-dimensionality of truth, does justice to the complexity of the structures of our world and human knowledge of them.

Popper transferred this so clear as brilliant thought to society and its own complexity. We do not arrive at the optimal structure of rule and decision-making in one fell swoop, but here, too, we grope our way forward again and again by correcting wrong decisions. This is exactly what shapes the principle of how to approach the global Corona crisis. The vaccinations are to be controlled and in all possible ways tested – which, by the way, always takes most of the time; the vaccine itself had been developed by the two companies only days to weeks after the genetic structure of the Corona virus had been recorded. And yes, especially for children, one should be especially careful about whether adult vaccination is appropriate for them. And after immense research scientists have  concluded that it is appropriate to give kids access to the vaccination. So, in fact governments have worked very reliably to meet the immense complexity of the task of an optimal pandemic response. Have governments not themselves repeatedly adjusted their decisions once made, met with task forces, solicited and involved various levels of decision makers, and emphasized the temporality of their decisions, ready to make adjustments to them at any time?

Indeed, the process of political decision-making in an open society, which at times appears somewhat controversial and discordant and not least erratic, with its multi-layered inputs and at times even corrections interpreted as weakness, appears during the Corona crisis as probably the best equivalent to the Popperian ideal of the open society and its structural strength in the face of the complexity of today’s social structures and open problems. The demand to place all this in the hands of self-responsible, free citizens, on the other hand, which will then solve the problem by itself, appears rather as the result of a dogmatic illusion.

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