randombio.com | Science Dies in Unblogginess | Believe All Science | Follow The Science
Wednesday, April 07, 2021

Politics meets Koch's postulates

Politics is a social pathology that has killed more people in the past century than many well known diseases

K och's postulates, devised by microbiologist Robert Koch in 1890, are a set of criteria for deciding whether something is a disease. Updated to fit the modern terminology, they are:

  1. The pathogen must be found in the diseased animal, and not in healthy animals.
  2. The pathogen must be extracted and isolated from the diseased animal and subsequently grown in culture.
  3. The pathogen must cause disease when introduced to a healthy experimental animal.
  4. The pathogen must be re-isolated from the diseased experimental animal and demonstrated to be the same as the original one.

Koch himself proposed only the first three. That last one was tacked on by others. As with everything else, these postulates have become controversial. For example, not only viruses and bacteria but misfolded forms of normal proteins, which can't be grown in culture, have been shown to cause disease. Some pathogens are known that can cause several unrelated diseases. Bacteria and viruses have been found in the bloodstream and even the brain of healthy patients as well as unhealthy ones. And immuno­deficiency diseases, genetic disorders, and degenerative diseases don't fit into Koch's framework at all. Many people have proposed updates to fix them, but often muddy the issue with things like this:

  1. A spectrum of host responses should follow exposure to the putative agent along a logical biologic gradient from mild to severe.
  2. The whole thing should make biologic and epidemiologic sense. [1]

Making sense is certainly a good thing for a theory to do, but saying so doesn't help us much.

Politics might not be able to compete with malaria, which has (erroneously) been claimed to have killed half of every human who ever lived, but the 100 million who died from Communism and the 77.5 to 160 million more who died during the two world wars make a strong case that politics can be classified as a deadly pathogen. I've concluded that politics is a contagious disease with a lethality comparable to lung cancer, which killed nearly 20 million people worldwide during the 20th century.

Here are Koch's postulates applied to politics.

  1. The ideology must be found in the politicized person, and not in unaffected people.
  2. The ideology must be extracted and isolated from the politicized person and subsequently shown to grow in our culture.
  3. The ideology must cause politicization when introduced to an unaffected person.
  4. The ideology must be re-isolated from the new victim and demonstrated to be the same as the original one.

We know the connection between mosquitoes and malaria, and we have a good idea what causes cancer. But what causes politics? And how can we cure it?


To find out, I carried out a few ‘microbiological’ experiments—okay, conversations—with a friend of mine who is obsessed with politics. In my conversations with my left-wing friend, I discovered that humans suffering from politics exhibit four distinct symptoms.

  1. Denial Whatever challenges their beliefs is denied. Contradictory information is either dismissed as false or scoffed at as being inconsequential, rendering all questions touched by politics undecidable and untouchable by normal people.
  2. Conformism To my friend, everything—everything—was evidence of racism. What couldn't be attributed to racial hate (which was blamed on former president Trump) was attributed to “systemic” racism. This isn't just a way of simplifying the world, but conformity: the phraseology the person used was identical, word for word, to that espoused in the media in previous weeks.
  3. Fear The affected individual lives in an information bubble, seeking out and uncritically absorbing information that supports one side while being fiercely skeptical of information that supports the other. The individual reacts with fear and abhorrence toward people with opposing views, as if exposure to novel ideas is a form of contamination. My friend expressed great relief at learning that I was not a conservative but a libertarian. My friend also claimed to read from all sides, but when questioned it became clear that these sources only ranged from The Guardian to The Atlantic—both far-left in the political spectrum. Time magazine was a ‘Republican rag.’ The person had never heard of the pronoun wars (an article that I suggested that discussed the new pronouns was ‘ridiculous’ and the novel pronoun must be a typo), and had never heard of the new law in Canada that makes their use mandatory.
  4. Fragility When presented with evidence presented in a factual manner, such as a list of actual pronouns that various universities have decreed to be acceptable (avi, ae, bu, bud, bun, che, ce, co, ce, che, cae, dae, de, dhey, dhey, e, ey, eq, fin, fey, fir, jee, pnky, nov, thae, yre, hen, jee, jam, elkself, stagself, fawnself, chirpself, squidself, moonself, and leafself) they become angry.

Ultimately I had to discontinue the experiment when the individual started hinting that they wanted my home address and admitted trying to find my work address on my university's website. Luckily our IT guys keep the online faculty and student directory inaccessible to anyone inside or outside of the university. You might argue that this makes it somewhat useless, but it is probably a wise move (though I can't rule out a lack of IT skill).

The traits listed above are different from those suggested by Jonathan Haidt in his book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided By Politics and Religion (reviewed here). Whether this represents an evolution of left-wing ideology or a new mutation of it is not clear.

It is sometimes said that all ideologies are merely justifications that people invent to give them an excuse for doing what they already want to do and a justification for believing what they already want to believe. Thus, they may invent facts and spread half-truths if it benefits their ideology. This is one reason we get so much fake news, and it's why we're seeing attempts to censor their opponents: censorship makes it easier to create an information bubble.

The nature of information bubbles is that we can't see them. Many of those who work in the news media live in such a bubble, and they tend to report only the truths that benefit their ideology, or they report only half-truths and ignore or misrepresent facts they don't like.

Now, to conservatives and libertarians, this might rank up there with “water is wet” in terms of surprising facts, but it supports my classification of politics as contagious disease.

Falsehoods create politics and politics creates falsehoods

Politics is the opposite of truth, and falsehoods create politics. Political differences are created and maintained by different sets of facts that each side holds to be true. Political hatred is the natural result. This is why false narratives are so damaging, especially those promoted by the press and, more recently, by Big Tech.

Politics is also the opposite of science, but it is increasingly difficult, even for scientists, to avoid when political yelling and screaming makes its way into the editorial pages of science journals and even, in some cases, into scientific papers.

What is the solution? Big Tech seems to think that censorship is the answer. But censorship will only lead to passivity and resentment, and the cost of passivity could be high. If companies or governments alienate conservatives, who are the only ones with the wherewithal and inclination to defend them, there will be no one to turn to when trouble strikes. As one commenter at Quillette put it:

Keeping Your Mouth Shut: One of the great Western values. (In the new order.) And I will put my life on the line, storm any number of beaches, and plant a flag on a hostile hill to preserve it. Not.

While politics may appear, almost by definition, to be goal-oriented, politics is actually a cultural pathology whose only goal is to perpetuate itself. It is caused by falsehoods, and it is self-perpetuating. It is contagious and it blocks reason. And history tells us it is deadly.

[1] Evans AS. Causation and disease: the Henle-Koch postulates revisited. Yale J Biol Med. 1976 May;49(2):175–195. PMID: 782050; PMCID: PMC2595276.

apr 07 2021, 7:13 pm

Related Articles

Against ideology
Ideology is incompatible with a search for truth. Most of the world's problems are caused by ideologues

There is no such thing as an infodemic
Fair consideration of the skeptics' point of view is what makes the difference between knowledge and propaganda

On the Internet, no one can tell whether you're a dolphin or a porpoise

book reviews