Is Natural Immunity a Case of Lost Knowledge?
Another day in our strange times: the CDC has finally found a kind word to say about natural immunity. You have to dig for it but it is there: “By early October, persons who survived a previous infection had lower case rates than persons who were vaccinated alone.”
It’s not even slightly surprising or should not be, since the effectiveness of natural immunity has been documented since the Peloponnesian War. On Covid alone, there are nearly 150 studies documenting the power of natural immunity, most of which came before the interview with Anthony Fauci on Sept 13, 2021. At that interview he was asked about natural immunity. He said this: “I don’t have a really firm answer for you on that. That’s something that we’re going to have to discuss regarding the durability of the response.”
Classic Fauci: what he meant to convey is that The Science doesn’t know enough to say. And most people for two years would seem to agree, either because they didn’t pay attention in 9th-grade biology class, or because our adoration of shots has swamped our common sense, or because there’s no profit in it, or because of some other reason that is not yet explained,
Regardless, it does seem as if something went wrong in 2020 as lockdowns began. Suddenly most public health agencies in the world stopped speaking of the subject of natural immunity. Vaccine passports have typically ruled out natural immunity or severely deprecated it. The WHO changed its definition of herd immunity to exclude natural exposure. Millions have lost their jobs for not getting vaccinated but have strong natural immunity.
How strange it all is! Here you have one of the most established, proven, documented, experienced, studied, known, and defended scientific truths about cell biology. One day (was it generations ago?) most people understood it. Then another day, it seemed almost as if vast numbers of people forgot or never knew at all. Otherwise, how could the WHO/CDC/NIH been able to get away with its strange denialism on this topic?
Perhaps, I’ve wondered, the case of natural immunity against Covid is an example of what Murray Rothbard called “lost knowledge.” He meant by that phrase a discovered and known truth that suddenly goes missing for no apparent reason and then has to be rediscovered at a later time and even in a different generation. It’s a phenomenon that made him enormously curious because it raises doubts about what he called the Whig Theory of History.
His wonderful History of Economic Thought opens with a blast against this Victorian-era idea that life is always getting better and better, no matter what. Apply it to the world of ideas, and the impression is that our current ideas are always better than ideas of the past. The trajectory of science is never forgetful; it’s only cumulative. It rules out the possibility that there is lost knowledge in history, peculiar incidences when humanity knew something for sure and then that knowledge mysteriously went away and we had to discover it again.
The idea of acquired immunity is consistent with how all societies have come to manage diseases. Protect the vulnerable while groups at no or low risk acquire the immunities. It is especially important to understand this if you want to preserve freedom rather than pointlessly impose a police state out of fear and ignorance.
It’s extremely odd that we woke up one day in the 21st century when such knowledge seemed almost to evaporate. When statistician and immunologist Knut Wittkowski went public with the basics of viruses in the Spring of 2020, he created shock and scandal. YouTube even deleted his videos! Seven months later, the Great Barrington Declaration made plain and once-obvious points about herd immunity via exposure and you would swear the world of the 11th century had discovered heretics.
All of this was strange to me and also to my mother. I visited with her and asked her how she came to know about the immune system is trained. She told me it’s because her mother taught this to her, and hers before her. It was a major public-health priority after World War II in the United States to school each generation in this counterintuitive truth. It was taught in the schools: do not fear what we have evolved to fight but rather strengthen what nature has given you to deal with disease..
Why was naturally acquired immunity a taboo topic in the 21st century? Perhaps this is a case of Rothbardian-style lost knowledge, similar to how humanity once understood scurvy and then didn’t and then had to come to understand it again. Somehow in the 21st century, we find ourselves in the awkward position of having to relearn the basics of immunology that everyone from 1920 to 2000 or so seemed to understand before that knowledge somehow came to be marginalized and buried.
Yes, this is hugely embarrassing. The science never left the textbooks. It’s right there for anyone to discover. What seems to have gone missing is popular understanding, replaced with a premodern run-and-hide theory of disease avoidance. It’s so bad that even the imposition of police states around the country, including brutal shutdowns and house arrest, did not inspire anywhere near the level of public resistance that I would have expected. To this day, we are still masking, stigmatizing the sick, and using unworkable and preposterous tactics to pretend to track, trace, and isolate all with the wild ambition permanently to stamp out the damn bug.
It’s like everyone gradually became ignorant on the whole topic and so they were caught off guard when politicians announced we had to get rid of human rights to fight a novel virus.
Here is Rothbard on this problem of lost knowledge and the Whig theory that such things do not happen:
The Whig theory, subscribed to by almost all historians of science, including economics, is that scientific thought progresses patiently, one year after another developing, sifting, and testing theories, so that science marches onward and upward, each year, decade or generation learning more and possessing ever more correct scientific theories.
On analogy with the Whig theory of history, coined in mid-nineteenth century England, which maintained that things are always getting (and therefore must get) better and better, the Whig historian of science, seemingly on firmer grounds than the regular Whig historian, implicitly or explicitly asserts that ‘later is always better’ in any particular scientific discipline.
The Whig historian (whether of science or of history proper) really maintains that, for any point of historical time, ‘whatever was, was right’, or at least better than ‘whatever was earlier’. The inevitable result is a complacent and infuriating Panglossian optimism. In the historiography of economic thought, the consequence is the firm if implicit position that every individual economist, or at least every school of economists, contributed their important mite to the inexorable upward march. There can, then, be no such thing as gross systemic error that deeply flawed, or even invalidated, an entire school of economic thought, much less sent the world of economics permanently astray.”
Rothbard’s entire book is an exercise in discovering lost knowledge. He was fascinated with how A.R.J. Turgot could have written with such clarity about value theory but the later writings of Adam Smith were murky on the topic. He was intrigued that the classical economists were lucid on the status of economic theory but later economists in the 20th century became so confused about it. You could observe the same about free trade: once it was understood almost universally such that everyone seemed to agree it had to be a priority to build peace and prosperity, and then, poof, that knowledge seems to have vanished in recent years.
On a personal note, I recall how passionate Murray felt about the issue of lost knowledge. He was also urging his students to find cases, document them, and explain how it happens. He always suspected that there were more cases that needed to be discovered and investigated. His writings on the history of ideas are a major effort to document as many cases as he could find.
Another intriguing feature: one might suppose that knowledge would be less likely to be lost in the information age in which we all carry in our pockets access to nearly all the world’s information. We can access it with just a few clicks. How did this not protect us against falling prey to a medieval-style theory of disease management? How did our fears and reliance of computer modeling so easily displace inherited wisdom of the past? Why did this new virus trigger brutal attacks on rights whereas nothing like this has happened in the previous century of new viruses?
George Washington’s troops scrapped off the scabs of the smallpox dead to inoculate themselves, while he personally recognized his own immunity via childhood exposure, but we cowered in our homes in fear and obedience for this virus. Even friends of mine who caught the virus early and developed immunities were treated like lepers for months later. Only once the Zoom class came to be entirely swamped with infection (the case fatality rate has been stable this entire time) did the media start to get curious about the likelihood and severity of reinfection. Now we are finally starting to talk about the subject – two years later!
I can only say this. Murray Rothbard right now would be astonished at how medical ignorance, fake science, and the lust for power all combined so suddenly to create the greatest global crisis in modern history for the cause of liberty to which he devoted his life. If anything has demonstrated that Rothbard was correct about the fallacy of the Whig theory, and the capacity of humanity suddenly to act and total ignorance of what was once widely known, it is these last two years of folly.