The official blog of The Social Democratic Party.

Coronapolitics: defending the unmeasurable

Life is full of things which are cherished, but unmeasurable. We must endeavour to defend them, even against an onslaught of data.

By: Lily Geidelberg

The EU referendum revealed a new political dichotomy that was hidden from usual parliamentary politics under first-past-the-post.

It didn’t fall neatly along the traditional ‘right versus left’ axis, nor along party lines. For most Leavers, the implications of Brexit on the “measurable” (financial) took second place to the “unmeasurable” (values, identity, sovereignty).

This is why belligerent Remainers found their arguments about the purported economic benefits of EU membership so ineffective.

As with Brexit, so with coronavirus. A new divide has emerged, disrupting the fresh post-referendum alliances, blindsiding even the more astute political analysts. And just as before, both sides claim to have reason on their side, yet talk entirely past each other.

From forcing the closure of businesses and public spaces to restricting the movement and association of individuals, and now to mandating the wearing of facemasks, the current level of Government interference is pretty much unprecedented in British peace-time history.

It has split the country.

Broadly, those who support any of these interventions support them all; and vice versa. Whether it is lockdown, social distancing or facemasks, the likely epidemiological impact of each – the number of infections and deaths averted – is barely mentioned in debate.

One side tends to support almost any action, almost regardless of its intrusion, if it saves any lives. The other side disapproves of any action, almost regardless of its likely effectiveness, if it violates any liberty.

This sharp difference, as well as the frustrating mutual misunderstanding, is in part driven by the deeper war between the measurable and the unmeasurable.

Interventionists argue something along the lines of, ‘if it saves lives from COVID-19, we should do it’. To oppose such a policy with a clear positive measurable outcome, in favour of an unmeasurable quantity such as liberty, is for them inconceivable, impudent and even evil.

This position is tempting. After all, the measure of lives lost is a horrible number; we can all understand it. A loss of liberty, on the other hand, is impossible to enumerate. Advocating for its defence becomes ever harder under the barrage of statistics, charts and figures.

But to be unmeasurable is not to be without value.

Life is full of things – love of country for instance – which are cherished, yet unmeasurable. Some of the most resonant stories witness the sacrifice of something measurable (money, limb, life) for something unmeasurable (love, honour, freedom). These stories reveal a moral truth: that the gain or preservation of the unmeasurable, can sometimes be justly at the cost of the measurable – even of human life. And loss of the unmeasurable can of course lead, in turn, to loss of the measurable.

The liberty to leave your front door and associate with whom you want; these are unmeasurable rights that no sane person would freely renounce. At the very least, they must feature in the trade-off calculation for coronavirus policies, even if they do not tip the balance.

Consider the facemask dispute.

Along with the displeasure of being commanded to wear an itchy mask, there is a dehumanising aspect of a face covering that elicits a far deeper discomfort. Much of our daily life consists in face-to-face interactions with others: smiles and frowns are just two examples in the vast repertoire of non-verbal cues that we use to relate, convey understanding, and diffuse conflict. Faces are of such profound importance to us that we recognise them in inanimate objects and reproduce them in textual communication. The unmeasurable consequences of compulsory facemasks cannot be ignored.

The debate evokes the McNamara fallacy: a reference to the US Secretary of Defense during the Vietnam War, Robert McNamara.

McNamara sought a strictly numeric approach for monitoring military progress, focusing on body count, weapons, bombs dropped. Based on these figures, American success looked inevitable, and yet defeat inched ever closer. Simplifying a complex situation purely to the measurable – while dismissing the unmeasurable – led McNamara to his resignation in 1967.

Despite this decades-old lesson, the unmeasurable has never been more threatened. Appraised not by calculation but by instinct, the unmeasurable attracts scorn from large sections of society, deeming it archaic and obsolete. In its place, we have witnessed the rise of the measurable, proceeding from the success of science and decline of religion. Numbers are pitted against sentiment; quantitative against qualitative.

The politics of coronavirus is only a skirmish in a greater war between the measurable and the unmeasurable. The winds are blasting behind the sails of the former.

We must always, however, defend the latter – even against an onslaught of data. Because sometimes that which is unmeasurable is, at the end of all things, immeasurable.


A longer version of this article is available on Lily’s blog, here.

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All Comments (12)

  • Brilliant piece.

    The reference to McNamara’s approach to the Vietnam War is really instructive. As the Burns/Novick monumental documentary revealed, Kennedy was informed in dispatches back in 1962 that ‘these people hate us’. The President, rightly, became totally despondent about American prospects for victory but was bound by political expediency to continue what eventually became a supreme act of folly. Hearts and minds (unmeasurable) proved far more salient to the outcome of the war than McNamara’s dreadful, de-humanising and ultimately pointless (measurable) statistics.

  • Brexit, Vietnam, Coronavirus – success or failure depends to a very great degree on morale, and morale is another of those things which is easy to sense, but difficult to measure.

  • the Public need to stand up to this authoritarian Government COVID19 is in decline there are spikes but it is miles better than it was in March, I implore the SDP to offer the UK and the British People a much needed alternatives to the Tories or Labour neither excite anybody anymore and We as a Country needs a written constitution to guarantee our sovereignty and rights and a federal Republic on the German System preferable

  • Very thought-provoking. But surely one of the problems is precisely that the ‘measurable’ has turned out to be very far from it. The number of infections has proved to be a function primarily of the number of people tested – and consequently unreliable. The number of deaths has similarly proved to be unknowable by the public, because of policy mistakes and policy changes. The chances of a ‘second wave’ or the ‘R’ number are also seemingly elusive to measure or assess correctly or even consistently.

    Meanwhile, there is also conflicting information about the effectiveness of quinine, the staying-power of antibodies, the chances of a vaccine being possible, and the likely timetable needed to produce one.

    When the ‘measurable’ is such an utter mess, the public has, of course, no defence against defaulting to ‘unmeasurable’ instincts.

    For example, we still don’t know what measurable impact mask-wearing has. My ‘understanding’ is that it might make my passing on the virus to someone else slightly less likely, and my ‘understanding’ of compound interest suggests that that a small difference individually could add up to a large difference for the population. But am I right?

    Before we act on instincts about things ‘unmeasurable’, surely the priority and urgency is to get what is measurable actually right?

    • The undeniable facts are that Covid has proven to have a lethality within the range of flu and is nowhere near as lethal as mfor example, the Hong Kong flu of 1968. The undeniable facts are that the overall U.K. death rate is at its lowest level for five years. Yet, we have been made subject to all kinds of arbitrary measures at first in the name of protecting the NHS and then in the name of ‘flattening the curve’. The sheer inanity of government policies emanating from this so-called pandemic has only been surpassed by its resort to authoritarianism. It seems to me that the SDP at best is just sitting on the fence as far as this question is concerned.

  • Can anyone confirm whether the SDP now oppose lockdowns, masks etc. as a matter of policy? If so, I will join – I’ve cancelled my Conservative Party membership as I won’t want to be complicit in it all.

  • At the begining of the ‘covid crisis’, there was much goodwill towards the Tory leadership and genuine concern when the PM became seriously ill with the virus. Even from those of us who from the beginning were sceptical (to say the least) endured for weeks the restrictions on personal liberty and the ‘Thursday night clap’. The task as I recall, was to ‘flatten the curve’, and protect the NHS. The curve was duly flattened and in the end the NHS was seriously underwhelmed. Having played our part as good citizens, dare I say patriots? the promised liberation was not forthcoming. When good faith and reason are cast asunder by the antics of a government that has become nothing less than a ministerial dictatorship, as is evident, there is naturally going to be trouble. The whole situation is becoming evermore volatile and is really only being held together through increasing intimidation and propaganda from the MSM, slavishly reporting the evasions and nonsense of its political masters. The Manchester Evening News, amongst others, is such a newspaper. In the end the Conservative, Parliamentary majority was achieved through support from the working class tired of the Labour Party’s attachment to identity politics and it’s gross betrayal of the referendum outcome. Even now as Boris Johnson and Matt Hancock consider sending out further dictats from Downing Street, to the dismay of many of their core supporters, it may not be obvious to Boris, that the same sense of injustice that brought him to power, will be the same sense of injustice that will be his undoing. I cannot wait.

  • On the whole I agree with this article except on one point. I am on the side which disapproves of any action which violates our liberty but not regardless of its effectiveness. There is no credible evidence that lockdowns, social distancing or mask wearing prevent the spread of the virus. If the government want to impose these inhumane draconian measures they need to have much stronger evidence of their effectiveness. If I thought for a moment that any of these measures helped to stop the spread of the virus I would comply. Otherwise I will not.

  • A scientist opposed to, ‘scientism’. I’ve always thought the most valuable aspects in life are not quantifable but don’t tell the economists.

Family, Community, Nation.