bubonic plague bacteria microscope

Here in 2020—as you well know—there is a debate about whether or not to wear a mask in public. At the core of this debate is how to answer the following questions:

  1. Do we trust what scientists are telling us about the virus? It’s clear that scientists do not know everything about this virus; do they know enough that we should do what they say?
  2. Do we trust in a higher power (like God, another deity/deities, or fate) to keep us safe? It’s true that each of us could die from any number of causes at any time: life is insecure like that; so should we simply go about our business and not try to save ourselves from something that, like all manner of calamities, could strike us down at any time, despite any precautions we might or might not take?

Now here’s something fascinating: back in the 1600s, the exact same debate was raging. . . .

The Question of Science

Here’s a passage about 17th-century scientific inquiry. It was written by Daniel Defoe in A Journal of the Plague Year, a book about the Great Plague of London, of 1664-1665. He describes the limited knowledge scientists had about what caused the plague and how people might diagnose it early enough to prevent its spread:

“My friend Dr Heath was of opinion that it might be known by the smell of their breath; but then, as he said, who durst smell to that breath for his information? since, to know it, he must draw the stench of the plague up into his own brain, in order to distinguish the smell! I have heard it was the opinion of others that it might be distinguished by the party’s breathing upon a piece of glass, where, the breath condensing, there might living creatures be seen by a microscope, of strange, monstrous, and frightful shapes, such as dragons, snakes, serpents, and devils, horrible to behold. But this I very much question the truth of, and we had no microscopes at that time, as I remember, to make the experiment with.”

Microscopes were a very new invention in the 1600s, and not widely used. How could anyone trust scientists, when the science was so underdeveloped?

(An incidental note: just after finishing this blog post, I read a news article about dogs that can sniff out the coronavirus—so this old scientific idea, recorded by Defoe, has come around to reality!)

The image at the beginning of this blog post shows what the bubonic plague looks like when seen under an electron microscope. But such images were not available to English scientists in 1664-1665. Sadly, they could only speculate about what caused the plague and how to protect the population.

But the same thing is going on today. Scientists know a lot about coronaviruses, but, especially in the early months of the COVID-19 outbreak, they knew almost nothing about this particular coronavirus. Perhaps the source of COVID-19 was “dragons, snakes, serpents, and devils”! Scientists had to scramble to do research and figure out what was going on. And then they had to scramble to figure out what the best messages for public health would be. And now they are scrambling to figure out what types of treatments work; how to test for the presence of the virus; and how to develop a safe and effective vaccine in less time than has ever been done before.

The Question of Spirituality

This lack of scientific knowledge is scary. Would it be better to go about our normal lives without worrying about burdensome precautions, and trust in a higher power to keep us safe?

The narrator of A Journal of the Plague Year, early in the book, has a moment of spiritual awakening, during which he feels called upon, by God, to remain in London, despite the plague’s appearance, and despite his brother’s persuasive arguments about the importance of fleeing the city. Late in the book, the narrator admits that, ironically, even though he himself chose to stay, he thinks more people should have left:

“I must say that though Providence seemed to direct my conduct to be otherwise, yet it is my opinion, and I must leave it as a prescription, viz., that the best physic against the plague is to run away from it. I know people encourage themselves by saying God is able to keep us in the midst of danger, and able to overtake us when we think ourselves out of danger; and this kept thousands in the town whose carcases went into the great pits by cartloads, and who, if they had fled from the danger, had, I believe, been safe from the disaster; at least ’tis probable they had been safe.”

To trust in God to save you, when it’s evident that He is not saving many other people, is scary. Would it be better to trust the people with those weird, newfangled microscopes, who can’t even figure out whether the deadly disease is caused by dragons, snakes, serpents, or devils—or, dare I say, bats or pangolins?

Science and Spirituality: Not Mutually Exclusive

But believing in both science and spirituality is not a contradiction. They can, and I believe should, coexist in each of us. Furthermore, it is not a contradiction to have a healthy skepticism of both.

Yes, we can be healthfully skeptical of both, while embracing the best that each has to offer!

The narrator of A Journal of the Plague Year knows intellectually that it’s better to take scientific precautions. But the spiritual side of his brain rules, and he stays in the city, basing his decision on an event that he interprets as a sign from God that he should remain in his London home.

He lives to tell the tale, . . . but remember, he’s a fictional character.

You and I—at least as far as I know—are not.

Are you diligently wearing a mask?