Thoughts on the pandemic: David Cayley’s controversial ideas

Textbook stresses that maintaining journalistic credibility is essential

The topic was “Immunization in the 21st Century,” and the organizers of the December 2000 Halifax conference, Health Canada and the Canadian Paediatric Society, had invited me to speak to about 800 doctors, nurses and public health officials.

The medical professionals were worried that the mainstream news media might give sensational publicity to agitators in the anti-vax movement and they hoped that as a journalism professor, I would be able to shed light on whether that might happen.

I reassured conference goers journalists would continue to support the medical consensus that vaccinations are safe and effective in preventing disease.

I explained that mainstream media routinely rely on voices of authority — elected leaders, senior government officials and recognized experts — to give their reporting the credibility they strive to maintain.

“Without credibility, all is dust,” writes Nick Russell in Morals and the Media, a leading Canadian journalism ethics textbook.

And so, the Canadian media have maintained their credibility during the COVID-19 pandemic, daily transmitting voices of authority in the effort to keep the virus from spreading.

As the late scholar Richard Ericson wrote, news media focus on disorder (in this case, the pandemic) to show how order (and normal life) might be restored.1

Questioning authority

But journalism has another role and that is to question authority.

Journalist and author Linda Pannozzo

Linda Pannozzo, a Nova Scotia-based investigative reporter and author, was intrigued by an online article she read by David Cayley, a writer and CBC radio documentary maker who produced a 24-part Ideas series in 2007/08 called “How to Think About Science.”

Cayley’s Ideas documentaries also include interviews with the Canadian philosopher George Grant, literary critic Northrop Frye, German linguist Uwe Poerksen, author of  Plastic Words, as well as Ivan Illich, the Austrian-born social critic who questioned dominant institutions in such books as Deschooling Society and Medical Nemesis.

On his blog, Cayley wrote about the fight against the pandemic from the perspective of Ivan Illich. It’s a controversial view — one rarely, if ever, discussed in mainstream media.

To read Linda Pannozzo’s interview with David Cayley, click here.

  1. See, Representing Order by Richard V. Ericson, University of Toronto Press.
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5 Responses to Thoughts on the pandemic: David Cayley’s controversial ideas

  1. Erin Steuter says:

    I am grateful that Bruce has brought us these thoughtful non-mainstream ideas about the pandemic to our attention. As a media scholar, I too have been concerned about the narrow range of permissible debate appearing in the news and public discussion regarding the societal response to Covid-19. While I agree with many of the insights of David Cayley, I ultimately disagree with his conclusions. He is absolutely correct in pointing out that the most marginalized in our society have borne the brunt of the pandemic but by not adopting a political economy perspective he has ultimately missed the causes and the solution to the problem.

    If you consider the question that he raises of “who benefits” from the way we have handled the pandemic, I would argue that the terrible toll experienced by front line health workers, nursing home staff and patients, and workers who are forced into jobs with insufficient hygiene protocols, is largely due to a “profits over people” approach taken by the corporations who won’t spend the necessary dollars to provide enough staff or paid sick days to manage the pandemic requirements humanely. The pandemic is being dragged out because the corporate sector is lobbying governments to open business more quickly than public health advisors recommend.

    Despite David Cayley’s thoughtful and reasoned argument, he ultimately suggests that we should be wary of the government’s requirements that we wear a mask and practice social distancing. I believe that instead we should turn our efforts to a just recovery in which long term care homes are not operated on a for-profit basis and instead have the necessary staff and institutional systems to facilitate safe family connections for seniors and people with disabilities; ensuring that workers have safe job sites and access to paid sick leave if they become symptomatic; childcare and educational options that are viable for teachers and parents to work through a lockdown; and income supports that allow people who have lost their jobs to pay their rent and avoid poverty. Those ideas, which are being developed by activists and policy makers based on viable models from countries who have fought the pandemic more successfully than we have, also do not get sufficient coverage in the mainstream media which is reluctant to explore who is benefiting financially from our response to the pandemic. It is healthy to question our government and its handling of the pandemic but missing the real source of the harm only divides our ability to build a post-pandemic future that takes better care of us all.

    Thank you Bruce for creating this forum for thoughtful debate.

    Erin Steuter

    • Erin, I wanted to thank you for these very thoughtful comments. I just wanted to point out that where you say that Cayley “ultimately suggests that we should be wary of the government’s requirements that we wear a mask and practice social distancing,” while it might be what stood out for you in the interview, it’s an oversimplification of Cayley’s ideas and doesn’t do justice to Cayley’s arguments. If anyone is interested I would highly recommend reading one of his essays: “Pandemic Revelations” https://journals.psu.edu/illichstudies/article/view/62314/61620 or “The Prognosis”, https://reviewcanada.ca/magazine/2020/10/the-prognosis/ which are also linked to in the introduction to the interview itself. The interview was a tiny snapshot of Cayley’s ideas on the pandemic, and really doesn’t reflect the depth and breadth of what his reflections are based on. And yes, thank you Bruce for creating this forum for discussion.

  2. Thank you Bruce, and Erin as well for added context. In simple terms, when you want to find out how things really work in our corporate capitalist society, just follow the money.

  3. Rob LeBlanc says:

    I’m going to disagree respectfully with Erin’s take.

    Although I agree that Cayley’s bizarre position on masks is an outlier, I’m not sure it undermines his case. The fetishization/deification of science and scientists (public health medicine and its practitioners in this case), and the obsession with avoiding death and embracing life at all costs *are* structural problems in so-called “modern” societies that may be exacerbating the negative impacts of this pandemic and ought to be scrutinized and destabilized for that reason and more.

    Indeed evidence is mounting that it was gain-of-function research — enabled by the unquestionable faith in science and scientists, and the accordant obsessive drive to avoid death that Cayley criticizes — that may have led to this whole thing in the first place.

    For me it doesn’t follow that his arguments close the door to understanding the problem through the lens of critical political economy, and I think both critical perspectives (axiological and material) are valuable for understanding the predicament.

  4. Classism and being Eccentric in The 21st Century
    If one is poor and is not right with the world, one is crazy and is not to be respected.
    If one is well to do and is not right with the world, one is eccentric and is to be respected.

    The media, especially the mainstream media has no business dictating ethics, values nor morals to anyone. Sermons on so-called social justice with a little public shaming is not journalism, prays Jesus!

    Implicit and unconscious bias in other words ghost hunting and imposing intent on others they don’t have in the name of so-called social justice.

    Mainstream journalists are not a protected species. If you dare disagree with our social norms that now constitutes assault/harassment. Because one had the audacity not to endorse that person’s e.g. journalist self-actualization in life.

    How does one stops thoughts before it happens without imposing a dictatorship, well the answer is you can’t.

    We are living 24/7 where a vacuum has to be filled every single second and minute of the day “the medium is the message” and the message is one of ambiguous fear.

    Climate Change – Ambiguous jargon and open-ended and FEAR !
    Systemic Racism – Ambiguous jargon and open-ended and FEAR!
    Convid 19 – Ambiguous microorganism jargon and open-ended and FEAR!

    My question is do you got THE FEAR!

    Sincerely, Demian Hammock

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