Marco's Blog

All content personal opinions or work.
en eo

Talking to the Average Joe: What COVID-19 Has In Common With Young Sheldon

2023-12-05 10 min read Writing marco

What Is Young Sheldon?

Netflix just added to their roster Young Sheldon, a show centered around the main character of The Big Bang Theory by that name. As the name suggests, Young Sheldon is about the Big Bang Theory star growing up. From the latter show, we know that happens in East Texas.

Much of humor of The Big Bang Theory revolves around Sheldon, a theoretical phyisicist that is both incredibly intelligent and deeply flawed. The flaws come in the form of an incredibly annoying arrogance and narcissism, but also as tics and foibles. Sheldon is played by a masterful Jim Parsons, whose ability to portray a character that is lovable because he’s controlled by himself and his impulses is uncanny.

In the show, a recurring character is Sheldon’s mother, played by also incredible Laurie Metcalfe. As his mother, Mary Cooper is a profoundly devout Baptist who knows how to manage her grown up son with the same tricks she used on the child, revealing that he has not changed much. Another family member that shows up once in a while is Sheldon’s twin sister, Missy, who is not as bright as he, but stunningly beautiful and lovingly kind. The family as it survives to The Big Bang Theory is rounded out by Georgie, the older brother, who is dimwitted but successful as a tire salesman.

Rounding out this cast of characters, Young Sheldon also features two family members that died before the events of The Big Bang Theory: Sheldon’s (maternal) grandmother, Meemaw, and his father, George Sr.

What Does Young Sheldon Have To Do With COVID-19?

Having started in 2017 and running for seven seasons, Young Sheldon was one of the beloved shows that entertained America during the lockdowns and the pandemic, with Stranger Things and Tiger King and a host of others.

But the focus of this article lies in a completely different relation: that between the scientist (if budding) and their environment.

While the Sheldon of The Big Bang Theory is incredibly intelligent, but prey to a series of odd behaviors that seem to cripple him, Young Sheldon is just intelligent and all barriers and issues he faces are coming externally. (Note: I have only seen episodes from seasons 1 to 3, so I am not aware if and when the adorable quirks that Sheldon displays as an adult are coming into play.)

A major struggle of Young Sheldon (as for the adult variant) is dealing with people that are not as intelligent as he is. Sometimes that is combined with the less intelligent people being much stronger than him and using physical advantage against the young physicist. But at other time the problem is simply that it’s hard for Young Sheldon to communicate with “lesser” intelligence. He gets frustrated at their lack of comprehension and at their resulting boredom and ridicule.

Which is where the real comparison comes in: scientists and government officials seemed completely surprised that a lot of people didn’t take their advice seriously, despite the fact that so many lives could have been saved. Why was that?

Is Superior Intelligence Really Superior?

You could dismiss the show’s premise. After all, it could be simply to flatter average intelligence that superior intelligence is portrayed as unable to communicate and impress the person on the street. Sheldon may be constantly frustrated by his classmates, he may be outplayed and outwitted by parents, Meemaw, even his “dumb” siblings on the ground of emotional intelligence. But that’s surely just for the laugh track on TV (for the record, the probably best change from The Big Bang Theory to Young Sheldon was losing the laugh track).

And that’s where COVID-19 comes in. It proved conclusively that all the intelligent people make the same mistakes that Sheldon routinely makes. It’s not exaggeration for TV: we saw it unfold in real life.

This started with the simplest: the name. COVID-19 was and is the name recommended by the WHO. At first, the virus and disease were named after the city where they were first found, Wuhan in China. But then the policy for prevention on stigma forced a name change. The virus was first named 2019-nCoV, and finally COVID-19 and SARS-CoV-2 for disease and virus, respectively.

At no point in this naming process does anyone seem to have wondered what the world should perceive this virus and disease to be. First, there is the obvious problem that a virus detected at the very end of 2019 with the name COVID-19 would not evoke the year it was named after, but a sequence number. Whether you believed (as someone famous did) that COVID-19 was just the 19th virus of that name or not, the issue is that a numeric scheme evokes continuity, not the novel threat to world health that should have been highlighted.

Before you say that the naming preceded the pandemic, notice that the final guidance of the WHO on naming was issued on 11 February 2020, when the risk posed by COVID-19 was already clear.

What the new disease should have been called to make it more visible as the threat it was is unclear. What we do know is that the existing name also was unclear, and that it seems from the process used that nobody actually seriously considered the naming important.

The situation was further compounded by other communications issues. The public and government received guidance on best practices that was issued with standard language typical of scientific certainty, where such certainty was not available. This is in part because scientific “certainty” is usually wrapped in plentiful disclaimers, anyway. But a part of it seems to have been the desire to project said certainty, maybe to calm the public or to look competent.

When Superior Intelligence Can Harm

Maybe this is futile speculation. In the end, though, the actions taken by government were sometimes ridiculously out of proportion to both the severity and the spread of the disease. Forcing a once in a century shutdown of all operations, travel, and movement in a place that hasn’t seen a single case of COVID-19, let alone a severe case, does not have the effect intended.

I still recall my friends in San Diego lamenting that they were pulled out of the water by Lifeguards as they were surfing. Surfing itself is a very solitary sport, the likelihood of contracting an airborne disease while surfing virtually nil. Lifeguards could have reasonably objected to surfers congregating on land, but pulling people out of the water was clearly not helping anyone.

Similar scenes played out everywhere. In Colorado, where I live, all ski resorts were forced to shut down by government mandate. While the corporate chains asked for that to occur (possibly because their revenue streams come mostly from hospitality, which had to be shut down), smaller resorts wanted to keep open under limited capacity rules.

The main issue with these excessive mandates is that they created a counter-action. Scientists are familiar with Newton’s Laws of Motion, they know that any mutual force is paired with an equal force in the opposite direction.

It is not surprising, then, that a sizeable movement appeared to downplay the virus. It is not certain that this movement would not have appeared without excessive government mandates, but it is likely that those mandates exacerbated the problem, which in the root was the rejection of government power to intervene in daily life in a drastic manner.

With COVID-19, there were three main possible reaction strategies: isolation, containment, and no action. Of these New Zealand famously chose isolation. The entire country was put under a severe lockdown, and in particular international travel was curtailed. It worked out well and New Zealand was virtually COVID-19 free until the vaccines appeared.

The opposite approach, letting the virus run its course, was used by Sweden. Sweden’s own government regrets that decision, as it cost an astonishing (but predictable and predicted) number of deaths. In the defense of Sweden’s government, not a lot of people would have been able to predict the speed of development of vaccines and the resulting number of lives saved.

America chose the middle ground approach, containment. That meant that the virus would not be eradicated and that the main goal of government action was (a) to delay the spread of the virus, such that it would reach most of the population slowly and by the time treatment and vaccination were possible, and (b) to reduce the stress on the health care systems of the country.

This was, I believe, a sensible approach. America doesn’t have the luxury of shutting down all international travel for the foreseeable future, because it has extensive land borders to the North and South. Conversely, after seeing New York in particular reel from the devastating effect of the first wave of COVID-19, a laisser faire approach was not acceptable.

The two goals, limiting spread and reducing stress on the health care system, go hand in hand. Of the two, the latter was easily visible as a direct problem and should have been given the highest priority. In this scenario, local governments would have received a Federal mandate to shut down as soon as a certain threshold of health care resources were used up by COVID-19 patients.

Instead, government mandates lacked coherence and became politicized. The health and safety of people suddenly was in the hands of political appointees with an axe to grind.

Beyond COVID-19

The core problem with Young Sheldon’s inability to connect with his classmates and with the WHO’s and CDC’s inability to connect with the public is not unique. The most pressing problem this generation is facing is probably climate change driven by global warming. This is a problem that has been known for several decades, and yet scientists have been unable to impress the severity of it on the public.

A lot of the issue is that science is being outwitted by moneyed interests that thrive on generating the emissions that cause the climate change. Still, the inability of scientists to emotionally connect with the average person is surprising. Somehow, by 2030 all the glaciers outside Antarctica will have melted is supposed to make people scared of climate change. The problem with this is obvious: glaciers melting is a symptom that is largely non-threatening to the average individual.

This is helpful in determining the problem: intelligent people look down upon less intelligent people and seem to think that communicating facts in a relevant manner is not an important skill. Intelligent people are so used to being and acting superior, it is obvious that average people should do the work themselves to understand what the intelligent already know.

Conversely, the skill to effectively communicate something that intelligent people know is possibly the most important use of intelligence after generating the new information itself. That is, if you know something thanks to your superior intelligence, it is often pointless unless you can explain it to others.

Having the ability to generate meaningful and novel information but being unable to communicate it in a meaningful way is the Achilles heel of Young Sheldon and of the science community at large. This giant gaping hole can be filled by anyone with an agenda. It is currently filled by science denialists and “riduculists” with a corporate agenda.

That doesn’t have to be that way. If intelligence is superior, it needs to be able to figure out a way to communicate that works for all parties. It is pointless to expect “inferior” intelligence to figure out a way to understand “superior” intelligence, when “superior” intelligence prides itself on the very ability to come up with better ways.

And here, the simile with Young Sheldon comes in handy again: Just as Young Sheldon is surrounded by lesser people that don’t understand him and can do as they please with him, the scientist of today is surrounded by average people that vote against the interests of scientists and science (and humanity at large). Famously, Young Sheldon escapes his surroundings to a new location that is filled of people like him and safe of the issues of his childhood. Sadly, humanity cannot escape our planet and we’ll have to figure out how to live in our East Texas High School, forever.