Saturday, November 28, 2020

Christian Drosten about Friedrich Schiller

Many people regard Christian Drosten, a virologist at Berlin's famous Charité where Robert Koch discovered the tuberculosis bacterium in 1882, as Germany's Anthony Fauci. Drosten is probably the most well-known German scientist at present due to his research into coronaviruses.

He had the PCR test for the coronavirus ready by the beginning of March and completed it recently by a parameter on viral load. This parameter will allow medical people to judge the risk that a positively tested person presents to spread the infection further.

In March, Christian became known and famous to a greater public for his podcasts. There he explained the pandemic to laypeople in a most descriptive and nevertheless scientifically accurate way.

Every year, on the occasion of Friedrich Schiller's birthday - the poet and studied physician was born in Marbach on November 10, 1759 - prominent public figures give a Schiller speech at the German Literature Archive ibid.

Speakers so far included artists, authors, economists, and politicians. This year, Professor Drosten held the discourse, and due to the corona pandemic, the event took place virtually. Here is a video recording of Christian Drosten's speech. What follows is a translation of his most remarkable statements:

”Of all people, you invited me - a virologist - to give the traditional speech on Friedrich Schiller's birthday. In doing so, you have made an extremely unusual choice - one that is undoubtedly one that demonstrates openness and genuine courage to take risks.”

”I can also see the curiosity behind this invitation. Curiosity to leave familiar territory. And curiosity about something new, unknown, and perhaps even uncomfortable. I find this appealing, also because curiosity is precisely what has always driven other researchers and me anyway.”

”Schiller and I have one thing in common: we both studied medicine. We also left practicing medicine behind - albeit with different motivations and different goals. He was drawn to literature, I to medical research.”

”My interest as a researcher is directed towards the gain of useful scientific knowledge. I want to come to conclusions based on experiments, observations, and studies that everyone can verify. I do not pursue any political intentions in my work. It is up to the authorities to cast scientific recommendations into executive orders or laws.”

”Neither do I want to explain Friedrich Schiller to you that legions of literati and historians have done since long thoroughly and convincingly, nor do I want to win over him for myself or put him in front of my cart. But I do want to deal with him.”

Schiller‘s Freedom

”In the core question of what Schiller means to me personally and to what extent his life and work are relevant to us today, we will not be able to ignore the leitmotif of his work: freedom. But we will also have to talk about responsibility because, for me, both elements are complementary.”

Three Dimensions of Freedom

Continuing, Drosten distinguished three dimensions of freedom. First, there is the freedom of science itself. Nobody gives Drosten a direction or demands that he should not pursue specific questions or topics, whereas Schiller had to fight hard for the freedom of his word. He was threatened with a writing ban and forced to flee.

For Drosten, the second essential element of freedom concerns the method by which he gains scientific knowledge. A researcher is exclusively committed to the facts - the scientific experiment, observations, and conclusions. What counts is the own intellect, the collegial exchange, the constant struggle for resilient progress in knowledge. At the same time, a researcher must always face the challenging scientific debate about his work. This way of working makes him independent of possible expectations and interests of third parties. This process takes place worldwide according to established rules and the same high standards. 

For the philosopher of Enlightenment, Schiller, freedom also meant using one's intellect. He was certainly not someone who has simply passed on the ideas of others. The freedom of thought was a pleasurable challenge and obligation for Schiller. In return, he was personally prepared to accept hardships, to flee, and to start all over again, the latter scientists are often obliged to do.
Finally and thirdly, Drosten enjoys the freedom to share his research results with others without hindrance. Only when findings are shared, discussed, and reviewed, disproved, or further developed in the process do we shall make progress in research. For society to benefit, researchers must communicate their results understandably and transparently.

Information and Guidance

”In the pandemic, I, like many other scientists, see it as my duty to provide information and guidance. The better we all understand the virus and the pandemic, the sooner we will make the right decisions for our behavior. How do we stop the rapid spread of the virus? How do we manage not to overload our health care system? How can we avoid infections and severe disease progression up to death?”

”The pandemic is not an inevitable fate. We determine through our behavior whether the situation worsens or improves. Either way, each of us makes his or her contribution. That's why I believe that science-based information of the public is as important a strategy in the fight against the virus as the development of a drug or vaccine.”

Freedom and Society

”This brings us to the second central point, ’What do we do with all the freedom that we value so highly? What do we derive from it for our dealings with other people and society as a whole?’”

”In answering these questions, Schiller seems to me to be particularly topical. For Schiller, personal freedom cannot succeed in isolation from society. For the freedom of all to be created and maintained, people must stand up for one another and take responsibility for one another. The better this works, the less need there is for intervention from above.”

”The pandemic has shown how relevant this principle still is. The more I behave as an individual of my own free will responsibly, the less reason I give the authorities to intervene in social life. But the more thoughtless and selfishly I act, the more the authorities must restrict my freedom to effectively protect the community, i.e., the well-being of other people.”

A Pandemic Imperative

”But what does responsible action mean? Is it enough - according to Schiller - to make people aware of their free decision to do the right thing only out of inclination and without external pressure? Will they participate voluntarily?”

“Or do we - freely according to Immanuel Kant - need a rather strict reference to duty and responsibility? A kind of pandemic imperative: ‘Always act in a pandemic as if you had been tested positive and your counterpart belonged to a risk group’”

“My role and my contribution as a scientist consists of explaining the methods of my field of expertise, showing the limits of scientific studies, classifying what is fact and what is fiction. And of course I feel obliged to take corrective action and to call a spade a spade. In doing so, I must translate the language of science into vivid but still coherent images and analogies that are catchy for everyone.”

Scientists and Public Opinion

“If you, as a scientist, get involved, you are immediately in the middle of the broad public opinion battle of the coronavirus pandemic. Scientific results are not objectively and coolly dissected like in the circle of experts. They are discussed in terms of their political, social and personal impact and evaluated with a high degree of emotion. This takes place around the clock at high temperatures in the spin cycle of social media.”

“As a scientist I have the job of communicating unpleasant truths regarding the coronavirus. The virus is there. It does not negotiate and does not compromise. It is the task of us virologists to make this truth, which is supported by scientific knowledge, heard again and again in public. It is the responsibility of the scientist to draw a realistic picture and not the desired one.”

“How we can deal with this uncompromising opponent. We must take responsibility for ourselves and others in the spirit of Schiller’s spirit. In practical terms, we observe rules of distance and limit our mobility and contacts as far as possible.”

“Currently, the restrictive measures enacted by policymakers are still too often judged on the basis of the status quo. The exponential growth potential of the virus is only taken into account by parts of society. Accordingly, the measures are all too often branded as excessive or premature, the occurrence of infection appears less threatening. Accordingly, many people are skeptical about further restrictive measures.”

The Gain of Scientific Knowledge

“Another challenge arises from the limited public understanding of the logic behind the gain of scientific knowledge. Original theories and assumptions can prove to be wrong. For people who are not used to this, it is sometimes difficult to understand, especially if - as is now the case with the pandemic - they hope to obtain valid information on which to base their actions.”

“For political decision-makers in particular, our scientific activities are a real imposition. Political action follows a fundamentally different logic. It is aimed at creating framework conditions that are sustainable in the long term. The fact that political decision-makers had to constantly improve or correct the measures based on new scientific findings - just think of mouth-and-nose protection - was not always well received. But such course corrections were foreseeable and obvious. If there is something new, you have to adapt your assessment accordingly. This is the way science works.”

Scientists, Politics, and Society

“We as responsible scientists must actively explain this development process to politics and society if we want them to trust and support us. This is what drives me in my communication efforts. I want people to be informed. Recourse to this information puts them in a position to participate in the discussion about what is necessary and required in each case actively and thus to help shape the fight against the pandemic. The opportunity to participate will hopefully ensure broad social acceptance.”

“The same applies to all major global challenges of our time: If we want to preserve our freedom and well-being, we must take the trouble to take the entire society with us. We must also prepare complex issues for the general public and provide them with appropriate information.”

Take a Stand with Facts

“At the same time, we must not stand by and watch when facts are ignored, twisted or shortened. If science is politicized, instrumentalized or its standards violated, we must take a stand with verifiable facts.”

“And this by no means only applies to infection research in a pandemic. It applies to all fields of science that address urgent problems with decision-making pressure and far-reaching consequences, such as climate research, which deals with another treacherous development on a global scale.”

“Therfore, for free science, responsible communication is a social obligation. It is the duty that arises from freedom, which Friedrich Schiller reminds us of today on his birthday.”

“Let me conclude my speech by returning to Friedrich Schiller, because he has another important piece of advice for us scientists and our work. It is about how we raise our voice and in what attitude we make our contribution.”

“Each of us is called upon to act not only out of duty and responsibility. The inclination and the desire belong inseparably to it. And even if Kant admonishes us that man should not obey his reason out of joy alone: He may well do so. The joy of knowledge may therefore also drive our responsible actions in the present situation. From this, I am quite sure: Friedrich Schiller would also wear a mask.”

“I will leave it at that.”

“Preserve the freedom and joy of thinking. Show responsibility. And above all: Stay healthy.”

Trouble started when Bettina Schulte, cultural editor of Freiburg’s Badische Zeitung, wrote a review titled:

 Why Drosten hasn’t understood anything on Schiller.

“In what times we are living when virologists are allowed to talk about the poet Friedrich Schiller? Sure: The son of an officer from Marbach studied medicine and worked as a military doctor for two years before he fled to Thuringia to escape from his sovereign, Duke Karl Eugen, and exchanged the scalpel for the pen forever.”

“Christian Drosten did not address this issue in his twenty-minute Schiller speech. Instead, he, who has become ‘virtually’ famous overnight with his Corona podcast, picked the topics ‘freedom’ and ‘responsibility.’

“Drosten is less interested in Schiller’s intellectual freedom than in his own concept, i.e., freedom of research. The virologist repeats his credo in a downright prayerful manner. As a researcher, he is obliged only to his own interest in knowledge and to nobody else. That is beautiful and also very reassuring to hear. Drosten, who has repeatedly complained about being misunderstood, also wants nothing to do with politics. The researcher researches, the politician acts.”

“It is as simple as that. As simple as that?”

“The virologist is convinced that Schiller would have worn a mask. What else! Don Carlos can mumble the famous sentence "Sire, geben Sie Gedankenfreiiiuheit!” well with mouth-nose protection. Christian Drosten didn't understand a thing about Friedrich Schiller - and the German Literature Archive threw itself at the bosom of the zeitgeist with this speaker.”
*Sorry, Frau Schulte: In Goethe’s drama Don Carlos, it was not the eponymous hero but Marquis Posa who demanded King Phillip II of Spain, “Sire, give freedom of thought!”

“And then Drosten moves smoothly from the ‘freedom of thought’ to the (ethical) ‘duty to give orientation’ and to the (political-moral) appeal to ‘stand up for one another.‘ Keyword: responsibility. In a stricter interpretation, this finally leads to the ‘pandemic imperative’: ‘Act as if you were Covid-19 positive.’ Does Mr. Drosten mean to say that we should all put ourselves in permanent voluntary quarantine?”

Bravo Bettina. Did you aim to be funny? There were several letters to the editor. Here is the one I wrote:

When I read the title of Bettina‘s review, I had expected a lot and was disappointed by its superficiality and attempted satire. Question: Did the author read Christian Drosten's lecture at all and, if so, did she understand it? Even Goethe had his difficulties with the concept of freedom: "Freiheit ein schönes Wort; wer's recht verstände.” That's why I was impressed by the surprising statements of a medical doctor about Schiller, both in content and form.
*Freedom a beautiful word. Who understands it right? Duke Alba, Spanish Governor of the occupied Netherlands, on Egmont’s question, “Who guarantees freedom?

Our federal president awarded Christian Drosten the Federal Cross of Merit.

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