In 1868 a tall, slim man with piercing blue eyes and a head of unruly red hair became the first person in history to defy the law of gravity and float above the surface of the Earth.
According to three eyewitnesses, Daniel Dunglas Home levitated and disappeared out of a window on the third floor of a London building, only to glide back effortlessly into an adjoining room a few moments later.
Those watching Home were astonished.
To them, the eccentric Scottish-born medium had literally flown in the face of accepted wisdom and science.
He did no such thing, of course.
But as the second wave of coronavirus continues to savage much of the northern hemisphere, the willingness of Daniel Home’s witnesses to suspend common sense is reminiscent of the way a group of ideologically-driven simpletons recently fell prey to another case of wishful thinking.
Home was the most celebrated psychic of the 19th century.
His talent for convincing people he could communicate with the dead earned him audiences with some of the most powerful people in the world, including France’s Napoleon III and Queen Sophia of the Netherlands.
But he was just as acclaimed for his so-called ability to levitate.
Unfortunately on that day in 1868, Home’s three witnesses were already firm occultists who believed he could fly.
All were standing in a conveniently darkened room and all told contradictory and wildly varying stories about the incident.
What they really experienced was a case of what psychologists now call motivated perception – a tendency to only see what we want to see.
We all suffer from it.
It’s why most of us believe umpires make decisions that favour the opposition team rather than our own, and why the queues we stand in always seem to be the slowest.
Which brings us to Sweden, once the poster child for that swaggering conga line of misanthropic columnists, business “leaders” and politicians who pilloried Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews throughout his strict COVID-19 lockdown.
One of the most strident critics complaining about the “over-reaction” to the pandemic was Adam Creighton, a columnist for The Australian who gushed extensively about brave Sweden’s decision to go it alone and defy the virus with a business-as-usual approach.
As late as October, Creighton almost levitated with excitement when he announced that “Sweden’s impressive legacy … has expanded significantly in 2020, having provided the world with an example of a sane response” to the coronavirus.
The way Creighton and others saw it, Sweden’s leaders were the antithesis of the ‘evil’ Victorian Premier, a man so twisted he had used the pandemic as a screen to introduce draconian police powers and achieve his life-long ambition of tearing down the pillars of capitalist society.
Sweden was a paradise with no harsh lockdowns or mandatory wearing of masks, a place as pure and soft as its most famous export of the 1970s – ABBA.
Well, we only see what we want to see.
And we only hear what we want to hear.
At the height of the pandemic’s first wave Sweden was testing less than half the number of people of its Scandinavian neighbours.
Even then there were warning signs.
The country’s approach, while it never admitted it publicly, appeared to be an attempt at creating “herd immunity” – a term normally applied when vaccines are used to immunise up to 95 per cent of the population.
But Sweden’s tests indicated only about one in seven residents of Stockholm had developed COVID-19 antibodies, leaving the country wide open to a second wave of infection.
Other nations were already experiencing this secondary wave and in many cases it was proving to be even more virulent than the first.
And still the Swedes sat by and did nothing.
Just four weeks after Creighton’s fan-boy praise, Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Lofven was finally forced to concede the virus was “going in the wrong direction fast. More are infected. More die. This is a very serious situation”.
Indeed it was – and is.
Late last week the Swedish royal family announced Prince Carl Philip and his wife, Princess Sofia, had tested positive.
As new limits on public gatherings were introduced, a poll revealed the country’s confidence in its coronavirus strategy had slumped.
It also appeared the Swedish government was beginning to distance itself from the man who devised its no-lockdown strategy, epidemiologist Anders Tegnell.
More than 70 per cent of Sweden’s intensive-care beds were occupied (a third by coronavirus cases) and there were predictions its daily average of new cases would soar past 10,000 within the next few weeks.
Worse, Sweden’s case mortality rate is now almost triple that of other Scandinavian countries.
Almost 7000 Swedes have died of coronavirus-related symptoms compared to Norway, which has suffered less than 330 deaths, and Denmark, which has recorded slightly more than 800 fatalities.
So much for that “impressive legacy”.
At least Sweden is now a textbook case in motivated perception.
The ideologically driven mob who sneered at Daniel Andrews, who sounded like a choir of ventriloquist dolls nestled in the lap of corporate Australia, went searching for a magical world immune to coronavirus and its potential for social havoc.
Their broken moral compasses led them to Sweden, a country it believed could defy gravity.
They only saw what they wanted to see.
And now all they can hear is the awful thud of a nation falling back to earth.
Walkley Award winner Garry Linnell is one of Australia’s most experienced and respected journalists and editors