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The Coronavirus: On Risk and Idiots

(Harvard University)

“As I have no skills to help with the virus, I would like to at least try to help in this small way instead. In any case, take precautions, stay calm, do not listen to dangerous idiots, keep yourself and your family safe, and good luck.”

I prepped for the virus. I have no special knowledge of medicine or biology, no less virology. Nor am I generally paranoid, nor even risk-averse; I love a good risk if the payoff profile suits. But I do have an expert, if amateur, interest in what might be called the philosophy of gambling, or—less politely—debunking absurdities in the interpretation of probability and the logic of risk taking. I have known for a long time that journalists and public intellectuals tend to be challenged in this regard. So, in prepping, I knew (and did not care) that I was going against the mainstream narrative of the risk posed by the virus. For a long time, I seemed to tune out just how dangerous this narrative could be—and how weirdly vacuous and clichéd its accompanying commentary seemed. Then, one day, it hit me. An incremental straw of risk-illiterate nonsense broke the camel’s back.

It happened last Friday. Cass Sunstein wrote an article for Bloomberg, and the very first two sentences of which was the following inane contradiction:

“At this stage, no one can specify the magnitude of the threat from the coronavirus. But one thing is clear: A lot of people are more scared than they have any reason to be.”

Now, obviously, Sunstein is, by no means, alone in this dangerous idiocy. These people are everywhere. The New York Times told us that the real danger is “stigma”; Recode had a good old hoot at Andreessen Horowitz’s decision to ban handshakes, and “meh, flu” has become a meme unto itself. But Sunstein also happens to have a history of lacking any respect for individual decision-making that he does not understand and of which he has not approved, so I don’t feel bad about singling him out for public flogging.

There are at least two fallacies in these two sentences (impressive ratio!). First, a thought experiment. Set some arbitrary threat magnitude as “x-dangerous.” Then, “we know that the threat is not x-dangerous” is completely different to, “we do not know that the threat is x-dangerous.” If we knew that a threat was not x-dangerous, then anybody fearfully behaving as if there was some chance of the consequences of x-danger could be said to be, “more scared than they have any reason to be.” 

If you cannot see the fundamental asymmetry of this issue after two paragraphs, then you flunk modal logic with the same grades as Sunstein.

But Sunstein just said that we don’t know! And it gets worse: We don’t know what we don’t know because we don’t know what “x” is either. In most normal cases in which we do not or cannot know the risk of a danger precisely, we can still rule out some extreme value of “x” with reasoning beyond the immediate problem. Rugby is dangerous, but the chances of dying, for example, are utterly miniscule, and the chances of everybody dying are zero. But the coronavirus is clearly not “normal” in any way. We do not know what the upper bound on “x” is, and so there is no basis to say that any level of “fear” is beyond reason. And please note—before harassing me on Twitter—that this does not mean that you should be maximally fearful. If you cannot see the fundamental asymmetry of this issue after two paragraphs, then you flunk modal logic with the same grades as Sunstein.

Second, another thought experiment. What is the individual payoff of a game in which one million people each agree to one round of one-in-ten-thousand Russian roulette in exchange for $1,000? It might not be so bad. What about if you, personally, committed to playing one million rounds of one-in-ten-thousand Russian roulette and received $1,000 every time you did not die? It does not really matter exactly how much you value either game. What matters is realizing that they are different games. If you cannot see this asymmetry either, then you and Sunstein flunk ergodicity, as well.

The uncertainty around the threat presented by the coronavirus is not of the variety of an expectation value. Consider some probability distribution of how bad you think it might be (and note that this is purely an epistemological exercise—such numbers cannot have any real meaning). We do not have one million societies from which to extract the mean and standard deviation from this distribution of badness. We have one. Similarly, you have only one life. 

And so, it gets worse. Imagine that actually nobody knew what the odds were that you would get shot in the second version of the game. What Sunstein wants you to do is keep playing this game anyway until the odds become clearer. Incidentally, the odds will become a lot clearer the more people get shot. So at the very worst, you will have contributed to science. Not so bad, but is this really what Sunstein is advocating for? He is clearly wrong: idiotically, dangerously wrong. But, actually, I do not believe that he is advocating for anything at all. I think this is all bulls—. And I do not mean this as a crass insult. Rather, I mean it as something quite technical. 

On Bullshit, by Harry Frankfurt, is one of the best philosophical essays of the twentieth century. It is a rare gem in that it can be treated as an exercise in erudite analysis, if the reader so desires. Yet its insights are profoundly practical—social, even. It is as much Jane Austen as Bertrand Russell. Frankfurt’s thesis is that there are deliberate untruths that are yet not lies—in that the speaker knowingly says something false not to mislead the listener. Rather the speaker says it because he or she is ambivalent to the truth value of the proposition in the first instance. Frankfurt calls this “bullshit” and says, “the essence of bullshit is not that it is false but that it is phony.” The essay is an attempt to answer the question: Why is there so much bulls—? Arguably the best passage of Frankfurt’s is towards the end, when an answer is drawing close:

Bullshit is unavoidable whenever circumstances require someone to talk without knowing what he is talking about. Thus the production of bullshit is stimulated whenever a person’s obligations or opportunities to speak about some topic are more excessive than his knowledge of the facts that are relevant to that topic…The lack of any significant connection between a person’s opinions and his apprehension of reality will be even more severe, needless to say, for someone who believes it his responsibility, as a conscientious moral agent, to evaluate events and conditions in all parts of the world.

I don’t think Sunstein is lying—or that he is even really wrong. I think he is bulls—ing. He feels the need to say something and despite having nothing useful to say. He negligently stumbles into saying something not only wrong but dangerously and idiotically so. I encourage you to read the whole article. I promised I’d stick to risk and avoid science. However, I can say vaguely enough that I counted seven more claims after the first two sentences that will age very, very poorly. 

This same pattern of bulls—ing has been evidenced by the vast majority of the banal commentariat who are used to mimicking one another’s clichés, feigning contrarianism with decadent frolics away from the centre of cultural gravity—but staying well within the bounds of what you can say. It is all entirely performative because they are conscientious moral agents required to talk without knowing what they are talking about. In “normal” times, this behavior is both amusing to behold—and not terribly troublesome. Something to roll your eyes at, perhaps. Which is what people do: If The New York Times editorial board decides that kale is racist, the sales hit will likely be felt primarily in its own cafeteria. Regular people just don’t care. But, once again, these are not normal times, and there is a serious danger that regular people look to The New York Times because they, simply, do not know what else they are supposed to do. 

The New York Times is a public health nuisance in publishing pieces like this, as much because of its size and reach as because of the bulls— content. There is an only half-joking maxim known as Brandolini’s Law: It takes an order of magnitude more energy to refute bulls— than it does to produce it. If the challenge we face is a pandemic of dangerous bulls— (in addition to that of a deadly virus, of course) the implications of Brandolini’s Law are rather discouraging. Whatever to do?

And so I propose a more Glaswegian response to the Sunsteins of the world.

I grew up near Glasgow, where my parents still live. On my most recent visit, I overheard a teenager on the train use the phrase, “get tae f—!” I chuckled as I realized that I had not heard this expression in years, but I had heard it probably every single day growing up. I think it is a fantastic expression. “Tae” is Weegie for “to” (“Weegie” is Glaswegian for “Glaswegian”), so the phrase literally translates as “get to f—,” though that hardly aids interpretation, I admit.

Perhaps it could be torturously paraphrased as follows: “Your proposal is ridiculous. You must think I am a fool. I am reacting aggressively so as to discourage this behavior in future.” This torture is, of course, the essence of its wonderful expressiveness. You cannot say all of this in place of saying, “get tae f—!” because the brevity, the aggressiveness, and even the crassness—all inextricable from the act of saying—are essential to the meaning. You aren’t in the Oxford Union, dear chum, you are in Glasgow now.

And so I propose a more Glaswegian response to the Sunsteins of the world. They do not need to be debated; to be told that their proposals are ridiculous; that they must think we are fools; that blah blah blah… They need to be told to, “Get Tae F—!” They need to be called out. Humiliated. Intellectually eviscerated as publicly as possible. They need to be chased into a dark, dank hole from which they are afraid to emerge to spew even one more syllable of risk-illiterate degenerate orthodoxy.

This needn’t be done as I am doing it now. It is arguably more valuable outside the public realm, though the approach should certainly be modified. You will undoubtedly have probability-challenged friends and colleagues who are aspirants to the chattering classes and, thus, have all the opinions required not to be rejected prematurely. These friends will overhear others worrying that they may need to cancel their vacation or their conference trip, stock up on food, or work from home, and these friends will make sure to be seen reacting with something between condescension, amusement, and scorn. Do not stand for this. Put them in their place. As this will be in the private realm, you do not need to be rude, but you do need to be firm. They must know this will not be tolerated. They will not be permitted to influence the naïve and impressionable with their dangerous bulls—. Tragic as it is, we are going to learn a great deal about who really has sense, guts, and compassion in the coming months. The time for bulls— is over.

I want to be completely clear, in case I haven’t already: I am not advocating panic. On the contrary, if you act with respect for the unknown and with proper precaution, you can “prep” on your terms. Because you want to, rather than on others’ terms, because you have to. And, once again, I am not a virologist. I know nothing about the science of the virus that I can usefully disseminate. Seek out this information separately and take it seriously. But I do know quite a lot about risk. And right now, I see a serious risk of intellectual morons misleading the general public about risk. This must not be allowed to happen. As I have no skills to help with the virus, I would like to at least try to help in this small way instead.

In any case, take precautions, stay calm, do not listen to dangerous idiots, keep yourself and your family safe, and good luck.

Allen Farrington lives in Edinburgh. He writes at QuilletteAreo, and Medium. You can follow him on Twitter @allenf32.

4 thoughts on “The Coronavirus: On Risk and Idiots

  1. Except most of those million rounds are going to be a pop gun. Sniffles, if that, and you will be inconvenienced but just fine. Only if you are elderly or health compromised might you be given the real gun in the game.

    1. The problem with this approach is that viruses mutate constantly, every time they encounter a new host. If this virus can hang on without killing all human hosts ( a sure bet), then it may figure out a way to infect healthy young. We need to stop being hosts, so this will die out.

  2. You ignored the attributes of fear with stress response that can further compromise a weakened immune system. I don’t know the context of how Sustein determined fears capacity on health but imagine his political experience has seen it evoking fear tactics that increase stress response to act. In that context and the benefits of exploiting crisis, mayhem or war for controlling interest in funding…is a likely stressor to immune deficiency..

    Looking at Italys numbers of age demographics and the population at risk elsewhere in other demographics related to physical labor with living conditions. Makes a case that Sustein doesn’t have as much to fear anyway.

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