So convenient a thing is it to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for everything one has a mind to do.

—Benjamin Franklin

Our brain has an astounding ability to formulate justifications for believing things that we want to believe. As I have already remarked, the current pandemic—a major historical event—seems to have changed nobody’s mind. Socialists are calling for universal healthcare, capitalists are calling for corporate bailouts, and in general the old battle political lines are as strong as ever.

Indeed, at a time one might expect people to turn towards experts, I have observed some even embracing—of all things!—anti-vaccination. Really, if a pandemic cannot convince somebody that viruses really do cause disease and that we ought to prepare for them, then I do not see much hope for reasoned debate.

Considering that our collective response to a novel virus has somehow turned into a partisan fight, then I do think there is ample reason to suspect that many of us are not reacting rationally. And there are powerful emotional reasons for this. Specifically, I think that we have been impaled on the twins horns of fear and foolhardiness.

A part of our brains is terrified of contagion and disease, while another part is prone to wishful thinking. And it seems that these two emotional reactions are coming to dominate the two sides of the political spectrum: the left is fearful, while the right is foolhardy. The problem is that I think both emotions lead to irrational and unsustainable responses.

Giving into fear means embracing long and even indefinite lockdowns. Better to be safe at home than putting oneself and others outside at risk. And of course this is not wholly unreasonable: the coronavirus is real, and it has taken lives. My concern is that the original justification for the lockdowns is being forgotten. The idea of “flattening the curve” was to prevent our healthcare systems from being overwhelmed, which was a real danger in places like Madrid and New York City. The idea was that, if we flatten the curve, we will save lives—not by reducing the total number of infections, but by spreading out the infections so our healthcare system could handle them.

But somehow this thinking got lost, and I am afraid that there are many who think we can somehow eliminate the virus altogether by staying inside. The virus will be there, waiting, whenever we leave our homes. A virus has no timeline and infinite patience. So unless we are willing to wait until a vaccine has been invented, mass-produced, and widely distributed—which will be such a long time that it could cause unprecedented economic harm—then the only reason to wait, as far as I can see, is to make sure our hospitals will be able to handle the influx of patients. In places where the healthcare system is not nearly at maximum capacity, I do not see what would be gained by an extra month of waiting inside, other than allowing people to feel safe a little longer.

Demanding long, strict lockdowns even in areas where the virus is not widespread strikes me as a response motivated primarily by fear. And the problem with fear is that it gives you tunnel-vision, focusing all your attention on the source of danger, and reorienting all of your priorities around the new threat. This can lead to some obviously irrational behavior—in nearly all of us.

For example, a person may refuse to walk across a bridge because of his fear of heights, but may smoke cigarettes and drink heavily (much more serious risk factors for health) on a regular basis. Collectively we may focus frantic attention on a mining disaster that kills dozens—launching inquiries and investigations and instituting reforms—while we completely ignore hospital-acquired infections, which kill tens of thousands year after year. The human brain is wired to respond to immediate threats, and especially the kinds of threats (like violence and disease) that shaped our evolution. Much more serious threats, which kill through slower and less spectacular means, are easier to ignore. (Global warming is probably the best example of this.) 

The problem with our great fear of the virus is that I think it may cause us to neglect the costs of our containment measures. The success of a country’s policies cannot be measured in the number of its coronavirus cases and deaths alone. A profound and prolonged economic depression will both reduce lifespans and, directly and indirectly, also cause deaths. But the suffering caused by the depression will be slower, longer, less spectacular, and thus less scary. However, such damage is just as real, and it is just as much a consequence of our policies.

As I have argued before, a truly moral response to the crisis requires that we try to reduce harm as much as possible, all across the board. Fearfully focusing our attention exclusively on the coronavirus will lead us to be not only irrational, then, but potentially immoral.

Let me give a concrete example of this. From what I can tell, there is a growing amount of evidence that young children are in negligible danger from the virus. Moreover, according to this study performed in Australia, children are apparently not even a significant source of contagion. Indeed, in Switzerland they are apparently confident enough that children do not pose a danger that they have given young kids permission to hug their grandparents.

If it is true that children neither pose nor suffer a significant risk, then that would make many of our school closures questionable at best. In Spain, for example, schools will not reopen until the fall. But keeping kids out of school does serious, lasting harm to them—harm that disproportionately falls on poorer students, and harm that must also be taken into account when we make policies. (Also, Spain’s policy of keeping children confined in their homes for 6 weeks also seems hard to justify in this light.)

My point is not to advocate for school reopenings, per se (though it does seem reasonable to me), but to make the more general point that the current environment of fear makes even a rational discussion about school closures impossible. Instead of balancing the risks and rewards to students, many on the left seem to instinctively dismiss such conversations as frivolous and irresponsible. I do not think this is a productive mindset.

The mirror image of fear is foolhardiness, and I can sense it taking hold in certain sections of the right. We see it most clearly in the demonstrations in front of state capitals, in which participants deliberately flout safety guidelines in order to demand an economic reopening, often for pretty superficial reasons (like a haircut). It seems that many people still believe that the virus is not a significant threat and does not require any special action. But judging from what happened both here in Madrid and in my own state of New York, I think there is ample evidence that this virus is, minimally, a significantly greater threat than the seasonal flu. A policy of “do-nothing” is clearly inadequate when bodies are outstripping coffin-production and morgue capacity.

Foolhardiness also leads to another kind of cognitive blindness: wishful thinking. We all have the tendency to grasp at any data which supports our hoped-for conclusions. We can see this at work in a viral video of a certain Dr. Daniel Erickson (since removed from YouTube), who claimed that the data showed that coronavirus was, in fact, already widespread and far less deadly than the flu. But his argument was a product of wishful thinking, and rested on a basic error of statistics—extrapolating from a non-representative sample.

Erickson used our current coronavirus test records to extrapolate to the entire population. This does not take into account the obvious fact that most testing is done on people who are sick or who otherwise suspect they may have the virus. Our testing records, then, will obviously show much higher rates of coronavirus than the general population. Extrapolating from this data is simply nonsense. However, this video gained traction in rightwing circles and was even used on Fox News to argue against the lockdown.

A rational and moral response will be neither fearful nor foolhardy, but will take measures to minimize the total harm to society—both from the virus and the economic downturn. This is easier said than done, of course, especially in the world of politics. Personally, I think this is the ideal time to try out something like Universal Basic Income, which I think would ease the economic pressure and also give us more flexibility in combating the virus. But sadly this does not seem likely.

Given the real possibilities, then, I think that it is our obligation to cut the best path we can through both fear and foolhardiness, balancing the risk posed by the virus against the risk posed by a major economic depression. This means that we cannot let our fear of the virus be the only factor we consider; but we also cannot let wishful thinking cloud our judgment.

Acting rationally means fighting against the universal human tendency to give in to our hopes and fears. Both hope and fear, in different ways, distort the real danger.

One thought on “Quotes and Commentary #75: Franklin

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