(featured image credit: CDC)

Our (corona)viral pitfalls

The stakes in the global battle against the coronavirus are high, and our ability to make sense of often conflicting messages is under strain — there are many pitfalls. How should we evaluate what we read?

A new virus is messing with our health and with our society, and we are all ignorant. There is still a hell of a lot we do not know about this novel coronavirus — it’s the kind of novelty we can all do without. That is a thoroughly unpleasant feeling: we prefer by far simple, unambiguous messages.

That’s something social media are good at: conveying and delivering simple, unambiguous messages. The trouble is, it is not always easy to tell how accurate and helpful they really are. Many of them contain data and graphs, giving them an air of credibility that they do not necessarily deserve. Many of them come from, or are repeated by, people we have come across before, people who we believe to have a good reputation, and who would not knowingly spread false information or inappropriate speculation.

But they are human, and therefore subject to cognitive distortions that interfere with human reasoning, especially in these highly emotional times. And so are we: there might be a difference between what we think we read, and what was written.

What are the potential pitfalls, and how can we know what to believe — or not?

Unless you have been completely off social media this last week, you will have seen numerous messages and posts, challenging and criticizing the government strategies and policies that are being deployed in the various European countries, now designated the epicentre of the coronavirus pandemic. The unorthodox approach in the UK has been a particular target of condemnation. That is now somewhat out of date, as the UK is now also adopting more conventional measures.

At times like this, adopting the economic way of thinking — recognizing that every choice has costs and benefits or upsides and downsides — is a sensible thing to do. But many of those criticisms were characterized by one-sidedness: the authors focused on the unwanted consequences of the authorities’ taking (or failing to take) an action, but had little or no attention either for the counterfactual ( what would be the undesired outcomes of taking the opposite action?), or for the challenges in pursuing an alternative option. One theme that came up frequently in my feed was the failure of the authorities to order schools to close (or to do so sufficiently quickly). Surely schools are a major vehicle for transmission of the virus, so cutting off that path of contagion must be a sensible measure that must be taken without delay, that was the logic.

Empty classroom
Empty classroom
Empty classrooms, empty workplaces? (photo: Karen Apricot CC BY)

But doing so has direct and indirect consequences that matter too. If schools cannot look after children, parents are obliged to stay at home from work to do so, or leave them with their grandparents. The latter would clearly be a bad idea, but the former would mean many organizations could not operate normally, and at some point, even might not be able to function at all. This would be detrimental in healthcare, where many staff rely on childcare. A very recent paper by Jude Bayham and Eli Fenichel, economists at Colorado State and Yale University respectively, considers this trade-off and concludes, “it is unclear if the potential contagion prevention from school closures justifies the potential loss of healthcare workers from the standpoint of reducing cumulative mortality”. And even if a childcare solution was possible that allowed keeping essential activities running, while everything else was eventually shut down, such a situation could not be maintained indefinitely without severe economic consequences. (This is not to say that the schools should never be closed, but it is not as simple as just locking the doors.)

So when people make categorical statements about what should or should not be done and at what time, let us bear in mind that armchair decision-makers can afford not to care about whatever they want. Real-life decision makers cannot do that. They must weigh up a complex set of consequences across longer time periods. Critics are not always aware (or choose to ignore) this complexity.

Another phenomenon we may come across is the Dunning-Kruger effect: our propensity to overestimate our own cognitive ability. Even very smart people can exhibit this tendency when they stray outside their area of competence. Vaughan Bell, a London-based neuropsychiatrist, psychologist and academic at UCL, captured it thus in this tweet, “Twitter is awash with people with PhDs, good intentions and out-of-context graphs, suddenly deciding complex issues in viral epidemiology lead to ‘obvious’ solutions.” Andre Spicer, a professor Organizational Behaviour at Cass Business School remarked: “The amateur expert. Def: A person who reads a few books from the smart thinking section then considers themselves a world authority on almost any topic and is willing to offer sweeping policy prescriptions”. Andrew Little, a political scientist at the University of Berkeley and co-author of a recent paper entitled I don’t know, advises people in this way: “I f you are asked to or otherwise tempted to pontificate on a topic where you lack expertise (say, pandemics), please consider consulting this paper first. “ Posters may be well-meaning and sincere, but we must be careful with attributing too much confidence to people whose credentials are in other domains.

Even the experts don’t know everything they wish they knew, and every challenge they face has multiple possible responses, both in nature and in timing. Different experts (especially if they are from different disciplines) may have different views on what is the most appropriate strategy. This means anyone with preconceived ideas can easily find some expert who supports their view. And should this expert express a nuanced standpoint, they can still cherry pick those bits from it that serve them best. These tendencies are known as selection bias and confirmation bias. It is worth trying to spot these, not only in the arguments we come across, but also in our own interpretation of what we read. Let us widen our sources and listen to contrary theses — and not pick our experts.

When two trusted experts, having both properly and thoroughly considered the same evidence, come to a different conclusion, perhaps the wisest thing to do is not to side with the nicest one, or to toss a coin. It might be better to repurpose Schrödinger’s cat and maintain the idea that both may be right — time will tell. As Scott Fitzgerald said, the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.

Some people may be driven by an agenda of partisanship — e.g., pro or anti the government — and support or decry the prevailing strategy accordingly. This does not typically produce robust argumentation, but instead motivated reasoning. If you know in advance what you want the conclusion to be, then you can construct a perfectly reasonable-looking argument that leads straight to it. This does not mean that what the government does is necessarily good (or necessarily bad). It means we had better judge a strategy on its merits, not on whether it is (or is not) pursued by the government.

Motivated reasoning and its close relative motivated beliefs ( “people believe what they want to believe”) can also make us downplay the likelihood of that which we don’t want to happen, or see strong support for our preferred approach, where there is in fact none. An example of the former would be to ascribe the dramatic spread of the virus in Italy to peculiarly local circumstances ( “and that’s why it won’t happen here”); the latter is what we’d see when someone argues that, because a particular intervention has seemingly been effective somewhere else, it should also be adopted here. Such extrapolation from one context to another is precarious, as is extrapolation from anecdotes. Inevitably, with hundreds of people dying every day, there are harrowing stories from people who lost loved ones, and from front-line medics confronted with heart-wrenching decisions. But managing an epidemic is about thousands and thousands of lives. It cannot be done on the basis of individual cases.

Wall calendar
Wall calendar
Timing matters (photo: webandi via Pixabay)

Finally, let’s watch out for groupthink. It is very well possible that the policy decisions the authorities make are influenced by the tendency of advisers to conform, or by an urge to reach a consensus. We ourselves, too, should not just adopt a view because it’s held by a majority in our circle and we do not want to dissent. Let’s look for contradictory evidence and seek nuance, rather than simplicity. We should be willing to dissent — if not with our friends, then at least with our own leanings.

Whether we disagree or agree with the actions that are taken by the authorities, we ought to bear in mind a few things. We probably have access to only a fraction of the information they have, and we may be selective in which aspects we consider. What may look insane from where we are sitting may well look utterly balanced from where they are sitting — because they have taken a wider view, need to consider more trade-offs, and have more data than us. Our judgement should not be coloured by what we don’t know.

Also, remember that timing is crucial in epidemics. This virus is going to march on for many months to come. In a game show we would not play all our jokers in the first round, any more than, in a battle, we would fire all our ammunition in the first few minutes. So it is with managing this epidemic: it is as much a question of which measures to take, as when to take them.

And above all, let us remember that we are on uncharted terrain. There is no textbook answer to the question, what now? In such circumstances, we must be circumspect of unfounded opinions and supposed certainties, and be careful what weight we give to what messages, especially if they imply expertise. Liverpool manager Jürgen Klopp demonstrates you can communicate impactfully without suggesting or requiring any particular qualification. He sets a great example, that is worth following.

Stay safe, stay healthy.

Originally published at http://koenfucius.wordpress.com on March 17, 2020.

Thank you for reading this article — I hope you enjoyed it. Please do share it far and wide — there are handy Twitter and Facebook buttons nearby, and you can click here to share it via LinkedIn, or simply copy and paste this link. See all my other articles featuring observations of human behaviour (I publish one every Friday) here. Thanks!

Accidental behavioural economist in search of wisdom. Uses insights from (behavioural) economics in organization development. On Twitter as @koenfucius