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Corona Diaries: is herd opinion more dangerous than herd immunity?

May 4, 2020

One of the more interesting aspects of the current flurry of interpretations of “the science” around the coronavirus is that in the UK a new group of scientists is being formed to provide advice independently of the government’s SAGE committee of experts. They will, apparently, report their findings to the parliamentary select committee on health.

Will they shed light where currently there are only murky shades of grey? Maybe, though they may simply add to the bewildering spectrum of opinion that seems to be proliferating on a daily basis.

What I find interesting is that the new group is – informally at least – a classic Red Team. A devil’s advocate. A second team that questions the assumptions and conclusions of the first one. This is just the sort of decision-making tactic advocated by Dominic Cummings in his voluminous blog. Any set of advisers and experts that stays together long enough is in danger of developing groupthink. They no longer think independently or challenge the precepts that the majority have agreed upon as a group. It’s also known as confirmation bias. Once you believe something it can be very difficult for you to unbelieve it.

Because of Cummings’ liking for red teams, I’m surprised he didn’t set up his own from the beginning of the crisis. Perhaps the government scientists don’t believe in the concept. Perhaps that also explains his participation in SAGE meetings, as the representative of a one-man red team (aided and abetted by his proudly weird data buddies). A contrary voice, in other words.

Whether this new bunch of scientists, who appear to be as eminent as the ones on SAGE, will exert any influence on official thinking remains to be seen. I’m sure I’m not alone in finding it a bit disturbing there are so many experts, each with their own opinions, popping up out of nowhere like religious sects in the Reformation, being given a voice somewhere in the media.

Read yesterday’s Sunday Times, for example, and you will not only learn about the new red team, but you will be regaled with a long article about all the things we don’t know about the virus. Enough to send you into a decline, because how the hell can you contemplate moving on from the lockdown when you know so little about the thing that caused it?

To add to the anxiety, there was a harrowing piece in the magazine section by a photographer whose wife is a doctor. She arranged for him to spend three weeks in the intensive care unit of one of London’s major hospitals. The pictures and his accompanying narrative are terrifying enough to spook even the most dedicated gun-toting Trump supporter out of complacency.

Then, further on into the paper, we have a piece co-written by a former Downing Street advisor and an epidemiologist from Stanford University. The headline reads “The science is becoming clear: lockdowns are no longer the right medicine” The gist of the article is that we know lots about the virus, that millions of people in the UK have probably already been infected without knowing it, that hospitals and care homes are lethal places because medics are passing the virus to patients, that contact tracing is futile on a mass scale…BUT “the latest evidence and data all points in a favourable direction”, and now “policy-makers can shift to the next phase and start to bring the lockdown to an end”.

You would have to read the article to work out whether or not my summary is misleading. But that’s not the point.

The point, for me at least, is that you can read one newspaper and pick out content that you either pooh-pooh or use as evidence that things are better or worse than you previously imagined. Your conclusion may well be based on a pre-existing opinion. Confirmation bias, in other words.

I don’t criticise any newspaper for presenting contrary views. Far from it. In fact, if papers like the Daily Mail had been a little less doctrinaire on the subject of Brexit, perhaps we wouldn’t be facing the second whammy of a further hit to the economy after the end of this year. And Americans shouldn’t despise Fox News for becoming less universally adoring of Donald Trump now that his shortcomings have become undeniable by all but a dwindling base of fanatics. They should welcome the change in emphasis.

The miasma of uncertainty, and the explosion of conflicting scientific opinion is surely causing us to grow ever more unsure about the information we are getting, whether from official sources or in the media.

What worries me is not that we’re becoming even more sceptical about what we read than before the pandemic. That’s fine. We should question what we read. We should be looking to discover the motive behind the opinion or the presentation of the “facts”. But if, because we can’t bear a state of unknowing, we cling to one “truth” and, under the guise of being sceptical, reject any contrary view, we aren’t really being sceptical at all.

What in my opinion is dulling our critical faculties is fear. Concern for our personal safety and for our economic well-being makes a powerful addition to all our other fears – the ones that push us towards populism and strong men who tell us that they have the answers to all our problems.

What we instinctively know, yet find hard to accept, is that fear is part of the price we pay for being human. And the most terrifying time of all is when Donald Rumsfeld’s “unknown unknowns” become “known unknowns”. That’s the time when fresh devils of uncertainty are let loose, and we cling to life-rafts of belief, whether misguided or not.

Another article in the Sunday Times was about a chap who has made zillions by betting on disaster and specifically on the adverse consequences of this pandemic. He’s a follower of Nassim Nicholas Taleb, the guru of the Black Swan theory. What I found most interesting about Mark Spitznagel is that he’s also a part-time goat farmer. He has assembled a herd of alpine goats, from which he makes award-winning cheeses. I don’t know this guy, but I’d wager a bet that he gets as much if not more pleasure from his goats as he does from sitting in a room full of computers and PhD mathematicians, working out how he can profit from the next global disaster.

The lesson I learn from people like Spitznagel is that fear is only a distraction that prevents us from doing what enhances our lives. We should give it a place, because it often drives us to make decisions that allow us to navigate past danger. But if at all possible, we should focus at a time like this on things that make our lives worth living, even if they’re the equivalent of herding goats. From small things we can derive great pleasure. Even in the worst of times, most of us can find joy if we know where to look.

Whatever horrors await us in the months to come, I suspect that when this is over, there will be a raft of self-help books with titles like How the Pandemic Changed My Life, or Learning through Adversity. The authors will make a fortune.

Many of us will emerge with new passions, new hobbies and perhaps even new careers. But only if we keep our fear in its rightful place, open our minds and embrace joy when we find it.  

From → Business, Politics, UK

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