I would like to start by thanking Mike Kennedy for his observations over the last months. We all bring some knowledge to the pandemic, but he brings a good deal more. I think he has been properly cautious in interpreting information as it has emerged and even more cautious in offering advice, even though he might be tempted. It has been a reminder to me throughout not to pretend I know more than I do and not leap to conclusions. If he can refrain from pronouncements, how much more should I refrain, eh? Saying this, I admit my memory might be inaccurate. Mike may have made all sorts of knuckleheaded predictions and offered cockamamie theories over the last ten months and I just forgot them. Yet I think my overall impression has been correct, and I am grateful.
When my oldest was a small boy, he took it into his head that not fastening our seat belts would cause us to get into an accident. He had clearly picked up associations we had made between the concepts of accident and seat-belt. The distinction between “in case we get into an accident” and “because we’ll get into an accident” is not easy when you’re three or four. No real harm done at the time. He fastened his seat belt willingly and we didn’t think he’d graduate from highschool with that misapprehension.
There are a lot of theories and descriptions of the various ways people come to think they know things and what they trust. They are not mutually exclusive. We all trust our own experience while attaching some importance to what we hear happens to others. We all have authorities we trust, but also trust our own ideas and reasoning. We also have opinions about what other people trust in ways of knowing. We particularly dislike it when those benighted other folks trust the wrong authorities or exhibit poor reasoning. We also mix categories. In the long sorry state of CoVid commentary, we have had lots of complaints about people trusting “experts,” always in sneer quotes, yet our solution is nearly always that they instead believe…different experts. Ones that we like better.
The other suggestions are usually worse. Too many people trust only what their personal experience is, believing this is somehow representative of the real world, and ignoring what people smarter than they are are saying. There are half dozen over at Maggie’s – which has a wide readership and thus provides a forum where knuckleheads can have their say, which is very American – and even one at Grim’s who have claimed “Y’know how I know this virus is all a hoax? Because I don’t know a single person who’s had it.” My first temptation is to say “Dude, don’t help any kids with their science homework, okay?” Yet it is true that we all are affected by what drifts by our dock on the river. Glenn Reynolds made the interesting observation that this may operate like AIDS in reverse. No one took that disease seriously until they knew someone who died from it, and then it suddenly went to the top of the list of problems the country needed to solve. He mentioned that he had C19, it wasn’t a bad case, and most people he knew about didn’t have bad cases, and thought that many people were going to conclude that the disease wasn’t that big a deal. I think his prediction is likely true. I disliked his tone that this was a generally accurate, good conclusion to come to, though he refrained from going that far.
This gave me an immediate new example to draw from, however. I had many patients (and two coworkers) who eventually died of AIDS in the 1980s, and heard of more from my theater days in the 70s, even though I think I knew of none from any of my social circles by then. Most of my friends knew no one who had the illness. I knew that both their personal experience and their personal experience were not the whole story. The same is happening now. College professors are not likely to have a representative sample of the danger of the disease, they will have an underestimate, unless there is some other factor in their lives, such as a family member in assisted living. Health care workers are likely to have the opposite bias in their sample. They will know a disproportionate number of people who have the illness, and a disproportionate number who die from it. Their prism is slanted such that it skews to the other end of the spectrum. I will note additionally that when you know people who died, it just naturally has a large impact. In strictly logical terms, perhaps an excessive impact, but…death is an important consequence, y’know? Not one that human beings are supposed to be dismissing too easily.
There are other groups which are going to have more exposure to Covid deaths than others. Pastors and people who are on prayer chains do not only hear about their friends and immediate circle, but the relatives of their friends and their frightening circumstances. That is a biased sample, to be sure, but it is not pretend. I’m not sure what further groups would have too many representatives of the dead and which too few. Relatedly, those whose circles of exposure are those who are not in much danger even if they get the illness seem to focus on their own personal risk and their insistence that they should have the freedom to make that assessment, while those who know many who are at the mercy of the safety habits of others are more likely to favor controls to limit the damage of the poor decisions of those others. Neither is an unnatural bias, but you should know which tendency your life circumstances tilt toward.
I write all this not to tell you which experts you should choose. Others can advise you better than I on that. I am overconfident that I can sort through which experts to trust, but that needn’t affect you. However, I am qualified to ask you to look carefully at what your sample and your experience is. What is the age group of the people you interact with most? What would you predict their level of danger would be in a general situation if they lived somewhere else? If they have relatives or friends who get injured or sick, is your situation such that they would tell you, or are you sheltered from that knowledge?
And next, how much does this personal bias, which is a natural but unscientific influence your assessments. There’s no quiz on this. No one is grading your answers except yourself.