I can only imagine what kind of pressure the White House is currently getting, and when the imagination gets going, I think I can describe for you what kind of doomsday scenarios are being played out for them and run by them, with graphs, pie charts, oscillating models on computer screens, and all the rest of it.
And I also believe there are compelling reasons why the president should not react on the basis of any of this, and these compelling reasons, outlined below, should also be an encouragement to White House staff to not freak out.
Rudyard Kipling’s poem If, states it well:
If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too . . .
Now a retort could always come back in the words that parody of If from the 1930’s, which said, “If you can keep your head when everybody around you is losing his, then it is very probable that you don’t understand the situation.”
So which is it? I want to maintain that it is usually those who are losing their heads who are the ones who don’t understand the situation, and that they are frequently the ones most vehement in their views, and of the need for us all to act now. As I said, that is usually how it goes, and all the indicators are that this situation is no exception, except that this one is on stilts.
As you read through the first of my three reasons, please notice that it also includes the basis for my right to speak into this situation. I begin here because I want to establish my right to even have three reasons, and my additional right to share them with you all. Who am I to be popping off this way?
How Disciplines Overlap
Let us use a neutral term for it, and say that we are in the middle of a great “stir” over the COVID-19 virus, and this means that there is a great deal of heated discussion online about all of it. When certain voices, like mine for instance, urge everyone to rediscover the virtues of calm in the face of peril, one of the common jabs or taunts in return is the one that says that you, Wilson, have no degrees in epidemiology , and so maybe you ought to pipe down and show enough humility to be willing to listen to the experts. Why are you, a laymen in these things, willing to opine, conclude, venture, suggest, or bloviate about anything? Hmmm?
I have heard this quite a bit. “But the experts . . .”
Disciplines overlap, and they overlap routinely. But specialists frequently do not know that they overlap, or they tend to forget how they overlap. Generalists, by definition, know the nature of overlap. Now the expert opinion of the specialist is valuable within the confines of his discipline, but in the area of overlap he is just another one of the guys. An epidemiologist might know absolutely nothing about economics, and so how is it we are allowing him to write out what amounts to an economic prescription for an epidemic? This is like some poor schlub going to the rich doctor, and the rich doctor writes him a prescription for a bottle of pills costing ten thousand dollars. What’s with the shocked face? the doctor wonders.
A mathematician walked into a greasy spoon diner, and ordered three eggs over easy. In the course of time, out came two eggs over easy. The mathematician naturally complained about his missing egg, and the cook came out from the back to discuss it with him. And he said, somewhat peeved, “I have been cooking eggs back here for twenty years, and I don’t need some culinary layman off the street to come in here to tell me how to cook my eggs.” And the mathematician replied, “Ah, but this is an area where our respective disciplines overlap. I could not cook an egg if my soul depended on it, but as a professional mathematician, I do know how to count them. And there,” he said, pointing to the plate, “you will be pleased to discover two eggs. Not three. I ordered three eggs.”
Expertise in one area does not automatically transfer to expertise in other areas. Just because someone is a star second basemen for the Yankees does not mean that he knows how to identify the best value in aftershave lotions. He might, but we don’t know.
This is a commonplace fallacy that goes on all the time, all around us. Granted, sometimes an ignoramus just pops off, talking of he knows not what. The experts roll their eyes at this, as they have every right to do. But other times experts think that people have gotten out of their lane when they are the ones who failed to recognize the parameters of their lane. They failed to recognize that they had strayed into an area where disciplines overlap.
One of the finest examples of this kind of blunder (and it really is a howler) can be seen in the opening lines of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos. “The Cosmos is all that is or was or ever will be.” Now Sagan was a professional astronomer and astrophysicist, and I could no more tell him how to run his observatory than my hypothetical mathematician could cook an egg. But I am trained in philosophy, and could see immediately that Sagan opened his entire argument with some amateur philosophy, and ramshackle philosophy to boot, and not with astronomy at all. There is no way for Sagan to look through a telescope and see philosophical materialism.
So the epidemiologists can tell us what is likely to happen if everyone with coronavirus coughs on three people, and if those three people cough on three others. But the epidemiologists CANNOT tell us what the economic ramifications will be if every last American goes down into their basements for three weeks. They don’t have a clue.
Computer Modeling is Not Science
The scientific method that we should be grateful for is a method that submits itself to the possibility of falsification. This is going to sound kind of “old school,” but my argument here is that “old school” science is precisely what we need right now. We need data, not high-speed speculation.
Real science develops a hypothesis and then comes up with an experiment that tests that hypothesis. The experiment is done, the phenomena are observed, the results are recorded, and then others should be able to do the same experiment and get the same results.
Computer modeling, however, is a different kettle of things that swim in kettles. Computing modeling is a tool that can be used by science, if the scientists are judicious. But it must be acknowledged that a good part of the contemporary scientific community has been taken over by modelers, not practicing scientists, and if you doubt what I say, go and count up all the false prophecies that have been thrown at us about climate change. Those were prophecies based on computer models, and they were only as good as the assumptions that went into them. If you boil a bunch of cabbage, the end result is going to be boiled cabbage.
This is because computer modeling is governed by another set of rules entirely. And those rules are fine and all, but it must be remembered that they are the rules of another discipline entirely. And one of the fundamental rules of computer modeling is the GIGO rule. And GIGO stands for “Garbage In Garbage Out.”
A computer model is only as good as the assumptions that are fed into it. The computer makes everything go really, really fast, and can give you an authoritative looking display, but if wild speculations are fed into the model, then what you will get out the other end will be what wild speculations look like after they have been thrown against a brick wall at warp speed.
But for some reason, establishment types are not nearly as dubious about computer modeling as they ought to be. And so everyone should remember the Gadarene Swine Rule. Just because a group is in formation doesn’t mean they know where they are going.
I am not against computer modeling, just as I am not against the cooking of souffles. But the cooking of souffles is not science, and putting hysterical assumptions into a computer is not science either. It is this kind of thing that possessed the governor of California to set his hair on fire. And it is this kind of thing that the president must not have anything to do with.
A related point is that this is our very first social media pandemic. During the Black Death, and the Spanish flu, the panic levels were high. But just imagine what would have happened if the medieval world had been in possession of social media. The chances are excellent that the panic would have spread way faster, arbitrary scapegoating and blaming would have occurred way quicker, and a lot more Jews would have been burned way sooner.
There is no value in speeding up our ignorance. There is no value in accelerating wild rumors. There is no value in taking a panic, giving it the amphetamines of a fiber optic connection, and then believing every word. If we are doing something stupid, the solution is to stop it. The solution is not to find a way to reduce the friction for those intent on passing on the panic and stupidity.
Hear From Every Side
Orthodoxy is not necessarily the enemy of truth, but arbitrary and capricious orthodoxies most certainly are. The very last thing we need in a moment like this is the suppression of dissenting voices. But as things are currently going, I expect in short order to be called a virus-denier.
At least one of the social media big boys has begun squashing reports that are somewhat optimistic. Or forget optimistic — maybe just ones cautious about what and how much we actually can know. I went to link one of the articles I had seen earlier, and lo. Lookee what ain’t there now. The point is not that someone wants to debate the point. The point is that in our world of totalitolerance, debate is always subversive, and will not be allowed. They are not just going to lock down a Californian cocktail waitress, thereby ruining her life; they are also going to lock down dissenters, about which more in a hot minute. The smelly little orthodoxies that the Chicoms were defending when they covered up the origins of the Wuhan virus are different from our smelly little orthodoxies about how best to end the Wuhan virus in this one respect — they smell different. The way rancid beef and addled eggs smell different.
So read more widely (while you can). Expand your mind. Don’t go down the contagion-means-we-are-all-going-to-die wormhole. Look here and here and other places too. And when I say “hear from every side,” I mean much more than hearing from different sides of the medical debates (although that would be included). I mean hearing from the sectors that will be paying for all of this.
And turning to the White House (which, as I would remind you, must refuse to panic), I would give this last exhortation. You are being fed a long line of scary scenarios having to do with the COVID virus. Some of the scenarios are brighter than others, and some are darker than others. The specialists giving you these breakdowns are just doing their job. Good on them.
But my concern here is that the measures that are currently being taken and proposed are going to crash the economy, and crush civil liberties. You need to hear from people who are experts in those areas. The human cost of our current panic will, in my view, soon dwarf the possible human cost of the coronavirus itself. That view may be right, or it may be wrong, but the thing that is really wrong is that the question is not even being examined. If we keep this stampede up, what will be the cost and who will pay it? This is not an unreasonable question. I have ventured to ask it before.
So it is up to the non-panicked White House — before doing ANYTHING draconian — to recruit, summon, assemble at least two other task forces. I outlined the limits of modeling earlier, but if you are going to do it at all, balance your decision-making by looking at different kinds of scary scenarios. Are there no economic modelers out there?
Are there no real civil libertarians left? I have a hard time taking anyone seriously who spent the last three years trying (unsuccessfully) to persuade me that Trump was “literally Hitler,” who then turned around and voted to give him the keys to the whole joint. That’s not a civil libertarian. That’s what we call a joke.