Expert writes op-ed in NYT recommending that we trust the experts

Asher Meir points us to this op-ed by social psychologist David DeSteno entitled, “How Fear Distorts Our Thinking About the Coronavirus: The solution isn’t to try to think more carefully. It’s to trust the experts.” DeSteno writes:

When it comes to making decisions that involve risks, we humans can be irrational in quite systematic ways . . . The brain states we call emotions exist for one reason: to help us decide what to do next. . . . But when the emotions we feel aren’t correctly calibrated for the threat or when we’re making judgments in domains where we have little knowledge or relevant information, our feelings become more likely to lead us astray. . . . Time and again, we found that when the emotion people felt matched the emotional overtones of a future event, their predictions for that event’s frequency increased. . . .

Fear works in a similar way. Using a nationally representative sample in the months following Sept. 11, 2001, the decision scientist Jennifer Lerner showed that feeling fear led people to believe that certain anxiety-provoking possibilities (for example, a terrorist strike) were more likely to occur.

Such findings show that our emotions can bias our decisions in ways that don’t accurately reflect the dangers around us. As of Monday, only 12 people in the United States have been confirmed to have the coronavirus, and all have had or are undergoing medical monitoring. Yet fear of contracting the virus is rampant. . . .

You might think that the best way to solve the problem is to get people to be more deliberative — to have them think more carefully about the issues involved. Unfortunately, when it comes to this type of emotion-induced bias, that strategy can make matters worse. . . .

So how to fix the problem? Again, the solution isn’t to try to think more carefully about the situation. Most people don’t possess the medical knowledge to know how and when to best address viral epidemics, and as a result, their emotions hold undue sway. Rather, the solution is to trust data-informed expertise.

I have mixed feelings about this. On one hand, sure, people can get scared over the wrong things. As a kid, some of my big worries were bee stings, skunks, and strange men in cars offering me candy. It turned out that bee stings didn’t hurt so bad, skunk smells were not so horrible, and nobody ever offered me free candy. Meanwhile, we went around eating unhealthy food.

On the other hand, sometimes some fear makes sense. For example, following Sept. 11, 2001, I do think it was rational to fear more terrorist events: the attacks on that day made us aware that further such attacks were possible. I remain fearful that someone will nuke our city.

And that brings us to the second point, which is risks of major damage. A nuclear explosion in the city might be unlikely, but it would have disastrous effects. Similarly with flooding and rioting from global warming etc. My impression from what I’ve heard about coronavirus is that it might turn out to be no big deal, but there’s a small probability that it will be a very big deal.

Next issue is comparison. So far coronavirus has killed far fewer people than the flu. But the flu is a big risk too, right? Any year there could be a major flu epidemic. So I don’t see why the two worries have to compete.

Next is that maybe we should be thinking less about worry and more about actions. Worry about terrorist attacks can motivate moves toward international cooperation and peace; that would be great. Worry that leads to unnecessary wars, not so great. (Tony Blair, John Yoo, etc.: if you’re out there, feel free to argue otherwise in the comment section.) The point is that the problem, or lack of problem, is with the reaction, not the fear. Yes, you could argue that fear motivated the unnecessary war, but I feel that this misses the point, in that fear also could’ve motivated helpful cooperative solutions: fear can shake us out of complacency.

Moving on to coronavirus: OK, maybe face masks are silly, but who cares about face masks? If they are indeed useless, they don’t incur much cost either. The larger costs come from the mobilization of the public health establishment . . . But that’s good, not bad, right? Future pandemics are likely to come, so it’s good to have a dry run, to test our systems for communication, quarantine, medical treatment, etc.

Let’s conclude with the discussion of expertise. David DeSteno is no expert on coronavirus or public health decision making, nor am I. He’s an expert on emotions, I’m an expert on statistics.

DeSteno tells us to trust the experts, so let’s see what the experts say from the CDC:

The potential public health threat posed by 2019-nCoV virus is high, both globally and to the United States. The fact that this virus has caused illness, including illness resulting in death, and sustained person-to-person spread in China is concerning. These factors meet two of the criteria of a pandemic. It’s unclear how the situation will unfold, but risk is dependent on exposure. At this time, some people will have an increased risk of infection, for example healthcare workers caring for 2019-nCoV patients and other close contacts of 2019-nCoV patients. For the general American public, who are unlikely to be exposed to this virus, the immediate health risk from 2019-nCoV is considered low at this time.

The message is mixed. On one hand, yeah, we should be scared: “The potential public health threat posed by 2019-nCoV virus is high, both globally and to the United States.” On the other hand, not quite yet: “For the general American public, who are unlikely to be exposed to this virus, the immediate health risk from 2019-nCoV is considered low at this time.”

They also recommend getting the flu vaccine. So I’m not arguing with DeSteno on the merits. But I don’t see fearful behavior as being so irrational, in general terms. It can be a good idea to prepare for large risks. I say this as a person who doesn’t have a cabin in the woods stocked with fresh water and canned goods. Like most of you, I’m probably too irrationally complacent. Maybe someone could do a social psychology experiment about this.

P.S. Bob sent in the above picture of a cat who has made the wise decision to trust an expert.