Seeing the Smoke

by Jacobian4 min read28th Feb 202027 comments

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Coronavirus
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Cross-posted from Putanumonit.


COVID-19 could be pretty bad for you. It could affect your travel plans as countries impose quarantines and close off borders. It could affect you materially as supply chains are disrupted and stock markets are falling. Even worse: you could get sick and suffer acute respiratory symptoms. Worse than that: someone you care about may die, likely an elderly relative.

But the worst thing that could happen is that you’re seen doing something about the coronavirus before you’re given permission to.

I’ll defend this statement in a minute, but first of all: I am now giving you permission to do something about COVID-19. You have permission to read up on the symptoms of the disease and how it spreads. Educate yourself on the best ways to avoid it. Stock up on obvious essentials such as food, water, soap, and medicine, as well as less obvious things like oxygen saturation monitors so you know if you need emergency care once you’re sick. You should decide ahead of time what your triggers are for changing your routines or turtling up at home.

In fact, you should go do all those things before reading the rest of the post. I am not going to provide any more factual justifications for preparing. If you’ve been following the news and doing the research, you can decide for yourself. And if instead of factual justifications you’ve been following the cues of people around you to decide when it’s socially acceptable to prep for a pandemic, then all you need to know is that I’ve already put my reputation on the line as a coronaprepper.

Instead this post is about the strange fact that most people need social approval to prepare for a widely-reported pandemic.

Smoke Signals

As Eliezer reminded us, most people sitting alone in a room will quickly get out if it starts filling up with smoke. But if two other people in the room seem unperturbed, almost everyone will stay put. That is the result of a famous experiment from the 1960s and its replications — people will sit and nervously look around at their peers for 20 minutes even as thick smoke starts obscuring their vision.

The coronavirus was identified on January 7th and spread outside China by the 13th. American media ran some stories about how you should worry more about the seasonal flu. The markets didn’t budge. Rationalist Twitter started tweeting excitedly about R0 and supply chains.

Over the next two weeks, Chinese COVID cases kept climbing at 60%/day reaching 17,000 by February 2nd. Cases were confirmed in Europe and the US. The WHO declared a global emergency. The former FDA commissioner explained why a law technicality made it illegal for US hospitals to test people for coronavirus, implying that we would have no idea how many Americans have contracted the disease. Everyone mostly ignored him including all major media publications, and equity markets hit an all time high. By this point several Rationalists in Silicon Valley and elsewhere started seriously prepping for a pandemic and canceling large social gatherings.

On the 13th, Vox published a story mocking people in Silicon Valley for worrying about COVID-19. The article contained multiple factual mistakes about the virus and the opinions of public health experts.

On February 17th, Eliezer asked how markets should react to an obvious looming pandemic. Most people agreed that the markets should freak out and aren’t. Most people decided to trust the markets over their own judgment. As an avowed efficient marketeer who hasn’t made an active stock trade in a decade, I started at that Tweet for a long time. I stared at it some more. Then I went ahead and sold 10% of the stocks I owned and started buying respirators and beans.

By the 21st, the pandemic and its concomitant shortages hit everywhere from Iran to Italy while in the US thousands of people were asked to self-quarantine. Most elected officials in the US seemed utterly unaware that anything was happening. CNN ran a front page story about the real enemies being racism and the seasonal flu.

Finally, the narrative couldn't contain the sheer volume of disconfirming evidence. The stock market tumbled 10%. The Washington Post squeezed out one more story about racism before confirming that the virus is spreading among Americans with no links to Wuhan and that’s scary. Trump decided to throw his vice president under the coronavirus bus, finally admitting that it’s a thing that the government is aware of.

And Rationalist Twitter asked: what the fuck is wrong with everyone who is not on Rationalist Twitter?

Cognitive Reflection

Before Rationality gained a capital letter and a community, a psychologist developed a simple test to identify people who can override an intuitive and wrong answer with a reflective and correct one.

One of the questions is:

In a lake, there is a patch of lily pads. Every day, the patch doubles in size. If it takes 48 days for the patch to cover the entire lake, how long would it take for the patch to cover half of the lake?

Exponential growth is hard for people to grasp.  Most people answer ’24’ to the above question, or something random like ’35’. It’s counter-intuitive to people that the lily pads could be barely noticeable on day 44 and yet completely cover the lake on day 48.

Here’s another question, see if you can get it:

In an interconnected world, cases of a disease outside the country of origin are doubling every 5 days. The pace is slightly accelerating since it’s easier to contain a hundred sick people than it is to contain thousands. How much of a moron do you have to be as a journalist to quote statistics about the yearly toll of seasonal flu given a month of exponential global growth of a disease with 20 times the mortality rate?

Social Reality Strikes Again

Human intuition is bad at dealing with exponential growth but it’s very good at one thing: not looking weird in front of your peers. It’s so good at this, in fact, that the desire to not look weird will override most incentives.

Journalists would rather miss out on the biggest story of the decade than stick their neck out with an alarmist article. Traders would rather miss out on billions of dollars of profits. People would rather get sick than do something that isn't socially sanctioned.

Even today (2/26/2020), most people I’ve spoken to refuse to do minimal prep for what could be the worst pandemic in a century. It costs $100 to stock up your house with a month’s worth of dry food and disinfectant wipes (respirators, however, are now sold out or going for 4x the price). People keep waiting for the government to do something, even though the government has proven its incompetence in this area several times over.

I think I would replace the Cognitive Reflection Test with a single question: would you eat a handful of coffee beans if someone told you it was worth trying? Or in other words: do you understand that social reality can diverge from physical reality, the reality of coffee beans and viruses and diseases?

Social thinking is quite sufficient for most people in usual times. But this is an unusual time.

Seeing the Smoke

The goal of this article isn’t to get all my readers to freak out about the virus. Aside from selling the equities, all the prep I’ve done was to stock a month of necessities so I can work from home and to hold off on booking flights for a trip I had planned for April.

The goal of this post is twofold. First, if you’re the sort of person who will keep sitting in a smoke filled room until someone else gets up, I’m here to be that someone for you. If you’re a regular reader of Putanumonit you probably respect my judgment and you know that I’m not particularly prone to getting sucked in to panics and trends.

And second, if you watched that video thinking that you would obviously jump out of the room at the first hint of smoke, ask yourself how much research and preparation you’ve done for COVID-19 given the information available. If the answer is “little to none”, consider whether that is rational or rationalizing.

I could wait to write this post two months from now when it’s clear how big of an outbreak occurs in the US. I’m not an expert on viral diseases, global supply chains, or prepping. I don’t have special information or connections. My only differentiation is that I care a bit less than others about appearing weird or foolish, and I trust a bit more in my own judgment

Seeing the smoke and reacting is a learnable skill, and I’m going to give credit to Rationality for teaching it. I think COVID-19 is the best exam for Rationalists doing much better than “common sense” since Bitcoin. So instead of waiting two months, I’m submitting my answer for reality to grade. I think I’m seeing smoke.

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