“Simple liars, damned liars, and experts.”
Anonymous quote found in the journal Nature in 1895
I was blessed with parents who placed high value on raising me with freedom, and they were able to find ways to give it to me. When we lived in Berkeley California I was in the second and third grades and in order to let me wander where I wanted, we had a German Shepherd. His name was Pepin and he was my constant companion. I was allowed to go off for long joyous afternoons exploring: I only had to be back for dinner. Once my best friend Suzie came with me on a hike into Tilden Park. Her mother was shocked when she called my home and found that Suzie and I were wandering who knew where. To this day I don’t know if she believed my mother’s explanation that Pepin would guard us and there was nothing to worry about.
I credit these types of experiences growing up, and the need to evaluate data for my profession, as the reason that I have a fairly sophisticated ability to assess risk.
In the USA every child who is abducted is national news. Their pictures are on milk cartons and spread on Facebook, their beautiful smiles breaking our hearts. Every parent of young children identifies, and in too many cases they squeeze their children close and instill in them fear. They forbid their children from talking to strangers, walking to school, riding their bikes any distance, they forbid many of the most important activities which give self reliance and responsibility. Yet when these children reach the age of 16 the same parents who were afraid to let their kids out of their sight blithely allow their teenagers to learn how to drive and hit the roads with raging hormones. On average fewer than 350 children are abducted by strangers per year in the USA, while there were 36,560 people killed in road accidents in 2016 (a typical year) and the 16 and 17 years olds are the largest percent of these fatalities. I am not suggesting that teenagers shouldn’t drive, I’m saying some people have a difficult time assessing risk. I don’t have empirical data but it feels to me that the risk of over protecting our children has serious consequences.
These two types of tragedies are not the same. Your child dying in a car accident is terrible beyond my imaging, but having your child abducted by strangers is from the depth of our worst nightmares – thus some people have problems assessing the risk logically.
This brings me to where we are today. If even in normal years some people are overly influenced by emotional headlines, imagine how difficult it is now with COVID-19 spreading through the world. In these days of shoddy mainstream media and of even worse social media, and sometimes with governments that are hard to trust, we are being blasted with a massive influx of stories, anecdotes and tales; of models, statistics and expert opinions. In Israel every single death attributed to COVID-19 has been described and published. It is part of Israeli culture that if a person who became very ill was not old, or there was something heart rending in their story, we are given even more details, with heartbreaking stories about their lives, their loves and the future they might not live to see. This type of coverage is nothing new in our country where we grieve for every one of our soldiers who falls as if they were our family, because they are our family. However, you don’t get infected by being a soldier. But the COVID-19 is infectious and many people are afraid. Should they be?
It was recently published that during the height of the coronavirus outbreak here in Israel while we were all in lockdown, there were, nevertheless, 13 percent fewer deaths than there were last year in the same period. This suggests that having the population in lock down saves lives. But it is obvious to all that even if it means saving lives we can’t be permanently sequestered. We need to make a living, meet our loved ones and friends, enjoy nature, and myriads of other activities which make life worth living. To have joy we must take risks. To have a worthwhile life, we must risk that very life.
From the rest of the world we’ve seen the daily litany of how many total infections, how many new infections, and how many deaths. In addition we need to contend with the competing opinions of numerous experts.
- “It doesn’t matter what you do, the bell curve of infections and death will be the same”
- “Look at how many dead there are in Sweden, and how few in North Korea”
- “But in Sweden they won’t have a second wave and other countries will catch up”
- “If you don’t lock down the health systems will be overwhelmed and untold multitudes will die”.
- “It doesn’t matter if you lock down because you can’t lock down forever, and when you unlock there will be a new die-off”
- “Only achieving ‘herd immunity’ will help”
Never in my life time of 65 years has there been a greater need for numerical literacy, and common sense:
1) Numerical Literacy: A number by itself is almost worthless. There might be 10,000 new cases in one country and 1000 in another, but those numbers mean little without knowing the overall populations of the two countries, without knowing the different criteria for how they count new cases, without knowing how much testing they are doing, and the two countries might be different in how transparent they are in providing reliable data.
2) Common Sense: Given that it’s impossible for us to know what is reliable globally the only way to make a logical assessment is to be local in our outlook. In Israel we are sure that we are being told the actual numbers since that kind of transparency is part of Israeli DNA. Therefore we can determine what is the situation in our community, our neighborhood, our city, and in our country. (In the vast USA local would end with state.) Then we can decide how to act based on local conditions and without being influenced by the rest of the information.
If we inoculate ourselves against the bombastic headlines and the click bait that threatens our thought processes we can find reliable information and act accordingly.