The Only Thing They (Don't) Fear

At the the time of this writing, the corona virus (COVID-19) has spread outside of China. Cases in South Korea, Japan, Italy, Iran, and other countries are rising. Stopping the virus is still a possibility, but the Center for Disease Control (CDC) sees a pandemic scenario as increasingly likely. Since the emergence of COVID-19, the public has been barraged with messaging that has repeatedly downplayed the threat of the virus. In hindsight, this messaging looks extremely wrongheaded. If worst case projections for the virus are realized – and let us pray that they are not – they will look much worse than “extremely wrongheaded.” Initially warning about the dangers of overreaction is prudent but the warnings continued long after new information arrived that made doing so less sensible. It was not a conspiracy, to be sure. But herd behavior is not really much better, especially if the herd is stampeding off a cliff.

The public has been repeatedly warned about the dangers of overreaction in fearing COVID-19, the harms of stigmatizing victims or social groups associated with its point of origin, and the irrationality of fear itself. Scores of behavioral psychologists have come out of the woodwork to cite the same tired studies (it is worth asking how many of these studies have been impacted by the replication crisis) about the ways in which human psychology biases us towards poor risk assessment. Organizations have been mocked for adopting social distancing measures used outside of the US – and which may become common within the US in due time if and when the virus begins spreading domestically. In short, everything about COVID-19 except the virus was worth fearing. The virus itself somehow became oddly secondary to the entire equation. Bold move, Cotton…

It was particularly bizarre to receive stern lectures on the psychology of bad risk assessment as it became increasingly obvious that China was not being fully transparent about the mechanics of transmission within its own borders. This, when coupled with the ambiguity of how much Chinese influence and other motivations may have compromised the reliability of information circulated by international health organizations, makes accurate risk assessment difficult and raises uncertainty. What is even more glaring, however, is the comparison between warnings over fearing COVID-19 and virtually everything else. Incessant warnings about the possibility of violence during screenings of The Joker certainly did not trigger that many lectures about the way in which human psychology compromises sensible evaluation of risk.

These warnings – which themselves contradicted decades of advice about how to minimize the risk of inspiring violence via intense media publicity – did not concern anything with even remotely the same credible threat as COVID-19. And unsurprisingly nothing came to pass. The Joker went on – as comic book movies do – to pull in big box office grosses. Despite the warnings – and in spite of the warnings given that they were themselves imprudent in their potential encouragement of violence – it was a non-event. The only violence that The Joker inflicted was the violence that was inflicted on human digestive systems by mass consumption of unhealthy snacks available at movie concession stands. It isn’t just Joker of course. Think about all of the other times in the last few years you have been told to fear something evidently ridiculous.

And now realize that one of the few major times in which there has been concerted messaging that Thing X is not to be feared is when Thing X – COVID-19 – is actually quite worthy of fear. It is common to compare it to the flu, but this is inappropriate given the novelty of the virus, the uncertainty about its trajectory, and the ugly mathematics of pandemic risk. Absolute panic is not appropriate, but neither is the incessant downplaying of the virus. The entire thing would be comical, material for a wickedly funny satire, if it were not so real and serious. And I don’t see how it is sustainable for us to keep going on like this. I’m told a lot about the perils of things such as “truth decay,” “post-truth politics,” and the “post-fact” era. But a friend said that we actually live in a post-trust era. I’m still thinking about the implications of that.