Are You Missing Something?

A couple of months ago I watched this video about a preacher named Gerald Glenn. Gerald believed that the coronavirus was nothing to worry about. He went as far as to advise his parishioners, and even his children, to ignore social distancing measures, saying that though the virus was out there, God was out there too. Gerald tested positive for coronavirus shortly after the video was made, and died around a week later.

I’ve been thinking about it ever since. What makes somebody, especially a layperson, feel so secure in their opinion about a pandemic which has proven to be dangerous, that they would advise their children not to take it seriously.

Of course, the easy answer here is faith. He was a man of God. But since then we’ve seen countless examples of people failing to take the pandemic seriously. Some of whom have paid the same price. Did they all imagine that God would protect them? Or was there something else behind their complacency?

In his excellent book, “Thinking Fast And Slow”, Daniel Kahneman says this about the mind’s tendency towards bias:

…the focus on error does not denigrate human intelligence, any more than the attention to diseases in medical texts denies good health. Most of us are healthy most of the time, and most of our judgements and actions are appropriate most of the time.

Of course, this is true. We all make countless decisions every day about people’s emotional state, about which of numerous courses of action to take, about how dangerous a situation is, and for the most part, we get it right.

The problem today is that many of our decisions aren’t simply at this local, personal level. Today we’re required to take in vast amounts of complex, often conflicting information, and come to conclusions which don’t just affect our immediate circumstances, but the lives of those around us.

In the age of coronavirus, we’re all making decisions about whether to wear masks and under what circumstances. Soon, we’ll be deciding whether to take a vaccine which has been developed far more quickly than usual, but is also our best hope for protecting lives and returning to some degree of normalcy. We need to decide which voices to listen to and which to ignore, about issues which we don’t have a good grasp on.

When making decisions such as these, it’s vital to recognise that our gut instincts can be wrong, because the price of being wrong might be very high indeed.

In the interest of encouraging a healthy scepticism of our gut instincts, the video above introduces the concept of survivorship bias. Survivorship bias describes our tendency to focus on the people or things that succeeded in overcoming an obstacle, and overlooking those (usually a much greater number) that didn’t.

It’s the reason why we listen to the advice of celebrities who tell us that the key to success is to “work hard and believe in yourself”, even though countless people who did both failed to achieve the same results because they weren’t as lucky.

In a situation like a global pandemic, it’s tempting to take the seriousness of the threat lightly if it doesn’t affect you personally. In this case, you’re one of the lucky people who overcame the risk of infection, and so believe that the things you’ve done are obviously sufficient to minimise the risks of becoming sick. But this overlooks the millions of people who became sick even though they behaved similarly to you but weren’t as lucky.

I’m not trying to tell anybody what to do. Frankly, nobody who isn’t an expert in epidemiology has any business telling anybody what to do. We’re all in the dark on this. But our gut feelings are unlikely to be a reliable guide on how best to keep ourselves and others safe. We’re all decent people. None of us wants to put other people at risk needlessly. When making decisions about how to deal with this problem, let’s keep those feelings at the forefront of our minds.