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.

In These Uncertain Times…

“In these uncertain times, it’s natural to feel a little anxious.” That’s what we’re supposed to say at the moment, right? We’re supposed to say the these are exceptional times, which they are. And that it’s normal to be worried, which it is, and that we should be kind to ourselves, which we should. We’re…continue reading on Medium…
"The essence of meditation practice is to let go of all your expectations about meditation."
Reopening reverses course in Texas and Florida as coronavirus cases spike.

A little extra context on yesterday’s post about Floridians angrily objecting to state-mandated mask wearing:

Texas and Florida — whose leaders were praised by President Trump for being among the first to end coronavirus restrictions — abruptly reversed course Friday as virus infections soared to record levels, slamming the door shut on bars and imposing other measures in a bid to contain the pandemic.

Health officials reported 8,942 new cases on Friday, up almost 77 percent from the previous week, and people are arguing bout wearing masks…

Angry Floridians Claim Covid-19 Masks Are The Work Of The Devil.

I had something approaching a moment of clarity whilst watching this video of some angry Floridians speaking out against a vote to make masks mandatory.

On the one hand, there’s a temptation to just laugh stuff like this off. It’s tempting to dismiss the people in it as fringe lunatics whose opinion doesn’t have anything to do with the rest of us reasonable folk. 

But videos like this expose a very human tendency to put aside reason when we’re captured by an idea. It shows how easy it is to go completely off the rails when a bad idea happens to resonate with us. We’re all susceptible to this. This attachment to an idea, and the willingness to follow it down whatever rabbit hole it leads, is the cognitive error behind every form of extremism afflicting the world today.

To see this problem clearly, and more importantly to begin addressing it, we need to stop thinking about this disease only in terms if its various symptoms. Racism, homophobia, sexism, religion fanaticism. These aren’t separate problems. They’re different symptoms of a disease known as the failure of reasoning. It’s what happens when our feelings are powerful enough that we stop caring about whether they make sense. 

I’m not trying to say that feelings don’t matter. It’s feeling that point us towards problems, it’s feelings that make us care enough that we want to do something about this problems. But feelings aren’t enough, we need to think clearly. It may be our feelings which inspire us to address a situation, but it’s the ability to put them to one side that allows us to find solutions.