Links and Comments: Coronavirus, Climate Change, Risk Assessment

(updated 9jul20, 11jul20)

Salon, Amanda Marcotte: Climate-change denial and the coronavirus “hoax” are the same conspiracy theory.

The worldwide conspiracy is vast — so vast that most of the world’s scientists, journalists and political leaders are in on it. Somehow, in all this time, not a single one of the hundreds of thousands, possibly millions, of conspirators has grown a conscience and decided to blow the whistle on the conspiracy. Their goal? To ruin everything that right-wing America holds dear: the nuclear family, NFL football, needlessly enormous vehicles, the specials menu at Hooters.

To accomplish this dastardly goal, the conspiracy will fabricate a worldwide threat. They will falsify the data and use the power of institutions like governments and universities and scientific journals to perpetuate this hoax, tricking billions of people into believing this threat is real and needs a drastic response. The only people in the world who see through the hoax are right-wing Americans, of course, who know what lengths the “socialist left” will go to in order to destroy Mom and apple pie.

And if you think no one would seriously promote such absurdly vast conspiracy theories for such nefarious ends, or defend such ridiculous values as “enormous vehicles,” the essay goes on with examples from Fox News stalwarts Laura Ingraham and Tucker Carlson.


New York Times, Paul Krugman: How America Lost the War on Covid-19, subtitled “It wasn’t because of our culture, it was because of our leadership.”

Well, I’m not sure about his premise. Let’s see what he says.

When did America start losing its war against the coronavirus? How did we find ourselves international pariahs, not even allowed to travel to Europe?
I’d suggest that the turning point was way back on April 17, the day that Donald Trump tweeted “LIBERATE MINNESOTA,” followed by “LIBERATE MICHIGAN” and “LIBERATE VIRGINIA.” In so doing, he effectively declared White House support for protesters demanding an end to the lockdowns governors had instituted to bring Covid-19 under control.

There has been a fair bit of commentary to the effect that our failed pandemic response was deeply rooted in American culture. We are, the argument goes, too libertarian, too distrustful of government, too unwilling to accept even slight inconveniences to protect others.

And there’s surely something to this. I don’t think any other advanced country (but are we still an advanced country?) has a comparable number of people who respond with rage when asked to wear a mask in a supermarket. There definitely isn’t any other advanced country where demonstrators against public health measures would wave guns around and invade state capitols. And the Republican Party is more or less unique among major Western political parties in its hostility to science in general.

The main driving force behind reopening, as far as I can tell, was the administration’s desire to have big job gains leading into November, so that it could do what it knew how to do — boast about economic success. Actually dealing with the pandemic just wasn’t Trump’s kind of thing.



And also on Tuesday, a Science section article called, in the print edition, Humans Fails the Math of Risk Assessment (online title “Why You’re Probably Not So Great at Risk Assessment,” posted a week ago.) This covers a range of familiar psychological issues including Optimistic Bias, Confirmation Bias, False Sense of Control, and so on.

That humans are so instinctively bad at risk assessment, especially concerning existential threats outside ordinary experience, is why, for example, the software engineering processes I helped refine when I worked in industry included a rigorous risk assessment process, which included the definition of an initial set of risks, assessed both by likelihood and impact, and a regular review and update of these risks as the project moves onward. For a pandemic and climate change, for example, the likelihood of both can, or has, been assessed at High, and the impact at Very High. Having unsuccessfully avoided the risks, mitigation plans established at the beginning of the project would have kicked in.

But some people, including our president, simply cannot wrap their heads around such concepts — or perhaps, are simply unwilling to make short-term sacrifices to avoid long-term consequences they won’t need to take responsibility for, because they’ll be out of office, or dead — and keep claiming the virus will just “go away” and that climate change is a hoax. Thus, Tr*mp “goes with his gut.” What mitigation plans existed for these risks — Obama’s pandemic response plan; the Paris Climate Agreement — Trump and his administration have trashed. MAGA!

In contrast, to get a taste of how complex and thorough the process of risk assessment can be, in different contexts, as implemented by smart people who actually get things done in the world, just glance at Wikipedia’s Risk assessment page.


My take on this: the human mind became optimized over millions of years of relatively unchanging existence for lives that were short (compared to those in to recent decades), in an environment that was stable, and during which nothing substantial changed for generation after generation. The past few centuries of growing change has challenged this default stance, and struggles with existential threats that either challenge the unchanging order (like climate change) or are existential threats not normally seen in any one’s lifetime (like a global pandemic), are foreign to default human nature.

Which is why so many people have trouble accepting things that happen outside routine human experience.

And so there are many people who simply deny these things are happening. Some of these people prefer to believe in elaborate conspiracy theories — because they understand human motivations behind those, but not the complex interactions among people that would be required for conspiracy theories to be true.

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