Crazy Government Responses to COVID Part 2: Feelz Before Facts

Part one of this series was on government incentives.  Part two of this series was originally going to be "managing to the wrong metrics," and we will still get to that topic in part 3.  But as I wrote that piece, it occurred to me that perhaps an even larger issue is not just working from the wrong data, but working from no data at all.

While it would be easy to attribute the "feelz before facts" bias to things like post-modernist thought, in actuality it is older than civilization.    I am pretty sure that panicked, emotional stories about Native American attacks on 19th century settlers grossly exceeded actual such events had we had good statistics (just as panicked, emotional stores of barbarian attacks on 4th century Roman settlers probably similarly exceeded actual cases).

More recently, the global warming debate has been home to many good examples of this effect.  Rising global temperatures are fairly easy to show on a chart, and while the compilation of these statistics is fraught with problems, it is generally unassailable that the data trends up.  Where things really go downhill is in the supposed knock-on effects of rising global temperatures (eg hurricanes, tornadoes, droughts, floods, etc).

The media coverage of these issues is absolutely dominated with feelz over facts -- a good example being hurricanes.  Media coverage of every hurricane is full of panicked articles that this particular hurricane is a demonstration of climate change.  Beyond being a great example of how the media often tries to claim a trend from a single data point, the amazing part is that long data sets of hurricane frequency and, even better, total cyclonic energy in such storms, are readily available...  and NEVER published.  This data consistently shows no upward long-term trend in hurricane activity or strength, but such data is deprecated in comparison to fear of the individual hurricanes themselves.

We have seen this exact same kind of thing, with fear and anecdote trumping actual data, from the very beginning of COVID.  For example:

  • One single panicked tweet or interview of some random hospital nurse** will create a stampede of stories that hospitals are all full and that if you get sick you will likely get turned away and die.  What these stories never include is either a) real data on hospital bed occupancy in the area being reported on or b) any background how hospitals can and routinely do flex ICU bed capacity or c) any background on how this happens even in many flu seasons and is not a unique COVID marker (eg here, here, here, here).
  • Some person will claim so weird long-COVID reaction without any statistics or background on how a) many respiratory diseases have odd longer-lasting effects or b) at what rates these occur or c) how most of these are eventually debunked a few months later (remember the whole young athlete heart thing?).
  • A story will feature a person dying at 30 to try to scare people that this is not just killing old people without a) any context of pre-existing conditions in that person or b) without any data on the microscopic overall fatality rate for this age group and how unusual this case actually is.

My wife tends to be susceptible to this panic stuff because a) she actually still trusts the media and b) she tends to be one of those people who will always jump to the worst case scenario.   It is just incredibly frustrating to watch the media push her buttons and make her fearful when no rational basis exists to be scared.  And the hard part is that for rational people to bat this stuff down, it is like playing whack-a-mole.  At some point it just becomes tedious and exhausting to keep responding every day to a new batch of fact-free BS (irritatingly wrapped into a self-righteous mantle of "following the science.")

I remember a Teaching Company lecture course on German propaganda in the 1930's.  The professor Thomas Childers (I would recommend any of his courses) compared the messaging to a wheel.  They would try a message, and for those that this message did not work for they would turn the wheel a bit and get a new message.  And they would do this constantly until no opponent could reasonably knock them all down.

** Postscript.  This sort of gets back to the first post in this series on incentives, but one might wonder why some front-line healthcare worker would go to the media with dramatic stories that are untrue.  Various political sites that are skeptical of the stores have assumed these folks are political in some way with a political mission, but that does not have to be true.  Let me tell a story.

Back in the early 1990's I was on a jury in Dallas.  This was at the tail end of the incredible child molestation and day care panic, where Janet Reno and others using her "Miami Method" put scores of people in jail based on absurd, literally unbelievable stories generated by young children at the urging of prosecutors.    Our jury's case was a dad accused by the babysitter of molestation of his daughter.

The facts were absurd.  The molestation event supposedly occurred in a quasi-public place;  there was no physical or other evidence;  the "victim" recanted earlier stories told to aggressive prosecutors and testified for her dad;  no one actually witnessed anything.  We returned a not guilty verdict in barely an hour.

We can guess the prosecutors were motivated both by sincere belief that they were doing God's work as well as desire to emulate other prosecutors who had jump-started their career by recently making headline-grabbing molestation prosecutions (Janet Reno actually having jumped all the way to US AG, as an example).  But why the heck did the baby-sitter start all this?  It turns out that this was actually pretty clear from cross-examination by a very good defense lawyer.  She had seen another baby-sitter get on the Oprah TV show for accusing a father of molestation, and she wanted the same chance to meet Oprah and get her 15 minutes of fame.  Seriously, the whole family's life was shattered for years because she wanted to be on Oprah.  Never over-estimate anyone's motives, I guess.