Recklessness and Caution in a Panic

A reflection: Back in the fall of 2008, there was a stock market crash and a severe economic contraction. Many voices suggested the recovery might never happen.

Suppose the chief investment officer of a wealthy private university with a $10 billion endowment had committed to the unprecedented policy of liquidating all the university’s stock holdings to hold cash and gold—a strategy that many investment gurus were promoting and that more than a few individuals followed. The policy could have been superficially justified as proceeding from “an abundance of caution.” After all, cash and gold are havens in times of risk.

But of course the policy, in fact, would have been quite the opposite of cautious. It would have been reckless, extreme, and wildly speculative—and it would have ignored much history of panics and recoveries.

Such an extreme and speculative policy would have achieved short term feelings of safety at very high longer-term costs. A real abundance of caution actually would counsel against sudden changes and innovations in long-established habits and patterns of stewardship during a confusing disruption. The “abundance of caution” would show itself in wary gathering of information. Most of all, it would show itself in a rigid discipline of avoiding echo chambers, where sounding like someone in the know replaces the hard work of information gathering and analysis.

This kind of discipline takes a leader with a confident bullshit detector, and often requires resisting expert voices making panicky policy recommendations.

One would hope, but not expect, that the experience of 2008 might have produced some institutional learning about prudence and “abundance of caution.” I would rather have someone with the characteristics of a good wealth manager during a financial panic running my university or my state right now than those who are most adept at echoing the sounds of puppets and identifying the play of shadows.

The coronavirus policy flurry and media coverage have been little but wild speculation that becomes what everyone in the know repeats. The biggest frustration for a thoughtful person has been the lack of good data from studies with randomized samples.

It is disheartening that so many people had no B.S. detectors to slow down this panic, especially people in authority with the power to do so much damage.

Most of the reporting and even the policy proposals of so-called experts have been based on models with dire predictions and very poor empirical grounding. Studies with randomized samples are by the far the best way to establish the two key parameters of the virus: how many people have had it (its prevalence) and how many people die of it (its mortality rate). It is baffling that such studies were not made the highest priority very early on by most medical and government authorities.

Authorities Acted Without Evidence

A recent study with a large random sample of Santa Clara County, California, is an important contribution to showing the horrible folly of this panic of speculative policy without real information. The study shows that at the beginning of April, the prevalence of the coronavirus in the area around Stanford and San Jose was 50-85 times greater than the number of confirmed cases, and at least 10 times greater than even the highest estimates of how many people had been infected. This means that the mortality rate of the virus is very much like seasonal flu, in the 0.1-0.2 percent range—at least 10 times less deadly than what most media and government reports claim.

The much higher prevalence means that lockdown policies were likely not very effective in “flattening the curve,” because the curve had already been flattening, that is, many people had already had the virus and would no longer spread it. The much lower mortality rate means that there was a much less urgent need to flatten the curve in the first place, and even less now. These results are consistent with the most trustworthy results from other parts of the world.

In short, the coronavirus turns out to be a virus, not the zombie apocalypse. It is disheartening that so many people had no bullshit detectors to slow down this panic, especially people in authority with the power to do so much damage.

My conclusion: The lockdown policies of the leaders of government, universities, and other institutions were unprecedented, reckless, panicky, and completely lacking in evidence. Instead of a cautious and wary approach to a confusing and disrupted situation, such authorities implemented unprecedented policies known to be extremely destructive, without any serious evidence these policies would have the necessary positive effects to justify the massive cost.

It is a cruel irony that institutions justified such reckless and unprecedented policies as an “abundance of caution.” These extreme policies were the opposite of cautious and often were no more than an utter abdication of reasonable judgment.

To lock down the healthy rather than quarantine the sick, to close schools, to evict students from where they live and disperse them across the country, to prevent tens of millions of free adults from earning a living by providing goods and services to one another: these are the opposite of an abundance of caution.

Every person who was caught up by this panicky and groundless speculation, but especially those who were in positions of leadership and stewardship, must examine his conscience and face the question of why he was willing to inflict so much damage on others with so little evidence.

About David K. O’Connor

David K. O’Connor is a faculty member in the departments of Philosophy and of Classics at the University of Notre Dame. His teaching and writing focus on ancient philosophy, aesthetics, ethics and politics, and philosophy of religion.

Photo: Nuthawut Somsuk/Getty Images

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