What’s Worse Than Death?
Right here, at the beginning of our penultimate COVID-19 email…
I’d like to take a moment to mourn.
It’s very possible you haven’t taken a moment to let it all settle in.
What we’ve lost.
For us, it was Dolly, the wonderful woman who knit my kids caps in the winter and always had a kind word for me.
It was the end of Max’s pre-school year – the sudden vanishing of his friends, teachers, and daily schedule.
It was the loss of Oliver’s birthday party. He loves parties. He’s turning 6 and it feels like a very big deal to him. He doesn’t quite get why no one can be there to celebrate.
It was the surprise 40th birthday party my wife had planned…
The ability for my wife to go to the gym (or, indeed, have any time to herself at all)…
The tension we feel now when a neighbor’s kid comes over to play.
There’s no sense time.
It’s everywhere, constantly.
We’re always afraid, or unsure, or angry, or judgmental, or worried.
For you, it might have been a friend or loved one.
Or your job.
Or your health.
Or maybe it was just the ability to duck out to the store for a few minutes.
To grab a bite to eat and chat with your server.
Whether you measure the cost in lives,
or economic impact,
or disruption of everyday routines,
or the pervasive anxiety and loss that now seem woven into the very fiber of everyday life…
The cost of the Coronavirus pandemic has been high.
And while the actual virus has not been evenly distributed…
There isn’t anyone who hasn’t paid part of that cost.
And I could see you reading this series of emails we’ve been working on and coming away pretty bummed out about the future.
After all, the case we’ve been building has been fairly pessimistic in regards to our ability to understand what we’re going through.
In Bad Priors, I wrote that people primarily understand probabilities by referring to their past experiences (called “priors”).
In Map Meets Territory, I argued that base rates (the average outcomes of similar events) often provide a better view on how the world really works than priors do.
In 8 Months To Live, we complicated that picture a bit by pointing out that individuating data is necessary…even if it sometimes throws us off track.
In No Basis, we discussed the different between risk (where the probabilities are known) and uncertainty (where they aren’t). We also explored ways in which our use of both priors and base rates can lead us astray when the underlying relationships between things change over time.
How should we make decisions? By using statistical analysis for situations of risk, and game theory for situations of uncertainty.
In The Beauty Contest, we discussed one such application of game theory: the common knowledge game, where we act based on what we believe other plays believe.
That begged the question of how we know what other people believe.
In Missionaries, we discussed the role of “common knowledge,” and how injections of information by well-known public authorities can have widespread effects on seemingly-stable systems.
By that point, we’d covered both decision-making tool sets: statistical analysis (priors and base rates) and game theory (common knowledge games being just one example). We then addressed the core problem behind all of this: how can we tell if what we’re facing is risk, or uncertainty?
In False Positive, we discussed zero-risk illusion (where a sense of certainty leads us to overlook probabilities, as with medical testing) and the calculable-risk illusion (where we think we know the odds, but don’t know what we don’t know…as in the “Turkey Problem.”)
In Monty Hall, we brought all of these ideas togethers to discuss the “Monty Hall Problem,” a fascinating riddle that combined probability, statistical analysis, game theory, and, of course, our tendency to confuse which is which.
In All In Our Heads, we finally got around to discussing the virus itself. I argued that part of why COVID-19 is so frustratingly hard to understand is that we mistake the very-public scientific process (which is self-destructive), with “getting it wrong.”
The problem isn’t lack of information, but having too much information with no widely-accepted criteria for choosing what to believe.
That’s led many of us to simply tune-out, or pick whatever interpretation of the data best fits our desired outcome.
Where does this all leave us?
Should we, as I implied in our last email, simply throw up our hands and go to the beach?
If not, when CAN we go to the beach again?
Is there a way of navigating the anxiety, of taking back control over our lives…
Or is it just loss after loss until there’s nothing left?
Because let’s be very, very real for a moment:
Lives are not the only thing we can lose.
Schadenfreude is pleasure derived from the misfortune of another.
One of the disturbing effects of COVID-19 has been the way that it has encouraged schadenfreude to make inroads into American life.
Do you recognize this guy?
If you recognized him, it’s probably from one of dozens of social media posts that went viral about his death.
His name was Richard Rose.
Rose made several sarcastic, snarky, anti-mask posts on his Facebook timeline.
He then contracted the disease…
…And passed away.
He was 37.
Facebook left his profile up “as a memorial.” Predictably, these last posts now serve as places for people to dunk on Rose post-mortem:
It’s the same on Twitter and Instagram.
Let’s be clear:
1.) I think mask-wearing is an obvious and low-cost way to hopefully lessen the spread of COVID-19.
2.) I’m very tired of the “anti-masker” discourse and find their argument unconvincing.
But you know what else I am?
Mad as hell.
You know what Richard Rose was?
Go through his posts. Scroll down a bit further on the page.
What’s he doing?
Posting dumb-ass memes.
Making corny jokes.
Sharing pictures of nights out with his friends.
Talking about NASCAR.
Are some of his posts tasteless? Yeah.
Do I disagree with most of them? Sure.
Was this guy wrong about a lot of stuff? Probably.
But you know what?
All of us are wrong.
You know who else thought that masks wouldn’t help to fight COVID-19?
The WHO and the CDC.
You know, the “experts” all of us “right thinking” people put our trust in.
They explicitly stated that masks wouldn’t help to fight the spread of coronavirus.
And yeah, maybe Richard Rose didn’t listen to the same experts you do, or watch the same news channels, or read the same papers.
Maybe he didn’t update his priors when he should have.
But I can absolutely guarantee that every single one of us is doing the exact same thing about something.
Maybe not to the same degree. Maybe not about the same issues.
But we’re all doing it.
We’re all wrong.
And you know what?
None of us deserve to die for it.
And Richard Rose didn’t.
He was a 37 year old man.
He had friends.
He had a life.
He had value.
The moment you fall into the trap of hoping – just a little bit – that the other side “gets what’s coming to them…”
That they “learn their lesson…”
And “pay for their mistakes…”
The moment you start wanting to “own the libs…”
Or “shut up the Trumpers…”
More than you want to save lives?
The moment you start caring more about being right than about being human?
You throw away the only tool for change we really have:
Empathy is how we bridge the gap.
Empathy is how we work together to solve problems.
Empathy is how we discover – and fight for – shared values.
Without empathy, there is no “us.”
There is no country.
There is no “greater good.”
There’s just our party vs. their party.
Our numbers vs. their numbers.
And then every conversation looks like this:
What if they had “One foot in the grave?”
Not to be insensitive.
Give up the work of empathy and you start to believe that life matters less if you’re old…
Or you’re fat…
Or you’re a minority…
Or you’re from the wrong part of the country.
The wrong party.
The wrong side of the debate.
The wrong side of history.
You want the country to be less polarized?
You want to push back in the other direction?
Start caring about people more than you care about being right.
Stop treating being wrong as a cardinal sin when THEY do it, and as a simple mistake when WE do it.
Stop dancing on graves and start helping.
Because we can’t do this alone.
The virus can take your life.
But your empathy? Your humanity?
You have to give that away.
Let’s talk numbers.
Despite all my discussion of the self-destructive nature of scientific knowledge..
Of the massive influx of noise into the system…
Of the layer upon layer of game theory and statistics and yadda yadda yadda…
We all still have to decide what we’re going to do.
How we’re going to live.
How much risk to take on.
Do I send the kids back to school?
Is it OK to go to the movies?
We don’t get to opt-out just because it’s hard.
And I think we can all agree:
If the “authorities” were going to swoop in and figure this out, they’d have done it by now.
No one’s coming.
We’re on our own.
This responsibility to constantly choose – to make what feels like they COULD be life or death decisions – can be anxiety-inducing.
Even if you think the whole thing is overblown, navigating the topsy-turvy terrain of our all-new-everyday-lives is exhausting.
Let’s talk strategy.
By the end of these emails, I’m going to try and leave you with a:
…plan for wading through the endless sea of information and planning your OWN Coronavirus mitigation strategy.
To do that, I need to spend a little bit of time introducing you to three more (last!) important concepts:
And MinMax Regret.
Heroin on Mount Everest
Let’s start with a coin flip.
If you flip a coin 20 times, what are the odds you’ll get 20 heads?
It’s about one in a million.
This is a very useful little number.
We each take on roughly a one-in-a-million chance of dying simply by getting out of bed. On average, each person has about a one in a million chance of not making it to suppertime.
That one-in-a-million chance of dying?
That’s a micromort.
Now, your individual risk varies, of course; it changes depending on which country you’re in (it’s actually higher in the US), how old you are, your health, and so on.
But as a unit of risk, it provides a useful jumping off point.
If every assumes about one micromort of risk per day, we can compare the fatality rates of different activities in micromorts.
It becomes a level playing field where assessing risk is easier.
Eating 40 tablespoons of peanut butter in a sitting? One micromort.
You also take one additional micromort for every two days you live in New York City or Boston.
Driving a car gets you one additional micromort for every 100 miles.
A motorcycle? That’s 17 micromorts per 100 miles.
Skydiving adds approximately eight to nine micromorts per jump.
Running a marathon? Roughly 7 micromorts per run.
Going swimming? That’s actually 12 micromorts.
Playing American Football gets you 20 micromorts.
Using heroin? 30 micromorts per injection.
Giving birth is worth 170 micromorts.
Scaling Mt. Everest? A whopping 40,000 micromorts.
Of course, your circumstances affect your individual risk.
But calculating individual risk is incredibly complicated.
Micromorts provide us a fast, easy way of comparing risk levels. If you’re an avid football player but would never THINK of injecting heroin, micromorts provide an easy way of comparing the two.
They also provide a useful way of cutting through the statistical noise surrounding COVID-19.
We’ll get to those calculations in a bit…
But even after we tally up our micromorts, we may still have questions:
Are cases going up because of testing, or spread?
Are deaths really surging, or is this a backlog of unreported cases?
Are hospitals getting paid for every COVID-19 death they report?
These are all totally legitimate, interesting questions.
The problem is, neither you nor I have any reliable way of finding out…
And we need to make decisions affecting our safety, and the safety of others…
That brings us to heuristics.
Close Enough For Government Work
My Dad had a saying:
“Close only counts in grenades and horseshoes.”
His point was that “kind of” being right wasn’t enough. Accuracy counts.
And he was right.
As we’ve seen, it’s impossible to have a perfect understanding of what COVID-19 does, or the risks it poses.
Sure, a consensus is slowly forming.
But the consensus has been wrong in the past, and it would be intellectually irresponsible to suggest that we’ve definitely got it right now because “this time it’s different.”
Yes, we need to pay attention to what the experts say. Doctors, epidemiologists, statisticians – these people bring decades of knowledge to bear on a complicated problem.
But complicated problems are just that: complicated.
The good news is that, despite my Dad’s advice, close does count…a lot.
We don’t need a perfect understanding of the future to manage our risk.
After all, we do this every day with our investments.
You split your savings between bonds and stocks, money market and securities. You keep some of it in cash.
You don’t do this because you know what the stock market is going to do. The future is always uncertain.
But we can be certain about that uncertainty.
We don’t have to know exactly what’s going to happen to know that anything could happen. Every day, we accept our inability to predict the future and adjust our strategies accordingly.
How? We use heuristics. Rules of thumb.
For investing, it’s “invest more in bonds as you get closer to retirement.”
Simple, straight forward, no crystal ball necessary.
And, there’s research that shows that general rules of thumb (or “heuristics”) perform just as well or better than complicated mathematical decision models that try to predict the future.
In cognitive science there is something known as the “accuracy-effort tradeoff.”
The basic idea is that accuracy takes effort. There’s a cost to going for perfect accuracy.
That may seem counter-intuitive, so let’s use a familiar example:
You’re playing baseball.
You’re out in left field.
The batter hits the ball up into the air. It’s headed in your direction.
How should you figure out the best place to run to, in order to catch the ball?
Complex mathematical equations are probably the most accurate way of predicting the path of a flying object.
We could model the arc of the baseball, given enough time and effort.
But that’s the thing: that accuracy requires time and effort.
And since baseball players are not likely to be able to do differential calculus in their heads during a game…
How do we figure out where the ball is headed?
We use heuristics. Rules of thumb.
The baseball problem, for example, is solved using the Gaze Heuristic:
Fix your gaze on the ball, start running, and adjust your running speed so that the angle of gaze remains constant.
Studies show that people using the gaze heuristic will consistently end up at the exact spot where the ball hits the ground.
Not bad, eh?
But here’s an element of this you may have missed:
We require zero knowledge of the variables affecting the ball to use the Gaze heuristic.
We don’t need to know how hard the ball was hit, or the wind speed, or the weather.
We simply look, apply the rule, and act.
And surprisingly accurate.
Yes, we can get more accurate if we measure everything exactly and do the math.
But that requires effort. And if we can still get a good result from the heuristic, our rule of thumb ends up being the most efficient choice.
Even though there’s not a feasible way for us to truly understand everything about COVID-19…
If we wise up to the fact that COVID-19 is a situation of uncertainty (where the odds and risks are unknown)…
Rather than buying into the media narrative that it’s a situation of risk (where we totally are getting the odds right this time, even though we got it wrong literally every other time)…
We can still make rational decisions about how much risk we’re willing to take on.
Just stop trying to do the math, and start using heuristics.
Worse Than Death
If we accept that using heuristics can help us make rational decisions under uncertainty…
How do we do that, exactly?
First, we need to figure out what we’re up against.
What are our risks? What are our potential payoffs?
One of the critical insights we get from game theory is that rational actors can have very different ideas on what the “best” and “worst” outcomes of a game are.
You might, for example, prioritize personal liberty over physical well-being (Ben Franklin: “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.”)
Someone else might think that wearing a mask is a small price to pay for even a marginal decrease in risk to their community (JFK: “Ask not what your country can do for you…”)
Both of these people can be perfectly rational, despite having very different conclusions.
In game theoretical terms, rational doesn’t mean “I agree with your evaluation of payoffs and risks.”
It means your actions are consistent with your evaluations.
Everything comes down to what we value.
What do you value?
Let’s make a list of some of the possible risks of COVID-19.
Death is an obvious one.
Even if you think COVID-19 is overblown media hype – let’s say, no more dangerous than the average flu…
There’s still a chance you could die. After all, the flu can kill you, right?
Death is the risk that gets all the press because…well. It’s kind of an all-or-nothing sort of deal.
When you’re dead, you’re dead. You’re out of the game.
Are there other risks to COVID-19?
You could get someone else sick.
Even if you’re very unlikely to die from COVID-19, you could pass it someone who is.
How would you feel if you knew that someone died because of you – even if it was an accident?
Maybe you feel responsibility for that. Maybe you don’t.
How would you feel if it was someone you knew?
A son or a daughter?
I’m not saying these risks are likely – I’m just saying they exist.
What other risks are there?
It’s unclear what the long-term consequences of COVID-19 are.
Some say there are no long-term consequences.
Others complain of symptoms lasting months, or of structural damage to the lungs that could pose a problem for the rest of your life.
This is highly uncertain, of course. Just like everything else.
But the risk is there. So it goes on our list.
Hospitalization is a risk.
There’s a significant economic impact to going to the hospital.
Maybe your insurance covers it, maybe it doesn’t. Maybe you have money saved up, maybe you don’t.
Time off work might be an issue for you.
Add that to the list.
I’m sure you can think of some more. Add those to the list as well.
Of course, we have to weigh the risks of reacting to COVID-19, as well.
Lockdowns bring their own risks. Lack of exercise, lack of social interaction, depression.
All those go on the list.
There’s the economic impact.
You might have lost your job. Or you might be right on the edge.
Others might lose their jobs as well. A staggering number already have, with US jobless numbers for May rumored to be near 20%.
That’s a lot of desperate people.
Add it all to the list.
We could keep going, but I think you get the picture:
No matter what we do, there will be serious consequences.
There’s always an opportunity cost.
How do we choose?
Game theory’s goal is always to analyze the potential strategies in any game, finding the ideal solution.
But in some games, finding the ideal solution is difficult because the outcomes depends on what the other players do.
If you’re uncertain about how the other players will act, how do you choose the path forward?
The two most common game theory strategies are:
Maximax, where you take the action with the highest potential payoff (i.e., you maximize your maximum return.)
This strategy generally correlates with the highest risk, but it’s got the highest possible reward, too.
Maximin is a strategy where you maximize your minimum payoff. You cap your downside, knowing that even in the worst case scenario, you’ll get something decent.
This strategy reduces your potential losses, but at the cost of losing out on big payoffs.
Both of these strategies are all about the numbers.
For purely rational people, they make a lot of sense.
But we aren’t purely rational, are we?
We’ve got emotions to deal with.
We’re loss averse – meaning we feel more pain when we lose a dollar than we feel joy when we gain a dollar.
Luckily, there’s a strategy that incorporates that human messiness into a nice little package:
MinMax regret is unlike the other strategies we’ve discussed so far, in that it isn’t concerned with the raw numerical values of your payoffs.
Instead, MinMax regret seeks to minimize the maximum amount of regret you’d feel.
Regret is a little more nuanced that pure mathematical payoffs.
For example, you may feel that a certain investment is riskier than you’re comfortable with.
But how would you feel if your friends were already invested?
What if they all get rich, and you were the only one who stayed out?
Sometimes, the regret you’d feel being the only one missing out on a massive payday is actually worse than the potential monetary loss.
Regret, in a game theoretical sense, is the difference between the decision you made and the optimal decision you could have made.
There’s an opportunity cost to everything we do…and that needs to get factored in.
Let’s bring this back to COVID-19.
We’ve made a giant list of all of our risks…
Death, hospitalization, feeling ill, getting someone else sick, losing a job, someone else losing their job.
Let’s leave our “objective” assessments to the side for the moment…
And really feel these alternatives.
Visualize the scene. Get the details right.
What is it like?
What’s going through your mind?
Spend too much time thinking about this statistic or that statistic…
And you lose touch with the lived reality of what we’re talking about.
None of us are going to live through a statistic.
ALL of us are experiencing the lived reality of COVID-19.
We’ll also have to live through the repercussions of whatever we do.
Maybe the guilt of getting someone else sick.
Or the shame of having been wrong.
Or the frustration at taking every precaution and still getting the disease.
Or the anger of sacrificing, only to find out that it all meant nothing.
There’s always an opportunity cost.
And sometimes, there’s regret.
Which is worse?1