In the early 1980s when I began studying computer science, concepts like algorithmic thinking, statistical reasoning, and data analysis were considered esoteric. Nearly 40 years later, social media flows with high-level discussions of data integrity and compatibility, and nearly everyone advocates evidence-based decision-making on matters of public health.
That’s a great stride forward for data science.
But for all our contemporary data obsession, we’re living through one of the greatest failures in rational decision-making the world has ever experienced.
It seems that no one even attempted to measure the costs of the public health actions we've taken before we took them.
What we've seen instead is an expression of extreme risk aversion: Let's minimize the effects of this virus at all costs.
Absolutely no one has justified such a conclusion.
We're not talking about a disease that, even if ignored completely, would eradicate life on earth. We're talking about a disease that, under the very worst-case scenario put forward (and since retracted), might have killed hundreds of millions of people.
That's horrible, but given expected (rather than worst) case modeling and relatively low cost mitigation strategies, those numbers would have come down quickly — by several orders of magnitude.
There is absolutely no basis for any rational person to approach this challenge with a "cost is irrelevant" attitude.
Still, global public and political opinion went right down that rabbit hole. By all indications, some world leaders — Donald Trump and Boris Johnson, for example — would have preferred to find relatively low-cost and personalized steps: Galvanize the private sector.
Cut regulatory red-tape to promote collaboration and speed treatments to market.
Warn the most vulnerable to self-isolate.
Shut international travel from infected areas.
Quarantine new arrivals.
Encourage teleworking and teleconferencing wherever practical.
Push increased attention to personal hygiene.
Shore up hospital capabilities.
And let life go on more-or-less as usual.
These approaches proved unworkable not because anyone analyzed them and found them wanting, but because supermajorities of both global public opinion and global elite opinion were unwilling to accept the (unquantified) risks of a wider infection inherent in any plan that allowed anyone to proceed with life as normal.
Instead, the world has plunged into a dark abyss.
We've closed the global economy.
We've thrown millions of people out of work and pushed millions of small businesses to the brink of bankruptcy. We've let (mostly local) government dispense with civil liberties.
We've upended social structures. We've shut people off from faith and spiritual guidance. We've diverted people from the routines they employ to maintain physical and mental well-being. We've shut people into home and family environments, only some of which are safe (particularly when all family members are present).
We've heightened conditions known to promote depression, anxiety, suicide, domestic violence, child abuse, and domestic terror (e.g., mass shootings). We've authorized the government to prohibit revenue flows to many, allow bills to come due on schedule, and determine who is sufficiently needy and worthy to warrant assistance.
We've created shortages of consumables, complained when prices rise, and devalued assets. We've destroyed decades of responsible life planning. We've emptied prisons and announced that we will no longer enforce numerous laws.
Has anyone even attempted to measure any of these costs? The answer is moot. We’ve incurred them. And because of them, America’s culture war has entered a new phase.
In mainstream culture, people stay secluded in their homes glued to personalized screens. Occasionally they venture outward dressed like post-apocalyptic ghouls scowling at anyone they happen to pass.
They avoid all social contact, cowering in fear as children scamper by, looking sadly at elderly neighbors who need help with their groceries. They return home to speak disapprovingly (or to tweet) about anyone they saw flouting the new social conventions.
They have fallen quickly into a totalitarian fear society.
In the counterculture, people proceed as if nothing has changed. They flock to beaches for spring break, look for open bars, attend religious services, host weddings, and play basketball. They assume that youth, luck, or God will protect them — and appear prepared for the possibility that the protection might not arrive.
They are society’s new villains.
As is always the case, the mainstream looks at the counterculture with shock and dread, appalled at the cavalier attitudes and thoughtless behavior likely to bring down society.
We have made some hugely consequential decisions. In the short run, they seem likely to reduce suffering and save lives. Their long-run costs, however, are unknown for a simple reason: no one seemed to think that they were worth projecting and measuring.
Were these costs worth incurring? Perhaps. Perhaps not.
As a data scientist, I note the key methodological flaw that makes it unlikely: Extreme risk aversion and an inattention to costs are a deadly combination.
A data-obsessed society should do better.
Bruce Abramson is the President of Informationism, Inc., a Senior Fellow at the London Center for Policy Research, and the founder of the American Restoration Institute. To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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