Another full coronavirus update will be posted tomorrow morning.
You wouldn’t think a beefy guy like Nassim Taleb would be a screaming sissy. His is, though. He has made himself this way—and helps make us all this way—by being obsessed by the precautionary principle.
This is a philosophy (as it has become) which demands its holders imagine the worst possible threats to themselves and to humanity. And then agitating the populace and government to protect against these threats.
The likelihood of the threat is immaterial. The sole criterion is the cost of the threat. The zombie apocalypse is not likely, conditional on any genuine evidence I have ever heard of. Yet if it happens, it would kill off most or all of us and destroy all civilization. This threat, if it happens, produces the greatest possible material cost.
The cost of anything would we could to protect against this threat pales in comparison to what would happen if the threat materialized. Therefore, only a psychopath would stand in the way of erecting barriers to this threat.
So lock everybody down, make all practice extreme social distancing at all times. By which I mean we allow no human contact whatsoever. Listen: how do you know the next guy you touch isn’t going to pass on the zombification cootie? You don’t know. That he could pass it is sufficient. We must stop the zombie apocalypse cold—or risk utter destruction.
You may say—well, what you may say likely has to be censored. Filtered, what you may say is that this is nuts, the height of irrationality.
Taleb doesn’t think so. He said (my emphasis):
Under such conditions it becomes selfish, even psychopathic, to act according to what is called “rational” behavior — to make one’s own immediate rankings of risk conflict with those of society, even generate risks for society. This is similar to other tragedies of the common, except that there is life and death.
Our brave squid ink eater didn’t have the zombie apocalypse in mind when he wrote that. He meant the coronavirus apocalypse. But if he is to remain consistent with his philosophy, he has to apply it to any threat, even asinine ones.
That quotation was taken from Taleb and Joseph Norman’s one page paper “Ethics of Precaution: Individual and Systemic Risk“.
Assume a risk of a multiplicative viral epidemic, still in its early stages. The risk for an individual to catch the virus is very low, lower than other ailments. It is therefore “irrational” to panic (react immediately and as a priority). But if she or he does not panic and act in an ultra-conservative manner,they will contribute to the spread of the virus and it will become a severe source of systemic harm.
Hence one must “panic” individually (i.e., produce what seems to an exaggerated response) in order to avoid systemic problems, even where the immediate individual payoff does not appear to warrant it.
This is not the traditional definition of panic, which is to overact and run about screeching like a little girl who can’t find her dolly; that is, to act irrationally.
In any case, their “multiplicative viral epidemic” fits the zombie apocalypse better than the spread of a souped-up common cold virus. In the zombie apocalypse everybody is at risk, because everybody once bit will seek to pass on the zombification cootie by trying to bite others.
For the coronavirus, it is only a guess, and not that good a guess, that everybody is at risk, or that everybody will pass it on. It could pass around like a cold or flu virus, peaking up here and there, sparing most, and killing some in clusters (colds kill, too, but rarely), and perhaps recurring at later dates.
The flu does this now, but this isn’t reported breathlessly every hour for months on end.
If coronavirus does recur, like the flu or the common cold, what then? Shut down the world forever? No effort spared to save even a single human life? It is Talebism to insist upon over-reaction as a matter of official policy.
Taleb and Norman speak of “severe societal breakdown”, which they meant would come about by the treatment of coronavirus. This would be so only if the treatment reaches zombie-apocalypse proportions. Which didn’t even happen at the Wuhan Epicenter. I quote myself:
In Wuhan itself, the City of Doom, some 2,446 souls departed their fleshly existence earlier than expected. Google tells us the city has between 11 and 19 million, depending on whether you count the entire metro area as “the city”.
The city had 49,995 cases. The case rate was 0.26% to 0.45%, depending on what China called “the city”. The total dead rate was 0.01% to 0.02%. The case dead rate was 4.9%.
True, hospitals were hard hit at the peak of the crisis, and many suffered under local quarantines—quarantines not put in place to the same extent or at all in other Chinese cities, which were still spared. Sad as a few thousand deaths are, this was not a “severe societal breakdown”, at least not a permanent one.
What kind of “severe societal breakdown” would happen if entire states, and even nations, are locked down for months? How many reduced to poverty? How large a growth in government? How much bigger would the oligarchs grow, since only they could survive?
There is no point in evading the hard question of how many lives lost to illness we trade for freedom. We answer this question every day. We allow people to spread the flu freely, knowing it will kill—and has killed maybe 25,000 so far in the States this year alone. We allow people to strap themselves behind the wheels of a motor vehicle, which has killed even more than the flu.
Holders of the precautionary principle says coronavirus could kill or maim all of us. A more calm and sober view says not hardly.
To support this site and its wholly independent host using credit card or PayPal (in any amount) click here