Seeing the Smoke

Cross-posted from Pu­tanu­monit.


COVID-19 could be pretty bad for you. It could af­fect your travel plans as coun­tries im­pose quaran­tines and close off bor­ders. It could af­fect you ma­te­ri­ally as sup­ply chains are dis­rupted and stock mar­kets are fal­ling. Even worse: you could get sick and suffer acute res­pi­ra­tory symp­toms. Worse than that: some­one you care about may die, likely an el­derly rel­a­tive.

But the worst thing that could hap­pen is that you’re seen do­ing some­thing about the coro­n­avirus be­fore you’re given per­mis­sion to.

I’ll defend this state­ment in a minute, but first of all: I am now giv­ing you per­mis­sion to do some­thing about COVID-19. You have per­mis­sion to read up on the symp­toms of the dis­ease and how it spreads. Ed­u­cate your­self on the best ways to avoid it. Stock up on ob­vi­ous es­sen­tials such as food, wa­ter, soap, and medicine, as well as less ob­vi­ous things like oxy­gen sat­u­ra­tion mon­i­tors so you know if you need emer­gency care once you’re sick. You should de­cide ahead of time what your trig­gers are for chang­ing your rou­tines or turtling up at home.

In fact, you should go do all those things be­fore read­ing the rest of the post. I am not go­ing to provide any more fac­tual jus­tifi­ca­tions for prepar­ing. If you’ve been fol­low­ing the news and do­ing the re­search, you can de­cide for your­self. And if in­stead of fac­tual jus­tifi­ca­tions you’ve been fol­low­ing the cues of peo­ple around you to de­cide when it’s so­cially ac­cept­able to prep for a pan­demic, then all you need to know is that I’ve already put my rep­u­ta­tion on the line as a coro­n­aprep­per.

In­stead this post is about the strange fact that most peo­ple need so­cial ap­proval to pre­pare for a widely-re­ported pan­demic.

Smoke Signals

As Eliezer re­minded us, most peo­ple sit­ting alone in a room will quickly get out if it starts filling up with smoke. But if two other peo­ple in the room seem un­per­turbed, al­most ev­ery­one will stay put. That is the re­sult of a fa­mous ex­per­i­ment from the 1960s and its repli­ca­tions — peo­ple will sit and ner­vously look around at their peers for 20 min­utes even as thick smoke starts ob­scur­ing their vi­sion.

The coro­n­avirus was iden­ti­fied on Jan­uary 7th and spread out­side China by the 13th. Amer­i­can me­dia ran some sto­ries about how you should worry more about the sea­sonal flu. The mar­kets didn’t budge. Ra­tion­al­ist Twit­ter started tweet­ing ex­cit­edly about R0 and sup­ply chains.

Over the next two weeks, Chi­nese COVID cases kept climb­ing at 60%/​day reach­ing 17,000 by Fe­bru­ary 2nd. Cases were con­firmed in Europe and the US. The WHO de­clared a global emer­gency. The former FDA com­mis­sioner ex­plained why a law tech­ni­cal­ity made it ille­gal for US hos­pi­tals to test peo­ple for coro­n­avirus, im­ply­ing that we would have no idea how many Amer­i­cans have con­tracted the dis­ease. Every­one mostly ig­nored him in­clud­ing all ma­jor me­dia pub­li­ca­tions, and equity mar­kets hit an all time high. By this point sev­eral Ra­tion­al­ists in Sili­con Valley and el­se­where started se­ri­ously prep­ping for a pan­demic and can­cel­ing large so­cial gath­er­ings.

On the 13th, Vox pub­lished a story mock­ing peo­ple in Sili­con Valley for wor­ry­ing about COVID-19. The ar­ti­cle con­tained mul­ti­ple fac­tual mis­takes about the virus and the opinions of pub­lic health ex­perts.

On Fe­bru­ary 17th, Eliezer asked how mar­kets should re­act to an ob­vi­ous loom­ing pan­demic. Most peo­ple agreed that the mar­kets should freak out and aren’t. Most peo­ple de­cided to trust the mar­kets over their own judg­ment. As an avowed effi­cient mar­ke­teer who hasn’t made an ac­tive stock trade in a decade, I started at that Tweet for a long time. I stared at it some more. Then I went ahead and sold 10% of the stocks I owned and started buy­ing res­pi­ra­tors and beans.

By the 21st, the pan­demic and its con­comi­tant short­ages hit ev­ery­where from Iran to Italy while in the US thou­sands of peo­ple were asked to self-quaran­tine. Most elected offi­cials in the US seemed ut­terly un­aware that any­thing was hap­pen­ing. CNN ran a front page story about the real en­e­mies be­ing racism and the sea­sonal flu.

Fi­nally, the nar­ra­tive couldn’t con­tain the sheer vol­ume of dis­con­firm­ing ev­i­dence. The stock mar­ket tum­bled 10%. The Wash­ing­ton Post squeezed out one more story about racism be­fore con­firm­ing that the virus is spread­ing among Amer­i­cans with no links to Wuhan and that’s scary. Trump de­cided to throw his vice pres­i­dent un­der the coro­n­avirus bus, fi­nally ad­mit­ting that it’s a thing that the gov­ern­ment is aware of.

And Ra­tion­al­ist Twit­ter asked: what the fuck is wrong with ev­ery­one who is not on Ra­tion­al­ist Twit­ter?

Cog­ni­tive Reflection

Be­fore Ra­tion­al­ity gained a cap­i­tal let­ter and a com­mu­nity, a psy­chol­o­gist de­vel­oped a sim­ple test to iden­tify peo­ple who can over­ride an in­tu­itive and wrong an­swer with a re­flec­tive and cor­rect one.

One of the ques­tions is:

In a lake, there is a patch of lily pads. Every day, the patch dou­bles in size. If it takes 48 days for the patch to cover the en­tire lake, how long would it take for the patch to cover half of the lake?

Ex­po­nen­tial growth is hard for peo­ple to grasp. Most peo­ple an­swer ’24’ to the above ques­tion, or some­thing ran­dom like ’35’. It’s counter-in­tu­itive to peo­ple that the lily pads could be barely no­tice­able on day 44 and yet com­pletely cover the lake on day 48.

Here’s an­other ques­tion, see if you can get it:

In an in­ter­con­nected world, cases of a dis­ease out­side the coun­try of ori­gin are dou­bling ev­ery 5 days. The pace is slightly ac­cel­er­at­ing since it’s eas­ier to con­tain a hun­dred sick peo­ple than it is to con­tain thou­sands. How much of a mo­ron do you have to be as a jour­nal­ist to quote statis­tics about the yearly toll of sea­sonal flu given a month of ex­po­nen­tial global growth of a dis­ease with 20 times the mor­tal­ity rate?

So­cial Real­ity Strikes Again

Hu­man in­tu­ition is bad at deal­ing with ex­po­nen­tial growth but it’s very good at one thing: not look­ing weird in front of your peers. It’s so good at this, in fact, that the de­sire to not look weird will over­ride most in­cen­tives.

Jour­nal­ists would rather miss out on the biggest story of the decade than stick their neck out with an alarmist ar­ti­cle. Traders would rather miss out on billions of dol­lars of prof­its. Peo­ple would rather get sick than do some­thing that isn’t so­cially sanc­tioned.

Even to­day (2/​26/​2020), most peo­ple I’ve spo­ken to re­fuse to do min­i­mal prep for what could be the worst pan­demic in a cen­tury. It costs $100 to stock up your house with a month’s worth of dry food and dis­in­fec­tant wipes (res­pi­ra­tors, how­ever, are now sold out or go­ing for 4x the price). Peo­ple keep wait­ing for the gov­ern­ment to do some­thing, even though the gov­ern­ment has proven its in­com­pe­tence in this area sev­eral times over.

I think I would re­place the Cog­ni­tive Reflec­tion Test with a sin­gle ques­tion: would you eat a hand­ful of coffee beans if some­one told you it was worth try­ing? Or in other words: do you un­der­stand that so­cial re­al­ity can di­verge from phys­i­cal re­al­ity, the re­al­ity of coffee beans and viruses and dis­eases?

So­cial think­ing is quite suffi­cient for most peo­ple in usual times. But this is an un­usual time.

See­ing the Smoke

The goal of this ar­ti­cle isn’t to get all my read­ers to freak out about the virus. Aside from sel­l­ing the equities, all the prep I’ve done was to stock a month of ne­ces­si­ties so I can work from home and to hold off on book­ing flights for a trip I had planned for April.

The goal of this post is twofold. First, if you’re the sort of per­son who will keep sit­ting in a smoke filled room un­til some­one else gets up, I’m here to be that some­one for you. If you’re a reg­u­lar reader of Pu­tanu­monit you prob­a­bly re­spect my judg­ment and you know that I’m not par­tic­u­larly prone to get­ting sucked in to pan­ics and trends.

And sec­ond, if you watched that video think­ing that you would ob­vi­ously jump out of the room at the first hint of smoke, ask your­self how much re­search and prepa­ra­tion you’ve done for COVID-19 given the in­for­ma­tion available. If the an­swer is “lit­tle to none”, con­sider whether that is ra­tio­nal or ra­tio­nal­iz­ing.

I could wait to write this post two months from now when it’s clear how big of an out­break oc­curs in the US. I’m not an ex­pert on viral dis­eases, global sup­ply chains, or prep­ping. I don’t have spe­cial in­for­ma­tion or con­nec­tions. My only differ­en­ti­a­tion is that I care a bit less than oth­ers about ap­pear­ing weird or fool­ish, and I trust a bit more in my own judgment

See­ing the smoke and re­act­ing is a learn­able skill, and I’m go­ing to give credit to Ra­tion­al­ity for teach­ing it. I think COVID-19 is the best exam for Ra­tion­al­ists do­ing much bet­ter than “com­mon sense” since Bit­coin. So in­stead of wait­ing two months, I’m sub­mit­ting my an­swer for re­al­ity to grade. I think I’m see­ing smoke.