There is a saying, “where you stand determines what you see.” In these times of political divisiveness and polarization, it is easy to forget that we now live in artificially constructed echo chambers. Our political voices have been co-opted by marketing machines whose business models require us to be divided into “us versus them” so that those businesses can profit from our disaffection.
Small wonder that we face every new challenge using scripts provided by the ivory towers of our respective political tribes, driven to support them by the promise of a brave new world if our activist friends can just have another $20, or maybe just $5 a month on an easy payment plan. From climate change to occupy wallstreet, from anti-vaxxers to “lockdown smackdown,” our positions have been packaged for us by special interests, some of whom like nothing better than to fuel our fears, and thereby sell us their stories (and bumper stickers).
The current pandemic and the associated lockdown is a perfect example of how these groups act to make consensus a dirty word and how their messaging can block more reasoned actions. The arc of the pandemic follows what should have been a very familiar path — one we’ve walked many times — but this one has been made unique through the efforts of these divisive activists whose business model (and it IS a business) relies on their ability to amplify our divisions.
The story always starts with the discovery of a new threat. Uncertainty is the rule of the day, and we use models to inform, but not to make, policy decisions. We have models for this situation, they are called epidemiological models — and they are examples of parameter-driven models. That is to say, you set some basic parameters like rates of infection, rates of death, duration, et cetera, and out come projections of possible futures. Of course, at the beginning you have no way to get good estimates of any of those parameters, and a conservative approach dominates the decision processes.
In this situation the precautionary principle guides our thinking — this is a conservative approach in the classic definition of conservative. According to this principle, when new information suggests that a change may have unintended consequences we proceed with caution. Our fealty to this principle reflects the intersection of many ideas — ideas which we teach through aphorisms like “fools rush in where angels fear to tread,” “look before you leap,” “first, do no harm,” and the ever popular “Asps, very dangerous – you go first” (Raiders of the Lost Ark). This naturally conservative behavior is part of the conservative’s value structure, which wants to proceed with caution and with continuous assessment and re-assessment of the system as new data comes to light.
Ironically, it is California, not known as a bastion of conservative behavior, that has embraced this principle most dramatically. Well known for their ubiquitous (and therefore) ineffective safety labels, it appears that EVERYTHING causes cancer in rats in California. So much so that the National Institute of Health may be the source of a meme that labels a rat with a sticker proclaiming that “The Surgeon General has determined that being a rat in California is dangerous to your health.”
So, how does this principle apply to the current pandemic? Well, while the actual incidence (how many people are getting the condition), the prevalence (how many people have the condition) and the fatality rate are well known for many diseases, the cornavirus (SARS-Cov2) was not well understood at first.
Unfortunately, during the early parts of the pandemic, when caution in the face of uncertainty made sense, our political selves were rapidly tied to solution strategies that the data may no longer support. In particular, we may be committed to a New York style lockdown in Minnesota, a state where such action only makes sense in limited doses. But our political process punishes thoughtful leadership if it thoughtfully seems to change its mind, so all discussion is reduced to street theater and in-your-face protests (done at a safe social distancing 6 feet of separation).
The governor has tried to quantify his decisions, but because we are all locked in our echo-chambers, and held prisoners there by the activist-industrial complexes that grow like weeds in a well lit and well drained garden, all we hear are innumerate defenses of shelter-in-place actions and emotional attacks on those actions. One has to dig deep into the data to find anything approaching truth — and most of us either don’t trust that truth, or worse, accept our version of it blindly as it has been given to us by our astroturf activists. The media, themselves hostage to their reliance on these groups to provide them with talking points, too often only serve as megaphones for the activists who know how to get the media’s attention and coverage.