Comment Of The Day: “The Pandemic Creates A Classic And Difficult Ethics Conflict, But The Resolution Is Clear, Part I: Stipulations”

Matthew B fulfilled my fervent wish (as did Michael R, whose comment will be going up later today) by dealing with the risk assessment issue authoritatively and clearly so I wouldn’t have to.

Here is his Comment of the Day on the post, “The Pandemic Creates A Classic And Difficult Ethics Conflict, But The Resolution Is Clear, Part I: Stipulations”:

We’re seeing the problem with the vast majority of people’s inability to grasp statistics, and in particular the statistics of risk. That’s the problem here – with the Wuhan flu, we’re talking about something that – at most – could kill 1 in 100 people. We’re seeing higher numbers for death rates in many places, but they’re talking about case fatality rate. 1% in the US means 3 million people die, and we’re at 70K dead as of this morning in the US, 3.2 million short in 1% of American’s dying. Yes, I get many haven’t been infected and many more will die, but we’re absolutely on a trajectory far short of a 1% fatality rate.

As soon as you’re talking about numbers that low, far too many people’s brains stop being logical and emotion takes over. The tell for this is the saying “if it just saves one life.” People say that, but they’re turn a blind eye to so many things that kill people an no one addresses. Because there is no critical thought being applied, they remain illogical and darn near impossible to considering any position other than those formed by emotion.

We take risks every day that we don’t think about and we ignore things that people die from because of normalization of that risk. If you’re under 45, your odds of suicide, homicide and accidents killing you outweighs your risk of dying of health complications. If you’re under 25, that risk is three to one that it’s something other than a health condition that kills you. Even amongst the health conditions, there are many that are swayed by our own conduct and we ignore that.

Through most of the existence of the automobile, it’s ranked as the number one cause of premature death in the United States. Only in the last decade has the rise of the opioid epidemic managed to surpass the death rate of automobile fatalities. The opioid epidemic is a harder one to discuss, so I’ll start with the automobile. Automobile deaths are ignored, few people are afraid to get into a car because it might kill them. There are marginal improvements in automobile safety, but many of the key contributors have had little improvement. Mass use of air travel has had about 1/2 the time of the mass use of the automobile, but air travel has had massive improvements. At first there were many crashes because airplanes broke and directly or indirectly through the distractions they caused resulted in mass fatalities. That got fixed first. Then aviation regulators figured out that a growing fraction of accidents were pilots flying perfectly good airplanes into the ground or each other. They borrowed ideas from the nuclear industry, and instituted many policies that have resulted in a remarkable fall in airline fatalities. Do you realize the last time an passenger aircraft went down in the United States was November, 2001? 19 years. The only other crash was a 777 in San Francisco that stalled on approach, and most of the passengers came out with no or minor injuries. That’s truly remarkable.

The medical community has noticed, and has adopted the same philosophies. You can see this in examples like surgical checklists that every instrument and disposable is counted before and after surgery with checklists to stop sowing patents closed with those items left in them. Or every person asking a patient over and over again, what’s your full name and date of birth and what they’re in for so they stop giving the wrong medication or taking out the wrong kidney and those other simple but devastating mistakes. Have we seen the same in automobiles? No. Why? Because the public won’t accept many of them. We’ve pushed on drunk driving some but not really. Certainly not in proportion to the risks. We’ve made cars smaller and lighter to save fuel, citing the limited resource it is and the environmental costs of emissions. But that comes at a real cost in maimed and killed. Bigger cars save lives, but we’re pushed into smaller and lighter cars by governmental regulations. Few were willing to drive Jimmy Carter’s 55 MPH. Heck, I’m sure not, I hated it and pretty much ignored it. We have an enforcement focus on aggressive and fast driving, but don’t put a focus on the other bad behaviours drivers had. A good example is slow left lane drivers. That conduct is bad both because it is indicative in inattentive driving and it disrupts the flow of traffic. Smooth flow is vastly safer, it is the mixing of some people trying to weave by them that causes accidents. In many cases don’t do infrastructure improvements based on risk. A good example is crossover accidents – ones where a vehicle loses control and crosses into oncoming traffic. They’re brutal, being high speed crashes with a high incidence of fatalities. Getting every divided highway in the US outfitted with barriers will save more lives than any other infrastructure, but most of the miles are still not protected.

Going back to the irrationality aspect of these discussions, I face this professionally as I am the design leader for a product line that carries considerable risks. We manage them, but there is inherent risk. So many of these accidental injuries and deaths are about the unintentional release of energy. Falling from a height is releasing your gravitational potential energy. Crashing a car is releasing the kinetic energy of you and the car. Ditto for electrical arcs burning people or electricity shocking people, hydraulic fluid, compress air or other fluids exploding something, a spring exploding something, a machine coming apart and so on. It’s all about tradeoff of risk vs utility. We’re not going to stop using electricity, we’re not going to get rid of farm and factory machinery. There is risk, and there is the need to manage it but it’s going to be there unless we forgo technology. The greater the energy the greater the risks. The irrational statement that I get and struggle against is “Isn’t it safer if we just….” Yes, you’re correct, it is safer. It is also ignoring the level of ‘accepted’ risk. “Isn’t it safer” far too often ignores the unintended consequences. The guard that gets in the way of the operator too much is the guard that is more likely to be removed. A “less safe” guard that is left in place is far more safe than the guard that’s sitting in the corner of the room not doing it’s job.

That’s rather long winded way to make the point that the reaction to Covid won’t be rational and is only the last installment of the mass public failure to apply critical thinking to the area. What’s to be done? I’m not sure. Of course this is the appeal of the communist ideal where the “experts” are put in charge. It’s a great appeal to the university professor crowd where they think they’re smarter and more knowledgeable than the public. It’s also failed utterly every time it’s tried because who is an “expert” remains a political decision, the more centralized the power the more it corrupts, and it considers dissent heretical where any dissent must be stamped out. “Experts” can’t remain experts where an open and free dialog is suppressed. While you and I don’t always agree on all of the politics Jack, we’re both ardent supporters of representative democracy and individual liberty. I too reject “experts” as being the go to leaders here.

I’m all for “urging” and “imploring” but the moment it treads into where the government is placing restrictions on personal liberty, that’s where I’m going to draw my line. Legal restriction on the health in the name of public health is a new growth of government power, and we’re already seeing some of the government officials behaving power drunk. We need to nip that behavior before it grows.

12 thoughts on “Comment Of The Day: “The Pandemic Creates A Classic And Difficult Ethics Conflict, But The Resolution Is Clear, Part I: Stipulations”

  1. I e-mailed a video about the problem with ‘experts’. It goes far beyond this topic, but it explains a lot. Our experts are created by a system that convinces them (the experts themselves) that they are the best people, when really they aren’t. This results in terrible responses to problems by the entire leadership of the country from the journalists to the scientists in charge of government agencies. Our education system, and media that worship the elite, condition the public to believe whatever ‘experts’ say without question because only the ‘experts’ can understand the problem and you don’t need to wowwy yowr pwetty wittle head. Anyone who isn’t anointed as an ‘expert’ by the elite is not allowed to have an opinion. So, people will accept insanely stupid interpretations of and responses to problems without thinking about it, because they have been told that they are incapable of an informed opinion.

    • I was thoroughly dressed down by a retired lawyer neighbor yesterday morning for doubting what “experts” were saying about the virus situation. He asked me how I could not believe them when I’d been trained as a lawyer. THAT really mystified me. I said, “All these models are based on assumptions,” to which he replied, “But the assumptions are based on science and these people are experts!”

      What ever happened to what I thought was American skepticism? When I was in high school, my years older cousin who was in the process of flunking out of Georgia Tech (because he’s one of those guys who thought he was smarter than the professors, among other people) asked me, “Bill, you know what B.S. stands for?” “No Dick, I don’t.” “Bull Shit. You know what M.S. stands for?” “No Dick.” “More Shit. You know what Ph.D. stands for?” “No I don’t Dick.” “Piled Higher and Deeper.” Which I thought was a bit over the top, even at the time, but still I thought there was a healthy skepticism of expert, authoritarian elites in the DNA of this country’s populous.

      • Sweet Beans, if there’s anyone I would expect to doubt the role of experts, it’s an attorney. Maybe it’s just me, but my courtroom and deposition experience with experts is pretty consistent–most of them are very good at being authoritative, but it’s the rare few that have the ability to extend their expertise to a particular problem in a way that makes logical sense. Legal transcripts are full of testimony by designated experts who fail to understand or apply the basic information available to them from the parties and create a convincing explanation or prediction. They fail to acknowledge the limits of the data presented to them, or they fail to properly account for obvious variables, or they ignore the data that doesn’t get them to the desired conclusion. Walking these folks through their reasoning and analysis process is a revelation, and is one reason I automatically discount “expert” opinion (by not giving it any special status) unless I understand the basis for it and it makes sense to me.

      • I have a Ph.D. Many of my colleagues are exemplars of academic achievement.

        I’ve seen them handed out to some real doofuses, too. Whenever I hear an “expert” talk about how expertise should have the first and final say, I start to wonder how he didn’t notice the same thing I did.

        Then it occurs to me that he’s probably one of those doofuses.

        I heard an interesting statistic the other day. The average MD has an IQ of 105. I don’t know if that’s actually true, but I don’t have a lot of direct personal experience to cause me to doubt it, either.

        And all of that comes before epidemiology being a sketchy field in itself rich with recent failures. A string of them are attributable to a certain Neil Ferguson who is also responsible for one of the millions-dead batflu models. They’ve all seemingly abandoned trying to be correct from the start. Every model is an imagined worst-case, not a most-likely outcome, and is more of a science fiction than a science. The scientists who play into the great, enforced public panics get the public funding. Surely, your lawyer friend would understand a conflict of interest. Some mistakenly think only oil money is tainted in that way.

        based on science

        I cringe when I hear things like that. I can’t seem to figure out what ‘science’ means exactly in this context. There’s the scientific method which pertains to forming hypotheses and testing them, but, recently, these model-based “sciences” aren’t too keen on that second part. But, then, if our science is a pile of untested hypotheses, how have we escaped superstitious witch-doctory? No, the great enlightened narrative seems to have fallen over on its side and is blowing across the lawn.

  2. we’re absolutely on a trajectory far short of a 1% fatality rate.

    Testing for antibodies here in New York City suggests that about 20% to 25% of the city’s population has been infected. That’s somewhere between 1,600,000 to 2,000,000 people infected. So far, we’ve had over 18,000 deaths. So NYC’s death rate from infection so far has been somewhere around 0.9% to 1.1%. The rest of the country seems to have a lower fatality rate, but it’s not at all clear why. Some people think that living conditions in NYC (for example, crowding on subways) may have resulted in our patients having a higher viral load. In that view, the rest of the country, with less crowded conditions, will continue to have a lower death rate. But there’s also some evidence that we have a more virulent strain of the virus, and if that’s the case, and our strain spreads to the rest of the country, the trajectory of death rates in the rest of the country may rise toward ours.

  3. Very well thought out comment Mathew. Considering that we’re at May 5th with a death toll of 70,000 and promising new treatments for Covid-19 have been approved or soon will be, why do we let politicians and “experts” use scare tactics to put draconian policies in force? I can put up with wearing a face mask when I go to the grocery store although I think the risk reduction is minimal. Some state governors assure us that they have our best interests in mind when they close the beaches even though most people are practicing social distancing there. I say bullshit!!

  4. Excellent comment.

    Yes, it’s always nice to put experts in charge so you can fire, imprison or execute them when they are wrong. Voila! Scapegoat accomplished, mass deaths paid in full by one “responsible” expert life. Sorry, Mr. or Mrs. Victims, we did the best we could to pay back your loved one’s untimely death.

    Being an “expert” in the kind of world the Left envisions is a risky proposition, indeed.

  5. Bigger cars do not necessarily mean safer, just look at this test as an example – https://youtu.be/joMK1WZjP7g

    As U.S population has increased, the number of road miles traveled has increased greatly, yet road deaths are decreasing as more people travel more miles each year.

    The statement “There are marginal improvements in automobile safety” is incorrect. Modern cars are smaller but are engineered to absorb and deflect energy that was unthought of 40 years ago. Look at crash data and you’ll clearly see that road miles traveled each year is increasing yet automotive crash fatalities are decreasing.

    Instead of making better drivers, which would be better for everyone on the roads, the government has mandated safer vehicles. Driving has transmogrified from a privilege into an assumed right. Most drivers today are completely clueless about defensive driving and collision avoidance, and have next to zero actual driving skill. Instead, the government has transferred the cost to the consumer by mandating technological improvements (and greater cost) into new cars and trucks.

    There’s no such thing as a cheap new car for sale in the U.S., partially due to the amount of technology required to meet current regulations – much of which are nanny-state mandates to compensate for poor driving. For example; anti-lock brakes and stability control, backup cameras, tire pressuring monitoring systems, air bags, all federally mandated to take the onus off being a responsible driver and placing it into the design of the vehicle, which now we all pay for directly.

  6. Great comment of the day!

    “I’m all for “urging” and “imploring” but the moment it treads into where the government is placing restrictions on personal liberty, that’s where I’m going to draw my line.”

    It’s interesting that President Trump is not making the temporary “laws” that are restricting liberties but yet he is the one that is ultimately being attacked for it because the laws are being built on the recommendations that are coming from the White House. From my perspective the political left views the pandemic is a lose-lose for President Trump and a win-win for progressives. If President Trump did nothing he would be attacked, if President Trump didn’t do “enough” he would be attacked, if President Trump did too much he would be attacked, it truly doesn’t matter what President Trump does about the pandemic he will be attacked for it; the opening up of opportunities for attacking President Trump in an election year are endless.

    Since 2016, the political left has shown us ad nauseam that they really don’t give a damn about much of anything except removing President Trump from the White House their primary tools of choice are fear mongering, lies by omission and outright lies; the political left has shown us that they will sic their social justice warriors on anyone that doesn’t fall in line with their social justice PC bull shit and their primary tools of choice are fear mongering, lies by omission and outright lies; and if all that inanity that weren’t enough, the public is currently being dumbed-down into believing that any totalitarian method used by the government in an effort to “protect public health” is acceptable and their primary tool of choice is fear mongering.

    Many generations of Earth’s inhabitants have suffered under totalitarian rule and that’s exactly where we are headed. It’s now been shown to the political left that fear mongering propaganda works. The left now knows that the sheep will fall inline when it’s to protect public health, the political left has a new-found power over the masses and the political left has the political will to wield it – the United States Constitution be damned. There once was a battle cry that inspired many thousands of people to arms, it was “Remember the Alamo”, well folks we now have a new cry to inspire people to cower in their homes in fear, it’s “Remember COVID-19”, I wonder how the political left will choose to wield it?

    A Side Note:
    Does anyone remember me writing what’s below in August 2019, I also copied and pasted it again when talking about Big Lie #5: “Everything is Terrible”

    “I’m sure we’ve all heard it; prominent lefties are actively hoping for a recession so the President can’t run on a good economy. They are saying that a recession won’t really hurt us and we’ll survive it just fine. They have been projecting their intent, is anyone paying attention to their actions?

    Since those statements from prominent lefties have emerged, I’ve been noticing some developing trends from the political left trying to say the economy is already in a down turn heading towards a recession. Based on the morally bankrupt behavior of the political left since November 2016, I think it’s a fair prediction that the political left is going to be ramping this up to a fever pitch causing actual fear in people, causing people to stop or greatly slow their spending which will cause the stock market to start declining and all of this will put of people out of work which will drag things down even quicker thus actually creating the recession they desire and all in less than a year.”

    Somehow the Democrats got their destroyed economy!

    Hmmmmm…

    Everything really IS terrible!

    Hmmmmm…

    Want to get a real conspiracy theory bouncing off the inside walls of that cranium of yours, think about that for a while.

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