Rights and wrongs

By now, you’ve probably seen the interactive world map through which Johns Hopkins is charting the spread of COVID-19. It’s part video game UI, part stock report, and all alarming. The Hopkins tally reinforces something that’s been widely reported: the number of deaths in Italy now exceeds those in China, even though twice as many Chinese have caught the virus. While the European curve continues to spike upward, the Chinese curve has flattened out. This has been offered as evidence that the draconian approach of the Chinese authorities works, and the laxer attitudes in Bergamo are dangerous.

But wait a second: why would we believe that numbers provided by the Chinese Communist Party are accurate? We’re justifiably skeptical of our own officeholders. Why trust theirs? Even before the CCP pitched Western journalists out of the country, it was hard to know what was happening in China. In the closed-door days of mid-March ’20, it feels like it’s impossible.

And because it is, rates of mortality and serious illness can’t be properly calculated. The denominator keeps shifting around on us, and now we’ve been told that China may have underreported the number of young people who needed to be hospitalized after contracting the virus. Our most fundamental supposition about COVID-19 — that it affects old people disproportionately, and the young and hale are relatively safe — might be faulty. We’ve all watched the clip, one near-Soviet in its tone, of attractive young female nurses in Wuhan shedding their protective masks, one at a time. This is textbook propaganda, designed to speak to our wildest desires. It’s aimed straight at the global unconscious.

Did it strike the mark? I think it did. There’s a loud chorus singing denunciations of China to the applause of nationalists looking for an external enemy. That’s an ugly tune, and one we ought to ignore. But there’s a powerful counternarrative circulating, too — one that says that China did everything right and the West has done everything wrong. Given that we now know that the CCP stalled, obfuscated, and prioritized appearances over public health, just as our own government did, it’s probably wisest to abandon any faith that China knows best. We don’t want to do this; we hope that the Chinese have established a precedent for social distancing measures that will halt the pathogen in its tracks. I’m afraid we’re wishcasting.

I do it all the time. The more stressed out I am, the more enthusiastically I sign on to anything that dovetails with my own prejudices. For instance, I find myself nodding along with those who blame excessive meat-eating and habitat destruction for the spread of pathogens from animals to humans. Is that logical, or is it just convenient for me? I’m no epidemiologist; I’m a person eager to adopt explanations that ratify my worldview. That’s not unlike those who believe that Bill Gates created and spread the virus and who won’t be budged from that position, only (hopefully) a little more scientific and sane. Just like you, I want to be proven right.

It’s worth interrogating that desire. Why is it important to me to know things that others don’t? Is it because I’m neither swift nor strong, nor virtuous, nor particularly enchanting, and I need to press whatever comparative advantage over others I think I might have? Perhaps it’s our very ordinariness that makes it so hard for us to admit it when we’re wrong. Maybe the problem isn’t economic insecurity. Maybe the problem is intellectual insecurity.

Demagogues have figured out that the desire to be proven right has made us all credulous and ripe for manipulation. If we’ve cast our lot with them once, they figure that means they’ve got us for good. Otherwise, we risk admitting that we made a mistake. We’ve seen this dynamic in action all too often in the past few years — a political leader says that the sky is green, and his followers, refusing to accept the possibility that their faith was misplaced, contort themselves into pretzels in an effort to rationalize his ignorance. This is not a good psychological state for the nation to be in during a major crisis, and if we’re going to get through this, we’re going to have to unlearn some bad habits of mind that we’ve adopted during the dangerous days of the 21st Century.

Mind you, I am not encouraging radical skepticism. We don’t have that luxury. You’re going to have to pick somebody and something to believe in. But I think it would be salutary for all of us to cultivate some ambivalence, and entertain the notion that we could be wrong, very wrong, very often. If, in the back of your mind, you suspect there’s a five per cent chance that that thing that you’re sure of might not be true, double or triple that chance and proceed accordingly. We would have been better off if those who made jokes about the virus and waved it away had instead shown some humility. They might have apprehended the possible consequences of getting this one wrong. Intellectual flexibility is hard, especially these days: it’s hard to attain, and it’s even harder to keep. But we’re all going to need it.