Absolutism Will Definitely Kill 100% Of Us

(Or at least, it's probably not a good thing overall.)

This tweet from mid-January is making steady rounds among the right-wing grifter set as evidence that the World Health Organization is in the bag for the Chinese government and nothing they say now can or should be trusted:

You'll see that tweet being QTed (quote-tweeted) or included as a screenshot alongside the claim that the WHO told us that there was no human-to-human transmission or that human-to-human transmission is impossible. If you read the tweet, though, you might notice it doesn't say anything like that.

Now, I don't know that the information it contains wasn't manipulated but I wonder how they are so certain it was pure propaganda and why they treat it as if it says something that is definitely factually untrue. It doesn't rule out human-to-human transmission. It doesn't say that anybody had done so and it doesn't declare the matter closed.

Everything in that tweet is measured and nuanced: preliminary investigation has found no clear evidence. That means "we don't know yet and we're still looking." It's not an all-clear. It's not the final word, it's the preliminary word. Approximately two weeks after the virus was identified, certainty and clarity were bound to be in short supply.

Might it have been irresponsible of the WHO to broadcast that message in that fashion? Possibly. But if so, only because they did not take into account how their nuance would fail to translate to audiences who prefer to be certainly wrong than correct in measure.

This kind of absolutism is prevalent among a noisy and numerous segment of the Twitter population. Chloroquine-based treatments may yet be shown to have some validity, but to these people, they are the answer. A miracle drug. They either work or they don't, and if Trump is advancing them they must work, and if they work, they just work. Any discussion of someone who is sick with COVID-19 that attracts enough attention will inevitably attract replies going "Why aren't the doctors giving you hydroxychloroquine?" 

Similarly, talk about who is "most vulnerable" to the virus gets framed in terms of absolutes. "The elderly are most vulnerable" becomes "the virus only kills the elderly." If we add in people with underlying conditions, then that becomes its own absolute: people imagine that there is a discrete category of such people and we can easily predict who the virus will kill and who it won't. And the survivor category becomes absolute, too: "people the virus won't kill" becomes "people the virus won't affect"... effectively, the world is reduced to people who will become very sick and possibly die and asymptomatic carriers.

In the face of this kind of absolutism, the solution to the pandemic becomes both obvious and simple: we can open up the country by simply quarantining the people the virus will affect and letting the people it won't affect go about their business. If the people it will affect get sick, we give them the magic miracle cure that definitely works.

And we don't listen to the WHO about why this plan won't work, because the WHO definitely lied to us.

Long-term followers of my writing know that I have a phrase I like to invoke in these situations: mostly the Sith deal predominantly but not exclusively in absolutes. And another one: no effect with just one cause and no cause with just one effect. 

Both are ways of saying the same thing: life is messy. The world is complicated. 

It's tempting, so tempting, to cut out the corner cases and treat the counterexamples as so many Spiders Georgs to be discounted. Human memory and human cognition both run towards streamlining as an optimization strategy, and in the face of something so vast and so threatening and so complicated as a global pandemic, any scrap of certainty is reassuring. Part of what is existentially terrifying about the situation we find ourselves in is the sheer volume and scale of the unknowns.

But when it comes to matters of life and death, it is better by far to embrace the uncertainty — to acknowledge that we don't know what we don't know — than it is to be confidently wrong. A person can be certain about something and still be certainly wrong about it.

There is no easy solution. The closest thing we have to a clear path forward is one that requires us to admit to uncertainty. The real road map for reopening the country doesn't involve a timetable because it requires us to take careful, cautious baby steps forward and at each stage, test, wait and see, and then adjust based on what we learn. 

Defeating the virus is going to require us not to pick a model and stick with it because we're confident it's the right one but acknowledge that all models are wrong but some are, in certain situations, useful.

The absolutists among us point to the shifting models as a sign that the scientific approach has failed, or wasn't scientific, but we have to go with the model that's most useful in the moment and when we find a better one, switch to it.

The alternative to this humbling Socratic approach might bring more comfort in the short run, but in the long run it will only lengthen the period of time in which we are all at the mercy of the unknown.

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