Friday, January 22, 2021

The Risk of Excessive Conservatism

In 'Lessons from the Pandemic', I summarized what I took to be some of the biggest mistakes of the pandemic response, and tried to give a sense of the scale of the potential damage done, along with some concrete suggestions for how we might have done vastly better.  Some readers (e.g. here) seemed of the opinion that only those with "authority" should express such opinions, which I obviously disagree with.  But to better help such readers, it might be helpful to bracket any particular empirical details or examples and focus instead on the most general overarching claim of my post: that excessive conservatism risks immense harm in a pandemic.

One doesn't need a medical degree to see that this more modest (yet still important) claim is true.  For it does not require us to establish that some unconventional pandemic policy truly would be much better; it suffices to note that an unconventional pandemic policy easily could be much better -- i.e., there's a non-trivial probability of this -- and since excessive conservatism would dismiss such unconventional proposals out of hand, such conservatism poses a significant risk of immense harm.  Since it is worth guarding against significant risks of immense harm, it is worth guarding against excessive conservatism in a pandemic. 

To turn this into a more pointed critique of the medical/policy establishment (and elite public opinion), we can simply observe that there is no evidence that said establishment (or elite opinion) is suitably aware of this risk, or that they have taken suitable steps to guard against excessive conservatism.  Quite the opposite, I think: the publicly-available evidence (including establishment pronouncements, presented justifications, and policy decisions) all give off the strong appearance of extreme conservatism.  And of course we have background knowledge that institutions tend to be conservative, and that conventional medical ethics in particular is extremely conservative -- as evidenced by opposition to utilitarian policies like kidney markets.  So we should all go into a pandemic with a moderately high prior for the view that mainstream institutions and opinion are likely to be excessively conservative.  What I'm trying to do is to draw attention to how grave a risk this is, especially in a pandemic.

Is it conceivable that their conservatism is all for the best in the end?  Sure, it's possible.  Is that any kind of problem for my critique?  No, of course not.  We should press for clear cost-benefit analysis from pandemic policy-makers even if it turns out that such improved epistemic procedures would -- remarkably -- yield the same substantive policies at the end of the day.  For there is at least a non-trivial chance that we could do much, much better.


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