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We will not understand Covid until we give up debating it

Summary:
Confused by the contradictory claims about the dangers posed by coronavirus? Cut through the fog with this one weird trick: stop trying to win an argument. I realise that such advice does not sit easily with the way culture has been going in Britain in general of late, and the way things have been at Westminster for as long as anyone can remember. The Prime Minister, like too many top British politicians through history, is the former president of the world’s most famous student debating society. The leader of the opposition, meanwhile, was a prominent barrister. Both men are well-used to beginning with a conclusion, and hunting for the facts to fit. The mindset of the debater is not that of the calm seeker-of-truth. Opposing arguments are to be caricatured,

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Confused by the contradictory claims about the dangers posed by coronavirus? Cut through the fog with this one weird trick: stop trying to win an argument.

I realise that such advice does not sit easily with the way culture has been going in Britain in general of late, and the way things have been at Westminster for as long as anyone can remember. The Prime Minister, like too many top British politicians through history, is the former president of the world’s most famous student debating society. The leader of the opposition, meanwhile, was a prominent barrister. Both men are well-used to beginning with a conclusion, and hunting for the facts to fit.

The mindset of the debater is not that of the calm seeker-of-truth. Opposing arguments are to be caricatured, statistics to be twisted, examples to be cherry-picked. The audience is to be entertained or even enraged as much as persuaded. Politics rewards anger and in-group loyalty.

When one is used to examining every scrap of evidence as possible ammunition, it becomes hard to use them to navigate towards a truly solid conclusion, or sometimes towards any conclusions at all: just think of Boris Johnson’s notorious pair of opinion columns, one arguing for Brexit and the other, unpublished, arguing the opposite. Such rhetorical gymnastics are familiar to anyone who has spent time in a debate club. They create the illusion of giving the pros and cons a thorough testing. But now that Brexit is happening, the illusion has faded; we realise the referendum barely scratched the surface of the real issues.

In the early spring, coronavirus shouldered Brexit to one side. It presented us with a common enemy, impervious to spin and misinformation. Amid the anxiety and the sorrow, I found something refreshing about reporting on an issue where people actually wanted to understand, rather than use to defeat their political opponents.

But it did not take long for the polarisation to creep back in. Somehow we have now managed to start a culture war about a pandemic. There is a vociferous chorus of lockdown “sceptics” and Covid alarmists.

The alarmists have natural allies in the media’s love of tragic yet unrepresentative tales of young people slain by the mysterious illness, or worrying reports of “long Covid” symptoms presented without any sense of whether such symptoms are common.

The so-called sceptics, who lack any of the doubt about jumping to conclusions that defines the proper use of that word, are—if anything—even louder. They have moved steadily from one talking point to another: that the virus might be vastly more common—and thus less deadly—than it seemed; that a kind of herd immunity might be in easy reach; that people were “dying with” rather than “dying of” Covid-19; that the virus was mutating to become less dangerous; and most recently, that the number of cases was dramatically overstated because tests were producing so many false positives.

There is something in most of these claims, from both sides. But my point is not that if there is truth on both sides, the centre ground must be right. It is that this grand “clash of ideas” is not bringing us any closer to understanding the truth.

This is a disturbing conclusion. I grew up thinking that the truth was most likely to emerge from a process of intellectual disputation. It does not seem to be working out that way.

We all have a tendency to think with our hearts rather than our heads, and that tendency is sharpened, not dulled, by a vociferous argument. Wishful thinking, tribal loyalty, and tortured logic are ever-present pitfalls, but the pits yawn wider and deeper once a few alpha chimps are yelling at each other about “covidiots” and “face-nappies.”

A disheartening autumn provides us with an interesting case in point. At the end of August, the virus seemed to be in retreat. The prevalence survey published by the Office for National Statistics on 4th September, covering late August, suggested that infections had fallen to 36 per million people per day in England. Even for the highly vulnerable, the risk of taking a day out was looking small. But then each new week showed a large increase, and by 25th September, the estimate of infections was up to 175 per million people per day—mostly in the under-35s, and mostly in London and the north of England.

Those are the facts. But the facts were not of much interest: cabinet ministers blamed the public, lockdown sceptics blamed false positives, and newspaper columnists mocked the government for reversing its stance from “get back to the office” to “actually, stay at home.”

Everyone got their zingers in, but an ordinary citizen, trying to weigh up the health risks she faces, her responsibility to keep others safe, and the threats to her livelihood, is none the wiser. The personal risk remains low for most people, but the fact that cases have risen so rapidly suggests that we have a real challenge on our hands.

The truth, it turns out, is complicated. But complicated is no way to win a shouting match. If we want to understand the virus—and, for that matter, anything else in a complex world—we must first give up on the illusion that what passes for public “debate” is about anything more than scoring cheap points, which inevitably come at the cost of the whole truth.

Written for and first published in Prospect Magazine on 2 October 2020.

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Tim Harford
Tim is an economist, journalist and broadcaster. He is author of “Messy” and the million-selling “The Undercover Economist”, a senior columnist at the Financial Times, and the presenter of Radio 4’s “More or Less” and the iTunes-topping series “Fifty Things That Made the Modern Economy”. Tim has spoken at TED, PopTech and the Sydney Opera House and is a visiting fellow of Nuffield College, Oxford.

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