Opinion column: Expert models, fear create stress pandemic

Thomas W. Smith Guest columnist

Thomas W. Smith Guest columnist

“It’s the science, the science, the science, not politics.” This from leaders calling for the continuation of the shutdown.

It is “the science” they say they’re responding to when they tell us how to live every moment of our waking lives. It is the science that tells citizens in Michigan not to buy seeds, not to take their boats out on the lake. It is lifesaving not to go to church. It is lifesaving to wear masks even when you are walking in the park. It is lifesaving to stay six feet apart. Listen up. We, your leaders, have no choice. It’s the science. And remember, if you don’t listen to us, it’s death, and more death, everywhere death.

Apparently, our science-induced leadership has a formula to solve the virus pandemic: Science + (or x) Fear = The Virus Cure. In other words, shut down the economy. Again, there was no choice. Lives were at stake.

Here is what John Kay of the Financial Times has written about science: “The objective of science is not an agreement on a course of action but the pursuit of truth. … Science is a matter of evidence. … The route to knowledge is transparency. … The route to truth is the pluralistic expression of conflicting views. … There is no room in the process for any notion of scientific consensus.”

We are constantly told that it is science, not politics, that drives every detail of the Shut-Down-the-Economy virus cure. No hugging. It is life threatening. The six feet apart dictation does not only address the perceived health risk of hugging. It is economically devastating, especially to restaurants. But to take economics into account is to be considered immoral by the Shut-Down-the-Economy experts even though the stress from losing one’s business is also life threatening.

Germany and France, for instance, must have different scientists, different research reports, different models when it comes to no hugging. You are risking your life if you do not stay three feet apart. Maybe we should have a conference of experts with the three-footers on one side of the table and the six-footers on the other and go with the winner. Sweden would not have a representative at the table. Swedes are told to use their judgement when it comes to hugs.

So much for the science factor of the decision-making equation. Let us examine the fear component of the formula.

In retrospect, the experts apparently believed they had no choice. They were facing a horrific virus pandemic. There was the influential model from a highly respected institution, a highly respected scholar, an adviser to the British government for many years on pandemics. The model stated, to the world, that 2 million Americans would die. Now, that is scary. It had to be addressed. So the virus-curing equation of Science + (or x) Fear produced an equally revolutionary cure. Shut Down the Economy. A revolutionary cure for a revolutionary virus. A never-done-before-in-the-history-of-the-world cure. There were no Shut-Down-the-Economy experts involved in the Shut-Down-the-Economy decision. In fact, there are no Shut-Down-the-Economy experts. There is no Shut-Down-the-Economy model. Never in history has the economy been shut down.

We have had viruses before, however. There are numerous virus experts in the world. Out of the gate comes an influential, seemingly authoritative model for the virus. The expert, the longtime adviser to the British government on viruses, has since been hard pressed to explain how the model he came up with was so wildly wrong. Experts use models to help them think about the future. It is not unusual for them to create models. They know that small adjustments to the assumptions that go into models can create dramatic differences in the results.

Given this model’s horrendous projection, given its early-on influence, it is hard to imagine the model not being immediately challenged. While the model and the modeler were eventually exposed, the fear it helped create has not only remained, it has grown. Fear has a tendency to do that.

Stop people from going to work. Isolate them. Close businesses. Keep people from going to church. Close schools. Stay six feet apart. Wear masks. Stay cooped up for months. Do not touch anything. Scary. Fearful. Stressful. More alcohol. More dope. More domestic abuse. The stress of it all. Ongoing for months.

The so-called science produced another scourge for which there were no experts: the Stress Pandemic. Think about what it can do to a democratic government, to the health of the economy, to the mental and physical well-being of citizens. This is truly frightening to contemplate. Should not that fear, that stress cause one to think hard before administering a cure that puts human activity in a straitjacket, especially since doing so has never in history been done before?

That was a question explored by respected medical researchers Scott W. Atlas, John R. Birge, Ralph L. Keeney, and Alexander Lipton. The headline on their essay reveals a stark conclusion: “The COVID-19 Shutdown Will Cost Americans Millions of Years of Life.” They calculate the shockingly high cost of the Shut-Down-the-Economy Stress Pandemic, not just to the mental and physical health throughout the country – and not just to the economy – but to living standards for years to come.

All of this suggests we must be careful about putting our lives in the hands of experts. Experts are human. And most have expertise in a specific area of knowledge. To achieve expert status requires a life devoted to the subject. But even the best human minds are constrained by the limits of time. And rare is the person who has expertise in more than one scientific endeavor. Are these highly intelligent people? Are they devoted to their fields? Hard-working? Well educated? Yes, to all of that. Their work, their commitment, have brought great progress to the world.

Unfortunately, as Friedrich Hayek pointed out in his Nobel Prize address, “The Pretense of Knowledge” (a title applicable far too often today), there is an unfortunate tendency on the part of those in the expert class to think they know more than is knowable, which he labelled the “fatal conceit.”

To address this Shut-Down-the-Economy-created Stress Pandemic, we have to open up the economy as soon as possible. We must recognize the grave danger that comes from isolating the human being. The human being is a social animal. The cost of isolation has become increasingly obvious. Recognize that human beings are not as dumb as our leaders seem to think. Let them decide whether to buy seeds. We need to quickly create an environment that is conducive for businesses to hire, to take risks so as to fulfill the needs and wants of the human family. We have to work to eliminate fear with rationality, with common sense. We have to continue to communicate, continue to educate.

We need leaders who understand that we’ve had viruses before, pandemic viruses. That we did not shut down the economy before. We need leaders who demonstrate that they are determined to bring the country together, to solve the problem, rather than using the problem to further a political agenda designed to buy votes.

If the world is again to enjoy the extraordinary progress enjoyed in the last 250-plus years, it will continue to come from innovation and creativity, not from science-induced leadership. The most fertile environment for innovation and creativity derives from maximum personal liberty, minimum government, the validity of which is again clearly, painfully before us today. Political leaders, at the very least, get out of the way. Have the common sense, the humility, to avoid the Pretense of Knowledge.

Thomas W. Smith Guest columnist
https://www.galioninquirer.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/38/2020/07/web1_Thomas-W.-Smith.jpgThomas W. Smith Guest columnist

Thomas W. Smith is chairman of OpenTheBooks.com.

Thomas W. Smith is chairman of OpenTheBooks.com.