How Research-Driven Organizations Become Thought Leaders

Don’t Be a Riskhole

Too many authorities — mostly business pundits and journalists, but also some scientists, economists, psychologists and even doctors — continue to tell the rest of us we’re misreading the risks of COVID-19 and are overreacting to it in a fit of panic.

You may be one of those authorities.

Cut it out.

This isn’t a time for riskholes, my ungentle term for people who cast themselves as clear-eyed rationalists and everyone else as reactive slaves to their emotions and biases. (There really isn’t a time for riskholery, ever. But especially not now.)

Here’s riskholery distilled:

where “panic” and “dumb” describe any reaction of which the riskhole disapproves (and that doesn’t, not insignificantly, benefit the riskhole).

Riskholery also often masquerades as numeracy. Behold, for instance, the common trope that the risk of seasonal flu “presents a much greater threat than does the coronavirus,” used by the social psychologist David DeSteno three weeks ago. In late February, the economist Cass Sunstein wrote in Bloomberg Opinion that “the situation is very fluid, but as of now, most people in North America and Europe do not need to worry much about the risk of contracting the disease…even for people who are traveling to nations such as Italy.”

Both pieces, of course, were written before Italy was closed off by a plague wall.

Riskholery.

Researchers are especially susceptible to lapsing into riskholery, to the smug or angry lecturing tone of the righteous rationalist. To be kind, riskholery is undoubtedly a way for those in authority or at financial risk to manage their own anxieties about potential loss and lack of control. Oddly, it’s actually riskholery that’s irrational and premature about COVID-19 risk — that’s, in fact, risky.

Here’s an extreme example: Jon Henley’s story in The Guardian headlined “Coronavirus: nine reasons to be reassured,” listing reasons such as “We can test for it” (except that it takes three ER visits in New York City to get tested, symptomatic of the lack of test scaling in the United States) and “Hundreds of scientific articles have already been written about it” (true, but hardly reassuring). It’s textbook straw-grasping.

COVID-19 riskholes miss that the virus’s risk isn’t just about precisely how fast the virus is spreading, or its fatality rate. Calculating risk in this pandemic also must somehow gauge how your individual health will intersect and interact with the social, health and economic systems of your country, your state, your community — and many of us remain in high degrees of uncertainty about all of those variables.

For instance, I’m a man in my 50s — which puts me theoretically at slightly elevated risk of complications from the virus. I also have ulcerative colitis — an autoimmune disease for which I’m treated with Remicade, a big-gun immunosuppressant. I live in the Washington, DC area, which is just seeing its first reported COVID-19 outbreaks. But my country has lagged badly on testing and contact tracing, and it’s not clear when or if those measures will be available at scale in my area — so we don’t know how widespread the virus is here. We also don’t know how robust health systems in my area will be in the face of thousands or tens of thousands of cases of COVID-19.

So what’s my risk level? What should be my prudent level of social distancing? Should I be concerned about others that aren’t labeled a high risk but who might still be carriers? And should I be taking advice on these matters from Elon Musk, whose employees can’t work at home and who has several large dogs in the fight?

It’s time to call out riskholery as another kind of misinformation. It’s opposite isn’t panic. It’s uncertainty. And when we’re in a state of uncertainty, we need to be careful to not fall for the easy certainties of misinformation, and instead to “observe information hygiene,” as Dr. David Robert Grimes put it in a new long overview piece for the Irish Times on the risks and uncertainties about COVID-19.

The reality is that we simply don’t know enough yet about Covid-19 to ascertain how contagious it is nor how dangerous it will ultimately be, which is why a cautious, proactive approach is best maintained…Uncertainty is inevitable for the foreseeable interim, while the scientific and medical communities continue to put Herculean effort into better understanding the situation at hand.

DeSteno’s piece (“How Fear Distorts Our Thinking About the Coronavirus”) actually turns out to be a good one, because he ends up arguing that human beings can’t be rational when trapped in a fear state; instead, they should just listen to the experts. Unfortunately, the experts remain uncertain about much concerning COVID-19, and that uncertainty is extremely uncomfortable for the rest of us. As the renowned mathematician John Allen Paulos admitted several weeks ago in an opinion piece about how people are misreading the math of the coronavirus spread:

Even if only a small percentage of the people infected with COVID-19 die in the end, the death toll in absolute numbers could still be dreadful if the total population of infected turns out to be very large. However much we would like to know all the relevant facts about the coronavirus, we don’t know them right now, and we should accept the discomfort of that uncertainty.

Easier said than done. Especially for riskholes. The first step: wash your hands of them — and your own riskholery.