Smoke signals and COVID-19

In a terrific blog post Jacob Falkovich cites a famous psychology experiment:

Most people sitting alone in a room will quickly get out if it starts filling up with smoke. But if two other people in the room seem unperturbed, almost everyone will stay put. That is the result of a famous experiment from the 1960s and its replications — people will sit and nervously look around at their peers for 20 minutes even as the thick smoke starts obscuring their vision.

He then goes on to show how this human frailty might explain why the general public (as distinct from epidemiologists) was so slow to appreciate the risk from the virus.

The coronavirus was identified on January 7th and spread outside China by January 13th. American media ran some stories about how you should worry about the seasonal flu instead. The markets didn’t budge. Rationalist Twitter started tweeting excitedly about R0 and supply chains.

Over the next two weeks Chinese COVID cases kept climbing at 60%/day reaching 17,000 by February 2nd. Cases were confirmed in Europe and the US. The WHO declared a global emergency. The former FDA commissioner explained why a law technicality made it illegal for US hospitals to test people for coronavirus, implying that we have no actual idea how many Americans have contracted the disease. Everyone mostly ignored him including all major media publications, and equity markets hit an all time high. By this point several Rationalists in Silicon Valley and elsewhere started seriously prepping for a pandemic and canceling large gatherings.

On February 13th, Vox published a story mocking people in Silicon Valley for worrying about COVID-19. The article contained multiple factual mistakes about the virus and the opinions of public health experts.

On the 17th, Eliezer asked how markets should react to an obvious looming pandemic. Most people agreed that the markets should freak out and aren’t. Most people decided to trust the markets over their own judgment. As an avowed efficient marketeer who hasn’t made an active stock trade in a decade, I stared at that Tweet for a long time. I stared at it some more. Then I went ahead and sold 10% of the stocks I owned and started buying respirators and beans.

By the 21st, the pandemic and its concomitant fears hit everywhere from Iran to Italy while in the US thousands of people were asked to self-quarantine. Most elected officials in the US seemed utterly unaware that anything was happening. CNN ran a front page story about the real enemies being racism and the seasonal flu.

This week the spell began to lift at last. The stock market tumbled 7%. WaPo squeezed out one more story about racism before confirming that the virus is spreading among Americans with no links to Wuhan and that’s scary. Trump decided to throw his vice president under the coronavirus bus, finally admitting that it’s a thing that the government is aware of.

And Rationalist Twitter asked: what the fuck is wrong with everyone who is not on Rationalist Twitter?

Great post. It’s also about public understanding (or lack thereof) and journalistic (in)capacity.