Climate Change and COVID-19 Show our Inability to Judge Risk | Laurie Wastell

We all know the script. The problem before us is an existential threat; the media has told us so. Drastic action has to be taken right now, before it is too late, experts say. If you disagree with the response, you clearly don’t understand the issue; otherwise, you are selfish and unfeeling in the face of tragedy. In any case, the science is settled (though it keeps changing). The policy consensus is clearly the right one; the only debate to be had is whether it is being implemented forcefully enough. And our leaders sermonise the public about their solemn duty to follow the new rules, even as they flagrantly break them.

COVID-19 and climate change, the two Great Crises of our time, are remarkably similar in their media-political structure. Indeed, comparing these issues side by side, their contours are so alike that they bring our collective decision-making process into sharp relief – along with the painful irrationalism so characteristic of it.

This is not the place to provide a full taxonomy of the unintended consequences of lockdown or the dangers of climate alarmism (for more detail, I recommend Bjorn Lomborg’s False Alarm, on climate change, and Laura Dodsworth’s A State of Fear on the UK’s Covid response, along with the Daily Sceptic). Suffice to say, however, that general perceptions of the risks of both of these problems are overblown, and that because of this, the policy response to each likely does more harm than good. The problem I will focus on here is not what should have been done, but how flaws in our cognition and social psychology lead us to this warped perception of risk in the first place.

The simplest of these is a cognitive bias that is built right into our brains, what psychologist Daniel Kahneman calls the “availability heuristic”. In estimating the likelihood, size or frequency of something, we typically use a mental shortcut: “How many instances of this phenomenon can I easily recall?” Plane crashes are reported on the news, car crashes are not; accordingly, we perceive air travel as far riskier than driving, even though the reverse is true. We guess about probabilities based on what we can remember and what we have heard. What’s more, these guesses are mediated heavily by the emotion associated with the memory. This means that if we have a highly emotive, easily recallable story close at hand, we believe it to be a major threat. This bias coupled with the nature of media reporting inevitably leads to a vast exaggeration of risk in our minds.

Competing for attention, the media is always incentivised to cover the most shocking stories in the most emotive way possible. On top of this, journalists increasingly see their role as to persuade rather than to document – the unenlightened, intransigent public must be shown the way. Together, these two factors result in coverage that is overwhelmingly one-sided, a steady drip-feed of alarmism and fear. This is exacerbated by the insidious and worryingly undemocratic trend of broadcasters and the government using “nudges” to influence public opinion. For instance, after a wildly successful pandemic for the government’s Behavioural Insights Team, Sky is now collaborating with this unelected body to nudge viewers on climate change. Money quote: “The public have proved to be incredibly sheepish, so there’s more nudge coming.” 

The second problem is that countervailing evidence doesn’t make the news, further skewing perceptions. On climate change, nowhere do we hear the report: “Flood doesn’t happen”, nor “Wildfire successfully put out”; only disasters make headlines. Gut-wrenching footage with little context leads to the perception that such events are dramatically increasing in frequency, while the reality is that deaths from natural disasters have fallen by 92% in the past 100 years, and continue to. With COVID, deaths are reported but never recoveries; alarming predictions of skyrocketing cases make the news, while we hear nothing as these predictions are repeatedly falsified. As a result of all this, we significantly overestimate the risks associated with both COVID-19 and climate change.

The flaw in such coverage is that it does not help us to understand these issues scientifically – dispassionately assessing the weight and scale of a problem – but rather to categorise them emotionally. And once a phenomenon has been pigeonholed into the category of “existential threat”, it becomes very difficult to reason people out of. The scientific and normative viewpoints cannot help but talk past each other; any attempt to give proportion is seen as denying emotions associated with the problem, and is met with corresponding outrage. Lizard brains cannot effectively judge risk.

But as bad as we are at assessing risk at a societal scale, we are very good at being tribal. Within weeks of lockdown, a new set of epithets had emerged – “Covid-denier, Covidiot, lockdown-sceptic, anti-vaxxer” – with which to separate the herd from the other.

The “-denier” epithet is particularly effective because it leverages ideas of tribal identity and moral purity against the dissenter. Callously trading on the connotations of the term “Holocaust denier”, it evokes the visceral disgust of a social consensus against someone that has violated one of its sacred norms. On top of this, it irresponsibly conflates opinion and identity – a given controversial idea is not presented merely as someone’s belief, claim or hypothesis, but the very essence of this individual. One doesn’t merely disagree with lockdown, one is a “Covid-denier”. Essentializing an out-group is an easy way of smearing opposing viewpoints, lumping together disparate dissenters under one hated rubric. Indeed, the BBC has already begun this effort in earnest, with its Witchfinder General (“Specialist disinformation reporter”) running a hit piece aimed at both Covid and climate heretics (“conspiracists”).   

“Heretics” is accurate. As G.K. Chesterton wrote: “When a man stops believing in God, he doesn’t believe in nothing, he believes in anything.” Today with religion on life-support and the promise of continued progress and prosperity increasingly remote, the liberal Western mind craves a story, a cause to rally behind. Fighting an apocalyptic threat is quite a tale; there are great psychological benefits to imagine oneself one of the righteous in such an epic narrative. God may be dead in the 21st century, but the worst elements of the religious instinct – superstition, dogma, witch-hunts, fanaticism – are alive and kicking your door in. Thankfully, this fervour does not yet apply to all policy problems; no one will be labelled an “HS2-denier” until transport policy – God forbid – can be made into a hysterical, Manichean narrative.

Undoubtedly, alarmist reporting benefits the media’s bottom line, and politicians gain power and prestige when they are perceived to be saving the world. Yet these needn’t be viewed as a conspiracy. In a way, it would be more comforting if it were – at least then somebody would be benefitting. But Big Lockdown and Big Climate Change are not working together behind the scenes to enforce their sinister agenda for private gain. Instead, Hanlon’s Razor provides a simpler, though less satisfying, explanation. The philosophical maxim advises: “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained through stupidity.” Dispiriting as it may sound, our inability to assess risk as a society is largely a result of human haplessness; not everything happens for a reason. Indeed, most of what goes on in our politics happens in spite of it.

One of the most persistent canards of the pro-lockdown consensus was that dissenters were somehow immoral – too stupid or selfish to do what was necessary for the greater good. It would be ironic then for me to smear its proponents as doing so because they simply didn’t care if people died, labelling them collectively as sinister, pro-lockdown authoritarians in it for their own agenda. Nor do I doubt that many climate activists sincerely believe they are saving the world; most people are not evil, they are simply misguided.

Lurking beneath this debate lie two opposing views of social causation, with radically different implications for how we understand virtue as a society. Thomas Sowell sets out this dichotomy in his landmark work in political theory, A Conflict of Visions:  should we give priority to intention or outcome? For the idealistic “unconstrained vision”, virtue consists in good intentions: decision-makers must be true of heart and do what they think is best. By contrast, the realist “constrained vision” prioritises wisdom and prudence: intention matters little compared to outcome. True enough, the moral idea of intention is foundational to our legal system, and must rule in the individual realm. But at the level of society, of policies affecting millions, outcome is surely King. Good intentions mean nothing if they are attached to bad ideas. And talk is cheap: the pervasiveness of empty virtue-signalling today is a symptom of a society that persistently mistakes words for deeds.

The core of Sowell’s constrained vision is the recognition that there are never solutions, only trade-offs. If we as a society could swallow this realist pill – that is, if we could face up to reality – we would recognise that sentimentality in public life is not a virtue, but a vice. To make effective policy, we must abandon the childish approach to the world that asks not “What should be done?” but “Who cares the most?”. Our cognitive biases and human nature are designed for a simple moral world at an individual scale. When it comes to matters of complex public policy, of weighing the effects and unintended consequences of decisions affecting millions, our moral psychology and tribal behaviour do more harm than good.

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