Seeing the Smoke

COVID-19 could be pretty bad for you. It could affect your travel plans as countries impose quarantines and close off borders. It could affect you materially as supply chains are disrupted and stock markets are falling. Even worse: you could get sick and suffer acute respiratory symptoms. Worse than that: someone you care about may die, likely an elderly relative.

But the worst thing that could happen is that you’re seen doing something about the coronavirus before you’re given permission to.

I’ll defend this statement in a minute, but first of all: I am now giving you permission to do something about COVID-19. You have permission to read up on the symptoms of the disease and how it spreads. Educate yourself on the best ways to avoid it. Stock up on obvious essentials such as food, water, soap, and medicine, as well as less obvious things like oxygen saturation monitors so you know if you need emergency care once you’re sick. You should decide ahead of time what your triggers are for changing your routines or turtling up at home.

In fact, you should go do all those things before reading the rest of the post. I am not going to provide any more factual justifications for preparing. If you’ve been following the news and doing the research, you can decide for yourself. And if instead of factual justification you’ve been following the cues of people around you to decide when it’s socially acceptable to prep for a pandemic, then all you need to know is that I’ve already put my reputation on the line as a coronaprepper.

Instead this post is about the strange fact that most people need social approval to prepare for a widely-reported pandemic.

Smoke Signals

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.

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 Rand 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 started 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?

Cognitive Reflection

Before Rationality gained a capital letter and a community, a psychologist developed a simple test to identify people who can override an intuitive and wrong answer with a reflective and correct one.

One of the questions is:

In a lake, there is a patch of lily pads. Every day, the patch doubles in size. If it takes 48 days for the patch to cover the entire lake, how long would it take for the patch to cover half of the lake?

Exponential growth is hard for people to grasp.  Most people answer ’24’ to the above question, or something random like ’35’. It’s counter-intuitive to people that the lily pads could be barely noticeable on day 44 and yet completely cover the lake on day 48.

Here’s another question, see if you can get it:

In an interconnected world, cases of a disease outside the country of origin are doubling every 5 days. The pace is slightly accelerating since it’s easier to contain a hundred sick people than it is to contain thousands. How much of a moron do you have to be as a journalist to quote statistics about the yearly toll of seasonal flu given a month of exponential global growth of a disease with 20 times the mortality rate?

ex china cases

Social Reality Strikes Again

Human intuition is bad at dealing with exponential growth but it’s very good at one thing: not looking weird in front of your peers. It’s so good at this, in fact, that the desire to not look weird will override most incentives.

Journalists would rather miss out on the biggest story of the decade than stick their neck out with an alarmist article. Traders would rather miss out on billions of dollars of profits. People would rather get sick than be weird.

Even today, most people I’ve spoken to refuse to do minimal prep for what could be the worst pandemic in a century. It costs $100 to stock up your house with a month’s worth of dry food and disinfectant wipes (respirators, however, are now sold out or going for 4x the price). People keep waiting for the government to do something, even though the government has proven its incompetence on this matter several times over.

I think I would replace the Cognitive Reflection Test with a single question: would you eat a handful of coffee beans if someone told you it was worth trying? Or in other words: do you understand that social reality can diverge from physical reality, the reality of coffee beans and viruses?

Social thinking is quite sufficient for most people in usual times. But this is an unusual time.

Seeing the Smoke

The goal of this article isn’t to get all my readers to freak out about the virus. Aside from selling the equities, all the prep I’ve done was to stock a month of necessities so I can work from home and to hold off on booking flights for a trip I had planned for April.

The goal of this post is twofold. First, if you’re the sort of person who will keep sitting in a smoke filled room until someone else gets up, I’m here to be that someone for you. If you’re a regular reader of Putanumonit, you probably respect my judgment and you know that I’m not particularly prone to getting sucked-in to panics and trends.

And second, if you watched that video thinking that you would obviously jump out of the room at the first hint of smoke, ask yourself how much research and preparation you’ve done for COVID-19 given the information available. If the answer is “little to none”, consider whether that is rational or rationalizing.

I could wait to write this post two months from now when it’s clear how big of an outbreak occurs in the US. I’m not an expert on viral diseases, global supply chains, or prepping. I don’t have special information or connections. My only differentiation is that I care a bit less than others about appearing weird or foolish, and I trust a bit more in my own judgment

Seeing the smoke and reacting is a learnable skill, and I’m going to give credit to Rationality for teaching it. I think COVID-19 is the best exam for Rationalists doing much better than “common sense” since Bitcoin. So instead of waiting two months, I’m submitting my answer for reality to grade. I think I’m seeing smoke.

66 thoughts on “Seeing the Smoke

  1. How do you get 20x mortality? Outside Wuhan the mortality seems to be slightly higher than Flu. Inside Wuhan, due to limitations of testing capacity, the number or infected cases are probably vastly understated. If you simply do Bayesian analysis on samples out of Wuhan (say the original evacuation flights by various countries out of Wuhan) it seems to suggest that the true number of cases may be 10-20x higher. Of course, the fatalities are also understated but my guess is that it would be tougher for them to be understated by that much.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. The number of cases 2-4 weeks ago are likely to be much higher than the official number, so the real mortality rate is probably lower than 2%. Good case study is the cruise ship Diamond Princess because the numbers are very clear there. 706 infected out of 3711 passengers (19%), 6 deaths (0.85%). Most of the infected have recovered or are recovering by now, so the number of deaths are unlikely to increase significantly.


        1. So I should be reassured that the real death rate is only 8.5x higher than the flu?

          But of course, deaths increased by 66% to 10. So the rate was 1.25%.


  2. It is not about ‘Confirmed’ cases, it is about ‘Infected’ cases.
    Fact checks:
    – based on China reports (granted, might not be correct), Infected cases are in the decline (rest of the World on the increase)
    – did you compare it with ‘normal’ flu?
    – in the US alone: 280,000 – 500,000 hospitalized, 6,000 – 41,000 flu deaths (

    What is worrying compared to ‘normal’ flu:
    – % Deaths / Confirmed (seems 5-10x higher)
    – Recovery time (seems 3-5x longer)
    (can be computed from:

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I don’t have the link handy but there were reports the other day from the WHO ground team in Wuhan saying that there was no evidence of a large number of undetected mild/asymptomatic cases


  3. Good post, I agree that in the last week or so the balance has shifted and it’s now a good idea to make some simple preparations for disruption. The official narrative seems to be a bit behind but it will catch up once domestic transmission is established.

    You really don’t need a pulse oximeter though. If you are an otherwise healthy young person and are sick enough to be hypoxic you will know it without one.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. What makes preppers think we’ll need only a month of supplies? What happens after a month? This thing won’t die down in a month. I think it’ll get worse and worse until a vaccine comes to market.


    1. Shops will continue to remain open until either there is a major disease outbreak in your local community, or your local community is quarantined to prevent a major local outbreak. For a disease that runs its course in a couple weeks, a major outbreak large enough to close shops is likely to only last a couple weeks until enough people are recovered to open up again.

      Quarantines are harder to predict, but are also likely to be temporary (especially since they will kill more people than the disease itself, if we haven’t reached a situation where the majority of people are stocked for more than a month).


  5. You are a good person for posting this.

    It is obviously correct to take some basic preparation, and it is also extremely likely you will look foolish in six months for doing so.


  6. J, thanks for such an informative and much needed post. COVID-19 shows how a new, theoretically not-so-dangerous pathogen (compared to many existing ones) can rapidly disrupt the global economy and society. All it needed was just a slightly higher contagiousness and mortality rate (compared to flu) in the globalized world lacking tight, coordinated procedures. Time for prepping and moderate vigilance.

    I’m glad to see that despite all the common rationalist failure modes involving reinventing the wheel, over-complicating regular stuff and wasting time on unhelpful self-help, we can claim some advantages – tail risks and black swans are what we get really well compared to the general population.

    The weakest point, I would say, is associating the rationalist approach with advocating for the wider adoption of “unusual things that remained unusual for good and well-known reasons”, like polyamory replacing the social incentivization of monogamy and the formation of nuclear family units:


    1. For all my great admiration for Ms. Lehmann:
      1. She’s never been in a polyamorous relationship, while I’ve been in both kinds.
      2. Equating conscientious egalitarian polyamory with religious cults and polygamous families is more of a slur than an argument.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. This proves that the poly model might be a good fit for people like you and not for people like her. Different preferences/experiences of two people tell us little about the global cultural shifts and their consequences – but we can infer more information from the studies and historical experiences (some cited by Claire). These put non-monogamy in a rather bad light, and certainly do not support the claim that it’s a reflective/correct alternative to the intuitive/wrong approach.
        How is it a slur? Poly families are a natural continuation of poly relationships for people interested in common long-term life plans, like cohabitation, having kids and taking care of each other when they’re sick or old. I assume you argued in favor of marrying and pro-natalism, so Claire’s point would be applicable here.

        If “conscientious egalitarian polyamory” were a real thing, it would be rapidly adopted by the divided, connection-craving society without any additional pressure. The number of MGTOWs and separatist feminists would become negligibly low. Unfortunately, polyamory boosts rather than curtails hypergamy, one of the most anti-egalitarian forces in the world: it is literally the exclusionary selection for traits that are unrelated, if not conflicted with creating a stable and supportive society. It was assortative monogamy that promoted relationship egalitarianism, as it matched people from the same attractiveness brackets.

        (Poly) women do not use System 2 to compromise on their attitudes (standards, efforts, accessibility, commitment) because of any utilitarian concern for the greatest happiness of all. Let me know if you ever witness such a case, and then I’ll forward it to WHO so they can conduct proper research and make it contagious.


  7. would you eat a handful of coffee beans if someone told you it was worth trying

    Eating coffee beans is awesome though. Like I’m not even pranking you. Back before I replaced my coffee habit with an adderall habit, sometimes I would just grab a handful of espresso beans and just kind of mindlessly munch on them for an hour while coding. They’re actually awesome. You should do it. Not because I am peer pressuring you, but as an experiment that you decide to try, and then as a good idea that you independently decide is great


    1. @Gpoas

      I think that’s the point, if you follow up on the associated link. “Are you willing to do things that sound weird?”


  8. I don’t think that the naive exponential growth model is likely to hold. The last few virus panics, like ebola had exponential growth for a bit, and then levelled off. It might be worth preparing for it getting really bad, just in case.
    I am not sure why this happens, maybe human preparedness lowers the branching factor. If each person with the virus passes it to 2 others, but you can’t get it twice, at first it grows exponentially, but if most of your friends have the virus, there is no-one new to pass it on to. The virus is limited by the dimensionality of human interactions. Maybe these viruses spread throughout only the most squalid places? Maybe its easier to find the majority of carriers if there are millions of them?


      1. Thank god this one turned out to be basically false.

        (Yes, a few people have caught it twice. But there’s been tens of millions of cases, globally, and a literal handful of reinfections. For practical purposes, people who’ve had it once are immune.)


  9. I put 10% of my portfolio into put options a few weeks before this latest downturn (when it was obvious the economy was borked, but somehow hitting all time highs).

    I was an early bitcoin investor too with 10% of my portfolio at the time.

    Sometimes you just need to see the Bayesian logic of what others don’t and then go ahead and pull the trigger with a small amount, where you win massively if you are right, and a small recoverable loss if wrong.

    I am probably very non-agreeable and don’t care anywhere close to the average about societal approval. Has it’s advantages and disadvantages I guess.

    My puts are pretty deep out of the money march2021 strikes for the most part (already up 200%). My analysis and logic is telling me that this is going to get A LOT worse (economically) before it gets better.

    For comparison, world GDP only fell about 5% per year during the great depression. This could EASILY rival that. I have a lot more bayesian logic and mental models around this but I won’t bore you with too many details, it would take too long. But in short this is the perfect storm of high equity valuations, overleverage, continued reduced supply & demand shocks, inadequate american health systems, globalization & just in time manufacturing, no redundancy in any systems.

    Good luck everyone. If things play out as I expect I might be able to retire at 25… (Sorry to everyone this will affect, but profiting at the bankers expense is a positive side effect).


  10. Pingback: New top story on Hacker News: Seeing the Smoke – The Pakistani News Corner
  11. If you want to laugh, I took this less seriously because it was constantly being bruited about on alt-right sites like Unz, which in addition to clever but politically incorrect writers like Steve Sailer, has guys going on about how the blood libel was actually true, 9/11 was done by Israelis, and so on.


  12. Just one thing to add to the mix, @ScottAdamsSays asks the question: “…how (do) we estimate the death rate for Coronavirus without knowing the denominator?


  13. Yeah but if you dont have storage space to stock up on such dry goods where do you keep them?

    I also go to the gym to lift weights, usually with friends.
    Should I stop and replace it with non sociable and non gym based exercise ( that I don’t enjoy as much and doesn’t fit my fitness goals)?
    If we were in a highly transmissable ebola epidemic then obviously yes, and I wouldn’t be coming to work either, would start carrying weapons when outside and would react with pre emptive violence towards anyone coming within spitting distance, etc in order to avoid an 80% chance of death.

    Am I foolish for not doing that for coronavirus?

    If the consequences of preparing for coronavirus are catastrophic to me if coronavirus doesn’t massively damage ( i mean breakdown in social cohesion, widespread if not ubiquitous riots, pogroms, etc the full full lot), and tautologically catastrophic if that does happen then why bother?

    I really don’t get it.

    The only ways to prepare for this that are within the realms.of practicality for me are to literally do nothing.


  14. This was the post that first got me to take it seriously when I read it the day it came out. Before reading it I obviously knew about Coronavirus, but hadn’t thought about it too much because I assumed that if the markets weren’t worried I shouldn’t be worried.

    I started worrying. And stocking up on food and groceries and all the rest of it. It seems like the rest of Australia didn’t do the same until just last week, so thanks to you I’ve got an ever better than usual stocked pantry and freezer etc.

    I’ve pulled my kid out of school (schools aren’t shut yet) and we’re basically in lockdown mode as much as possible. The grandparents have been told we’re not seeing them for a while, for their health, and that they should be keeping themselves away from other people as much as possible.

    So thanks very much for the post, you’re looking very prescient now!


  15. You say that this is a skill rationality “teaches”. I don’t really doubt that, but all of the steps are quite easy to make: it’s simple math and research, no different from anything in school.

    Instead, I bet being part of the rationalist community makes you have fellow dissenters, so being weird no longer is weird. That’s what that Asche conformity experiments show: while people will conform, if there is at least one other person who agrees with you, you will break away.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s