Changing British Minds
Even a year after the fact, it’s difficult to compile an accurate timeline of the UK Government’s thinking on COVID and how it changed in spring 2020.
The first COVID case in the UK was confirmed on January 31. Spread continued throughout February, and the British government published its first Coronavirus action plan on March 3. It focused on the tracing and isolation of known cases while saying that it “will aim to minimise the social and economic impact” and that “it may be that widespread exposure in the UK is inevitable”.
The decisions ultimately came down to PM Boris Johnson and his chief adviser, Dominic Cummings. At the beginning of March, according to the Sunday Times, Cummings leaned towards a strategy of herd immunity: having the majority of the UK’s population catch the virus throughout the summer months to protect the economy and put Britain in the clear by winter. The PM’s office denied this claim and alleged that the quotes attributed to Cummings by the Sunday Times were fabricated. In any case there were clearly heated debates within Johnson’s inner circle on the costs and benefits of mitigation.
Whatever the stance was in the first two weeks of March, by March 12 things began to shift. The strategic advisory group of experts warned that the UK would suffer 500,000 deaths if the virus was left unmitigated, and Cummings himself began pushing vigorously for a shut down. The UK Government began implementing mitigation measures on March 13, and on March 23 announced a full lockdown of the entire nation. The UK spring COVID wave peaked at 70 daily cases per million, significantly below the US and many European nations.
Oh, there’s one other thing that may have changed the mind of Dominic Cummings and the fate of Britain in early March.
The four hours I spent writing Seeing the Smoke on a whim were more impactful than projects I spent months of my life on. I calculated that if just 1% of the 20,000 people who read that post the week it came out avoided catching COVID and infecting others during a period when the curve was steepening, the post probably saved several lives. To learn that my post impacted policy for 67 million Britons is a whole other level of bonkers.
I’m struggling a bit to make sense of it all. My immediate motivation for writing is simply to get the thoughts out of my head, along with a cycle of anxiety about disappointing my readers if I go too long between posts. Aside from the satisfaction of having my post out there, my main reward for writing is making friends — even in 2020 I talked online or in person with dozens of people who I connected with in part because of the blog. On occasion I find out that some famous person mentioned one of my posts on a podcast or something. It’s always a pleasant surprise, but I’m never sure what to do with this. I don’t write to become famous and change the world. And yet somehow…
My first thoughts when Cummings mentioned that my post influenced British COVID policy was: holy shit! My second: if I had known you will read it, I would have written a better post! I would have done more research. I would have thought more about the impact of government interventions. I would have made some quantified predictions and recommended specific policies.
None of that would have made the post any better or more useful. In late February I didn’t know of a better policy beyond “shut everything down including travel and take some time to think this through”. By the middle of March I was convinced of the Hammer and Dance approach: suppress the pandemic by instituting complete shut downs (including travel) at the first sign of R0>1, since the timeliness of lockdown is the most important factor in their success. Then re-open equally quickly to maximize the proportion of time in non-lockdown over the 1-2 years it would take to make vaccines. In my understanding, this is basically the strategy that Australia and New Zealand successfully executed.
But on the day Hammer and Dance was published the UK already had 10 times New Zealand’s per capita case rate and R0 north of 2. As a result, the lockdown in the UK dragged into the summer instead of lasting only 3-4 weeks. The government had to make up for the economic damage with schemes like “eat out to help out” (that’s what she said) in the summer, then suffered a second COVID wave in the fall that inflicted all the damage the spring lockdown was supposed to avoid and likely gave rise to the more dangerous B1.1.7 variant.
Even with a year of hindsight and my current understanding of political pressures, lockdown fatigue, and equilibrating control systems, I’m not confident whether it was good or bad for the UK to lock down in March 2020. In the moment I was surely no wiser.
Would I have made a bigger impact by focusing more on COVID research and running the numbers? In March I was busy reading up on hydroxychloroquine, which turned out to be mostly a waste of time. In June I was doing math to convince people that it’s safe to meet up with small groups of friends, but all the people who hailed my genius in February now called me irresponsible and arrogant. It turns out that they needed permission to start worrying about COVID in the spring, but didn’t want permission to stop worrying in the summer.
In December I wrote a follow up post about the B1.1.7 variant, predicting a relatively high chance of massive infection wave in the spring. Judging by the recent uptick in cases I got the timing and importance of new strains right, as well as the reluctance to lock down. But I downplayed the possibility of vaccines having a big impact, which they have. William Kiely got the vaccine math spot-on in the comments, but I don’t know if many people read that or cared. The main impact of that post may have been to get people into an options trade that ended up losing all the money.
So: I’m not a COVID expert, and playing one on the internet is not a reliable way for me to have a major positive impact on the world. But the original post wasn’t really about COVID. It was public psychology, how people act as if appearing weird is worse than any disease, and that this is true not just of media consumers but also of the journalists and “experts” who produce it. What impact could I have through this deep and novel understanding of how everyone thinks?
Thinking that one understands how the public thinks and how to shape it invites the worst sort of hubris.
While the idea of benevolent rulers shaping the public mind goes back at least to Plato, it’s most recent incarnation goes back to the 2008 book Nudge by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein. The book repeats the Kahnemanian critique of “homo economicus” and gives some common sense advice that people knew long before Kahneman was born, such as that shoppers are more likely to pick the items displayed at eye level on the shelf. It then pivots to a defense of “libertarian paternalism” — a doctrine of shaping the public mind through control of the public’s choices by the government.
“Libertarian paternalism” is really a rebranding of “manufacturing consent” for democracies with some fuzzy anecdotes about cab driver tips and a patina of scientism. Sunstein himself is quite supportive of manufacturing consent by direct means, free speech be damned. In any case, Nudge landed Sunstein a job as the administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs under Obama, where presumably he proceeded to regulate and inform the nation according to his theories.
In 2020, every terrible decision made by the experts in charge was justified by appealing to the effects on public psychology. I don’t know if this was inspired or instigated by Sunstein directly, but I like to call this phenomenon nudgerism. I despise nudgerism.
Since one can invoke a “bias” for any side of any decision, you’d expect the universal application of nudgerism to have a 50% hit-rate. Yet somehow it seemed to do much worse than chance, probably because any non-terrible decision could be justified by actual evidence instead of the appeal to psychology.
COVID nudgerism started with Sunstein himself, of course. Other “experts” downplayed the risk of COVID to “prevent panic”. Then they told people not to wear masks or get tested to avoid “a false sense of security“. Scrubbing surfaces was still recommended, even though unlike masks and testing it probably doesn’t do shit for COVID. “Experts” said that challenge trials would reduce trust in the vaccine among normal people; normal people turned out to support challenge trials by an overwhelming 75-90% majority. “Experts” said that delaying the second dose of the vaccine or allowing the AstraZeneca shot would increase vaccine hesitancy. Britain delayed the second dose, is giving everyone AstraZeneca, and has the least vaccine hesitancy in the world. Probably the British government reads Marginal Revolution along with Putanumonit, and ignoring Sunstein.
I don’t think all these nudgers are wholly cynical about this. I think their inside view finds their theories of public psychology reasonable and valid. And while I will mock and deride them in any opportunity, I doubt I’d do better if I tried it myself. Not in small part because I’m an alien.
Coordinating Social Reality
A big theme in my writing since Seeing the Smoke has been coming to terms with the gargantuan gap between the way I think and the way most people do. It may even be wrong to use the word “think” for both. Michael Vassar says that what Rationalists call “thinking” is treated by most people as a rare technical ability (“design thinking”) that normal people can only pretend to do. What they call “thinking” we call “being depressed and anxious”. This sounded crazy when I first heard it, but the more I mulled it over the more it made sense and explained much of what has been happening in the last year.
Social reality is what is normal, accepted, cool, predictable, expected, rewarded, agreed upon. Physical reality is what is out there determining the outcomes of physical experiments, such as whether you get COVID or not if you wear a mask. When Rationalists say “thinking” they usually mean something like “using your effortful system 2 to determine something about physical reality”. It’s what I try to do when writing posts about COVID. Swimming in social reality is best done on feeling and intuition, not “thought”.
My experience is spending perhaps 97% of my time in social reality, swimming along with everyone else. 3% of the time I notice some confusion, an unexpected mismatch between my predictions and what physical reality hits me with, and try to think through a solution. 3% is enough to notice the difference between the two modes and to be able to switch between them on purpose.
I don’t think that this experience is typical.
With Vassar in mind, my best guess of the typical experience is being in social reality 99.9% of the time. The 0.1% are extreme shocks, cases when physical reality kicks someone so far off-script they are forced to confront it directly. These experiences are extremely unpleasant, and processing them appears as “depression and anxiety”. One looks at the first opportunity to dive back into the safety of social reality, in the form of a communal narrative that “makes sense” of what happened and suggests an appropriate course of action.
I think this explains why so many people don’t seem to notice or care that even institutions they consider to be “on their side”, like the CDC and the New York Times for the educated progressive tribe, are wrong or lying all the time. People look to those sources not for “truth” about physical reality but for coordination of social reality. The CDC’s job is to tell other institutions which policies they can implement and not get blamed for, not which policies will keep their clients healthy. People read the Times not to find out what happened where and when, but to find out who is to be comforted and who afflicted. People just want to be on the same page as their peers.
Seeing the Smoke came out during the 0.1% of the time when physical reality was manifesting and the institutions of social reality hadn’t reacted adequately yet by spinning it into the narrative. By the summer, social reality reasserted itself. Whether someone was masking or not, locking down or protesting, eating fish tank cleaner or Lysol-sprayed Uber Eats was due mostly to their tribe membership, not to a physical model of the virus. No one cared about my microCOVID calculations.
Zvi, who is better than me at thinking about many things including COVID, explains why being good at thinking doesn’t mean one could be put in charge and change the world for the better. The entire post is worth reading, especially for young Rationalists just coming to grips with how non-Rationalist the rest of the world is. If I had to summarize it in one sentence: being correct is not the same as being good at coordinating social reality, and what those “in charge” really do is the latter.
The Bayesian Monastery
Zvi lays out a model of how Rationalists like him can influence policy:
Anna Salamon suggested a model of a rising sanity water line, but in the sense that this makes it harder to stay above water and thus directly sane. There’s a small and decreasing number of people who are still capable of synthesizing information and creating new hypotheses and interpretations.
Then there’s those who are mostly no longer capable of doing that, things got too complicated and weird, and they can’t keep up, but they can read the first group and meaningfully distinguish between people claiming to be in it, and between their individual claims, ask questions and help provide feedback. To them, the first group is legible. This forms a larger second group that can synthesize the points from the first group, and turn it into something that can be read as an emerging new consensus, which in turn can be legible to a third much larger group.
This third group can then be legible to the general public slash general elites, who learn that this is where good new ideas come from. Then the Responsible Authority Figures can feel under public pressure, or see what the emerging new ideas are, and run with the ball from there, and the loop continues.
The filtering process also acts as a selection for feasibility, as the second layer picks up things from the first that it thinks it can present legibly to the third, and so on.
This model doesn’t mean that self-identified Rationalists are always in the first group. Most of what I write, especially about COVID, is second or third layer (or just nonsense). I think that Rationality gives people two important things: the tools to evaluate original thinkers without relying on mere credentials, and the permission to occasionally shoot for first-level insight themselves. As a community, we are closer to the surface of the sanity waterline than most and thus, by necessity, farther from political power and institutional authority.
Byrne Hobart makes the same point in a post about how Rationalists got COVID right and early:
This puts the rationalists in a uniquely prosocial position. They’re a sort of distributed, mostly open-source monastic order, spending a lot of time contemplating the world and passing down important observations, but less time directly interacting with it. The influence of people who read rationalist blogs, but don’t self-identify as rationalists, is quite wide—the blogs are very widely followed in technology circles, and anecdotally have a large audience in the more quantitative branches of finance.
Byrne goes on to say that “identifying as a Rationalist is a losing move”, but I think that he presupposes that everyone is playing the same game. Joining a monastic order is a “losing move” if your goal is to inherit titles and command knights, but the life of a monk has much to recommend it over the life of the medieval court and battlefield. The pursuit of wisdom and the pursuit of power are usually at odds. Identifying as a Rationalist is a small way to nudge yourself (heh) toward the former.
In March 2020 Dominic Cummings was in a unique position to bridge the many layers between first-level analysis and “Responsible Authority Figures” by himself. He could take word from the monastery directly to the throne room. I just happened to be the monk that was on duty that day.
But that doesn’t mean that I should now abandon the monastery and fancy myself a vizier. In general, I try to write about enduring topics like statistics and romance and how our brains work, not about breaking news. Instead of trying to coordinate social reality for the masses, I try to help people become slightly more independent of it. To avoid the mind-kill of political polarization, to get in touch with their own desires when deciding what to spend money on and whom to date, to spend some time in our monastery.
I hear individually from people that my writing is impacting them, and as long as those DMs come I’m content. I think my writing has some broader influence, but by the time it is passed down to actual influencers I would not be credited with it. And that’s fine! I’m really not looking for credit, and now that I got some for influencing the UK lockdown decision I don’t even know if it’s deserved or if the decision was the right one. I recommend that if anyone in power wants to hire a Rationalist advisor they do so secretly, and pay them based on the calibrated accuracy of their predictions only.
In the meantime, I’ll try to keep writing as if no one important will ever read it at all. Otherwise, the temptation grows to climb the simulacra levels away from reality, to signal loyalties and “nudge” the public and play 4D chess on a backgammon board. And that’s not how we do it in the monastery.
17 thoughts on “Monastery and Throne”
This is very cool!
FYI, I am told I influenced some policies in my area last March, and your early post was about 35% of my basis for concern. But I don’t run Great Britain.
Still, stay the course, be as accurate as you can, and, to quote one J.F., don’t sell your soul.
“Being right is everything.” – Frank Barone
“Social reality” reminds me of Steve Randy Waldman’s concept of “rational astrologies.”
“Your future welfare turns crucially on how your actions are viewed by other people….A rational astrology is a set of beliefs which one rationally behaves as if were true, regardless of whether they are in fact.”
So proud of you!
About nudgerism: I’m slightly confused what exactly happened with “experts lying about the masks not being effective”. At the time, I thought it was common knowledge they’re… well, lying (but since it’s common knowledge, is it lying or just speaking weird?).
My impression of the internet comments back then was that ~everyone said they’re lying (because why would it be necessary to ensure supply lasts for the doctors if masks don’t work? (ofc. that had counterarguments as well)). Some people took to lying with them, and when pressed repeated the same thing about preserving supply for the doctors.
Then, when they eventually flipped on that… lots of people started pretending that the public was duped.
“My second: if I had known you will read it, I would have written a better post!”
In hindsight, maybe someone should’ve thought to try explicitly contacting him, considering the knowledge he reads (or did in the past) stuff from the Rationalistsphere.
You underestimate how deep rooted is the trust of professional authority, especially in educated circles.
On Feb 22, 2020, after a couple of weeks of watching N95 mask prices on Amazon soar beyond affordability, I asked in a lab meeting whether we can somehow order N95 masks through the institute. Other grad students told me to not bother, that the CDC said masks don’t help unless you’re symptomatic or a healthcare worker in contact with patients. I kept quiet since I got my answer and didn’t want to seem selfish in ‘stealing’ masks from doctors (social reality!)
These are engineering grad students, they live pretty deep in physical reality at least within their research area. And the university later thankfully went against CDC recommendations in key areas.
A few months later the story settled into something like ‘we nobly sacrificed and refrained from buying masks to save them for doctors’.
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Congrats! It seems that UK had a +8-10% increase in age-adjusted mortality in 2020; it’s not horrible, but quite bad compared to other countries at comparable development levels: https://excessmortality.shinyapps.io/excess-mortality/
Speaking of your counterfactual impact, do you think that this excess mortality could have been different (better, worse?) if you didn’t write about COVID-19 at all?
In hindsight, what could have been the best thing for you to write/do in March/April 2020 to maximally reduce this excess mortality? Was it possible to infer it from the data and premises available back then?
I read Scott’s post first, which placed and drove the nail in halfway, so to speak, but yours drove it home. My early actions were heavily influenced by both of you, and I believe they made me safer than I otherwise would have been. Some at-risk people who know me took my reaction very seriously, so you and Scott could reasonably be attributed with saving their lives. I’m much obliged.
Well, I made money from your variant post, since I bought the options and sold them after two months in an unrelated market hiccup, after realizing that the vaccines will win in the race. So your post had at least some good influence :)
Yeah, I also sold some March VXX calls on GameStop day, wouldn’t call it a big win for my COVID prognostication though 🙃
On a side issue, as you probably know but other readers may not, Dominic Cummings was central to another case of social reality. For he was subsequently turned into public enemy no. 1 by the British media, when he broke lockdown rules to drive his family across the country to his parents’ home. Most of the public had never heard of Cummings, but he had apparently made enemies in the media (as well as government) by treating them with disdain, and this was their chance for payback.
And so, in a trial by media over several days, it was amazing to see how easily almost everyone in the UK was persuaded that Cummings was the devil incarnate, which continues to this day. (I broke ranks to post a defence of Cummings, or rather a criticism of the public’s ill-founded view of him, on Facebook, which got a lively response.)
Just as amazing was the opposite attitude to the BLM protests in the UK soon after; I don’t think it even occurred to 99% of the public that those were just as illegal as Cummings’ trip. And a politician who made a similar cross-country drive to Cummings on the very same day, to visit his father, the former Labour leader Neil Kinnock, attracted almost no media coverage or criticism. This all showing that the law was quite beside the point – merely providing a pretext for demonizing Cummings.
Anyway, in the face of all this media and public pressure, Boris Johnson spent much political capital refusing to fire Cummings, as he was said to be ‘Boris’s brain’ and by far the smartest person in Downing St. Boris even extraordinarily granted Cummings (a mere adviser) his own press conference in the Downing St garden, in which Cummings presented an implausible account of events exonerating himself, to general derision.*
The whole incident provided a pretext (that phrase again) for many Britons subsequently to break lockdown rules. The public mood changed immediately from a wartime spirit of doggedly following government advice to half-disregarding it – often explicitly saying “If Dominic Cummings can drive to Barnard Castle, then I don’t see why I shouldn’t do XYZ”. Regrettably it’s likely this has significantly increased COVID cases ever since.
(*I reckon it should have been played like this: Cummings should have admitted breaking the rules (perhaps inadvertently), and offered his resignation. But Boris should have reluctantly refused the resignation, on the grounds of not rocking the boat in a national emergency, and maybe accepted a fine as punishment.)
PS I just realized, one of the main reasons the general public fell in with demonizing Cummings was the very one you identified that delayed their reaction to COVID: he seems a bit weird, and that’s the worst thing in the world.
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Wasn’t he already pretty widely known as an architect of Brexit campaign?
Not widely exactly – only among those who follow politics closely. And even they knew little about him (except a reputation as a shadowy, Machiavellian figure). Most of the public didn’t know who he was until the media circus.
“…when physical reality kicks someone… they are forced to confront it directly. These experiences are extremely unpleasant, and processing them appears as “depression and anxiety”.
Kolmogorov remarked that scientific longevity is so rare because research involves permanent discomfort. Of course, good doctors, engineers, army officers face the same.
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Something doesn’t quite add up here.
You say “The UK Government began implementing mitigation measures on (Friday) March 13”, but the mitigation measures announced at a press conference on the afternoon of Thursday 12th (per both Wikipedia and my memories nothing happened on the 13th) were so pathetic that they were correctly interpreted by the UK science and medical communities as a sign that the UK government was still pursuing a herd immunity strategy. The government didn’t recommend voluntary social distancing until the following Monday 16th, and did so with apparent reluctance after a major social media freakout over the weekend.
For the London-based PMC, the fire alarm was the situation in Bergamo and the resulting Italian lockdown (8th March across Lombardy, 10th March nationwide). The decision to announce a policy of almost nothing on the 12th was therefore a conscious decision to under-react, not “I can see the smoke but I don’t have social permission to respond” apathy.
My best guess is that Cummings did see the smoke in the first week in March, and was one of the minority of the people in the room where the key decision was taken who did favour effective action. He would have been overruled by some combination of of the UK’s scientific establishment (led by Patrick Vallance) who wanted to roll out their existing plan for pandemic influenza and the libertarian instincts of Johnson.
If this is true, you did not have much impact on the UK response, which is good news for you given how much of a disaster the UK response turned out to be.