What if I told you that this morning I made a cup of green tea and, sure enough, it started raining outside? You might wonder if I’m slightly confused about atmospheric science. My facts are right but my causal inference is wrong.
Well, The Washington Post ran a headline yesterday that read as follows: “South Korea loosened covid rules after massive vaccine uptake. Now cases and hospitalizations are surging.”
There is literal truth in every word; it’s the causal inference that is suspect. Cases are indeed rising in South Korea, as are deaths attributed to Covid. But that’s not the real point of the headline. The idea is that the reader is supposed to believe that there is some relationship between being free and being diseased. It’s a traditional fallacy called post hoc ergo propter hoc. This happened after this, therefore this caused that.
Very clever. And insidious.
To be sure, the article never explicitly argues that this caused that. The trouble is that the usual go-to explanation for rising cases – not enough vaccine compliance – fails in this case. As the journalist admits: “South Korea has fully immunized close to 80 percent of its 52 million people, despite a later start than many other wealthy countries. Fewer than 10 countries have higher vaccination rates.”
Example Number One
Carl Menger began his 1871 treatise on economics with the following statement of scholastic truth: ““All things are subject to the law of cause and effect. This great principle knows no exception.”
Figuring out how that principle applies in nature and society is the essence of science. Getting it wrong – inferring causality that doesn’t exist – can lead to calamity. That is precisely what is happening with this headline about South Korea.
Lacking access to the explanation that people aren’t vaccinated, the reporter takes recourse in last year’s crude form of analysis. Cases are up? Surely that is due to too much mingling, too much relaxation, too much breathing on each other, too much normalcy. That’s what’s doing this!
And yet, South Korea ranks 173rd in the world in Covid deaths per million – a fact which the article leaves out entirely. Open, closed, vaccinated, unvaccinated, South Korea has faced nothing like the problems of Europe and the U.S. In fact, no country in that region has suffered from Covid as the US has, a fact which cries out for an explanation which surely has some explanation less to do with government policy and more on prior immunity, demographics, and seasonality.
The passing headline and its inference speaks to the central issue in public life for the last 21 months: whether and to what extent people’s freely chosen actions are causing disease and death and therefore whether and to what extent government efforts to restrict movement, enterprise, and choice are capable of mitigating outcomes or otherwise changing the trajectory of the virus.
The promise that this was possible was the central claim of the lockdown ideology. It has not worked out in practice. Dozens if not hundreds of attempts somehow to link mitigation measures with actual mitigation have completely flopped. We are inundated – and have been for most of this pandemic – with evidence of the opposite. There appears to be no relationship at all between what governments have done and what the virus has done.
Which is to say that there appears to be no consistent and causal relationship between being free and being diseased. Indeed: long-term health outcomes have improved with the advance of freedom in the world; witness dramatically lengthened lives in the course of the belle epoch of the 19th century and the 20th century age of travel. (Explaining that cause and effect is for another time.)
To debunk this headline requires no more than pointing to Sweden or Florida. But we might also visit the neighbor of Japan, which had fewer restrictions than Sweden, at least according to the stringency index. It faces no large rise in cases and no regrettable trends in death. Or compare with very strict and locked down Thailand. Something else is surely going on.
Example Number Two
Let’s look at another example of cause-and-effect confusion. Headlines all over the country blared: drug overdoses reached a record 100,000 in a 12-month period, as reported by the CDC. Incredible. Also very predictable. You can’t take away social life, commercial life, school and church, civic organizations, and most non-Covid medical services, and expect mental and physical health to be unaffected.
In other words, intuition would suggest the incredibly obvious. These are lockdown deaths. Yes, there was a drug problem before but lockdowns put it over the top, causing astonishing waves of calamity in people’s lives. How can we even doubt this?
And yet, consider how the news media treated this point.
MSNBC: “Just how much of a role the stress and isolation of the pandemic played in the rising overdose deaths remains to be seen.”
NYT: “Americans died of drug overdoses in record numbers as the pandemic spread across the country.”
Rollcall: “Annual deaths from drug overdoses topped 100,000 for the first time… a harrowing statistic as the nation continues to cope with the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Wall Street Journal: “The U.S. recorded its highest number of drug-overdose deaths in a 12-month period, surpassing 100,000 for the first time in the shadow of the coronavirus pandemic… The pandemic intensified opioid problems in many ways, from increasing isolation among people trying to maintain their sobriety to complicating treatment…”
President Biden: “As we continue to make strides to defeat the Covid-19 pandemic, we cannot overlook this epidemic of loss, which has touched families and communities across the country.”
There is a very plain point missing here, namely this unprecedented experiment in forced life disruption imposed by the federal government and governors around the country. For goodness sake, governments threw people in lockdowns like animals in a zoo. Surely lockdowns amount to more than a mere shadow!
For the journalists, however, the word lockdown must somehow stick in their throats. They seem to be protecting government from bearing any responsibility for a very conspicuous collateral damage from their own policies. Media just casually tosses off the idea that the pandemic bears responsibility even though it was very obviously the policy response to the pandemic that at least deserves a passing mention if not full blame.
Nor is it enough to toss off some passing mention of “social isolation.” Who or what brought about this isolation? Perhaps the public health authorities who recommended to governors that they enforce stay-at-home orders? The mayors who locked people out of their schools, churches, and businesses? Might that have anything at all to do with bringing about “social isolation?”
These few examples should make us realize something important. We are nowhere near coming to terms with what has happened to us and why. To the extent that we are unable honestly to admit the policy failures here, we cannot learn the proper lessons for the disaster. Until we can untangle the relationship between cause and effect, we stand little hope of fixing this.
Example Number Three
The world as we know it took its slide into the abyss on March 16, 2020, the date of the disastrous press conference at which President Trump presided alongside Drs. Fauci and Birx. This was the announcement of lockdowns. I’ve taken apart this press conference many times, word for word. It stands a full refutation of the common claim that Trump cared nothing about the virus and did nothing to stop it. The truth is the opposite.
Trump was clearly led to believe that if everyone just stopped doing stuff, the virus would go away. That sounds crude but otherwise I do not know how to make sense of what he said. He seemed genuinely to believe – at least for a while – that government policy along with citizen compliance would drive the virus away. Obliterate it, even though nothing like that has ever happened in the history of the world. He said this often enough on that day to make me believe that he believed it.
Trump had a theory of cause and effect, as imparted to him by poor advisors. The cause would be human separation and sheltering in place. The effect would be for a respiratory virus to be tame to the point of disappearance. Putting it that way sounds utterly ridiculous but that’s the human mind at work, fully capable of believing something completely implausible during a state of frenzied fear.
Let us examine his words, starting with Trump’s opening salvo:
“My administration is recommending that all Americans, including the young and healthy, work to engage in schooling from home when possible, and avoid gathering in groups of more than 10 people. Avoid discretionary travel and avoid eating and drinking at bars, restaurants, and public food courts. If everyone makes this change or these critical changes and sacrifices now, we will rally together as one nation and we will defeat the virus and we’re going to have a big celebration together. With several weeks of focused action, we can turn the corner and turn it quickly…
Really? Yes indeed. He reiterated the point several times:
We’re not thinking in terms of recession. We’re thinking in terms of the virus. Once we stop it, I think there’s a tremendous pent-up demand both in terms of the stock market, in terms of the economy. Once this goes away, once it goes through and we’re done with it, I think you’re going to see a tremendous, a tremendous surge.
My focus is really on getting rid of this problem, this virus problem
Once this virus has gone, I think you’re going to have a stock market like nobody’s ever seen before.
The market will be very strong as soon as we get rid of the virus.
What precisely was he going for here? From all the above, it appears that he was dabbling in the theory of what later came to be known as Zero Covid. Trump appears to have been an early convert to the idea. He would achieve this with a press conference and an urge for everyone just to stop doing stuff for 15 days.
It’s all utterly incredible in retrospect. But such is the human mind. It is capable of believing anything once it invents cause-and-effect relationships that exist in one’s mind but are not part of reality. And believing in one theory of cause and effect tends to exclude other competitive theories.
A person who is convinced that making green tea causes it to rain isn’t going to be open-minded toward a lecture on atmospheric science and cloud formation. Similarly, based on the above examples, South Korea’s case increases are due to too much freedom, a virus caused 100,000 to die of drug overdoses, and the president can crush a pathogen with behavioral guidelines and mandates.
The jaw drops at such absurdities. So long as we believe them, we are in no position rationally to think through what we want and what can be done better next time. We’ll be sorting through mountains and oceans of such confusions and obfuscations for the next decade.