Daniel Filan

Cognitive mistakes I've made about COVID-19

I think that COVID-19 has been an interesting test of rationality. We’ve faced a novel risk that was initially quite poorly characterized, with the mechanism of transmission unclear, as well as the risk of death or disability from catching it. As such, now that I’m in ‘wait for the vaccine’ mode, I think it’s fitting to do a retrospective of which mistakes I made in my thinking about how to handle the virus. Note that these are not just things that I happened to be wrong about, but cases where the way I thought about the problem was wrong, leading to predictably bad results that could have been known to be bad at the time. Here is a write-up of some mistakes that I made. It is probably not exhaustive.

During late February, I saw that the rest of my society did not appear to be taking COVID very seriously, which led me to think that it might just wash over the USA. Then, in mid-March when US cities started ‘locking down’, if I recall correctly I was quite optimistic that the country was taking it seriously and that we’d get it under control. I think that both of these reactions were wrong. The first reaction was wrong because I should have known that once enough people were getting ill to visibly overwhelm hospitals, people would start demanding that precautions be taken to control the disease. The second was wrong because I should have known that governments often react in large-scale and costly ways to problems without actually thinking carefully about how to most efficiently solve those problems.

Early on in the pandemic, I was quite interested in telling my representatives my opinions about what should be done to curb the spread of COVID. I believe my strategy was to recommend what I thought was a pretty good course of action. However, I should have realized that the US and California governments have difficulty implementing large-scale plans that require multiple things to get right. If I wanted to advocate for effective policy responses, I should have thought “what’s the simplest plan that might be adopted and would work?”. The answer to this question would likely be Paul Romer’s plan to regularly test everybody in the US. Perhaps by the point I knew of this plan I had become skeptical of my leaders’ ability to act effectively and wasn’t emailing them anymore - I don’t actually remember the timeline super well here - but I should have at least asked myself the question.

Another mistake was not doing enough cost-benefit analysis of various activities in a way that could be critiqued by others, after the initial question of when to hunker down. Personal risks were not that hard to calculate once the excellent website microcovid.org was launched, but it took me months to even try to calculate the externalities involved in inflicting a microcovid on somebody, and I think I did so poorly: I took into account a model of the disease burden I might cause, but it seems that society is controlling the basic reproduction number (R) to be approximately 1, meaning that infections cause everybody else to forego valuable interactions, in a way that I still don’t know how to model. I should have known that it was important to make a guess of this, and given that I believed that society was controlling R in a decentralized fashion, I should have known that this would be tricky and require the input of others to model properly.

Finally, a more mundane mistake: in late February or early March, I put copper tape on the doorknobs in my house. When I did this, I didn’t spend time thinking about how to get the copper tape off. As a result, the process of removing the copper tape was painful and arduous. My understanding is that there are solutions such as applying painter’s tape and putting the copper tape on top of that, and I could have come up with such solutions if I had thought about the problem with my housemates.