Making the Right Mistakes Revisited

One of my earlier blogs was called making the right mistakes. It was about one of the few life lessons I learned from the study of statistics. When someone says, “statistics show…”  that is really a statement about what is most likely to be true, not what is certain.  It is certain that it is raining at my house right now. I can see it on the road and hear it on the roof, and it is definitely  not snow or hail. Snow is white, and hail is noisy.  But how much of the neighborhood is being rained on, and which ones, and for how long is it going to keep raining?  The weather forecast is a probability statement, not a fact.  (In this case my understanding of statistics was buttressed by being married to a meteorologist, or more precisely an atmospheric physicist.)

The reason I feel a need to revisit this topic is the current controversy over how safe we are or feel a need to be during the hopefully waning days of the coronavirus pandemic, how much we want to go outside without a mask, send the kids back to school, go to a party or a theater,  or sunbathe on a crowded beach. (Yes, I do know it is only March as I write this, but sunny beaches come early here in South Carolina.)

Somehow reawakening the sleeping economy and the less Zoom-dependent social life has become a partisan issue.  It’s not just about personal freedom and the economy (Republicans) or about safety and protecting others from harm (Democrats), although all of these things are important.  Somehow, we need to address both the emotions (fear, frustration, anger, isolation) and the facts (positive tests, cases, hospitalizations, deaths, vaccines administered) and come to an agreement about how fast and in what order our nation, and the world, return to normal—whatever the new normal turns out to be.

Science is not about facts; it is about probabilities. Statistics , a major tool of scientific research, is about weighing the risk of declaring something to be more or less a fact and being wrong, as opposed to declaring something not to be a fact when it turns out that it is actually true.  Is the vaccine really safe and effective? One of my friends pointed out that even 95 percent efficacy of the vaccine does not guarantee you will not get COVID, because 5 percent of the people still will. At that point I knew for sure that Michael was much more risk -averse than I am.

Life is risky. Sunny optimists will point to all the benefits of speeding up the opening process—children back in school, adults back at work, firms saved from bankruptcy, summer vacations back on the calendar, and eventually actually seeing other people’s entire faces.   I tend to fall into that sunny optimist category and keep having to extricate myself. I also have to remind myself that people have different degrees of tolerance for risk,  and I am not the person who gets to make that decision about an acceptable level of risk for everyone else.

For months we have been treating the idea of herd immunity as  a closed door that would suddenly open and usher us into the wonderful world of Tomorrowland. It is not.  Clearly, more of the herd has immunity than just a couple of months ago, a combination of those who have at least short-term immunity from surviving the disease and the many, many of us who have been vaccinated.  But there are still a lot of people who refuse to be vaccinated, or to take precautions that protect themselves and others from an unacceptable degree of risk. 

Science errs on the side of caution, requiring very high levels of probability to treat a statement as true.  There are lots of people willing to take risks—they take boats out during a thunderstorm, have unprotected sex with strangers, hang-glide off mountain sides, and give their credit card numbers to strangers on the phone. But when their risk is inflicted on other people, they shouldn’t get to decide how much risk is acceptable for us.

The fundamental question is, how much can we reopen with an acceptable degree of safety for the most vulnerable?  Which reopenings offer the most benefit at the least risk? I can’t answer that for anyone but myself, and even then I wrestle with how much, how fast.  Bars at midnight have never been a big draw for me, but live performances, parties with friends, dinner in restaurants, travel, hugs—I miss those encounters with people, places and ideas and I want them back. Your list is different and so is your risk tolerance.

Our democracy has not been very successful in the last decade or so in working through differences to arrive at a widely acceptable outcome.  Perhaps we ought to step back from arguing over facts and start examining how we feel—what makes us feel safe, what makes us feel hopeful, what makes us willing to take into consideration the hopes and fears of our fellow citizens.  Be honest with yourself.  Be willing to listen.  In the end, that kind of honest conversation might do more good for humanity than just beating the COVID virus into submission.

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