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Coronavirus “hits all the hot buttons” for promoting the scientist-as-hero narrative (cognitive psychology edition)

The New York Times continues to push the cognitive-illusion angle on coronavirus fear. Earlier this week we discussed an op-ed by social psychologist David DeSteno; today there’s a news article by that dude from Rushmore:

There remains deep uncertainty about the new coronavirus’ mortality rate, with the high-end estimate that it is up to 20 times that of the flu, but some estimates go as low as 0.16 percent for those affected outside of China’s overwhelmed Hubei province. About on par with the flu.

Wasn’t there something strange . . . about the extreme disparity in public reactions?

While the metrics of public health might put the flu alongside or even ahead of the new coronavirus for sheer deadliness . . . And the new coronavirus disease, named COVID-19 hits nearly every cognitive trigger we have.

That explains the global wave of anxiety.

Wait a second! The article just said that the high-end estimate is that coronavirus could have a mortality rate 20 times that of the flu, and a low-end estimate that is about on par with the flu. Is it really “so strange” to have a wave of anxiety given this level of uncertainty?

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that people are rational uncertainty-calculators. In particular, maybe the real lesson here is not that people shouldn’t be scared about coronavirus but that they should be more scared of the flu. But, as in our discussion the other day, I’m concerned about experts who seem so eager to leap up and call people irrational, when it seems to me that it can be quite rational to react strongly to an unknown risk. Even if, in retrospect, coronavirus doesn’t end up being as bad as some of the worst-case scenarios, that doesn’t mean it is a bad idea to be prepared. We don’t want to be picking pennies in front of the proverbial steamroller.

The Times article continues:

But there is a lesson, psychologists and public health experts say, in the near-terror that the virus induces, even as serious threats like the flu receive little more than a shrug. It illustrates the unconscious biases in how human beings think about risk, as well as the impulses that often guide our responses — sometimes with serious consequences.

Experts used to believe that people gauged risk like actuaries, parsing out cost-benefit analyses every time a merging car came too close or local crime rates spiked. But a wave of psychological experiments in the 1980s upended this thinking.




I am so damn sick of the scientist-as-hero narrative. It’s not enough to say that psychologists have learned a lot in the past 50 years about how we think about and make decisions under uncertainty. No, you also have to say that, before then, we were in the dark ages.

Is it really true that “Experts used to believe that people gauged risk like actuaries, parsing out cost-benefit analyses every time a merging car came too close or local crime rates spiked”? Maybe. I guess I’d like to see some quotes before I believe it. My impression is that experts used to believe, and in many cases still do, that parsing out cost-benefit analyses is a decision-making ideal that can be used as a comparison to better understand real decision processes.

But it’s obvious that people don’t “gauge risk like actuaries.” After all, if people really gauged risk like actuaries, we wouldn’t need actuaries! And, last I heard, they get paid a lot.

As with our discussion of that op-ed the other day, I have no problem with this news article regarding the public health details. Indeed, I don’t know anything about coronavirus, and it’s from articles like this that I get my news. The author writes, “Of course, it is far from irrational to feel some fear about the coronavirus outbreak tearing through China and beyond. . . . Assessing the danger posed by the coronavirus is extraordinarily difficult; even scientists are unsure. . . .”, so it’s not like he’s telling us not to worry. And I agree with the message that people should take their damn flu shots. I just don’t like how this interesting, important, and newsworthy story about uncertainty is being used as an excuse for an oversimplified model of decision science. As we’ve discussed earlier, it can be rational to react strongly to an uncertain threat. That scaredy-cat in the above image might be behaving in a smart way.


  1. Thanatos Savehn says:

    My least favorite trope in the scientist-as-hero narrative is that they’re always either “racing” or “scrambling” to save us. As a young trial lawyer you quickly learn that the surest way to faceplant in front of the jury is to race or scramble for a response when something unexpected arises. When action is elevated over reflection you get e.g. a mountain of studies and papers about the first considered Alzheimer’s target, beta amyloid, and decades later nothing to show for it other than all the racing and scrambling.

    • jim says:

      Thanatos Savehn says: ‘they’re always either “racing” or “scrambling” to save us.’

      That goes right along with the “fight” meme! In America, WE FIGHT EVERYTHING!!!!


    • Anoneuoid says:

      I’ve got a legal question I don’t know how to find an answer for. I don’t know anyone in this circumstance, it is just wondering.

      Say someone is in the hospital and a blood test shows they are deficient in (for example) magnesium. If the patient or family asks for additional magnesium supplements or in the nutrition drip until the blood test comes back normal, is the hospital/doctor legally obliged to give it?

      I mean the medical guidelines say such a result means a person should get more magnesium, so wouldnt it be negligent to fail to correct the deficiency, especially when the patient specifically asks for it? Yet from what I can tell this is very rare.

      • Terry says:

        Why is this not a straightforward malpractice question? Hospital should have done A. Hospital did not do A. Patient suffered harm as a result.

        • Anoneuoid says:

          That is what I would think, but afaik correcting the deficiencies is not standard practice. They just give them a standard nutrition and assume it is sufficient.

          Also consider that treating with a supplement or iv vitamin/mineral for whatever problem they have may actually be deviating from accepted practice, and if the patient is very ill they may need much more of it than usual due to poor absorption, etc. So giving enough to correct a deficiency may exceed the normal RDA too.

          • Terry says:

            I have talked to people with the opposite experience. They were diagnosed with a vitamin deficiency and prescribed large doses of the missing vitamin/nutrient. So it sounds more complicated.

            • Anoneuoid says:

              Were they in the hospital already for something else?

              • Terry says:


                I’m not trying to argue with you. Just trying to understand the question.

                You seem to be getting at something very specific, and it sounds like the answer is very fact-specific. It sounds like the best way to address the deficiency will depend on how urgent the issue is, the best way for the body to absorb the nutrient, relative costs, whether it might interfere with other medications, etc.

              • Anoneuoid says:

                Imagine you are in a car accident and recovering the hospital. They do a standard blood test and it shows you are deficient in some mineral or vitamin.

                My understanding is the standard of care is to not try to correct this. Perhaps it is wrong, I have no direct experience with this.

              • jim says:

                Anoneuoid says:
                “Imagine you are in a car accident and recovering the hospital. They do a standard blood test and it shows you are deficient in some mineral or vitamin. My understanding is the standard of care is to not try to correct this. Perhaps it is wrong, I have no direct experience with this.”

                My guess is that if your immediate survival depends on it, they would take what action was necessary. But if they don’t know the cause of the anomaly, then correcting it via IV might just be a waste of time and cost. If the fundamental problem isn’t addressed, then the minute the IV is removed, the anomaly will recur.

                If it’s not life threatening, the appropriate course of action is to advise the patient of the problem and let them address it through their PCP.

              • Anoneuoid says:

                Ok, but the question was whether they are legally obliged to attempt correcting the deficiency if the patient or family specifically asks for it.

                Obviously there could be some discussion about possible risks/costs, but if the patient/family insists after that, then what is the legal status?

              • jim says:

                “but if the patient/family insists after that, then what is the legal status?”

                Seems to me like Terry is right. Its not a straightforward question.

                a) who’s paying for the treatment? (cash, victim’s insurance, driver’s insurance, other driver’s insurance)
                b) is it a life-threatening condition? Is it caused by the accident?
                c) will the treatment eliminate the condition, or will the cause of the condition persist despite the treatment?
                d) can the patient speak for themselves regarding the treatment?

              • Anonymous says:

                a) who’s paying for the treatment? (cash, victim’s insurance, driver’s insurance, other driver’s insurance)

                – They are deficient according to the official guidelines. What should be done from there if we want to help the most patients?

                b) is it a life-threatening condition? Is it caused by the accident?

                – They are deficient in a mineral or vitamin. No one knows if is especially life threatening in that case. So if they ask for it I say give it…

                c) will the treatment eliminate the condition, or will the cause of the condition persist despite the treatment?

                – By definition correcting the deficiency will correct the condition. Whether the heath issues are resolved is another matter.

                d) can the patient speak for themselves regarding the treatment?

                – Yes.

  2. Dave says:

    I’m not sure how these authors are brushing aside that:

    – it appears to be highly contagious
    – it may have relatively high mortality rate compared to the flu
    and, most importantly,
    – no one is vaccinated for it (other than those who have already recovered from it, in some sense)

    Of course comparing something that just broke out 2 months ago will pale in comparison to the flu. These same writers might have told their readers to relax after the first couple of months of the bubonic plague. This won’t be that bad, but at certainly at some point after its outbreak, the bubonic plague also had a low death count too.

    If this coronavirus doesn’t spread widely in the US before a vaccine is developed, it will only be because of what seem to be unprecedented efforts to contain it.

    I’m not suggesting panic is the right answer, but heightened awareness and caution seem appropriate. Unless we don’t care about infants and the elderly, who are those at the highest risk.

  3. Zad says:

    Same pic twice?! Are you running out of cat pics??

  4. yyw says:

    A few scientists in history were heroes, not in the moral sense, but that their accomplishments awed us mere mortals. Most scientists are mediocre like us. Some are fools.

  5. Steve says:

    The author writes, “COVID-19 hits nearly every cognitive trigger we have.” What about a virus that is spreading at an exponential rate and may have a death rate several times more than the flu (for which there is a vaccine) should not solicit concern. To the contrary we are probably not be vigilant enough. A lot of the cognitive bias research is based on an incorrect assumption that there is one “correct” way to access risk. There isn’t. We can always explain peoples behaviors to make there choices seem consistent from one situation to the next by changing what they believe the payoffs or probabilities are. The COVID-19 is a pretty good example. Right now, we don’t know the risk and much of the information is coming from sources like the government of China that we know have lied to us. I bet the risk is big. If someone else thinks its small, is it really true that one of us is being irrational. We just disagreed about how to access uncertain data. There is no objective right or wrong answers. There is a range.

  6. Michael Nelson says:

    Are you saying we *can’t* be heroes, forever and ever? Some scientist Bowie was… :)

    Seriously, I think it can be fairly stated that economists for some time believed that they could include in their models the assumption that decision-making is mechanical, for simplicity, without sacrificing accuracy. I suspect they never believed the assumption was true, just convenient and harmless. It’s also true that psych experiments have shown that assumption–and the assumption about the assumption–to be questionable at best, but it’s my impression that economists didn’t catch on until the much later work by Thaler.

  7. Jonathan says:

    That narrative conflicts with the equally silly theme of scientist as madman. I can’t count how many scenes in movies are variations of ‘you don’t know what you’ll be unleashing …’

    I think a good hero scientist movie is The Andromeda Strain, partly because they aren’t heroic and their work turns out to be unnecessary because the virus mutates.

  8. TAS says:

    Is that Nick Drake with the cat?

  9. Bob says:

    The NYT likes the unconscious bias angle because it panders to their own prejudices. You can see this by the mention of terrorism, all those irrational plebs worried about something that kills fewer people than falling off ladders. What a bunch of dopes!

  10. Anoneuoid says:

    Is it really true that “Experts used to believe that people gauged risk like actuaries, parsing out cost-benefit analyses every time a merging car came too close or local crime rates spiked”?

    This is what I asked in a thread a few weeks ago. Are there really economists that ignore that the primary form of reasoning people use are various heuristics (consensus, authority, etc)?

    • jim says:

      People use the appropriate reasoning for the situation:

      For an approaching car, yes, there absolutely is a cost benefit analysis: is it worth it to try to cut across the road before this car smashes me?

      For electing one of the seventeen local judges that people have never heard of that they have to vote for every year or so, no, they don’t use a cost benefit analysis. They look at the party or use some other simple method that will allow them to make their decision in about 12 seconds.

      For buying a candy bar, do people perform an experiment to determine which bar has more nougat, then offer the shop keeper a price based on the nougat value? flup no. That would be stupid. The candy bar costs a dollar, why waste time on the $0.05 difference in price

      For buying car do people do a cost benefit analysis? Yes but that analysis may also include the social benefits of owning said car. And in any cost benefit analysis a key factor is how much a person has to spend. Did Jeff Bezos do a cost benefit analysis on his new Hollywood Mansion? No. He has so much money he couldn’t care less.

      sheesh, the problem is that most people cant understand how to apply a general concept so they simplify it to one they can understand then claim it doesn’t make sense.

      • Anoneuoid says:

        For an approaching car, yes, there absolutely is a cost benefit analysis: is it worth it to try to cut across the road before this car smashes me?

        I’ve seen it so many times that one person starts crossing the street, then 5-10 other people do.

        • jim says:

          Actually I was referring to turning left across traffic in a vehicle.

          I’d say it’s rational to expend as little effort as possible in determining when to cross the street. Some people even use the lights for that.

  11. jim says:

    I do think there is a lot of irrational panic going on.

    Definitely authorities have done the right thing in my view by imposing restrictions to isolate the virus. These measures are taken as a precaution because the virulence and mechanisms of transmission of the virus are both unknown, and new viruses *can* be extraordinarily virulent. Until more is known, precautions must remain in place.

    Just the same, the number of cases and deaths isn’t extreme. Several news outlets have reported 65K cases and 1.5K deaths: a higher death rate than “regular” flu from what I understand, but hardly a death sentence – there are 19M people in Wuhan metro alone, so the infection rate is <<<1%, which doesn't suggest a rapidly spreading virus.

    There are only 15 confirmed cases in the US, at least some of which have recovered already, and no deaths.

    No one needs to "trust the experts" on this one. Anyone can do their own analysis and come to the conclusion the freaking out isn't warranted – at least not yet. I don't see any reliable data to contradict this.

    • The problem is no-one trusts the Chinese govt, they *really are* involved in conspiracies and cover-ups and soforth on a regular basis. So I think there are plenty of people looking at numbers like 65k infected and 1.5k deaths and saying “what if it’s really 800k infected and 100k dead, or 10M infected and 800k dead” or something like that.

      This is a general rational principle of Bayesian reasoning, a small probability of a very bad thing dominates the decision theory result. I tried to explain this a while back in a thread on global warming, but there was a general lack of understanding there. I don’t think I did a good job.

      • jim says:

        Yeah, I mean I agree there’s some valid concern there.

        But what seems to be the case is that there’s no concrete evidence the gov story line is fake. And the infection rates in other countries seem to very roughly agree with what’s coming out of China.

        I understand that argument too with climate change. The differences between the two situations are the scale and cost of presuming a worst case scenario that never occurs, and the speed with which events unfold. For the virus, a worst-case could unfold in days or even hours. For climate change we have *a lot* of time to assess the gravity of the situation. For the virus, needlessly preparing for a worst-case scenario could cost – roughly – $50B or even $500B worldwide in lost productivity and everything. for climate change the sacrifices are many many orders of magnitude greater.

        And indeed delaying climate change regulation has paid off: the economy is decarbonizing with very modest incentives, as the worst case scenario recedes into the distance.

    • Quartz says:

      Fatality is not calculated like that, you must wait for the full course of the illness first to weed out unknown destinies, we’re in a spread phase, not a stationary one. We don’t know what part of the 65k is out already, and the 1.5k is just in the hospitalized group, many are dying at home and on the streets. There are no people in the Wuhan metro anymore, they’re no idiots. Experts say correctly the numbers are still highly uncertain. It could be anything between 2% fatality and 40%, even if we assumed official statistics were trustworthy. Analyses are quite complex, not for the layman even roughly. Extreme caution is mandatory, freaking out is never helpful.

      • jim says:

        “many are dying at home and on the streets.” ???

        I don’t see that being reported anywhere.

        “not for the layman even roughly.”

        I’m not a layman.

        • What is being reported is that people are being rounded up and put in concentration / quarantine / locked into their apartments etc. What happens after that is anyone’s guess.

          To me this seems like a serious problem, but it’s not inherently due to the severity of the virus, it’s the unfortunate product of living in a police state.

          In the end we will probably discover that China did a terrible job of managing this outbreak, and many many more people died than needed to. I don’t expect the death tolls to be anything like as high in France, Germany, Netherlands, Spain, Singapore, Japan, etc.

        • Olav says:

          See here, for example:

          What’s worrying about this virus is that although the mortality rate is pretty low given proper medical treatment, many patients (perhaps 10-20%) require very intensive medical intervention in an ICU. As the number of patients increases beyond the number of available ICU spots, the mortality rate will also increase. That’s what seems to have happened in Wuhan.

          • Very likely a factor in all of this is that populations that feel a lot of pressure to not miss work, because they fear loss of livelihood, homelessness etc you will get much faster transmission. In populations where people can stay home or work from home or have sufficient sick leave or protection from being fired for getting sick etc you will probably see less favorable transmission.

          • Anoneuoid says:

            They are dying from acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS), which has no treatment besides supportive oxygen, etc.

            IV vitamin C seemed to decrease mortality from 20% to 4% while getting it every day for 4 days, but then another group did a replication that cut the dose in half for some reason (and just assumed blood levels were the same). They saw no effect:

            It is really annoying how no one can just do a simple direct replication of anything.

            • Right, this is like how zinc is basically a cure for rhinovirus, and it was well known and the conditions required were well known, it was patented, but no one could just go ahead and replicate the actual cure for like decades, they kept doing things like giving zinc lozenges with citric acid or vitamin c, both of which bind the ionized zinc and render it totally ineffective. Zinc gluconate lozenges taken orally without any agents that bind the zinc ions effectively cuts rhinovirus duration from 7-10 days down to about 3 and dramatically reduces severity. For decades no-one benefitted from this knowledge. Even today you’ll see lozenges sold as zinc+vitC or lemon flavored or whatever…

              • They’d also do studies where they just gave the zinc to patients without identifying the virus and then claim that it did nothing, because most of the cases were adenovirus or coronavirus or the like (coronavirus is common enough, it causes about 1/3 of all “common colds” it’s only this strain that’s of major concern)

              • Anoneuoid says:

                Interesting, I had not heard this one. But yea ascorbate chelates divalent cations and makes them harder to absorb and easier to piss out so it makes sense to me that if you need more zinc taking the two together may cause a problem.

              • It’s actually zinc in the mouth and throat that inhibits infection and replication of the virus, so it has to be free ions and both ascorbate and citric acid inhibit the effectiveness.

              • Anoneuoid says:


              • It’s been a long running controversy, it started back in the 80’s with papers like this:



                And then if you search on zinc lozenges or zinc gluconate through even the last few years you’ll see a bunch of controversy. The best explanation for the controversy is the kinds of stuff I mentioned. Check it out if you’re interested. A big part of the problem getting it to replicate was the number of people doing stupid things and then the number of people aggregating studies regardless of mechanism / method and finding mixed results

              • Anoneuoid says:

                Thanks, yes letting the tablet dissolve in your mouth seems to be key. Do you have one about the vitamin c interfering?

                I wonder how they came up with that dose (23 mg every 2 hrs)… Like anything, it is all about timing, route of administration, and dose. And the dose required may differ from patient to patient so using a standard one for everyone is not be ideal.


                I don’t have a specific citation, but that example above is typical of the kind of thing you find if you do a deeper dive… citric acid is known to bind the free ions, and vitamin c will as well, free ion concentration in the saliva seems to be key, and can be achieved a variety of ways. I remember reading an article that discussed all of this and the thing about it was that it seemed to be well understood by the guys who first discovered the effect, but it took years before the result was accepted because people kept randomly trying stuff like zinc + vitamin C or zinc in a tasty lemon flavored lozenge (citric acid) or zinc citrate or zinc as a dietary supplement (ie. you swallow it) and the results were basically random…

                It’s a good example of the importance of having some kind of mechanistic idea of what’s going on in science… but also of the fact that even if you know exactly the mechanism it would take a miracle to keep people from fucking it all up through ignorance, stupidity, or a general inability to read and understand the most basic stuff.

              • Anoneuoid says:

                Thats funny becsuse I know of that guy. Harri Hemila is great, go check his publication history.

                But I was wondering about the “binding” because maybe instead ascorbate reduces Zn2+ to Zn1+, or there is a pH dependency (in which case sodium/etc ascorbate would not interfere).

                You sure you didnt read ascorbate and think of acetate, which is mentioned in that paper?

            • jim says:

              “It is really annoying how no one can just do a simple direct replication of anything.”

              Like I said, there should be funding stream dedicated to replication across all sciences.

              • Anoneuoid says:

                I agree. I think it’s a waste of time to fund a study without a replication. Exceptions would be pilot studies where people are just figuring out what to pay attention to, etc.

  12. “It’s not enough to say that psychologists have learned a lot in the past 50 years about how we think about and make decisions under uncertainty. No, you also have to say that, before then, we were in the dark ages.”

    This reminds me of my reaction to Dexter Kimball’s work in scientific management.

    “Under the old and still much-used methods, the common idea was to keep a man as busy as possible during the entire working period for which he had engaged. It now appears that he will do more and better work if given periodic rests.” (1939)

    Like you, I had that “Really???” reaction to the claim that this first became apparent with time and motion study.

    • jrkrideau says:

      Yaou have heard of Amazon?

      More seriously, in the 19th C 12 hour days, 6 days a week were common though as early as the 1880’s at least one German industrialist was experimenting with reduced work hours. So, while Kimball’s exact claim is likely wrong, the idea, in general, is not that wacky.

      I get the impression that employers in some industries, understood that the horses needed rest, humans….

  13. Steve says:

    A month ago, there were roughly the same number of “confirmed cases” in China as there are now in the US. The number increased at a rate of 2^11. Also, people have to remember that “confirmed” means “detected and confirmed.” Health officials in the U.S. are just detecting clinical cases. If there are around 20 detected and confirmed there are probably 3 to 4 times that numbers walking around. An epidemiologist in Britain estimated said 400,000 deaths in Britain was a reasonable estimate. There is so much uncertainty at this point, but sooner or later a global pandemic will hit and wipe out tens to hundreds of millions of people. Much more can be done, then is currently happening. I don’t see the panic, but if people are avoiding hanging out in groups are becoming more vigilant about washing their hands and not touching there face, if Westerners in cities adopted the Asian practice of wearing masks and not touching elevator buttons, all of that would slow the virus’ spread and be good. Of course, most viruses aren’t the Spanish Flu, but it is magical thinking to believe that because extinction level events are rare, the threat will never happen. The improbable happens all the time.

  14. For those who are interested in timely moderated updates on Caronavirus


    Here is an example of the kind of “Information Warfare” issues surrounding this coronavirus stuff… I have no doubt that some professional propaganda machine with falsified accounts cut together these videos and posted them to twitter etc with various captions and they were then spread around by innocent people who were genuinely assuming that what they were watching was either valid stuff, or just wanted someone to explain what was really going on… which nevertheless gets the video spread, and panic ensues. Exactly what was desired by the incipients.

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