A Lethal Lack of Logic

How lazy logic is making the COVID-19 pandemic worse.

Posted Mar 13, 2020

In the early days of the coming Coronavirus (Covid-19) crisis, I  saw a meme on Facebook that listed all the "end of the world crises” that the poster had survived. It looked something like the meme below: 

David Kyle Johnson
Source: David Kyle Johnson

The implication of the person who posted this—let’s call him Bob—is that the current Coronavirus (Covid-19) is nothing to worry about. “It’s just the latest in an endless list of doomsday scenarios that amounted to nothing.” Bob is suggesting. “It’s all just media hype. There is no reason to cancel events, shut down the NBA, close schools, or even to wash your hands more often. We all need to calm down and stop overreacting.”

In a certain very limited way, I’m somewhat sympathetic to this kind of argument. Why?

First, I teach a course on “the end of the world” and one of the assignments I give is to read a list of all the failed “end of the world” predictions for the last 5000 years. Single spaced and 10 font, it's 24 pages long. To the students, the lesson is clear: There is no reason to take any prophet’s prediction of the “end times” seriously; religious zealots have been saying “the end is near” for millennia. According to the Bible (Matthew 24), Jesus even said the end was near, and yet here we still are.

David Kyle Johnson
A picture I snapped at the grocery store yesterday
Source: David Kyle Johnson

Second, yes, the media sometimes blows things out of proportion. (Contrary to the crack reporting at the Globe, the world is not being "destroyed".) And we do need to stop overreacting. You don’t need to hoard toilet paper or bulk buy hand sanitizer (you are not going to be quarantined for months), and you don’t need to stock up on bottled water and batteries (Covid-19 is not going to affect our water or power supply).

Nevertheless, the logic of the above meme is fundamentally flawed. And the flaw it commits feeds a cognitive mistake that threatens to make the Covid-19 outbreak much, much worse.

What’s that mistake? It’s a false analogy, or a "false equivalence," where you suggest that two things are alike, or equivalent, but they are actually different in very important ways. 

There is a huge difference, for example, between the Mayan 2012 “end of the world” prediction, and the Ebola outbreak of 2014. Yes, neither one of them killed Bob. But the Mayan 2012 calendar prediction was complete cockamamie pseudoscience from the beginning. But the Ebola outbreak of 2014 was a real thing—a real threat. Many people died, and it very well could have spread worldwide. But the reason Bob was never put in danger by Ebola in 2014 wasn't that it was a joke, or because it was overhyped. It was because the federal government took science-based actions to stop its spread at the source, overseas.

But we really have done nothing of the kind with Covid-19. Funding to the CDC’s overseas pandemic response team was cut, in 2018, in 39 of 49 counties, and never re-established. Given the nature of the disease, its spread to the U.S. was thus inevitable. And so the fact that Bob didn’t get Ebola in 2014 (or SARS in 2004, or Swine Flu in 2010, etc.) is no reason to think that he won’t get Covid-19 in 2020. Not only were those viruses different (with different infection rates, etc.) but the U.S. government actually took those seriously. Covid-19, it did not. 

It's almost like all the pseudoscience/religious "end of the world" predictions were someone crying "wolf" when there was no wolf, and then all the previous disease outbreaks were someone crying wolf when there was a wolf—but since Bob didn't have to go kill it, Bob convinced himself that there wasn't one. But now Bob is in charge of the village's wolf response. When someone called wolf again, he didn't go try to catch it, and now there's a wolf lose in the village.

To be fair: There was a ban on travel from China (the original source of Covid-19), and it did likely buy us some extra time. But there was no way it was going to keep Covid-19 from ever reaching our shores. (And given that it is already here, additional travel bans will do very little to help mitigate the spread. That would be like the reverse of closing the barn door after the horse has bolted, like building a levee during a flood.) If we had used the extra time to get testing kits and centers ready, we could have slowed the spread and made it manageable. But we didn’t. Indeed, the U.S. trails the developed world when it comes to the availability of Covid-19 testing kits.

Of course, there may fewer cases right now in the U.S. than the seasonal flu, but the trajectory of the spread of Covid-19 in the U.S. looks like it did early on in Italy and Iran. Hopefully, our recent social distancing efforts (e.g., canceling large events, moving schools online) will help. But if things get out of hand in the U.S., as they did in Italy and Iran, and too many people get the virus all at once, hospitals could completely fill up. As a result, millions of people, even without Covid-19, will not be able to get the medical treatments they need and die unnecessarily as a result.

David Kyle Johnson
Another version of the meme I found
Source: David Kyle Johnson

And what has fueled this under-reaction is essentially the logical flaw in the meme. We’ve treated Covid as if it is analogous to the Mayan 2012 prediction—as a joke, a hoax—as something to not take seriously. I mean, it's one thing for individual U.S. citizens to not have been worried in the early days of the outbreak, back in December; after all, our government has stepped up and taken care of such things in the past. But for the government to not take it seriously, well, that's why we're in the situation we are now in.

Perhaps, the government (and too many of us) reacted like Rudy Gobert, the NBA player who made fun of the concern and precautions that the NBA was taking (keeping reporters far away during player interviews) by making a point of wiping his bare hands on all the reporters’ mics and recording devices before he left the room. Two days later, it was confirmed Gobert had Covid-19 and the NBA canceled its season. I hope no reporters in the room were infected as a result of Gobert’s reckless and irresponsible actions. But unfortunately, when it comes to our friends and the federal government not taking the COVID-19 threat seriously, we will likely not be so lucky.

Copyright 2020, David Kyle Johnson