How we fell for anti-intuition
Wear a mask, shut the borders. Sometimes the obvious answers are the true ones
Around a year ago the panic first began to set in as it dawned on us that this was going to be the Big One. I remember seeing the footage in Lombardy and suddenly realising that the strange illness in far-away China was going to hit us in England, too.
The shock felt all the more real because it was so sudden. Just two weeks earlier, the Mayor of Florence had been organising a “hug a Chinese” day to combat the real danger – prejudice – while the New York health commissioner was urging people to head to Chinatown to show their solidarity.
At the same time, Taiwan was stopping all flights from mainland China,
and moving to 24-hour mask production, while Japan turned its industry towards the same purpose.
As for western thought leaders, their advice was to forget about face masks, which were ineffective
or even counter-productive.
If this in retrospect all seems barely believable, a ruling class as hopeless as caricature First World War generals, then it’s worth recalling that it was widely believed among intelligent people in the West that masks didn’t work. At best they only stopped a disease being passed on, rather than protecting the wearer – I had heard it before and I’m sure I must have repeated it.
In London one might occasionally have seen east Asians masked on public transport, a legacy of the SARS scare, and this was treated as vaguely amusing. Actually, we in the West with our galaxy brains knew, they didn’t stop the wearer getting infected. The explanation was counter-intuitive, and therefore clever.
It is part of a wider problem in Western thinking, this actually-ism, the need to sound clever by pointing out that something supposed to do x actually does y. Because actually masks do prevent infection; obviously they do, in the same way wearing a sweater doesn’t actually make you colder.
The desire to find counter-intuitive talking points cost us dear in another way.
The Pacific countries were quick to shut down travel and isolate the infected while in the west, although flights to China were briefly suspended, little else was done to stop infection. Indeed, among Western thought leaders and the international elite, the advice was clear – “You can’t stop a virus, borders don’t work”.
Taiwan, Japan, Korea, New Zealand and Australia didn’t agree, and a year later, they are not only a lot less dead than us, they are a lot less poorer too, and they have also sacrificed fewer freedoms.
But why did our expert class think border closures wouldn’t work? Far less sophisticated states have been able to keep out diseases in the past; American Samoa avoided the Spanish Flu which devastated its neighbors, and while the South Pacific is off the beaten track, one would think that a rich, developed state in the 21st century has greater organisational ability.
Border restrictions for dealing with infectious disease date back to the 14th century when Venice ordered that ships must stay in harbour for 40 days – quaranta giorni – before anyone on board could enter the city. They are tried and tested, so why did no one in the West think borders were effective when the virus hit? Why did our expert class, many of the same people who are now most hostile to lockdown-skeptics, tell us back in February and March that masks don’t work?
The weakness of wearing a mask to stop an infectious disease, or shutting the border, is that it’s just too obvious. An idiot could see that masks work, and that is indeed the problem. We’ve developed a bias that something so obvious must be wrong in some way. We love counter-intuitive explanations for the world, when most of the time the world is just intuitive.
An intelligent person who knew nothing about social cues or what they were expected to believe would guess that obviously masks help stop the spread of disease. Doctors wear masks in hospital; people instinctively cover their faces when they don’t want to breath in rancid air, and Covid is a respiratory illness. Likewise, if you wish to stop the spread of a disease within a community, the most effective way is to catch it at the border, where it is easiest to restrict movement. Lockdown within a society is far more painful.
Christopher Lasch wrote that “The left has come to regard common sense - the traditional wisdom and folkways of the community - as an obstacle to progress and enlightenment.” But that’s now true of the expert class as a whole, because counter-intuition – anti-wisdom – is such a status signal, a sign of intelligence and wisdom. It therefore reproduces far quicker than other forms of knowledge.
The root of the West’s Covid failure is to be found at airports, not in their ability to spread viruses but to spread bad ideas. Airport bookshelves are stacked with works of popular psychology that like to explain the world in a novel way, and western thought leaders are obsessed with counter-intuitive explanations; which explains the popularity of Freakonomics or The Tipping Point, among many others.
At the same time what used to be called folk wisdom, transmitted in religion, folklore and through grandparents, is beyond waning. Anyone’s grandmother could have told them that masks and borders would have helped, but no one listens to their grandmother anymore.
A lot of this airport literature is aimed at “midwit” thinking.
The midwit meme is based on the idea that someone of moderate to above average intelligence is the most dangerous in policy terms, most at risk of overestimating their own ability and most likely to believe fashionable but untrue ideas.
Midwits are not super-intelligent but midwittery is not defined by a lack of intelligence, more an absence of intellectual curiosity and a tendency towards conformism. Midwits have a strong tendency to express opinions that make them popular, or sound intelligent. And while we all have a tendency to believing things we want to believe, because they reaffirm our prejudices or tell us it’s all going to be okay, this bias becomes dangerous when combined with a desire to believe something that is counter-intuitive and therefore interesting. Masks don’t actually stop diseases; you can’t stop a virus crossing borders.
And so our thought leaders come to believe counter-intuitive tales about the world, designed to be regurgitated by men in business conferences to make them sound clever in a world beset by status anxiety - stories like the “bystander effect” or “stars are made, not born”.
Counter-intuition is all around us. When I became a father for the first time I remember one of the most popular pieces of pop psychology was the Mozart Effect – the idea that if you played classical music to your child in the womb he or she would become more intelligent.
I remember repeating it because it sounded interesting and clever; did you know that music could actually affect a child’s future cognition? I’m pretty sure I bought a Mozart CD, when I may as well have played her the Cheeky Girls’ “Touch my Bum” for all the good it did (this was the 2000s).
It’s obviously ludicrous; parents who play Mozart around the house tend to be smart and the kids inherit their intelligence, which has a substantial genetic component.
That is the obvious, boring and true explanation.
Or the similar idea, repeated and spread even before the internet, that giving children wine led to reduced alcoholism because this was common practice in Latin countries where alcohol abuse is far less common. Unfortunately, this clever, counter-intuitive piece of modern wisdom is untrue, and children who drink alcohol from a young age are more likely to develop a problem in later life. It’s just that northern European cultures, where there is a much higher genetic predisposition to alcoholism, have developed taboos against children drinking.
Alcoholism has a strong genetic component, but then pretty much all personality traits and life outcomes are about 50 per cent genetic.
But what do people buy in airports? Books telling them that with enough effort anyone can become John Lennon. That is a much more interesting story.
Anti-intuition is popular with clever people because in some very complex areas a lot of things are counter-intuitive, physics being a prime example; Einstein's paper on Special Relativity is counter-intuitive, and when it was published in his miracle year of 1905 it set the tone for a century of actually.
Perhaps the most central, and long-lasting form of anti-intuition came just after the First World War with “stereotyping”. Originally a term from typesetting, it was adapted by journalist Walter Lippmann to show that it was our words and perception that created reality, not the other way around. Lippmann was perhaps the original “actually” merchant, and his ideas had a huge influence, leading to the highly popular idea of “stereotype threat” – that pre-conceived ideas about people become self-fulfilling prophecies. One 1995 paper on “stereotype threat” has been cited over 5,000 times, rather unsurprisingly as the idea is highly interesting, positive and counter-intuitive, suggesting that we can shape the world how we want it to be, with a just a few clever tricks.
Unfortunately, it’s not true, and stereotype threat is one of many popular ideas that has been discredited by the replication crisis in psychology, along with implicit bias and power posing.
All of these ideas were regurgitated around the world at management meetings, both by people who wanted to change the world and by people who just wanted to sound clever and needed something to read on their flight. Would your grandmother have been fooled? Probably not, but then none of these ideas were Lindy.
Our expert class got things badly wrong on masks and borders. And while we shouldn’t stop listening to experts, we should perhaps stop listening to people who are trying to sound clever. And when they do try to tell us some new-found wisdom, perhaps we need to ask ourselves the most important question – would our grandmothers have believed this?