Wednesday, April 01, 2020

Acting in Uncertain Times

Two notable things on reasoning on the basis of uncertainty in matters like a pandemic. First, from Philippe Lemoine:

...The most important point I want to make is that we don’t need complicated mathematical models of dubious epistemic status to prepare for the worst. The economic consequences of locking down everyone are very serious, but if we don’t do it and the worst comes to pass, the consequences will be even more severe, including for the economy. I’m not American, but I think there are enough reasons at this point to fear that something really bad is going to happen unless you take strong measures to prevent it. At the end of a two-week lockdown, you can reevaluate in light of what scientists will have learned by then....

Second, from Liam Kofi Bright and Richard Bradley:

We are going to have to respond to COVID19 in absence of the sort of knowledge we should ideally prefer when making rational decisions of great social import. In the UK the current hope, if it may be called that, is that we can at least keep the death toll below 20,000. If even this is to be achieved we must decide responsibly and fairly about how to bear various burdens, especially when one remembers Sartre’s point that sometimes to make no choice is itself a morally weighty choice. Clear thinking about the principles that might underlie rational decision making in extreme uncertainty is thus important to us at this moment.

There's no mathematical solution to tragedy, nor an analysis that saves us the responsibility of hard choices. Whatever we do there will be terrible loss. May our decisions be guided by a reason that knows its limits, and a compassion that knows none.