John Maynard Keynes, arguably the most influential economist in the 20th century, used to change opinions on the same issue often leading his critics to accuse him of being inconsistent. Keynes reportedly answered: "When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?" There are disputes on the correct versions of this quote and even whether it was Keynes or Nobel laureate Paul Samuelson, who really said this. The point of this piece is to explore the "what do you do, sir" question.
A very logical answer appears to be "the same". However, do we really observe people changing minds when the facts change?
I am sure the students of science are journalising how facts on Covid-19 are playing out in 2020, a year that will distinguish itself in the pages of history because of a confluence of bad events globally with the pandemic at the center. The world is learning about this pernicious virus every day. Facts on the epidemiological and economic dynamics of the coronavirus have rapidly accumulated since it originated from Wuhan in China in late 2019. The related science and policy recommendations have metamorphosed accordingly.
Yet we see individuals in authority deriding scientists for changing their position on the causes, consequences, and policy responses over time. The pandemic has given rise to an "infodemic" as well—systems of shared beliefs with no scientific roots. It has shown how hard it is to make policies in real time based on incomplete science, inconclusive facts, and inclinations of decision makers to choose facts. I used to think these problems are endemic more in social than in natural sciences such as epidemiology and virology. Not anymore.
Facts on covid-19
What do we know about the coronavirus today that we did not know nine months ago other than the fact that it is a novel virus? Quite a lot. We know it is highly contagious; hops from human to human very efficiently; aggravates pre-existing conditions fatally; affects different demographic groups, including gender, differently; generates immune responses of uncertain quality and duration; and leaves legacies in the infected human bodies that extend beyond the contours of medical science.
A just released massive contact tracing study in India found that just 8 percent of people with COVID-19 accounted for 60 percent of the new infections observed among the contacts, and 7 out of 10 COVID-19 patients were not linked to any new cases. It also suggests children are more efficient spreaders of the virus than commonly perceived.
The focus of scientific inquiry into the coronavirus has justifiably been on flattening the virus spread curve down to its base by discovering therapeutics, vaccines and public health mitigation measures. As of today, we have few candidates on therapeutics and vaccines, but no clear winner. On therapeutics, there is no proven cure except a couple that appear to embolden immune response but cannot necessarily prevent fatality. There is no one medication curing all. On vaccines there is great deal of optimism based on preliminary clinical trials, particularly on safety, but hardly any specific assurance on efficacy. The less efficacious a vaccine, the longer it will take to achieve herd immunity. Without the latter, no one is safe.
Facts on mitigation
On mitigation the scientific inquiry has informed policy responses on two fronts: pharmaceutical and non-pharmaceutical. Countries have struggled to ramp up the pharmaceutical interventions such as testing, tracing, quarantining, isolating, and treating not only because of financial and institutional capacity constraints in the health sector but also because of the uncertainty of proven knowledge on what works.
A range of non-pharmaceutical mitigation measures have been tried with varying effects across countries and over time. New facts have emerged to produce a scientific consensus on what works universally and under specific conditions. Such a consensus was missing in March. Scientists lacked clarity on what really works. They made recommendations factoring the prevailing uncertainties of knowledge at the time.
Take the case of masks. Initially its usefulness was described as a myth. As new facts on asymptomatic spreaders came to light, scientists figured it is good for protecting others because the virus is spread through droplets spewed out, in 40-45 percent of the cases, by the asymptomatically infected. Now we know it also walks in the air like aerosol. Masks provide some self-protection from inhaling the virus.
Research increasingly favors both individual mask-wearing and policies requiring universal masking. There is now scientific consensus, applicable universally, that masking can be as good as vaccinating if a sufficiently large majority of the population do it. Masks do not allow for reckless behavior. Other precautions, from handwashing to physical distancing, are still crucial. A judicious composition of masking, social distancing, hand washing, crowd avoiding, and ventilation can enable reopening without steepening the curve.
There are no alternatives to these facts. Yet a vast majority in many countries are not masking or social distancing nor planning to get vaccinated even if one were available.
Minds on action
Why is that? Natural science is incapable of answering questions relating to why people behave the way they do. That is the realm of social scientists where no one—economists, sociologists, psychologists, or political scientists—has monopoly. The boundaries of these disciplines are not as neatly defined as in the cases of physics, chemistry, and biology.
The social scientists are grappling with their own dilemmas. Take the case of lockdowns which gave rise to what many would now consider an "infamous" life versus livelihoods debate. Lockdowns came as a response hurried by the memories of the Spanish Flu which infected 500 million killed 20 to 50 million people. The intention was to save lives by "locking" people in their homes through a government enforced diktat.
Lockdowns have not received voluntary cooperation for long. It has been routinely violated in countries that chose not to deploy harsh enforcement. Apart from grinding many of the economy's wheels to a sudden halt, lockdowns have many unintended social and psychological consequences such as domestic abuse, violence, breakdown in social cohesion, stress, depression and so on.
The efficacy of lockdowns in flattening the curve is positively correlated with the level of per capita incomes. Wealthier emerging markets with more advanced technology and governance have the space to limit the impact of lockdowns, deploy the resources needed to curb the outbreak (test centers and quarantine facilities), and make larger distributive responses. However, the consensus on whether these suffice is weak at best.
The alternatives to lockdowns, relatively so costless on the surface, are not collectively acted upon either. Economists had identified the reason for the failure of such action to take place through individual volition long time ago when trying to understand how individuals respond to incentives—the first law of economics. The incentives that come to the individuals considering a particular action often do not enter decision calculus when the costs and benefits accrue to others. This causes failures as small as in the provision of lights in a local street to as monumental as global warming. Now we know it can also cause failures in mobilising society to fight against the most virulent virus in the last hundred years.
The concept of externality explains the failure and provides the argument for collective action. Making it happen requires leaping outside technocratic economics to understand the institutions and politics of collective action. The science in this sphere is highly imprecise and the facts mostly nebulous. Also, many of our minds remain impervious to the fact that the facts we think are true may not be so.
The battle of the facts and minds
We are condemned to struggle between facts and minds to an extent that instead of facts changing minds, we must contend with minds changing the facts! Psychologists discovered this a long time ago and Donald Trump has taken it to new heights.
People tend to look for evidence that supports their preconceived idea or a vested interest and not pay attention to evidence that says the idea is inaccurate or the interest is incompatible. This "confirmation bias" leads to reverse causation from minds to facts leading to a new universe of alternative facts. Not only do minds change when the facts change, but also facts change when the minds in authority change—a case of mind over data I suppose.
Understanding the truth of a situation is important, so is remaining part of a "tribe" or being strategic in the choice of facts. These occasionally come into conflict. Sometimes we believe things because they are useful to serve our own and the interests of the people we care about. Sometimes the facts strike back furiously as exhibited on October 2nd when all the White House staff suddenly masked up after defying and mocking masking all the time a la Donald Trump.
False beliefs can be useful in a socio-political sense even if they are not useful factually. "Faced with a choice between changing one's mind and proving there is no need to do so, almost everyone gets busy with the proof", according to economist J.K. Galbraith.
A case in point you can easily find on the internet is the first presidential debate held on September 29th in the run up to US elections on November 3rd. It is an unequivocal illustration of how scientific concepts, supported by robust sets of data, are politicised, not because of a controversy in the scientific community, but because they threaten a party or an influential person's agenda.