A Short Piece
Aliens, Seatbelts, and the Coronavirus
There is always a gray zone between anxiety and wise precaution.
How do I know when I’m being anxious versus when I’m being wise? They feel so similar. I don’t want to take costly and unnecessary precautions, but I also don’t want to run out of toilet paper. Let’s discuss.
Imagine you’ve befriended an alien from another planet. The two of you get in your car to go for a drive, and just as you reach for your seatbelt, the alien says (fortunately, you know the language), “What are you doing? That’s not necessary.” You respond, “But it is. I want to be safe. You should do the same.” He shakes his head, “Don’t be anxious.”
If I fear a meteor will one day land on my head and kill me, reasonable people would view me as silly and anxious. If I fear dying in a car crash, many people would relate. But is it actually silly for me to fear meteors? Why? The alien has never witnessed a car crash, so to him that’s silly and I’m being anxious. Who is right, and how do I know?
Well, it’s unlikely a meteor will hit me, but car wrecks happen all the time. So, probability suggests I’d be anxious to hide from meteors, but I’d be wise to buckle my seatbelt. Also, it’s not practical to hide from meteors because I cannot afford a meteor-proof house or a meteor-proof head (also, they don’t exist). So, if I can’t protect myself, what’s the point of worrying? Better to just pretend it can’t happen, forget about it, and relax. Meanwhile, I can buckle my seatbelt for free, it only takes a moment, and I know if I don’t it’s more likely a car crash would injure or kill me.
There is always a gray zone between anxiety and wise precaution, so how do we know which we’re feeling? Most of the time we rely on our experience. Don’t know anyone who’s been hit by a meteorite? Seems unlikely. You don’t actually know the statistics, but it seems unlikely. You’ve never even heard of it happening. But let’s say you’re an astronomer who has spent years researching meteorites and know a meteor will soon strike. Obviously, the wise thing for you to do is to take precautions.
The coronavirus pandemic has revealed how hard it is to be clear-headed about this distinction. In early February, people who didn’t yet know the details thought it was silly and anxious to stock up on groceries or avoid public settings. Now that detailed reports have been more widely publicized and accepted, such precautions seem wise and necessary. But isn’t ignorance bliss? Sure, until it’s not, and then it’s really not.
Hopefully, the coronavirus has taught us to regularly educate ourselves broadly, even about issues that we may not think matter very much. With knowledge, it’s hard enough to effectively distinguish fear from wisdom, cowardice from bravery, paranoia from prudence. Without knowledge, it’s even harder. None of us can know everything, but occasionally we will suffer if we don’t try to keep learning. Experience is a great teacher, but it has a nasty habit of teaching things too late.
This blog was edited by Kennan Grant