An Alarmist Excursion

Well, it’s a mental excursion because clearly we can’t go anywhere, and if you live in Michigan you can’t even go there. But either way, let’s think a little about alarmism.

Back in February/March when the Covid-19 virus was just beginning to blip on our radar screens, there were frequent comparisons to the flu. These comparisons were shouted down with “You can’t compare this to the flu!” The shouters were louder, and so the issue was settled. Let’s unsettle it – just for fun.

Comparison is an incredibly efficient educational tool. How do people learn? The best way to learn is by experience. Try explaining “purple” to a friend born blind and you will understand this principle. Children learn “hot” and “cold” not by a parental lecture, but by the bathtub, the winter, and the kettle. These lessons become part of a knowledge base that is intrinsic to us. We don’t just know: we understand. But there are many things that we cannot personally experience, and so we need another tool. That tool is comparison. How could we instruct our children without those precious little words, “It’s like…”

One of the values of comparison is that it allows us to place similar items in groups so that we don’t have to expend mental energy on every single subject we come across over the course of the day. Imagine the galaxy as all the information we come across/need over the course of the day. We would be overwhelmed by the number of stars and planets. So we build categories that allow us to break the galaxy up into more manageable chunks. I put “Mars” and “Earth” in the same solar system and file them away into one container.

Comparison is always imperfect and limited because the subjects of the comparison are not identical. The comparison is just a bridge between an item in the knowledge base and some new thing, principle, or concept. Mars and Earth are two distinct planets, but they can live in the same solar system in our minds without issue. So when Covid-19 first began to hit the news cycle and people were wondering what it was, it made perfect sense to compare it to the flu: both are viruses that are easily transmitted from person to person.

But as it turns out, that didn’t scare people. Now it’s entirely possible that people should have been scared, and I don’t think it’s an inherent weakness of the comparison. After all, the CDC estimates that there have been between 24,000-62,000 flu related deaths in the USA this season. There is also no true vaccine, as every year there’s a certain amount of guesswork in which strain of influenza will hit. And, as I told my wife while she fought the flu for 10 days, there’s no real medical treatment for the flu except rest and hydration.

Now the more of an expert someone is on the given subject, the more that person will find the comparison exasperating. Their knowledge is so granular that they only see the points of difference. “How dare you compare Earth to Mars! Don’t you know that Earth can sustain a variety of biological life and Mars cannot!” They miss the bridge for the canyon. So the experts began pointing out that Covid-19 has a higher transmission rate, attacks the upper respiratory system, is more lethal to the elderly than to children, etc…All of those things are demonstrably true, but they do not negate the value of the comparison. The comparison has explained to me, a medical rube, what mental category to file Covid-19 in: it’s an upper respiratory virus and so it should be in the same general orbit as the flu and other such nasty things that make people sick. Comparison accomplished.

Now on to alarmism.

We live in a culture of alarmism. The only way to get people to care about anything is if it’s a REALLY BIG PROBLEM!!!! If you want people’s money, you need to show them starving puppies to the sound track of Sarah MchlogneMcClochlan…Mclachlan. If you want people to recycle, then those polar ice caps are going to have to melt. If you want people to vote then you have to convince them that the “other guy” is the reincarnation of Hitler. And since the media lives by the motto “if it bleeds it leads” then clearly the comparison of Covid-19 to the flu had to go. Nobody cares about the flu. This new virus had to be filed into a completely different category. Something new and unfamiliar that would scare people. “Pandemic” has worked. It has a certain ring to it. But just to be safe, let’s throw in an adjective: “Global Pandemic!” That will sell.

The best thing about the “global pandemic” category (as far as the alarmist goes) is that we had nothing in that box, so it could be filled up with any amount of emotion and imagery the media wanted to throw at us. To us Westerners, pandemics are something that happen far away in third world countries. The news could show over-crowded hospitals in Italy (and pretend they were in New York City) and we sit up and take notice that this is a REALLY BIG DEAL.

“Wait a second…isn’t this a global pandemic?” you ask. And I answer “yes”. I’m not denying that there is a global crisis involving a novel coronavirus. And it is terrible. And people really are dying. Action needed to be taken, and it needed to be taken immediately. My beef here is not with any of that. My point is that we created a completely new category in our worldview for something for which a category already exists. We are not thinking particularly clearly about this because the category has been switched from respiratory virus to global pandemic. We would laugh incredulously at a governor’s mandate to stay home because this is a particularly bad flu season. But since we’re dealing with a global pandemic, we shrug and sew our facemasks. The rush to see which government can shut down the most and the longest is on. The winner will receive a broken economy.

Hospitals are nowhere near capacity. Recovery rates are as expected or better, with the most at-risk being the elderly and the health-compromised. Aside from geographical hotspots (like NYC) and categorical hotspots (like nursing homes), we are nowhere near the dire predictions of the computer models. But most troubling is that anyone who disagrees with alarmist mentality is being silenced. Like, smart people who know stuff. People who think we’re doing it wrong. Such thought deviations cannot be tolerated by the media, the politicians, or Google.

And since the dire predictions about Covid-19 haven’t materialized in the sensational fashion predicted, Drudge has to move on to raising the alarm about the violation of civil liberties. First we were instructed to panic over Covid-19, and now we have to panic because the government did in fact panic and did some stuff that was, frankly, silly.

Big disclaimer: nothing in what I am writing should be construed as minimizing the current health crisis or saying that we should not respond appropriately. I really don’t want to get Covid-19 and I really don’t want to pass it along to anyone else. I just want to point out how the narrative has played out because I’m not sure I like the way it played out.

There are 2 basic problems with the alarmist mentality. The first is that it tends to be the tool of manipulation. Alarmed people – emotional people – tend to make irrational decisions: did you notice all the panic buying? “The sale ends tomorrow and you’ll really miss out if you don’t buy the car now, NOW, NOW!” How do you get a nation of rebels to agree to stay home for 3 weeks? Alarm helps.

But more problematic for me is that there are genuine instances where alarm is warranted, and by creating an entire culture of alarm we have leveled the playing field for all dangers, real and imagined. For example, we should not lose sight of the danger posed by an invasive government because we are distracted over a virus.

But it seems to me that alarm over any mortal concern should be considered a far less danger than alarm over eternal issues. Jesus thought the danger of losing an eye – a pretty big deal – to be minor in comparison with both eyes being cast into hell. Loss of physical life should register much lower on the Richter scale than the damnation of one’s soul. Alarm should not be egalitarian – climate and politics and money and sex and discrimination should not compare to alarm over the impending judgment of a righteous God. What does it profit a man if he gains money, health, status, or safety if in the end, he loses his soul?

Alarm is a wonderful thing when used the right way. Alarmism as a means of public control is not.

3 thoughts on “An Alarmist Excursion

  1. Thanks Nathan. Your are an articulate, rational thinker. Thought provoking article – which I of course agree with which means I think it’s quite well written and helpful in sorting my thoughts.

    Liked by 1 person

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