The Stakes Are High, Don't Shun Contrarians!

Why enforced intellectual conformism hurts truth-finding

I.

One thing Covid-19 taught me is that humans have a norm of liberally tolerating contrarians when the stakes are low and it would take decades to be proven right, but shunning contrarians when stakes are high and events are moving fast.

Seeing as how they ended up in a global crisis anyway, some folks have taken it upon themselves to volunteer with the online coronapolice in order to enforce this norm. Surveilling the Internet, they force anyone who says anything about the virus that deviates from the official consensus to shut it, and command the world to listen only to official bodies such as the WHO.

That you should keep silent about the coronavirus if you didn’t happen to attend the right university lectures twenty years ago seems like an unwritten rule by now. If you, like Elon Musk, share your theories anyway, they will go after you. Delete your Tweet, who do you think you are?!

YouTube even banned everything not aligning with official WHO advice.

Doesn’t that go a bit far?

II.

It is interesting to consider how censoring alternative views should help. Doesn’t truth-finding benefit from discussion?

The idea behind such an extreme measure, I think, is that we need to be protected from ourselves. The reason for the taboo on deviant opinions isn’t that we’ve exposed those ideas as fake news or as nonsense. Rather the opposite: because most of us cannot refute them.

Suppose you come across a Twitter thread full of mathematical abracadabra and - voilà - the pleasant upshot that your country will soon reach herd immunity. While the conclusion sounds implausible, the statistical explanation, to your mind, does not. In such cases, in fact, hardly anyone can usually spot the calculation error. We lack the necessary specialist knowledge to do so. 

We can only note that authorities disagree with the conclusion. (And draw the proper inference.)

Indeed, in the back of our mind, there is that voice. Alas, counterarguments persuade us: the tweet (already) has three thousand likes, the author is handsome and has a PhD in a field with a complicated name. So we allow ourselves to conclude that her reasoning is correct and that, soon, the coronavirus will be crushed. Spread the word!

As a layperson, we should, of course, have realized that our impression that the argument was watertight has little epistemic value. Since, to us, a false argument sounds just as convincing as a true argument, argument convincingness provides no evidence either way. So the correct Bayesian action here is to ignore it and stick with your prior impression that there’s probably a reason only one country in the world - Sweden - pursued a herd immunity-based strategy.

Unfortunately, modesty is not our strongest suit, and for complicated graphs that happen to support a conclusion we want to be true (that covid-19 is almost over) - we happily give our critical thinking a day off for that.

(Perhaps we even rationalize the indulgence, arguing that overuse of the outside view - always obediently deferring to the mainstream consensus – can prevent you from having any kind of meaningful opinion at all, and we wouldn’t want that know, would we?)

III.

I think people worry that there are those among us who will use contrarian positions – whatever their plausibility, their mere presence suffices – as an excuse to claim inconclusiveness, hold onto ‘their own truth’ and behave accordingly. After all, there isn’t one position so outrageous that not one person with a PhD defends it. So before folks take their ‘own facts’ to be superior to science, it’s better to prevent contrarian takes from getting traction in the first place. 

Hence Youtube’s policy and the online coronapolice.

An understandable sentiment. Still, YouTube’s decision and the fierceness of the online coronapolice are unwise: such repression undermines the trust people have in institutions’ truth-finding motives

While authorities create support by participating in debate, they raise suspicion by censoring dissent. In fact, doing so sows precisely the mistrust that conspiracy theorists capitalize on. Good intentions aside, banning alternative theories thus damages both the search for truth and peoples’ trust in the government and its decisions. That’s why this strategy achieves exactly what it is trying to prevent.

IV.

Especially now, because the coronavirus reveals more about the functioning of our experts than we realize.

Except for the weatherman (we can easily compare today’s temperature to yesterday’s forecast), experts often make claims we can’t verify or falsify. In fact, well-known work by Philip Tetlock shows that they constantly make false predictions. Yet they get away with it, because the things they make predictions about usually have mushy enough outcomes that they can bluster their way out of trouble. However the economy develops, for example, pundits can always interpret it in such a way that it’s consistent with their past predictions. 

You have to be an economist yourself to see through the smokescreen.

An epidemic is different, more like the weather: predictions are clearly confirmed or debunked. For example, WHO was wrong when it previously claimed that there was no evidence of human-to-human transmission of covid-19, that it wasn’t airborne, and that travel bans weren’t necessary. And no matter how many, many, many media outlets “interpret” this virus, their claims to the extent that the flu is worse were wrong - and we’ve all seen it with our own eyes.

Now that everyone can see through the smokescreen, isn’t it better to engage with contrarians, rather than silence them? The unique nature of the situation allows experts to demonstrate competence by making correct predictions and refuting incorrect claims (or wisdom by admitting uncertainty). And it allows institutions to reap trust by conducting the debate, instead of banning opponents or dismissing their views as wacky conspiracy theories.

You may, by the way, wonder whether it is reasonable of me to draw conclusions from WHO’s meager track record. Past estimates were made based on what we knew at the time, which was less than now. So their high error rate is due to this fundamental lack of knowledge, not because of a mistake on the experts’ part.

However, the mistakes of the WHO do not just stem from a lack of available information. For example, they advised against wearing masks when Germany, with the same data, already saw reason to make them compulsory in public transport. Furthermore, it’s the certainty with which authorities draw conclusions that’s unwise. The Dutch equivalent of the CDC, for example, confidently communicated at the end of April that the chance of a second wave of cases is “very small”.

The second wave is, in fact, happening right now.

It is precisely the uncertainty of the situation that should make authorities realize such conclusions are premature, and prevent them from making statements in such a convinced tone.

V.

In addition to the clarity with which the coronavirus falsifies predictions, it offers a rare look behind the scenes in a second way. It shows that, contrary to what the online corona police assume, official bodies have other goals than communicating the truth.

What the WHO decides to claim, for example, reflects the version of the facts that best suits its constituents, rather than the one for which the most evidence exists. This became painfully clear in its embarrassing compliment for China’s transparency (it could have been a joke), and in the even more painful video in which a senior official feigns that the internet connection breaks down when a journalist asks about Taiwan’s WHO-membership.

Could this have something to do with the Chinese money for the WHO? Either way, it doesn't seem like a coincidence that people like Nassim Taleb have started to doubt WHO's truth-disseminating competence. 

Which is why denouncing everyone (with or without proper title) who dares to question her claims is premature. Doing so isn’t an attempt to undermine government policy or to deliberately mislead – it’s pursuing the truth.

Perhaps, then, we should be more afraid of institutional takes on freedom of expression, than of contrarian views on the coronavirus.