On Deaths, Bans, Life and Metaphors

I talked a little bit in my last article about how some or all of the disagreements I had with Zeynep Tufekci came down to beliefs that I hold that might be considered a bit on the fringe of reasonable thought. This made it hard to criticize her, because it’s not really all that fair to call someone out for a difference of opinion where factual reality can’t be relied upon to resolve the disagreement.

But I do disagree with her and probably a majority of everyone in terms of risk, death and what a conscientious person should be willing to give up to avoid them. It’s something that’s likely to come up in my writing again and again (I’ve already disagreed with Yglesias about it here, for instance) so I think it’s worth it to spend some time fleshing out my views on this, if nothing else so I can have something to point to without rehashing it again and again.

With that said, let the festival of the many metaphors begin!

You’ve survived a shipwreck. Congratulations!

You lost consciousness after your boat went down, but you now miraculously find you didn’t drown. Looking around you find you are in a smallish metal room similar to a shipping container. You also find you aren’t alone; there’s a small, middle-aged man in the box with you.

The man explains that he and now you are the sole inhabitants of a paradise-like island; it’s filled with fresh fruit, beautiful animals and boasts a near-perfect climate year round. He describes the island so well, in fact, that you decide you’d like to see the island yourself. You rush to the door and try to open it, but it’s locked. The man informs you that - to his great sorrow - neither you and he can go outside because of the risk of being attacked by a tiger.

You express your surprise that the island even has tigers - it’s the wrong part of the world for large predatory cats. The man explains that the island doesn’t actually in fact have a tiger, but it’s possible that it might at some point get one - after all, it didn’t use to have humans either, but now it has two. In his previous non-castaway life, the man was a mathematician and has calculated the risk of death in the box (and thus safe from tigers) and outside the box (and thus at risk from them, were they to exist).

With a great degree of confidence he tells you that if you leave the box, your chance of dying any particular year is 0.86800% . If you stay in the box with him, however, you are inarguably safer - your per-year risk of death is 0.86053% once tigers are factored out. He tells you not to worry - he grows a nutritious mold for food and gathers rainwater through a system of funnels, and you can survive indefinitely in your new metal home.

You let the man know that while you appreciate his caution, you are willing to tolerate the small amount of increased risk in order to enjoy the island. The man explains to you that you don’t have a choice. In a fair, open election before you arrived, he was declared mayor-for-life of the island; as mayor, he emphasizes low death rates above all other values. He lets you know that he will never unlock the door, and that he’s fairly disgusted with you for prioritizing your own petty enjoyment over the literal risk of the death of his constituents.

True to his values, he never lets you out of the box - you live a long, healthy life in the confines of his caution.

This is how Matt Yglesias thinks about gun suicides and alcohol consumption. The percentages above are real - they are the unadjusted death rate in the US in 2018, with and without gun suicide and alcohol-related deaths.

When Matt talks about these things, he doesn’t talk about the actual effects on the death rate; he talks about absolute numbers of deaths. Those numbers sound larger, but they don’t really give you the whole picture. It might be because he hasn’t done the math on the whole death-rate thing, but if he has, it means Matt believes something like this (my words, not his):

There’s a very small risk that something you are voluntarily doing might end up harming you. I don’t care about the size of the risk, and I don’t care if you are willing to shoulder that risk for the sake of doing something you like. If it were up to me, I’d ban that thing you like, because you might die and I feel like it’s OK for me to protect you against your own wishes from even small risks.

I disagree with Matt (more on this later). Next metaphor!

You are a pilot who has been forced to crash-land his plane on an isolated island. This island is inhabited - there’s about a thousand people in residence. Nobody has ever escaped, but it’s not so bad - people live, marry, have kids, and die in a relatively happy environment. And they eat a lot of fish.

It turns out that the only edible thing on the island is fish that are taken from the island’s only lake. Luckily, the fish are nutritionally complete and delicious so you hardly miss other foods. A few years after you arrive, however, the unthinkable happens: The fish get sick.

The sickness does not kill the fish, but it makes them much less healthy to eat. Every year, several of the villagers die. It’s not an extinction level event for the people on the island, but it’s very sad; everyone has lost someone, be it a parent, a spouse, a child or a friend. Not everyone who survives is healthy; the fish don’t affect everyone negatively, but when they do hurt someone they damage them in a variety of ways, diminishing their overall physical well-being.

One day, you are walking along thinking about how sad all this is, when you see the unbelievable: The island has a second lake! You look through it’s clear waters and find that the fish inside are apparently identical to the fish in the town’s known lake, but healthy and devoid of the signs of the sickness. Elated, you rush back to the village to tell the Magistrate of Approving New Food Sources what you’ve learned - the village is saved!

The Magistrate informs you that the village is not saved, thank you very much. He has no idea, he says, if these fish are safe or not - they might look the same as the other fish, but what if they are made of a deadly poison? What if they kill everyone in the village? There’s no way to know. It’s a risk he won’t take. He intends to use his powers as magistrate to block all consumption of the fish, for safety’s sake.

You immediately volunteer yourself to eat a few of the fish to prove their safety - you, after all, judge that you are at risk from the sick fish anyway and besides that can by risking yourself save many others should the fish prove safe. The Magistrate tells you that this represents an unethical risk - even if you understand the danger to yourself and volunteer, he won’t allow it -in fact, he’d jail you for trying if you went over his head.

You argue that the fish certainly look a lot like the other fish, and that it seems like the small chance that the new fish are deadly poison pales in comparison to the known actual wide-spread death the sick fish are causing. The magistrate can tell you aren’t getting it, and pulls you aside.

“Look here,” he says, annoyed, “I’m not The Magistrate of Keeping Fish Healthy. I’m not The Magistrate of Curing Illness. I’m The Magistrate of Approving New Food Sources. The only way I get in trouble is if I approve a new food source that ends up being dangerous - the rest of this stuff isn’t my business and I’m not about to run myself out of a job by saving people willy-nilly.”

The Magistrate lets the townspeople know that he is perfectly willing to let them eat the new fish, should they prove safe; he will test them by feeding them to the island’s only tame bear. Five years and hundreds of preventable deaths later, the bear is still alive and the fish are officially declared permissible to eat. The politically savvy Magistrate is proved correct when he is never fired or even seriously questioned regarding his policies.

This is how the FDA thinks about things like e-cigarettes, but much more importantly how it thinks about vaccines for Covid-19. Did you know we had a complete, working vaccine before the average person had ever heard “Coronavirus” on the news? Did you know we could have reasonably proved it’s efficacy with low-risk-group volunteers within a few months and potentially saved hundreds of thousands of lives? The FDA did; the FDA also did not give two shits about this.

Did you know there’s like a dozen medicines that are all pretty hopeful at treating Covid patients a lot more effectively? The FDA does! The FDA also enforces a set of standards that will very likely ensure that none of these medicines will be in wide usage by the time the super-delayed Covid vaccines render them moot. The next global pandemic, we better pray we can use the same drugs from this one; if not, the FDA will make sure the same delays apply on the new life-saving-but-restricted medicines.

Whoopsie! You’ve tripped and fallen into one of those sparsely populated islands. You got lucky, though; this island’s climate and lifestyle produce unbelievable levels of health in the inhabitants. You use your new-found vim and vigor to explore every nook and cranny of the thing.

One day, you are walking along when you see a beautiful lake. The water is the perfect temperature for a swim, and you are sweaty and sore from your hike. You decide to take a dip, but just before you jump in, you are stopped by Frank, your island buddy. “You can’t jump in there,” says Frank, his eyes filled with noble intent. “That lake is our island’s second leading cause of preventable death".

Frank explains that the island has known three deaths in the last century that weren’t from old age. One of the deaths was the tragic loss of Trent, who decided to go swimming in the lake. This was unusual in and of itself, since the islanders’ culture mostly disdains being wet; it’s a form of serious shame to them to be caught in the rain, much less submerged. Trent, being an oddball, decided to give it a whirl anyway. Sadly, the newly-damp Trent experienced a leg cramp and he drowned immediately. Since then, the lake has been banned, since it is the second most dangerous thing the islanders are aware of.

Curious, you ask Frank about the leading cause of death on the island, which by implication has killed twice. He explains that the two other preventable deaths known to the island both involved choking on a particularly fibrous and difficult-to-chew berry indigenous to the island. You ask why the berries have not been banned, given their danger. Frank looks at you as if you are insane, and explains that nobody would ban the berries - they are considered to be delicious by all people of good character.

This is how basically everybody thinks of vices they don’t themselves enjoy. Almost everyone is OK with banning things they don’t like (See Yglesias on how in his opinion we can’t but absolutely should ban guns) but at most want minor restrictions on dangerous things they do like (See Yglesias in the same article, proposing very modest taxes on alcohol while admitting it’s much more dangerous in absolute-number terms).

This is why you see a tremendous amount of work put into banning guns, but only a few fringe people talking about banning high-calorie foods as a general class despite obesity being significantly more dangerous than firearms. A few people here and there want to ban McDonalds - those people don’t like McDonalds. Nobody except vegans tries to ban ice cream. You have to understand that even rich, educated people like ice cream.

This hypocrisy is real. You might blame it on a particular political side, but really most of us do it; I myself didn’t get that involved in trying to prevent taxes on sugared soda - The Resident Contrarian drinks diet, mostly. I wasn’t motivated because I wasn’t effected. I know there are some thoughtful, principled people who do defend all freedoms equally, but you know and I know they might as well be a rounding error for all they effect US culture and politics.

Believe it or not, however, this double-standard we all have to different extents isn’t the point of the metaphor.

You might have noticed a second twist hidden in the last metaphor - the leading cause of death is indeed the leading cause of death. It’s the second most dangerous thing the islanders know about, and that’s enough for them. In their experience, it’s the one of the most dangerous things, and that’s how they think about it. People could safely enjoy the pond, mostly, but nobody does because they judge the risk relative to the general riskiness of their lives; nobody reflects that their lives are obscenely safe regardless of whether they swim or not.

It might not even be possible for them to do so. They haven’t lived anywhere but the island; they don’t remember any lifetime but their own. Maybe the island once had a bunch of tigers, but they were long since subjugated when the current islanders were born. If they value safety, it makes sense to aim their efforts at the last remaining dangers, so long as those dangers can be eliminated without much personal loss to the individuals pushing the bans.

I disagree with Yglesias that we should ignore the actual affect on the death rate and focus on absolute numbers, which tell us less. I disagree that we should feel free to keep people from risks they choose for themselves even when those risks are large, much more so when the risks are demonstrably small. I also disagree with the FDA that making sure drugs don’t kill small amounts of informed volunteers should outweigh illness killing vast amounts of people and that the main point of the policies they enforce should be protecting their own careers.

Those three types of disagreements aren’t entirely uncommon - I’m sure some people reading this are nodding along. But where I suspect I’d get into it with with Tufekci and lose most of my audience is this: I think we are exceptionally safe in a lot of ways, and that we don’t stop to consider that already-high level of security. Since we aren’t that great at noticing how good we have it, we trend towards perpetually seeking more and more safety at the sacrifice of more and more of what we might actually enjoy. To put it another way, we protect life at the cost of enjoying life.

It’s entirely arguable that Covid-19 is a big enough threat, that it’s caused enough death and harm, that none of this argument should apply to it. I even suspect that’s right. If we aren’t going to restrict ourselves for Covid, what would we restrict ourselves for? But I still find myself reflexively wanting to fight the Tufekci’s of the world when they reasonably propose cancelling the parties and extending the lock-downs. I think this is mostly because I never see any mainstream thinker seriously grappling with the idea that at some point we are restricting large amounts of people from enjoying the things they like to obtain minimal gains on safety in a world that is already overwhelmingly safe.

So that’s my basic framework - when I talk about death vs. everything else in the future, this is what I’ll point to. Not that we should be unsafe, and not that we should never consider bans - but that there’s other things to consider and other things that are important besides locking ourselves or others in little rooms to keep make an already-small number artificially lower, cost be damned.

We might disagree on the balance of how much death we need before we restrict life - that’s reasonable and positive. I think it’s necessary that people who feel more push back on people who are more motivated by spreadsheets. But if this article felt ghoulish at any point - if the talk of trading fun for safety felt over the line - that’s part of the problem I’m talking about. If we can’t talk about anything but safety, safety is all we will get, until there’s nothing left besides that.

Again, Covid probably isn’t the place to argue this; I acknowledge it’s a big deal. The nature of the world right now means I can’t completely avoid Covid when talking about this. But at the same time that these arguments might not apply well to Covid, I think the era of Covid might be the best time to think about these arguments. When, after all, are we going to see our health threatened and our ability to live our everyday lives hampered more clearly and more universally than today? Now is when everything is real and immediate, when we can feel the implication of each philosophy in a real way that costs and hurts.

In the face of danger and restriction, we have our greatest chance to really consider what safety and freedom are worth. Let’s not waste it.