When it comes to dealing with adopting good COVID-19 policies, our civilization failed. This suggests low ability to respond well to another future crisis that might be an X-risk. While we made multiple classes of errors this post will look at one particular class of errors. The failure to come to synthesis through dialectic reasoning. In dialectics, the Fichtean "thesis–antithesis–synthesis" model, when there are two opposing positions A and B there’s the idea that it's often possible to develop a new position S that builds on the ideas of both positions with S being superior to both A and B.
Requiring FFP-2 masks
FFP-2 masks should be required because it’s what medical professionals use to protect themselves against infection.
Medical professionals get regular fit-testing while only 25–75% of people without fit-testing use them successfully and most of the benefit they provide over OP-masks comes from using them correctly.
Require FFP-2-masks and make fit-testing easily available for non-medical personnel.
Create an additional FFP-X category, where the manufacturer only needs to do one study to get them to the market and that study consists of giving a representative group fit-tests with the mask. Require the seller of the masks to tell the customers about the fit-test success rate of the mask
Allow DIY antibody tests
DIY antibody tests allow people to reduce the chance to infect other people by staying home when the test is positive.
The high false-negative rate of DIY antibody tests gives people false confidence and potentially induces them to reckless behavior.
Easy: Allow DIY antibody tests but require publishing sensivity/specificity in the product name whenever the product is sold or otherwise marketed.
Hard: Create a central app that gathers as much information as possible and that allows interpreting the test for the user given his background variables and that calculates MICRO-COVID for infecting other people for user selected activities.
The Situation in Berlin
In both examples we had a policy debate where the authorities first argued the antithesis and after the thesis good enough support switched to and not the synthesis.
This is surprising because the synthesis would provide more benefits, coming up with the synthesis isn’t very hard, politicians listen to credentialed experts and there are high benefits to getting it right both for their reelection chances and for the good of society due to less deaths, disability and economic damage.
The Fichtean "thesis–antithesis–synthesis" found little discussion on LessWrong because it seems too simple and trivial to be useful. The current situation falsifies the hypothesis that the process happens on its own without working to make it happen.
My hypothesis for why the error happens
Given that the question has very high personal utility for everyone and impacts everyone personally, people attach a lot of value to getting the question right. When everyone attaches a lot of value to getting a question right, the question becomes political.
In political domains individuals gain status if they advocate the same position as their allies. Advocating the thesis instead of advocating the synthesis is a better tribal signal.
It’s a bad move for a political actor to create a synthesis themselves when there’s a lot of status in advocating either the thesis or antithesis because allies advocate it.
In contrast there’s the strategy of being a leader. A leader can propose a synthesis and win status by convincing others but this move carries a lot more responsibility and thus risk of losing local status then going along with the position of allies.
Politicians proclaim that they listen to the scientists as a move to avoid responsibility and pass the ball. Unfortunately, the layer a step down is still very political and afraid of thinking for themselves and doing synthesis.
When people with the intellectual ability at Harvard think up a Covid-Roadmap the resulting document is devoid of synthesis. This suggests that the level at which the document is created is too political for synthesis.
The dynamics are similar to that of a moral maze which multiple layers of political management produce a dysfunctional organization.
What can we do as rationalists?
Writing posts about individual clashes
According to Cummings, our community managed to speed up the first lockdown in the United Kingdom by writing blog posts that were read by multiple people in Number 10. While this is partly due to Cummings being a fellow rationalist and thus more inclined to listen to us, well written posts can be easily passed around.
A political actor that advocades a thesis doesn’t lose the tribal benefits of advocating the thesis when he passes around a link to another person advocating a synthesis. If a post gets passed around enough, it creates public knowledge of the synthesis having support and it becomes safe for political actors to advocate it.
Understanding the reasoning failure better
While I proposed a model, there might be better models. Part of the rationalist project is improving general decision making and we should produce models and propose general solutions.
Any large crisis is going to produce the same dynamics where actions regarding the crisis become highly political. Given our political structures with multiple layers of political actors at power positions, we will get bad policy responses to the next crisis as well unless we act and change our structures or create new structures.