Assorted thoughts on the coronavirus

by adamzerner3 min read18th Mar 202011 comments



Epistemic status: Ramblings. Sorry for the tone. It was easier to write this way. I promise I won't be stubborn about any of this in the comments.

Is it that bad?

After reading Mr. Money Mustache's take on the coronavirus, I started having a few doubts about how bad it actually is. I didn't realize that 2M people in America die each year of things related to "lifestyle factors".

It's possible that the coronavirus might be much worse than that. Let's say the worst case scenario is 50% infected and 10% of those infected die. In America that would mean about 150M infected and 15M dead. Almost an order of magnitude more than what what currently happens with lifestyle factors, so that's a lot.

But for a more average case scenario let's say 25% infected and 3% death rate, which would mean 75M infected and 2.25M deaths. An amount of deaths on par with the deaths we currently have due to lifestyle factors.

And for a more hopeful scenario, let's say 10% infected and a 2% death rate, which would mean 30M infected and 600k deaths. Less than a third of the lifestyle factors deaths.

Maybe the coronavirus is scarier than the lifestyle factor deaths we currently seem to just accept. But how much scarier? Mr Money Mustache asks this question:

But do you feel the appropriate ratios of fear in these two situations?

I know that my level of fear seems to be weighted too strongly towards the coronavirus.

This all makes me think of one of my favorite movie scenes: where the Joker talks about things that are "part of the plan".

Existential risks are still a much bigger problem

Sorry for being so America-centric in the previous section. Let's look at worst case scenario for the entire world. Call it a 50% infection rate and 10% death rate. That'd be about 4B infected and 400M dead.

400M dead is certainly a lot, but I think it pales in comparison to the consequences of screwing up with existential risks. As Eliezer says in his Twitter bio:

Ours is the era of inadequate AI alignment theory. Any other facts about this era are relatively unimportant, but sometimes I tweet about them anyway.

And if that's true, then by focusing on the current LessWrong Coronavirus Agenda, are we purchasing fuzzies or utilons?

QUALYS and happiness

If existential risk wasn't a thing, my attention would probably be on The Happiness Crisis. That's right: people aren't happy enough! I suspect that if we put existential risks aside, the best way to do good for the world might be to just make normal people happier!

I was going to do some research and spend a some time explaining this belief, but fortunately I remembered a talk I came across a while back that does a better job.

If 1) my suspicion is correct that what Michael Plant calls "ordinary human unhappiness" is more harmful than deaths due to things like lifestyle factors, and 2) my argument in the first section is correct, then I think it follows that the coronavirus isn't particularly notable compared to The Happiness Crisis.

0.1% is a lot of micromorts

I get the impression that a lot of young people wave their hands at the risk that they personally have with the coronavirus. Even on LessWrong, to some extent.

But a 0.1% death rate isn't small. Neither is a 0.01% death rate. Neither is a 0.001% death rate.

Death is bad. 0.1% is a lot of micromorts.

Is the quarantined life really that bad?

I don't know about you guys, but after reading How to have a happy quarantine, I'm pumped!

Is losing money really going to be that bad?

One of my more contrarian beliefs is that it is absolutely ridiculous how worried we are about maintaining our standard of living. It seems to me that there is a ton of evidence showing that once your basic needs are met, money doesn't really matter. I think money is mostly a lost purpose. It's originally an instrumental goal for happiness, but people forget this and pursue it because they "need money".

Some unorganized comments:

  • The Progress Paradox is a good book on how over time standard of living has risen consistently over time, but happiness has stayed constant.
  • Hedonic adaptation is a thing.
  • I think Mr. Money Mustache does a great job of talking about how we can live totally awesome lives while still being frugal. I'm a pretty big Mustachian, with a few caveats.
  • I've been reading some books and watching some shows on history lately. Something that I've always got my eye on is what things people used to consider to be luxuries. Last night I learned that salt was once a huge luxury. They didn't have freezers or supermarkets, so they used salt to prevent their meats from going bad. Other things that were once luxuries include spices, silk, freedom, a basic education, books, and computers. All of those things are either free or dirt cheap right now.
  • Most of the things recommended by positive psychology regarding how to be happier don't really require money.
  • I have of course have other qualms with them, but I love how Stoicism and Buddhism emphasize that unhappiness stems from your mindset. What's "in here", not what's "out there". And largely your mindset regarding unrealistic wants and expectations.

So then, with all of that said, getting back to the coronavirus, people are going to lose their jobs, dip into their savings, maybe even require help from family or the government. But would it really be that bad if that stuff happened?

Low-cost interventions FTW!

Something I've always appreciated about PainScience is how the author reasons about whether things are worth a shot. If something is unlikely to work, but it's also cheap and harmless, he'll say "give it a shot!". I love that mindset, and unfortunately don't see it enough in the medical world. If the downside is low, the barrier to trying should be correspondingly low.

As it applies to this coronavirus stuff, there are certain things that seem like the downside is so low that our response should be "screw it, I'll give it a shot!".

  • Does copper tape actually prevent the disease from surviving on surfaces? Who cares, it's ten bucks!
  • Are you really going to need all of those groceries? Who cares, they're not going to go bad and you were going to buy them at some point anyway!
  • Is it too risky to hang out at Starbucks? Who knows, but is the benefit that large relative to hanging out at home?

The point I'm trying to make makes me think about the third virtue of rationality:

The third virtue is lightness. Let the winds of evidence blow you about as though you are a leaf, with no direction of your own.

It isn't quite the same thing as what I'm saying, but I think the analogy of lightness applies. When the downside is low, don't hesitate to act.