All of us suffer from cognitive biases. These are systemic distortions to rational thought that very often deliver bad outcomes. They are the basis for much of the field of behavioural economics, and can help to explain why individuals, organisations, institutions and even whole nations sometimes make such terrible choices.
Our government and its “expert” advisers are suffering from a number of failings linked to cognitive biases in their approach to Covid-19 and lockdowns.
The most profound error the politicians and scientists are making is succumbing to the “illusion of control”. You hear many of them in the media talking about “controlling” the virus. These are powerful men — almost all are men — who believe they can dominate the virus by pulling the levers, such as lockdowns. But mankind has never controlled the common cold — often caused by a coronavirus — nor influenza to any great degree. Instead, a large proportion of the population develops natural immunity over time.
However, we never try to eradicate the disease by way of dismantling society through lockdowns, which cause far more harm than the disease.
The individuals who have been elected to lead (or appointed to advise) have a “bias for action”. They would rather be seen to do something — anything — than nothing. So our country has endured the imposition of more than 200 new laws, regulations or rules since March, the most frenetic issuance of orders by any British government in history. Even the authorities are wholly confused as to what it all means — and the public mostly haven’t a clue.
These onerous restrictions have almost certainly had, at best. a modest impact on the course of the disease. But the politicians, civil servants and advisers have been busy, so they are no doubt convinced that they have made a positive difference. Many will be exulting in a “saviour complex” — the belief that they are heroes, occupying high office for our salvation.
Since March, the government has pursued a lockdown policy, despite its efficacy being unproven. It is a policy only really adopted before by totalitarians such as the Communist Party in China. Even the Sage group of experts accepted, in minutes from September, that the evidence in favour of such extraordinary actions was “weak”. But they persisted with this destructive course because of the “sunk cost fallacy”. Several politicians gave this foolishness away: they talked about how hard we have all worked and how it was essential not to waste all that effort. Psychologists call this “anchoring”. Unfortunately, if a policy has a huge cost, it makes no difference if the policy is still wrong.
I am sure another grave weakness of Sage is groupthink. Their meetings are doubtless held via Zoom, which encourages this. In such digital forums, dissent and proper debate are hard to achieve. Unfortunately, peer pressure is a dominant force within the medical field, so I am sure a few senior voices hold sway in these discussions.
Another failing of the scientists advising government — and thereby in effect running the country, given the technical illiteracy of our cabinet — is monomania. They have a single obsession: Covid. All other issues are essentially ignored — mental health, cancer treatments, heart disease, unemployment, bankruptcies, soaring national debt, suicides, domestic abuse, evictions and homelessness, civil liberties. This avalanche of collateral damage caused by lockdowns is not balanced against the debatable benefits of lockdowns. Classic health economics — weighing up the quality adjusted life years cost against the benefits of lockdowns — is cast aside. All that matters is the focus on coronavirus victims — who have an average age of over 82, and 95% of whom have at least one co-morbidity.
The tunnel vision of the scientific experts is a result of their compulsion to “protect the NHS” and prioritise the coronavirus at any price. Yet this means that the NHS has this year let down millions of patients suffering from other illnesses, who have missed diagnoses and treatments. In the medium term, many will die and hundreds of thousands of lives will be blighted, but because of the monomania, no proper risk assessment and data collection is being undertaken.
I have helped to launch a website, collateralglobal.org, which is a repository of research into the harms of lockdowns. This is independent and objective. I encourage others to contribute papers and data to it.
Perhaps the biggest mistake the scientists and politicians are guilty of is overconfidence. They have a strong belief that their strategy is correct and do not seriously bother to consider alternatives such as focused protection of the vulnerable. Many important people suffer from hubris. Our current leaders have it in spades — and the whole nation is at their mercy.