BEworks Conversations with Cass Sunstein: Risk, Liberty, and Scientific Thinking in the Time of COVID-19

Posted by Kelly Peters on Aug 7, 2020 4:57:56 PM
Kelly Peters
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Cass-Headshot-bnwCass Sunstein is the Founder and Director of the Program on Behavioral Economics and Public Policy at Harvard and has authored hundreds of articles and dozens of books, including Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness. He has served on a wide array of national and international policy committees and boards, helping bring behavioral economics to bear on big challenges, and was recently named chair of the World Health Organization’s Technical Advisory Group on Behavioral Insights & Sciences for Health.


In this conversation, Kelly and Cass discuss liberty in the context of public health, the role of scientific thinking in democracy, how people’s risk perceptions are shaped in response to mortality fears, and much more




Kelly: As you know, BEworks is headquartered in Canada, and it's the month of July, and so looking at the difference in the responses to the pandemic between Canada and the US (I'm also American) reveals an interesting difference in how underlying beliefs and values can shape our behavior. Yes, this is a complex issue when it comes to these responses, and there isn't one underlying explanation, but one thing that stands out is that many Americans and only a few Canadians view the obligation to wear a mask as an infringement upon personal freedom.


Here's an interesting reflection about this month of July, which is, at the start of the month, we have the Fourth of July in the US, a commemoration of independence, a celebration of the time in 1776, when 13 American colonies are no longer subject to the monarch of Britain, and are now these free and independent states, versus in Canada, the Canada Day celebration on July 1, which is a celebration of unification, where three independent colonies were merged together. So, on the one hand, we have a celebration of independence and the other, about unification.


This seems to parallel the responses by the citizens to the public health policies that are being implemented, similarly in both nations, but in Canada, there isn't nearly as much protest against the use of masks or other freedom restricting approaches such as lockdowns. But, in the US, we even have a The President of the United States objecting to these measures. So, I have this huge question for you, Professor Sunstein, which is I think that these reactions are based on a misunderstanding of freedom. Americans say they value freedom, but the Declaration of Independence spoke about the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Liberty, not freedom.


Liberty is not the same thing as freedom, and as John Locke says, and you've written about, freedom of people under government is to be under no restraint, apart from standing rules to live by that are common to everyone in the society and made by the lawmaking power establishing it. Persons have a right or liberty to follow their own will and all things that the law has not prohibited and not be subject to the inconstant, uncertain, or unknown, arbitrary wills of others. In other words, my reading of this says that liberty is a more compassionate view of freedom. It entails the responsible use of freedom under the rule of law without depriving anyone else of their freedom, or as a painful consequence, in the case of COVID-19, life. With that opening, I'm deeply interested in your thoughts on liberty and freedom, and how addressing these beliefs might help us overcome the resistance to the scientific guidelines to managing COVID-19.


Cass: I'm actually speaking from a house which was one of the places that British soldiers came on April 19, 1775, when American independence started. The war for independence started, actually, at this location. This is Concord, Massachusetts. This is one of the handful of places that the British soldiers visited, and we're very close within walking distance of the Northbridge, which was where the shot heard around the world was fired. That was the shot that started the war, literally started the war for independence. The American farmers, one of them lived in this house, defended themselves against British troops. 


Okay, so there's a lot in your question. One question is whether it's just a fact that the disparate paths, let's say of Canada and the United States, reflect deep cultural differences. That might be true, but I'm just not sure. So, where I'm speaking from now, again, is in New England, and in New England, there's a ton of mask wearing and we've actually stabilized pretty well the COVID-19 transmissions and there have been some areas in New England which have been extremely successful. There isn't cultural resistance in this part of America to wearing masks.


I'm wondering, as you asked, whether we could imagine a scenario in which what's observed in large parts of the United States would be generally observed in the United States, or whether there's something in the culture that just makes that very unlikely, and I'm not sure.


Often societies go on one path or another because of some serendipitous something that moves them in that direction. So, is there something in the United States, in particular, that would lead to #metoo, that this was where it would start, or Black Lives matter, would the United States be necessarily a leader on those kinds of movements? Just not sure. The United States isn't number one in the world, I don't think. With respect to sex equality and racial equality, we have some spectacular achievements. Is that something in our culture, or is it that there's some path dependence here? I think this path dependence is at least a large part of it.


The fact that some prominent leaders have been skeptical of mask wearing in various places has been important to cultural resistance to mask wearing. It might be in a particular state where the governor says, ‘mask wearing? I'm not sure if that's a good idea.’ Or it might be the President's influence that on some occasions, he hasn't seemed that excited about mask wearing. So, just not sure whether there's a culture or a deep cultural account for what we're observing. It's possible, but I put a question mark next to that.


With respect to liberty, the great philosopher John Rawls wrote, in a manuscript he never published, “We post a signpost: No deep thinking here. Things are bad enough already,” and this is a great philosopher who was cautious about how much progress we can sometimes at least make on the most fundamental issues. I think liberty, as you're describing it, has multiple possible meanings that are linguistically acceptable. You could understand liberty and 101 different ways that wouldn't conflict with the dictionary definition. There is an understanding of liberty, which is that associated with John Stuart Mill, which is you can do what you want so as long as you don't cause harm to others. That's one, in the Western tradition, very influential account. It's an understanding of liberty that's completely intelligible. Then we'd say, I think very reasonably, that if mask wearing is necessary to prevent harm to others, as the data seems to suggest it is, then the requirement that people wear masks doesn't infringe on liberty any more than requirements of people to not hit other people, or the requirement that people get vaccinated, if that's the justification, so they don't make other people sick. I completely agree that the mask wearing requirements that some places have aren't infringement on liberty properly understood, if they are understood as an effort to insure against transmission by one person to another person. As I say, in a lot of the United States that's widely agreed. Now in any culture where people are asked to do something that's quite new, you know, if you said if all guys have to wear a tie, that would be sex discriminatory, I think. If you said everybody has to wear a tie, that wouldn't be the most fun thing, and mask wearing is a little comparable to that in its not fun quality. Given the magnitude of the risks here, completely legitimate, and that seems now widely recognized in this country, with the President himself coming out very strongly in favor of mask wearing. A little later than I would have liked, maybe a lot later, but as they say, better late than never.



Kelly: Awesome. I agree. I'm very happy that he's updated his position on this [President Trump on masks], which is something that is a fundamental insight in terms of scientific thinking. It's willing to recognize that one might have been wrong based on whatever information they had at the time, then being willing to change their position when the facts suggest otherwise.


That's one of those fundamental principles of scientific thinking and I'd love your point of view on scientific thinking. David Wade Chambers, several decades ago, launched this activity called Draw a Scientist, and I've borrowed from this practice, many, many, many times, and I've asked people to draw a scientist. To this day, they still follow the same thing that he found decades ago, which is that people draw someone pretty much who looks like Rick from Rick and Morty or Albert Einstein. It's so predictable that he was able to make a thing called the Draw a Scientist Inventory and actually catalog the crazy hair, the big glasses, the lab coat, the beaker, and with that is an implicit elitism and distancing between science and the thing that drives science, which is the scientific method and the process of scientific thinking. There's this chasm that we have in our society between scientific thinking and our everyday selves, and I fundamentally believe that scientific thinking is a tool that everyone should have access to as it can really transform our knowledge and understanding of the of the truth.


I'd love to hear your point of view on the relationship between scientific thinking and in your work in studying the constitution, developing principles of libertarian paternalism, and how scientific thinking is ultimately important for democracy.


Cass: Well, I worked for four years in the White House and two of my favorite offices were the Office of Science and Technology Policy in the White House, which was run by a professor named John Holdren and composed of scientists, and the Economic Office, the Council of Economic Advisors in particular, which is consistent with what you could understand to be scientists. There were well functioning administrations. They are not really value laden; they're trying to do the best they can with the economic data. To that extent, they are scientists too.


What is admirable in a democracy is that if you have a question like, ‘is this chemical dangerous? Is it something which the Environmental Protection Agency, say, should ban?’, they will give you data on the risks. What I love about the scientists with whom I work is they are completely unpredictable ideologically. They would say, on Monday, that the kind of environmentalists are full of nonsense; it's really not risky, don't worry about it. Then on Thursday, they'd say, you know what, the environmentalists have it exactly right, and the risks associated with this chemical are pretty high and regulation seems justified on public health grounds. So, to have a significant role for scientists in a democracy is important and not anti-democratic.


If the question is food safety policy, for example, you need to know something about the risks associated with lettuce under certain conditions, or the risks associated the e-coli, risk, let's say, associated with some things, and scientists will know that. It doesn't matter if they are 29-year-old women who don’t wear glasses or 77-year-old guys who have white hair like Einstein, the question is, do they know things that need to be known by policymakers or by the public? Highway safety, pandemic control, how to deal with nuclear power, how to deal with pesticides, how to deal with climate change; these all have a very large scientific component, and Walter Lippmann was an early thinker who was completely on top of the need for a very significant role for experts.


Now, of course, sometimes experts disagree, and sometimes their disagreement is purely technical. Sometimes their disagreement involves values of their own, and it's very important to try to understand that. I found, in the White House, that scientific disagreement on the vast terrain of issues that bore on public policy is not mediated by values, it's just different assessment of very complicated scientific questions, which the data is degree of agreement. Now, I'm talking not about economics, but about what in ordinary language is pure science. The level of disagreement was crushed by the level of agreement.




Kelly: One of the important characteristics of scientific thinking is the willingness to change one's beliefs in the face of new evidence. In the early days of COVID-19, you had a piece featured in Bloomberg on the perception of risk for COVID-19 [The Cognitive Bias That Makes Us Panic About Coronavirus, February 28, 2020]. At the time you were advocating, again, in the very early days, that the risk might be overblown and that humans have a tendency to misperceive risk. We overweight small risks, and we underweight things that are probably large risk. You talked about this probability neglect as something that might explain some of the early reactions to COVID-19. I'd love to know your point of view now. It turns out that it is a high risk. What lessons do you have now in terms of your reflection on your former self on that position? What can we learn if you think that that might have been a mistake in the evaluation, if the Cass Sunstein, who's one of the most brilliant scholars alive, says that he had made a mistake, what can we all learn from that? What does that mean?


Cass: I think the piece started by saying we don't know the magnitude of the risk, but many people are more scared than they ought to be. The claim wasn't that people undervalue small risks and overvalue large risks. The claim was that when an outcome is emotionally gripping, people are often more scared than they need to be. That's a robust finding, and I stand by it for COVID-19. So, I wrote it, and I use the word many people intentionally, where many could be hundreds or millions. I tend to think millions, but the word was intentional. There are a lot of people who are more scared than they need to be.


I was responding at the time to widespread fear among young people, including young people I know, who believed that their risk of dying from COVID was very high, like in the vicinity of 20 to 80%. These are uninfected people who thought “I'm going to die”. The claim is true that many individuals, and this is what the piece is about, thought their personal risk was higher than reality warranted. So, the piece, in so far as it emphasized that many people have a higher fear of death, a higher mortality fear, which I think was the second sentence of the piece, I haven't looked at it for a while. I think the first sentence was we don't know the magnitude of the risk yet. It's true, there are many people who are thinking today that they're going to die, and their personal risk is not high. That's an important component of the problem.


I think I wrote in the next week, or next two weeks, a piece that emphasized that, on cost-benefit grounds, aggressive precautionary measures are a really good idea. There's no conflict between the two claims. Two propositions that don't contradict each other can both be true.


I wouldn't write it exactly the same as if I was writing it today. I'd have some more cautionary notes. I think what I didn't state was something that I thought was kind of self-evident, which is that in the context of a pandemic, we might have exponential growth. Which meant that it could go out of control. At that time, it wasn't clear that it was going to, but in some sense, unless we get it under control, some things fall off.


It just is the case that many people today are suffering more fear than reality warrants. Now, fear can be a very good thing because it can justify precautions, but it's a terrible welfare loss if people are thinking “I'm going to die,” when in fact their personal risk is not very high. Wear a mask, you can't go wrong. Precautions are good, buckle your seat belts, but the risk that you're going to die, no, live your life, don't despair. When I say many, that’s not a majority. Most people, I hope, aren't thinking in any country, “I'm gonna die,” but a lot of people are, and that's a terrible way to go about your year thinking, “I'm going to die”. Thinking “I'm going to be okay in all likelihood. I'm going to do everything I can to maximize that possibility for myself and others” is good, but do it with a kind of optimism and determination rather than with rampant anxiety. I do know that many people read that piece to say something that I really didn't say, and that's probably my fault.

About BEworks

Founded in 2010, BEworks is the first management consulting firm dedicated to the practice of applying behavioral science to strategy, marketing, operations, and policy challenges. This is our blog.

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