How do you deal with people cargo culting COVID-19 defense?

post by ChristianKl · 2021-06-23T19:59:35.454Z · LW · GW · 23 comments

This is a question post.

In Berlin there are rules for public transportation where all passengers have to wear FFP-2 masks. Nobody, seems to care whether people wear the masks in a way that seals. The security personal in public transportation only wears surgical masks. Whenever, I see security personal  in public transportation they do nothing besides standing around. Security personal that stands around doing nothing might make people feel safer, but the idea of having security personal with less masking makes them unable to credible enforce mask wearing and endangers passengers. People on public transportation talk the same amount they did pre-COVID-19, seemingly not knowing that talking widely increases spread. 

In the podcast between Spencer Greenberg and Jacob Falkovich, Jacob makes the point that it seems like people don't understand that COVID-19 is caused by a virus and that they way to prevent getting it is to show one's virtue by engaging in socially approved rituals against COVID-19. 

It becomes increasingly hard for me to take people seriously and the security people with less masking then the passenger were a huge strike. How do you deal emotionally with it? Do you become cynic?

Answers

answer by Richard_Ngo · 2021-06-23T22:07:13.076Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Here are three less cynical ways of thinking about this:

Firstly, other people have different preferences than you do. Most people in Berlin worry much less about the personal consequences of catching covid than most people on LessWrong do. And sure, wearing masks more carefully helps other people too. But so does recycling, or helping old ladies across the street. It's reasonable for people to make different choices about what types of altruistic behaviour they should prioritise (at least in cases where the size of the benefit is pretty unclear, like it is here).

Secondly, thinking things through for yourself is costly in time and effort. It's reasonable for most people to spend very little time reasoning from first principles about how to reduce their covid risk, and to instead just listen to what the government/everyone else says, e.g. by following "socially approved rituals against COVID-19". (Indeed, I think many rationalists would also have benefited from spending far less time thinking about covid.)

Thirdly, policymakers are dealing with many complex tradeoffs under a great deal of uncertainty. Mandating masks is a step which helps reduce the spread of covid. Ensuring that every individual step in implementing the mask mandate is carried out competently is a huge deal of effort, and so even if the highest-level decisionmakers were totally rational, you'd expect to see a bunch of local inefficiencies like security guards wearing suboptimal masks.

comment by ChristianKl · 2021-06-23T22:55:13.451Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Secondly, policymakers are dealing with many complex tradeoffs under a great deal of uncertainty.

There are things that are uncertain and there are issues that are not. 

I don't see what's so hard about saying: "Please only speak in public transport when necessary to reduce the chance of infecting other people"

by following "socially approved rituals against COVID-19". (Indeed, I think many rationalists would also have benefited from spending far less time thinking about covid.)

A few Bay Area people overdid thinking about COVID-19 (as evidenced by the one sepsis death talked about in another post). When it comes to people like Jacob or me outside the Bay who at times found themselves doing more then the average but at other time not engaging in useless safety behavior like wearing masks when outside and having distance, I think the case holds less. 

Replies from: jaspax
comment by jaspax · 2021-06-24T03:13:11.406Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I don't see what's so hard about saying: "Please only speak in public transport when necessary to reduce the chance of infecting other people"

I suppose it's not terribly hard to say that, but it's going to be much harder to enforce it, and will get much harder pushback. Masking by itself tedious and uncomfortable; trying to enforce a ban on talking would be horrifying and dystopian.

Replies from: ChristianKl
comment by ChristianKl · 2021-06-24T08:46:22.479Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I didn't say anything about banning people from talking. Not being able to distinguish a suggestion for how to do something for fellow human beings from a ban is a lot of what's wrong with policy making.

It can be just an additional sentence after the "Please wear FFP-2 masks to protect your fellow passengers" announcement that goes regularly through the loudspeakers. Afterwards, there are social expectations that will reduce the amount people talk. People might still talk when necessary to coordinate to get together of the train most people will likely talk a lot less. 

Replies from: jimmy, jaspax
comment by jimmy · 2021-06-24T19:26:47.933Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It seems like in your model, what happens is that the authorities switch from "Please wear masks" to "Please wear masks and avoid unnecessary talking", people nod along in unison, and a new social norm is created which functions similarly to the norms against talking too much in a library or movie theater.

I don't think it's that simple. For one, I don't think people would get it. I don't think many people are going to say "Oh yeah, from that one simple sentence I now understand exactly how much talking increases the risk of spreading covid, how important it is, what level we should tolerate and how we should punish it, how we should deal with people who are too lax/harsh on punishing others/etc". We're still struggling to coordinate on "How big a deal is covid?" norms on wearing masks and enforcing mask wearing. Given how much more inconvenient staying silent is,  I wouldn't expect norms against talking to be easier to coordinate on. 

If you remember back to the beginning of the pandemic, no one knew what to make of this thing, and so everyone was slow trying to wait to see what other people say before they decide what to think. This has all the obvious problems, but it's also worth noting that when people try to "think for themselves" you don't get a bunch of good answers, you get varied answers and dumb answers. A good example of this is Eddie Bravo, who is sometimes as being a brilliant jiu jitsu mind and has added a lot to the sport, but at the same time believes obviously crazy/dumb things. When you look at the debates he gets in about flat earth stuff, he actually makes better arguments than his round earth opponents because he's actually thought things through (albeit poorly) and his opponents are stuck trying to rationalize on the fly. Thinking things through from first principles only works when social consensus is less thought through than that, and while it worked for him in a new and niche sport, it's not that great for problems as tricky as "Is the earth round" let alone "How should we handle a pandemic". This sort of "follow the herd" mentality is necessary.

I don't know about you, but I find creating this sort of social consensus (and defying any existing consensus) to be stressful and I expect that most others do as well. In the beginning, for example, I remember really not liking having to be the one taking people from the comfortable mental space where they wanted to be and conveying to them that there's very likely a full blown pandemic coming that the entire world is unprepared for, and that they should probably start thinking ahead and planning accordingly. There were plenty of people I didn't even bother telling, because I didn't feel like I had enough social credit for it to be worth the effort. Once "We're in a pandemic, duh" had been established, it became trivial to convey to these same people "Keeping a door open and a fan on is probably much more important than washing surfaces", but that's because it's a smaller deviation from the accepted narrative and one that is emotionally "cheap" for them to consider.

When I put myself in the shoes of the authority having to say "Please avoid unnecessary talking", I anticipate getting a lot of push back. I anticipate people trying to frame me as a scaremonger, trying to ruin peoples social lives for my own political ends. I anticipate other people agreeing with me, either silently or in a way that further polarizes things rather than helps things. I anticipate it feeling qualitatively more similar to breaking through the ice to go swimming in a frozen lake than settling into a nice warm hot tub. 

Ice swims can still feel good with the right incentives and mindsets, and it would definitely be awesome if our leadership were more competent and motivated to find out what is the actual best course of action and communicate it credibly and understandably to a partially hostile population without raising their own defensive shields and mucking things up. At the same time, I think it's pretty understandable why even trivial things like "Please don't talk more than necessary" don't get asserted/communicated.

Replies from: ChristianKl
comment by ChristianKl · 2021-06-24T20:11:17.910Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Given how much more inconvenient staying silent is,  I wouldn't expect norms against talking to be easier to coordinate on. 

I don't think staying silent is inconvenient for most people. I would say that there's even before COVID a general consensus that people talk to much by for example having phone calls in the train. 

I think that there are enough media outlets that do the explaining if you would do that policy change. 

Replies from: jimmy
comment by jimmy · 2021-07-06T18:09:35.275Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

You don't have to convince the people who are annoyed by other people's phone calls not to talk. You have to convince the people having the phone calls not to have them. And you have to convince the people silently watching in annoyance to speak up and tell people to get off the phone. 

If you think it's easy, give it a shot.

Replies from: ChristianKl
comment by ChristianKl · 2021-07-06T19:06:28.638Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I don't think I can give it a shot because I don't have control over the policy. Many people don't speak up because they think they are "not allowed". Giving them social permission would like have an effect.

Replies from: jimmy
comment by jimmy · 2021-07-06T23:21:24.933Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

You can't (directly) change government policy without getting elected, but you can work to shape social norms around you. You're not in a universally recognized position of authority, but neither is the government, and you have earned some respect and know how to earn more from people around you.


When the pandemic was first kicking off and people weren't yet taking it seriously, I was actively giving social permission to friends to prepare for a pandemic, and to medical professionals to start wearing N-95 masks at work. It was clear to me that no one wanted to be the weirdo "freaking out" and "over reacting", and social permission was needed, so I tried to give it to anyone I thought I could reach, and to give them permission and motivation to extend the permission further. It's hard to tell how much effect I really had, but it basically seemed to work on the scale I could manage. With people close to me, I *know* their attitude and behaviors changed as a direct result of talking to me. I know at least one doctor started taking the need for N-95 masks more seriously after talking to someone I persuaded, and I get the impression that many other healthcare workers were given a good nudge in that direction from other people that I talked to.


It just wasn't trivial or stress free.

Replies from: ChristianKl
comment by ChristianKl · 2021-07-07T00:00:24.470Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

You make it sound like I'm not doing anything that's stressful. If you look at my recent posts you find posts like https://www.lesswrong.com/posts/EAnLQLZeCreiFBHN8/how-do-the-ivermectin-meta-reviews-come-to-so-different [LW · GW] where those people who think they are in a good position to read the studies come to the conclusion that they would take Ivermectin. I pick my fight over potentially hundreds of thousands dying because the authorities ignore the best meta-analysis.

You can't (directly) change government policy without getting elected, but you can work to shape social norms around you. 

That's not true. There are many ways to change government policy without getting directly elected. With the access I had ten years ago I could have made a decent shot at getting neglegted ideas considered at the city level of Berlin.

I however put my political energy into community building and vote for the anti-aging party these days. I told fellow rationalists in the middle of meetup in February 2020 that what applied rationality is about is actually thinking yourself on a question like COVID-19 and getting prepared.   

I'm not extroverted and pick different fights then you but it's not like I'm just doing nothing. Given my resources I don't think there's a fight about people speaking in trains that I can effectively fight.

Replies from: jimmy
comment by jimmy · 2021-07-07T21:13:56.381Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

You make it sound like I'm not doing anything that's stressful.

 

I'm not commenting on what fights you pick or how stressful they are, and wouldn't be as presumptuous as to think I know which fights you should be picking. 

 

Let's back up a bit. Your original post asks:

How do you deal emotionally with [people cargo culting COVID-19 defense]? Do you become cynic?

And in a comment further up this chain you say:

I don't see what's so hard about saying: "Please only speak in public transport when necessary to reduce the chance of infecting other people"

This reads more like an expression of frustration about the lack of such messaging, rather than an expression of curiosity about why that message doesn't get pushed by the government.

The answer to your question is that the way I emotionally deal with things like this is to try to notice when I'm getting frustrated and whether getting frustrated is actually going to get me what I want. 

I don't see expressions of indignation as a useful tool for improving governance (in this context, at least), so when I think forward about what's it's going to achieve, it kinda kills my motivation to be frustrated at the government. It does require accepting that the government kinda sucks relative to what I would like to see, but they do and I don't see it changing on its own, so it seems worth accepting.

I'd much rather ask "Why" and be curious. When I do, the answer I get is "Oh yeah, it's not actually trivial. Here are the difficulties involved". 

To the extent that it's really difficult, it helps explain why the government doesn't "just" do that, which helps to alleviate any sense that the government "shouldn't be fucking up easy things".

To the extent that I realize it's hard for other people but easy (or just achievable) for me, I try to actually go do it and teach others how to do it -- because that's what needs to be done, and apparently there haven't been enough people teaching and doing these things.

To the extent that it seems like it'd actually be easy for other people too and they're still not doing it, then the thread of curiosity has to go deeper and you have to figure out what's causing people to not do things they could and "should" do.

In short, frustration works best as a transient state, and as a sign that something isn't working -- much like tires slipping in a car would be. The way I emotionally handle this kind of thing, to the extent that I handle it well, is by noticing frustrations as signals that what I'm doing isn't working, and redirecting that into curiosity about why things actually are the way they are and how I would like to respond.

That's not true. There are many ways to change government policy without getting directly elected.

"Directly change", not "directly elected". You can certainly influence government policy without getting elected, but I would consider those to be "indirect".

I'm not extroverted and pick different fights then you but it's not like I'm just doing nothing. Given my resources I don't think there's a fight about people speaking in trains that I can effectively fight.

I'm not very extroverted either, so I absolutely get where you're coming from. If that's not a fight you can effectively fight, then it's not a fight you can effectively fight. No pressure from me.

If you're still feeling a conflict between "this should be easy" and "the government isn't doing it", then trying it yourself (or at least figuring out what you'd have to do in order to be effective) might help you figure out why other people aren't doing it effectively either, and that tends to make things emotionally easier.

Maybe it's because you feel like it should be easy for them but not for you?

comment by jaspax · 2021-06-24T13:26:20.359Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

What you have described is a ban. It may not be a ban with criminal penalties, but "an additional sentence" in the official guidelines together with "social expectations that will reduce the amount people talk" is exactly what I was referring to when I talked about a ban on talking.

EDIT: Okay, I talked myself out of this. There is indeed a difference between a ban and a strong suggestion, and I'll allow that you intended to describe the latter.

The strength of my reaction was based on the fact that COVID-tide has already been extremely damaging to people's social lives, with many deleterious downstream effects, and inhibiting talking in trains is proposing to inflict even more damage just to shave off a handful of micro-covids. I don't think this tradeoff is remotely worth it.

Replies from: ChristianKl
comment by ChristianKl · 2021-06-24T14:53:40.741Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Even if the difference would only been between ban and suggestion, focusing on unnecessary talking is different then focusing on all talking.

Shaving off micro-covids through easy means you need to do less lockdowns and thus create less damage to people's social lives. Lockdowns are the cost of bad policy to reduce COVID-19.

answer by Dagon · 2021-06-23T22:02:07.118Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Basically, yes.  I became cynical long ago, and I've found very little to improve my expectation of median human rationality.  There are pockets  of exceptions, both small subpopulations that do pretty well, and small topics where many do well.  But the normal case is pretty bad.

IMO, you would make your post more generally applicable with no loss in fidelity of answer if you stopped the title at "How do you deal with people", and end with "It becomes increasingly hard for me to take people seriously".

answer by Primer · 2021-07-07T09:06:36.312Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I do become cynic, but mainly when I'm thinking about the long timescales involved between "thinking from first principles" over "risk/benefit analysis" and "scientific consensus" to "political rule-making". On the level of individuals, I'm becoming more and more ok with people "engaging in socially approved rituals against COVID-19". When institutions like the WHO and the CDC, or like the RKI and the STIKO in Germany, often fail at proper reasoning, we can't expect normal people to do better.

Concerning the security people with less masking: Accodring to the German work protection law and the "DGUV Regel 112–190", employees need to have a break of 30 minutes without ANY mask after wearing a non-ventilated FFP2 mask for 75 minutes. This is not feasible in the average workplace environment, so there is no practical way to enforce FFP2 mask use, as employers would need to grant those 30 minutes. Apart from nurses and doctors in direct contact with COVID-positive patients, even hospitals only mandate surgical masks for all staff.

23 comments

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comment by Dustin · 2021-06-24T17:19:58.863Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It feels like the corollary of of the LW/rationalist thing is cynicism.

comment by Pattern · 2021-06-24T05:47:17.145Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
In the podcast between Spencer Greenberg and Jacob Falkovich, Jacob makes the point that it seems like people don't understand that COVID-19 is caused by a virus and that they [think the] way to prevent getting it is to show one's virtue by engaging in socially approved rituals against COVID-19. 

How do you deal emotionally with it?

Is there anything you can do to change the situation?

Replies from: ChristianKl
comment by ChristianKl · 2021-06-24T09:04:44.927Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Is there anything you can do to change the situation?

I don't have the connections to push ideas to be considered in Berlin's policy making that I might have had 10 years ago. 

Most of my effort went into high level discussion on LessWrong. More politically, I emailed Cummings in the beginning about speeding up vaccine development. I might have convinced one local politician that not taking up Winfried Stoecker on his offer was a bad idea (but that's not a decision that's made on the city level).

It might have been a strategic earlier to not engage with local politics earlier. 

At the moment it seems like the most important switch is updating the vaccines and it's unclear whether there's anyone that I could talk to, to speed that up. 

At the moment there's also general reopening, so I think there would be little interest in adding additional measures such as encouraging people to talk less on public transport or providing people with easy access to fit testing.

comment by Florin (florin-clapa) · 2021-06-24T20:05:02.423Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

If everyone wears ventless FFP2s, I doubt that enough aerosols could escape regardless of factors such as fit, mask degradation, or talking. However, I'd like to see this assumption tested in a controlled environment.

comment by YimbyGeorge (mardukofbabylon) · 2021-06-24T10:29:29.207Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I am curious ,what does the data say? Is wearing even a poorly fitting mask better at preventing you from spreading covid compared to  not wearing amask at all?

Replies from: ChristianKl
comment by ChristianKl · 2021-06-24T10:51:52.459Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I am curious ,what does the data say?

Generally, there are a lot of questions where we don't have good data. 

The question of whether to require FFP-2 masks is not one of compare a FFP-2 mask to no mask. The point of FFP-2 masks is that they can seal so that all the air gets filtered which a surgery mask can't. Requiring people to wear FFP-2 masks (not allowing any passenger who wears just a surgery mask on public transportation) but not do anything to help them to wear them in a way that seals is what's strange. 

Replies from: mardukofbabylon
comment by YimbyGeorge (mardukofbabylon) · 2021-06-24T15:45:54.021Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Looks like I was confused  and thought that FFP2 is just a simple cloth mask. Also my country only requires a simple face covering instead of a N95 or FFP-2 mask.  

Replies from: ChristianKl
comment by ChristianKl · 2021-06-24T21:22:37.305Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

N95 is an FDA classification (factories have to be approved by the FDA). Similar masks in Europe are classified as FFP-2.