We should embrace the Cassandras when the next disaster comes

Wednesday, December 30th, 2020

Megan McArdle decided to close the year by reflecting back on the COVID-19 Cassandras, who fell into two groups: the Voice of Experience, and the Voice of Dissent:

Aside from a few infectious-disease doctors or virologists, the Voice of Experience was inevitably someone who’d lived in Asia during the 2003 SARS crisis, or else had a parent or a spouse who did, and thus had already overcome their natural skepticism about the likelihood of a major epidemic.


So what made the Dissenters stand out from the herd?

First, they were comfortable enough with technical writing and data to understand early scientific reports about the Wuhan epidemic. Second, they were sufficiently statistics-minded to not confuse “very rarely” with “never,” as most people do. Third, they resisted the normal tendency to discount catastrophic risks simply because addressing them would wreck their other plans. And fourth, they persisted in their conclusion even when their peers thought they were crazy. The most prominent example of this type is probably Peter Navarro, Trump’s chief trade adviser.

Notice that neither Cassandra type was a public health expert.


Humans are social animals; we long to agree with the group, and usually defer to people with higher status, such as scientific experts. We also tend to assume that something is safe if everyone else is doing it, or at least maintain a shamefaced silence about our fears. We hate being wrong, but we’re most terrified of being wrong on a question that everyone else got right.

Even if everyone could become the kind of person who calls a pandemic early, most of us wouldn’t want to. The social cost would be too high, and not just to ourselves. Pandemics aren’t fought only by identifying them; they’re also fought by persuading people to do something about it. For that latter task, you want agreeable people who are good at reading social cu


But if we don’t want to be the Cassandras, we do need to heed them, even when they speak hard truths. When the next disaster comes, as it will, we’ll respond quicker and better if they’re within the citadel working to avert our common doom, rather than out in the wilderness shouting in vain.


  1. Bruce Charlton says:

    Perleez… This is a joke, right?

    Who, exactly, are these brave people who supposedly suffered social costs from exaggerating the pandemic*?

    Exaggerating by a hundredfold, say?

    Um, nobody in the world.

    On the other hand, plenty got banned from public discourse and all positions of responsibility for saying this is not significantly different from a bad flu year?

    Despite that this view has been proved (as was obvious from the start) entirely correct.

  2. Roo Ster says:

    Once again the childless former sort of libertarian rump swabs the ruling class.

    A good rule of thumb these days is that if the source does not allow comments, it is not worth the time to read it.

  3. Roo Ster says:

    What Bruce Charlton wrote, with bells on it. The Branch Kovidians have suffered not a whit of calumny due to their hysteria-mongering.

  4. VXXC says:

    US deaths 2019; 2.9M
    US deaths 2020; 2.5M

    2.5M is the bottom of range for decade, below average.

    Megan Mcardle and Bezos aren’t bankrupt, therefore USA is not bankrupt.

    I don’t recall Cassandra taking billions from Greeks, nor profiting Trillions from the sack of Troy.

    COVID kills the people who would normally die from Flu.

    COVID is a real disease that is a miracle for the Democrats.
    Annus Mirablis; they got to destroy the economy, steal 10$Trillion, destroy small business, ban churchgoing, burn down the cities to demonstrate raw power to urban hipsters and steal the White House.

    There is no ^ vaccine^ for the evils these men did.

  5. James James says:


    US deaths in 2020 top 3 million, by far most ever counted
    22 December 2020

  6. Felix says:


    Check out this graph of per-week, total deaths straight from the CDC:


    Change the drop-down to individual states like Oregon, Hawaii, NJ, and NY to get a feel for state variance.

    The CDC page this graph is from:


    There are similar graphs out there on the Internet for Euro+ countries. They look and vary like the US states.

  7. Gavin Longmuir says:

    Cassandra’s prophecies were correct — but ignored. The people whose prophecies were ignored this time around were the ones noticing the very low infection rate and the even lower death rate on the cruise ship Diamond Princess. But their advice to keep calm and protect the old & sick was ignored. Indeed, Democrats in places like New York did the opposite and put the old & sick in nursing homes into deadly danger.

    The Cassandra’s today — the ones we should have paid attention to — were the ones predicting that unnecessary never-ending Lock Downs would have a very damaging long-term effect on the economy, and that the long-term consequences of unnecessarily disrupting education for school children would be major.

    But we have to sympathize with Megan McArdle, who has bills to pay. The Washington Post would not publish anything contrary to the conventional wisdom of the DC Swamp herd.

  8. VXXC says:

    Let me entertain the CDC and Branch Covidians. Let me believe the data doesn’t lie.

    What is the death count from COVID? As opposed to the lockdown death count?

    Not that any of that has to do with shuttered churches, small businesses destroyed, woke ones richer by trillions stolen, or stealing the White House. And its just getting started.

  9. Harry Jones says:

    There is a hint of increasingly desperate shrillness to the lecturing of these people. I think they’re beginning to sense that we’re not buying it.

  10. Bob Sykes says:

    The number of cases and deaths in any pandemic depend upon the number of people susceptible to the disease at the beginning. This number is a genetic property of the population. Lockdowns and masks, etc., do not prevent deaths or cases. They merely slow the rate of spread so that hospitals and medical people are not overwhelmed.

    This is standard epidemiology, and it was explained at the beginning by experts like Fauci. However, at some point people, even the experts in public, began to think that the ultimate number of deaths and cases could be diminished. They can’t be.

    The Cassandras are unknowingly correct in so far as total deaths and cases is concerned. But they are wrong to believe anything can be done about it.

    Fate/Karma, the Will of God, whatever.

  11. Sam J. says:

    VXXC says, “There is no ^vaccine^ for the evils these men did.”

    Gavin Longmuir says, “Indeed, Democrats in places like New York did the opposite and put the old & sick in nursing homes into deadly danger.”

    I have a theory that the rise and fall of civilizations in roughly 300 year patterns is the time it takes for an empire to slowly allow the rise of psychopaths to move up into positions of power. As they do things get more and more corrupt and the gas lighting of the public gets more and more blatant. What we are seeing now is the end of this process. Psychopaths are great at moving up in organizations but they could care less about actually making them work. They only care about feeding on them, manipulating people and pushing destruction. Destruction is exciting to them and they are bored.

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