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Tyler Cowen on herd mentality and herd immunity

September 3, 2020 - 3:37pm

Tyler Cowen is one of the most influential thinkers in America — economist, political philosopher and general polymath. Since the Covid-19 pandemic struck, he’s been paying close attention to the data and how different governments are reacting. I caught up with him to get his assessment of where we are.

One thing we like about Tyler is that he’s not tribal — in less than half an hour, he manages to take a pop at both the herd immunity crowd and the mainstream media that refused to talk about it, Devi Sridhar and Michael Levitt, Donald Trump and Joe Biden. Wherever you’re coming from, stand by to get your feathers ruffled!

But through it all you get the impression of a clear mind in pursuit of sensible answers — it’s a rare commodity these days and our thanks to Tyler for sharing his thoughts.

On ‘Phantom Risk’

“We see this happening with terrorist attacks. Before 9/11, clearly people underrated the risk that terrorists would take box-cutters, commandeer airplanes and crash them into buildings. It was a terrible mistake. But even to this day, people overrate that risk because it has become salient to them. One of the biggest problems of recovering from Covid-19 when that point comes around is that people will consider the mere existence of cases to be a reason to panic and that will thwart the resumption of economic activity. To some extent — depending on the region and the times — we should still be taking data and case numbers very seriously, but at some point when fatality rates are lower or there’s a good vaccine, it will be very hard for us to move away from our previous understanding of risk and we will be over-reacting.”

On government mandates

“The way you get people to actually obey mandates is not to scold them, so the Left-wing in my country has been counter-productive in some ways. The way you get people to obey mandates is to firstly be clear, non-threatening and non-panicky. Then express your own vulnerability and present the mandate in the form of a request that you do not wish to be endangered in a gentle way rather than scolding or lecturing. The USA in particular has been a disaster at communicating risk: the president, governors and people running universities and schools have got it completely wrong.”

On Donald Trump

“People confuse opposition with Trump to stances on Covid. We’ve had many failures in my country from say, the CDC or FDA, early on in the pandemic season and we’re now trying to re-write history as if all of those are failures are on President Trump, who has been politicising the agencies. That is a valid complaint, but the early failures on the testing front were not due to President Trump — they were intra-agency failures and there is this revisionist view where everything Trump does must be made to look bad.”

On Herd Immunity

“I’m not sure about herd immunity, but I do feel that in the US in particular it has been under-discussed for a long time for political reasons. Only in August did The New York Times start to seriously consider different notions of herd immunity even though it’s a well-known scientific concept. We do not have many serious people telling us in March ‘well we’re not sure about herd immunity, but there’s a 20 or 30% chance this could happen and this should enter into our calculations’. Public health experts are too risk-averse to speak that way, so what you get from them is more of a status-conscious calculation and not the actual expected value truth.”

On a potential Biden victory

“I don’t think things will change as quickly as people believe and in some ways Biden will become more like Trump — not in terms of style but Biden has contrasted Trump’s willingness to let this rip by saying ‘if it’s necessary we’ll just close the whole country down again’. I understand why he said that, but I’m quite sure he doesn’t mean it and doesn’t have the authority to do it. If you look at the responses of Democratic governors to the Left of Joe Biden, you don’t find them acting the way Biden said he would act. In some regards, they’ve been more like Trump — again, not stylistically, but Americans do not want their businesses closed.”

On his overall philosophy

“Be data-driven, and as epistemologically honest as you can, always be asking questions, don’t get too set in your beliefs, taking in as much quality information as you can and at the end of the day, try to figure out where you’ve ended up but don’t obsess about the labels — it will make you a worse decision-maker.”


is the Editor-in-Chief & CEO of UnHerd. He was previously Editor-in-Chief of YouGov, and founder of PoliticsHome.

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John Vaughan
JV
John Vaughan
3 years ago

Wear a mask “as a symbol” when the only research says masks are risky. Good bye Mr Economist.

Julie S
Julie S
3 years ago
Reply to  John Vaughan

Exactly what I thought.

Carlo Dallapiccola
Carlo Dallapiccola
3 years ago

I am disappointed. This was one of the least insightful or thought-provoking interviews of the series. Freddie provided Dr. Cowen with a few opportunities to provide his own take on a number of interesting issues that have been explored here in UnHerd and elsewhere, but he mostly avoided saying anything of any substance. “What do you think about the Zero-Covid position? I watched the interview. Bad messaging – one shouldn’t use the word ‘zero’ if you don’t literally mean zero.” And so forth…

Nick Faulks
Nick Faulks
3 years ago

Yes, very poor. I couldn’t believe that he quoted NZ as an example of getting everything right when they have no idea how they are ever going to rejoin the world.

John Stone
JS
John Stone
3 years ago

So, you completely shut down like New Zealand and seven months later you are still completely stuck and awaiting a vaccine to liberate you – you could wait years. He has unrealistic ideas about the danger of the virus and he has unrealistic ideas about the safety, effectiveness and usefulness of vaccines. This is the Gates false narrative, but it already went drastically wrong.

Frederik van Beek
FV
Frederik van Beek
3 years ago

Well, actually he has not much to tell for an influential thinker. His message can be summarized as: ‘I don’t really know what’s going on, let’s do some research and oh yeah, somehow as an economist I’m an expert on face masks’.
And when it comes to the data driven science he’s talking about all the time, has he ever heard of professor John Ioannidis (Stanford University)?
Ppfffhh….God bless America, they need it more than ever.

perrywidhalm
perrywidhalm
3 years ago

What? Tyler Cowen is dead wrong about wearing cloth and paper masks. They DO NOT prevent the transmission of ANY virus. Surgeons during surgery use masks to prevent bacterial infections not viral infections. Try this little experiment: put on your paper or cloth mask tightly then light a wood stick match. If you can smell the smoke (which you will) then your mask is NOT filtering out smoke particles which are much larger than viral filaments / fragments. Masks are a pacifier for the fearful …..

Trishia A
Trishia A
3 years ago
Reply to  perrywidhalm

They prevent a small percentage. That small percentage does not justify the public insanity measures governments have created. When people voice an absolute statement such as “DO NOT prevent the transmission of ANY virus” discredits your point. If you’d said “hardly’, it would be more effective.
This is why the anti-vaxx crowd are so ineffective, they use such extremist language, if they stuck to the more reasonable points, they COULD make a difference.

perrywidhalm
PW
perrywidhalm
3 years ago
Reply to  Trishia A

Thanks Mom …..

Dennis Boylon
Dennis Boylon
3 years ago
Reply to  Trishia A

Put your mask back on

Ess Arr
Ess Arr
3 years ago

I was astonished by the comments on the interview on YouTube. Some were asinine, most were utter drivel. I thought UnHerd had a more discerning audience.

Billy Fild
Billy Fild
3 years ago

I love Freddie top death ….But REALLY?… asking a Political-Economist about “Medical” & “Scientific” issues, with a Trillion bucks in a “Vaccine Solution” for some, & this is what you get! This Guest is so confident about things that I suspect he has no idea about… I find him scary!

perrywidhalm
PW
perrywidhalm
3 years ago
Reply to  Billy Fild

Agreed.

Chris Milburn
CM
Chris Milburn
3 years ago
Reply to  Billy Fild

Still love Freddie! He is not endorsing the man’s views, he is asking him questions. I like the fact that he is interviewing someone in a reasonable way, even though he very likely doesn’t like his views. Would you rather Cathy Newman-Jordan Peterson questioning?

Trishia A
Trishia A
3 years ago

He’s not an influential thinker, nor is any “economist” of any value to debates about society. Their entire field have been wrong about everything all the time.

Furthermore, his insistence on masking is idiotic. Masking, even my Covid-activists, is supposed to be only for those moments where physical is impossible. Masking is not ever supposed to be the priority recommendation. Everyone who masks does masking wrong anyway, because, you know, a couple of percentage points is better than nothing!

Julie S
Julie S
3 years ago
Reply to  Trishia A

@unherdlimited-4ec1fe0905880d0cb4ab86abff563b86:disqus “…a couple of percentage points is better than nothing!” All those masking effectiveness stats are just great examples of how to lie (or embellish) with statistics!

Roland Ayers
RA
Roland Ayers
3 years ago

So Americans can do nuance! The most problematic part is where he starts talking like an economist. Talking of ‘net risk’ as if as every activity can be assigned a monetary value. The education that has been so disrupted, the cultural activities, the health and fitness enhancing activities? (The restrictions were supposed to be for the sake of health but were really about keeping unhealthy people alive in the short term so they could carry on being unhealthy and die prematurely as usual.) Such activities are important beyond any measure.

Mary Hirschfeld
MH
Mary Hirschfeld
3 years ago
Reply to  Roland Ayers

You’ve misunderstood the point. He’s saying that college-age kids can get infected whether they are in school or not. If you just look at infections in schools, and assume that’s all just because they are in school, you are overstating the dangers of going to school. If we moved to “net risk” we’d not ask how many kids are getting infected while in school; we’d ask how much more likely are they to get infected in school compared to whatever else they might have been doing.

His further point is that for political reasons, colleges have to be hyper-vigilant about cases because we don’t attend to “net risk” and as a result, the colleges will be blamed for the infections that might well have occurred anyway. In any event, his argument is in service of the ends you cite. We’ll get less education (in the form of a damaging hyper-vigilance) so long as we don’t recognize the concept of net risk.

larrypayne
larrypayne
3 years ago

By endorsing the Bush Administration lies of 9/11, Tyler Cowen reveals he is either a propagandist or someone who cannot recognize office towers being brought down by controlled demolition.

Paul Carline
PC
Paul Carline
3 years ago
Reply to  larrypayne

Absolutely right! I stopped watching the interview a few seconds after hearing this supposed “enormous brain” refer to “terrorists with box-cutters”. If he’s stuck in that preposterous myth how can he be trusted on anything else? Bad choice Freddie!

Robert Malcolm
RK
Robert Malcolm
3 years ago
Reply to  Paul Carline

Well either there were terrorists with box cutters, or there were not. If you recall 9/11, you will know that at least one plane had people on board who fought like tigers to retake control, and that this was being recorded by other passengers. Sadly, they failed, but I don’t think anyone could have scripted that in advance.

Billy Fild
BF
Billy Fild
3 years ago
Reply to  Robert Malcolm

They were blown up! It’s as simple as that….There was a 3rd Skyscraper 47 Storey Building 7 also blown up on 9/11 that was not hit by a Plane…a controlled demolition takes days to rig up with explosives & detonators…so they were pre-rigged for demolition…no doubt. Check out Architects & Engineers for 911 Truth.

larrypayne
LP
larrypayne
3 years ago
Reply to  Robert Malcolm

Don’t you find it suspicious that the alleged crash site for Flight 93 had no airliner wreckage or passenger body parts?

Jonathan Smith
Jonathan Smith
3 years ago
Reply to  Robert Malcolm

Afraid they’re true believers and facts won’t change their feelings.

Billy Fild
Billy Fild
3 years ago
Reply to  Robert Malcolm

Robert M K Seems to me you are only repeating “what we have been told” but how can we know?… Many hi up Brass & experts have said the “Official 911 Story” & “911 Commission report” was a crock (seems, they filtered the evidence available to the 911 Commissioners) … also Top Brass have said 911 was an inside job….using common sense seems to me 2 Planes w Aluminium Wings (with Kero in them..& Depending on the grade, jet fuel is basically highly refined kerosene) can’t bring 3 enormous steel framed & fire checked buildings (with about 80 steel & concrete central structural columns) down into their footprint …I hope I’m wrong but don’t thing so.

pamcharlej
pamcharlej
3 years ago

I stopped listening at wear a mask.

trailrunner925
KM
trailrunner925
3 years ago

“…a failure of intra-agency….” these agencies, and the line item funding in the Federal budget, is contingent upon obeisance to the administration…. they no longer function as independent entities….. that has been publicly communicated by comments about them, undermining their views to err on the side of caution, etc….. science is a self correcting system, views change as new information is acquired, but it is not immune to political pressure. We had a pandemic team dismantled….. in 4 years, we’ve had 2 difference heads of CDC…..how do you run a stable department with a musical chair of directors? maybe the “testing” issue would not have suffered had the team been kept in place. Hind sight is always 20/20, but what is for certain, the President is practicing medicine without a license and pressuring people to conform and endorse his opinions.

perrywidhalm
perrywidhalm
3 years ago

Here’s a suggestion …. for people who feel compelled to downvote any comment, please, explain your objections. I see numerous downvotes by commenters who have not left a comment or objection to a comment.

Chris Milburn
Chris Milburn
3 years ago

Looks like the other commenters have already (rightly) torn this guy a new one. His suggestion is that people SHOULD be more panicked in some areas, and that they should be less panicked in other areas with lower COVID. ie: he thinks we need to get the panic right. How about someone tell me the numbers and the risks, and I can personally decide how to react – wear a mask or not, go out or not, panic or not. This guy sounds holier-than-thou, like he can somehow tell me exactly how to behave and think.

Alan White
Alan White
3 years ago

I stopped watching after a few minutes when he promoted masks.

John Vaughan
John Vaughan
3 years ago

He’s totally focused on Covid 19 and says nothing about the children dying for lack of measles jabs!

John Stone
JS
John Stone
3 years ago
Reply to  John Vaughan

Are they?

Trishia A
Trishia A
3 years ago
Reply to  John Vaughan

In the Western world, kids like me, ALL kids my age, were not dying and not even getting long term effects from Measles. The vaccines changed nothing but stoke parental fear and control trips.
In the West, proper public sanitation had mostly ended these children ailments, well before vaccines came along.
I had Measles, Varicella, Rubella, Mumps, as did ALL my cohort.

Frederick Hastings
Frederick Hastings
3 years ago

I wish Freddie had followed up on Tyler’s description of Trump being the worst president he’s known. Other libertarian-oriented intellectuals have said as much and yet none have offered serious, in-depth reasons on how they have come to that conclusion. Are the chances for an improved liberal order after November 3 better under Biden or under Trump? That’s the question I and many others are wrestling with.

John Stone
John Stone
3 years ago

Without hope under either – or if there is any hope not because of them.

Billy Fild
Billy Fild
3 years ago

“We have a problem Huston”!…”They are all bought” Gore Vidal …Seems to me MSM BS narrative & faux debate, & lies of omission is our real problem ….& Gobbles & Orwell were right! Viva unHerd!

pamcharlej
pamcharlej
3 years ago

Socialism/Marxism or Capitalism. Your choice.

Dennis Boylon
Dennis Boylon
3 years ago

There is only Herd immunity. There is nothing else. Live in a bubble? Hide in your basement?