Risky Business

by Mike O’Brien

This column is not about the American election. You’re welcome.

Instead, I want to write about evidence, justification, and risk. This is partly a response to very recent events, and partly a regurgitation of some ideas I ruminated on years ago.

First, the recent bits. I was listening to the Montreal branch of Canadian national radio, a lunchtime call-in show that was asking listeners about their views on restaurant re-openings. Covid infections have spiked in the last month in Quebec, hovering around 1000 new cases per day in a population of roughly 8 million. The provincial government imposed a one-month lockdown on October 1st, shutting bars, restaurants, and other businesses and public facilities, as well as banning private gatherings. This was originally imposed on the metropolitan areas of Montreal and Quebec City, deemed “red zones”, but this designation was soon applied to just about every urbanized area along the St Lawrence river corridor.

It was a reluctant, long-avoided (bars had been open since late June) bid to keep Covid transmission sufficiently controlled to allow schools to remain open. The centre-right CAQ (Coalition for the Future of Quebec) government is very much a pro-business party, led by an airline entrepreneur, and has been accused of insisting on continued in-person schooling because it allows parents to return to work. I don’t doubt that this was a factor in their calculation, though they may also genuinely believe in their public claims that a return to schooling is necessary for the mental health and educational progress of children. They went so far as to deny children the choice to continue remote schooling, except for rare medical exemptions. I think it’s rather short-sighted, given that children are already known to be spreaders of the disease (and potentially victims of long-term harm, even if they are asymptomatic when infected). Given that Covid is not going away anytime soon, and may be surpassed by even worse viruses in the future, I would have liked to see our government build and maintain remote-learning infrastructure, to allow a rapid shutdown whenever necessary. But I don’t run the government. I just complain about it on the internet.

Back to the radio show. Several of the call-in guests were restauranteurs who had to shut their dining rooms (take-out and delivery are still available) and were worried about the future of their businesses. Montreal’s large hospitality industry holds considerable sway over municipal and provincial politics, and is not shy about resisting changes that threaten its prosperity, such as indoor smoking bans and the discontinuation of (expensive and shady) auto racing events. But the tone of these restauranteurs was less pugnacious than in previous years, perhaps because the show producers finally stopped inviting the industry’s most shameless graspers to comment, perhaps because the restauranteurs had the measure of their situation.

They sounded chastened by the enormity of the situation, and were careful to temper their concerns and complaints with an acknowledgement that the public good legitimately trumps their business prerogatives in a public safety emergency. Some complained that they followed all the publicized safety guidelines that the government had stipulated for their businesses. Some pointed to a lack of evidence proving that indoor dining was responsible for significant outbreaks of infection. Awaiting an announcement from the premier about whether the lockdown would be prolonged past October 28, they said that they just wanted clarity about the future.

Don’t we all?

There are some fairly deep problems with the complaints made, even if they were fair (from a discursive standpoint) and made in good faith. So deep, in fact, that they are within the orbit of my dusty philosophy thesis. First, the complaint that they should not be closed because they are complying with the rules. That is the bare minimum that anyone can do in a community of laws. As moral persons they should err on the side of caution even when not legally obligated to do so.

There is a distinction between compliance and efficacy in play here, which was going to be the main subject of this column in an earlier draft. It is the difference between washing a fork and cleaning a fork. If someone asks you to wash a fork, you can (if you are willing to be priggish and pedantic about it) dunk it in soapy water, wipe it with a sponge, rinse it with water and set it aside to dry, and consider you duty fulfilled even if the fork is still dirty. You were asked to wash it, and you have performed all the actions of washing it. If, however, you consider the command to wash the fork indicative of the asker desiring a clean fork, and you endorse or even share that desire, then you should consider your obligation to extend not just to the performance of actions (washing) but rather to the attainment of a goal (clean forks). If someone sees their moral obligation as extending only so far as the law demands, the best we can say about them is that they are not a scofflaw. If they want the added esteem of being a good person, they need to be concerned with results. (Kant notwithstanding, as in all ethical matters).

This principle applies to individual mask-wearing; wear a mask because the law demands it, and wear a good mask properly because the safety of others depends on it. Does this mean that already-masked people need to invest effort in determining what a “good” masks is and how it is “properly” worn, to fulfil their moral duty? It does, once they are aware of the distinction. The more you know, the more good and harm you can do knowingly. Knowledge is burdening, but empowering.

Second, on the matter of demanding evidence demonstrating the risk posed by dine-in restaurants, there are similar considerations of probity, as well as considerations about what relation evidence bears to facts. Let’s turn back the clock to the bad old days of Canada’s last (and hopefully last) Conservative government, the odious reign of Stephen Harper and his retenue of clapping, braying seals. His time as Prime Minister was, among other disgraces, marked by an aggressive suppression of climate science, motivated by his dependence on the support of oil-producing regions, and perhaps also by a particularly American strain of prosperity-gospel Protestantism. Facts that were unflattering to the petrochemical industry (as well as to other familiar enemies of transparency and public health, like agribusiness) were scrubbed from official publications, and government scientists were forced to direct their public communication through a system of ministerial censorship and message control. Science, evidence, Truth Itself was subordinated to an ideological game-plan. (Naturally, many of the Conservatives’ techniques were learned from invited Republican strategists, who kept busy during the Obama administration by working as consultants for other countries’ reactionary ghouls.)

Understanding just how bad the Harper government was goes a long way in explaining the latitude that his successor, Justin Trudeau, enjoys in office, despite his many mistakes and indiscretions. Part of the Liberal’s electoral rhetoric of restoration and redemption was an appeal to “evidence-based” policy and governance. In contrast to ignorance-based, or greed-based, or batshit-crazy-bumpkin-theology-based governance, “evidence-based” sounds pretty good. But the problem with evidence is that it doesn’t have an agenda. People who are ethical naturalists disagree with this point, but they are wrong. Hume’s (can we still cite Hume?) distinction between ought-statements and is-statements remains stubbornly un-collapsed. So evidence alone will never tell you what your policy should be. It can only tell you how to achieve the goals determined by your prior value commitments and conceptual framings.

Small “l” liberals are often accused by their more sophisticated critics of believing themselves to be un- or post-ideological, and using “ideological” as a term of abuse for positions with different ideological commitments than theirs. This puts (naive) liberals at a strategic disadvantage, because they don’t realize they have an ideological flank to defend. “We hold these truths to be self-evident” is not an edifying stance for those who may need to articulate the evidence of such truths to people who are not yet convinced. Naive conservatives (usually businesspeople who “don’t do politics” despite running for office) are similarly blind, referring to their agenda as “common-sense conservatism”. There is, of course, a whole other world of questions about the social construction of knowledge, reproducibility of results, causality and determination, etc. But philosophy of science and epistemology will have to wait for another time.

In order to have evidence of an occurrence, something must occur. Evidence of significant disease transmission in dining rooms requires significant disease transmission to occur in dining rooms, and to result in positive tests, and to be traced back to the point of origin. Unless restauranteurs are willing to accept conjecture based on previously documented, non-dining-room Covid transmission, their demand for evidence of transmission in restaurants would require many people to get sick. Given the factors of asymptomatic infection, incubation periods, multiple possible sources of exposure, and inadequate testing, a large number of infections would have to occur to produce a “signal” strong enough to be identified against a background of noisy data, and only after a week or more of ongoing transmission. When someone says “let’s wait for the evidence”, surely they don’t expect to be among those by whose deaths the evidence is produced. “The absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence”, as one particularly blood-soaked bastard once said. Unfortunately for the reputation of empiricism, his dirty lying mouth was right about that one. (I am not referring to Carl Sagan).

(This brings to mind a flap about flossing a few years ago. Someone had discovered that there was a lack of peer-reviewed studies proving the effectiveness of flossing in preventing dental disease. People who don’t know how research works were gobsmacked by this. “Big Floss has been taking our money for years, with the complicity of the Dento-Buccal-Industrial Complex, and they can’t even prove that it does anything!”. People who do know how research works understood that things as obvious as the benefits of removing food from between your teeth do not attract the limited attention and resources of researchers.)

This isn’t new; it’s the same playbook used by “merchants of doubt” employed by the automobile, tobacco and oil industries. But I don’t think these earnest restauranteurs are so cynical as that. They think that appeals to evidence can be made in good faith when discussing how to apportion the burdens of a shared problem, albeit from an interested position. But they are enacting a pantomime of the enlightened society, and the words in their mouths entail more than they can imagine.

On the third complaint, a lack of “clarity”, I’ve already said much of what I wished to say, as it is closely related to “evidence”. The most reductive take would be to say that “clarity” about the future is quite literally clairvoyance (ask a francophone). It would be monstrous to demand “evidence” with a full awareness of the issues that I’ve outlined above. But to ask for “clarity” about future emergency measures is to betray one or more ridiculous positions. Either the asker thinks that governments can predict the future (fantastical or conspiratorial, take your pick), or the asker would like the government to outline future plans and stick to them regardless of emergent facts. Or, the asker is in fact not interested in minimizing the risks of transmission and wishes to have an excuse to reopen, come what may. In this case, as with the “doubt merchants” and their demands for “evidence”, the asker is just saying “clarity” because they think they can get what they want by making that sound in public.

It is good that we ask our governments to perform their duties in a manner informed by evidence, guided by articulated principles and in as transparent a manner as possible, given other considerations. But we must recognize that they (and we, as represented by them) are navigating an uncertain world which does always admit of reliable prediction and control. In a situation as unpredictable and emergent as the Covid crisis, governments that restricted themselves to decisions justified by available evidence would be paralyzed. Which, of course, is just what the targets of regulation would like. Luckily, some things are obvious enough to those whose salaries do not depend on not understanding them. (Apologies to Upton Sinclair).