Control and COVID-19, Revisited: Agency and the Problem of Induction

by Robyn Repko Waller

Image by Miguel Á. Padriñán from Pixabay

Last spring we stumbled through the frighteningly new COVID landscape, facing unknowns. This spring we steer the course for a COVID exit, armed with vaccines. But how has our experience as agents changed?

This March we found ourselves in a starkly different pandemic reality from last. Gone are the early days of ubiquitous question marks — are masks effective? Will there be a vaccine? When will we see our extended family again?

Granted, grimly, the COVID case and death counts continue to rise. And one still fears for the health of loved ones. Nonetheless we have hit our stride in the vaccine rollout (here in the US, that is). Just this weekend, 4 million Americans received the vaccine in one day. Institutions and industries — from universities to Broadway — are making plans to reopen like the golden days of pre-COVID. Those agonizing months of dread and isolation seem, comparatively, in the rear view mirror. 

Moreover, for many of us, the selves we were in March 2020 are no longer. We’ve lived through a transformative experience — honing new values and skillsets that we could not have imagined we’d acquire. Like my newfound role of hairdresser, kids’ crafts director, and work-from-home extraordinaire. 

In some ways, though, we haven’t changed. We still long for normalcy. We still value much of our pre-COVID ways. How will we square those old values and behavior patterns with this brave new world? Here, I contend, the work of eighteenth-century philosopher David Hume can offer illuminating insight. But, first, a story.

The other day I encountered my four year-old standing on the living room chair, excitedly poised to jump headfirst into the sofa against the wall. I informed her that this was not a good idea. The gap between the chair and sofa was expansive, and the wall on the other side was formidably hard. She might get seriously injured, I noted. She laughed it off and confidently replied that she had made this leap many times when I wasn’t in the room (great…), and that never before had she gotten hurt. Besides it was fun. It had been fun every time so far. She dove toward the couch and, thankfully, all was well. 

It struck me in that moment that the reckless foolishness of children, that which we all remember from our own youth, came down to a naive faith in naive inductivism. Our present predicament with COVID, it seems, also stems from our misapplication of this methodology to our new reality.

We employ inductivism when we utilize inductive methods to learn from our observations.  While we may learn patterns quickly from even a single observed event — that my fingers in the door causes sudden pain, other generalizations about the world take more careful and varied observational contexts to infer. 

To take a classic example, on multiple occasions we may observe a billiard ball strike another billiard ball at rest, followed by the second ball’s moving off at some angle and speed. From this, when we later observe another billiard ball striking one at rest, we come to expect — before we observe it — that the usual outcome will result — the second ball will move off at some angle and speed. This, according to Hume, is the basis of our understanding of causation. We learn about the natural world  around us, including causes and effects, by our sensory experience of it and use that experience to form our beliefs about the world, including those bits of it we have yet to observe. This view in epistemology and philosophy of science is termed empiricism. I believe that gravity will hold me on Earth — I won’t fly off into space — when I take the next step, as I have never once flown off into space when taking a step in the past. I always remain on the Earth. 

Formalizations of more sophisticated inductivism as it pertains to scientific methodology go back pre-Hume to the Scientific Revolution with Francis Bacon, although inductivism as the idealization of science has been modified and replaced, most recently with Bayesianism, among others, since Bacon’s time. In 1620 Francis Bacon wrote:

But experience managed in the right order first lights the candle and then uses it to show the way. It starts with experience that is ordered and classified, not jumbled or erratic; from that it derives axioms, and from established axioms it moves on to new experiments ( Novum Organum, Book 1, 82). 

In his manuscript Novum Organum, inspired by work being conducted by natural philosophers— or as we call them today, scientists — Bacon outlines a formal predecessor of many aspects of our scientific experiments, including careful, systematic observations where the independent variable is present and absent and reasoning over the particulars observed to infer generalizations about the phenomenon of interest. Indeed, this method of investigation, or something close to it, was practiced by Bacon’s contemporaries, such as Galileo Galilei in his investigation of the motion and interaction of bodies and others during the Scientific Revolution.

Now four-year-olds and adults about their daily lives rarely employ sophisticated versions of inductivism. Most of them do not vanquish cognitive biases from their mind or organize sense data into tables and figures before judging what to expect around them. 

Still, like practitioners of more formal instantiations of inductivism, kids and adults alike feel confident that past experience is a guide to future happenings precisely because they assume that nature is uniform, the natural world isn’t subject to radical change. The gravitational constant won’t change, for instance. This is the Principle of Uniformity of Nature that Hume uncovers as the justification for any inductive inference we make on the basis of experience. (And, ultimately, is the heart of why Hume argues that inductive inference is fundamentally unjustified: I only take nature to be uniform because in the past it has been uniform. I only judge that the law of gravity holds now because it always has. In other words, my inductive inferences now are justified by my inductive inferences. It’s a vicious circle of justification.)

Here we return, then, to the problem with our beliefs and actions in a new COVID world. The problem is twofold: First, the Principle of Uniformity of Nature fails us when it comes to what to expect in a world chock full of COVID-Sars-2 virus. In particular, we should not expect the same outcome from the same habitual behavior we exhibited pre-COVID. Whereas we have gone many times — for years — to that crowded concert or restaurant and escaped with perhaps only a minor cold, facts on the ground are now different. On the one hand, it seems like things are slowly becoming  familiar — lifting restrictions mean return to spectator events, opening of schools, shots in arms to prevent severe infections. That is the normalcy we desperately crave.

Yet, for some reason, we also face a fourth surge of COVID. Why? Vaccination rates are still far below the threshold of herd immunity. Moreover, although reports suggest that certain Americans are keen to get the vaccine (pushing refresh on the eligibility site for days on end), a substantial proportion of Americans are hesitant to receive the shot, an attitude, as with many viewpoints, that divides, in part, on political party fault lines. What of the possibility of endemic breakouts among dense pockets of non-vaccinated individuals in communities? And, relatedly, young adults, itching to experience all of the social joys of these teens and twenties and the most likely to congregate, are last in the vaccine priority line, perhaps controversially. 

To act in end state COVID world is not to act in a pre-COVID one. How to navigate an exit may involve behaviors we are loathe to continue, masking and distancing included. Indeed, the global world post-COVID may not be continuous with the pre-COVID world in many key respects. Talk of immunity and vaccine passports for travel and event admission sounds like a fictional plot preposterously unlike our previous lives. And, of course, the ethics of requiring COVID vaccinations and immunity passports is a fraught topic. Some worry that if one opts out of the vaccine, one is unjustly barred from public life. Others respond in turn with public health concerns. 

Second, and more pointedly, the induction of everyday practical decisions in our times is flawed in yet another way. In our diurnal judgments and practical endeavors, we tend to rely on our own experience and expertise to decide what to do. This makes sense. Who knows best how to talk a best friend through a problem than you, their oldest friend? Who knows best how to get through the myriad of tasks in your work week than you? Sure specialized expert advice is a factor — that’s how we know what kind of diet is most nutritious or the steps to buying a home. We are habituated to receiving advice from these folks. In contrast, we are not habituated to recommended or mandated  restrictions on our daily movements and leisure. 

But in this new reality, (what we hope will be) the tail end of COVID, we cannot just rely on our own or small circle’s experience to anticipate the consequences of our actions. Take, for instance, vaccine hesitancy. Suppose that I have experienced some mild side effects from vaccines in the past. Perhaps I have read the report about very rare blood disorders in a small number of recipients of the Astra-Zeneca vaccine. Or maybe someone has managed to mix in large crowds for months, masked or not, for nonessential purposes without any personal ill consequences. Is this personal and anecdotal experience good grounds for concluding that one should be wary of the vaccine? That it is now safe to resume normal life? 

In a recent discussion of epistemic responsibility, Levy and Savulescu discuss responsible decision-making and our epistemic obligations both in normal times and during a pandemic. They argue that the more significant the action, the greater the epistemic burden on the actor: 

Individuals therefore have significant epistemic responsibilities when it comes to their health and wellbeing and (perhaps even more) the health and wellbeing of those who are dependent on them…Analogously, those who make decisions that can be expected to significantly impact on the health and wellbeing of others have heavy epistemic responsibilities to ensure that these decisions are appropriately informed. The greater our sphere of influence, determined by the number of people who are affected by our decisions, the degree to which they are affected, and their vulnerability, the weightier our epistemic responsibilities. It follows from these principles that decision-makers have especially weighty epistemic responsibilities as we confront the COVID-19 pandemic.

Concerning the decision-making of non-epidemiologists policy-influencers during a pandemic, Levy and Savulescu make a two-pronged case. First, they argue for epistemic deference when the question at hand is one of ‘settled science,’ and the decision-maker is not an expert in the relevant science. For instance, deferring in matters of the safety of vaccines after such vaccines are tested and approved. To defer here is to accept the proposition of the expert, say, the expert’s testimony. 

However, there might not be an expert consensus on every matter at the heart of decision-making during COVID. Here the water is murkier. Hence, second, when the matter at hand is disputed among experts, Levy and Savulescu call for an inclusion of pluralistic voices, such as ethicists, legal scholars, economists, sociologists, in addition to epidemiologists, to weigh in on relevant policy setting, such as lockdowns, school closures, and economic measures, to  test interventions and to aim for consensus. 

If correct, what bearing does this have on our ordinary citizen without expertise in epidemiology and their nonessential diurnal activities under uncertainty? What epistemic responsibility do I carry for my public activities that affect my health and others’ well-being? I’d suggest that a more sophisticated everyday induction — a more reliable methodology — relies not just on those facts that I, the non expert agent, am familiar with but also on the expansive scientific knowledge and ethical information available for consumption, however messy. A lack of expert consensus doesn’t mean I fall back on old habits of behavior. Rather, I participate in navigating responsibly, for myself and all others impacted, as best I can with what we all know.