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COVID-19: Reason vs. Fear

Not much choice about what issue has become the planet’s top priority. With national borders sealing up, schools shutting down and infection rates mounting, the Coronavirus and its impact on all of us has supplanted election politics and every other news story that’s fixated the public all year.

Knowing the facts – especially medical and scientific facts – during a pandemic is top priority and fact-checking has been playing an important role by debunking myths and exposing hoaxes, or at least questionable presentations of information, which could turn difficult situations dire. But given how much we do not know about the virus and its future spread, might logic-checking (which allows us to make factual statements regarding arguments that cover the future and the unknown) give us additional insights to work with?

To find out, let’s look at an argument that caught fire on the Internet last week via a Facebook post shared by more than a million people. The post was written by Abdu Sharkawy, an Internal Medicine and Infectious Diseases Consultant and Assistant Professor of Medicine at the University of Toronto, who has worked around the world fighting previous infectious diseases such as HIV and SARS.

It’s easy to see why Sharkawy’s piece (reproduced at the end of this post) with its message that we have more to fear from panic over Corona than over the virus itself, resonated with huge numbers of people. That message is simple, and his wording make his argument extremely compelling. For example, Sharkawy establishes his credibility as a professional experienced in infection-related crises immediately, before jumping into an argument that skillfully contrasts concern (a thoughtful, rational emotion) about COVID-19 with fear (a less thoughtful, irrational one) over panicked responses to the virus.

In future posts here at LogicCheck we will look more closely at the role persuasive language (often referred to as rhetoric) plays in the critical-thinking process. For now, however, it’s important to understand that skilled rhetoric can make a strong argument powerful and compelling or dress up a weak one to make it seem stronger than it actually is. This is why understanding the strength of the argument underlying a piece of persuasive communication (like a political speech or editorial) is vital if you want to be informed rather than duped by a skilled persuader.

To show you what I mean, I’m going to strip away Sharkawy’s eloquent language to expose what I claim represents the logical core of his argument:

Premise 1: The COVID-19 virus will spread and likely infect someone you know.

Premise 2: COVID-19 is a danger, especially to the elderly, infirm and disenfranchised.

Premise 3: The virus will not likely do much harm when it arrives (i.e., when its effects are widespread).

Premise 4: We are more vulnerable to reactions based on irrationality and fear than to the virus itself.

Premise 5: Irrational, fearful reactions include hoarding, stealing medical supplies, people who are not sick overwhelming the medical system, and overzealous travel restrictions that can cause personal loss and might trigger a recession.

Premise 6: Reacting to the virus with irrationality and fear teaches children the wrong lessons about how to deal with a crisis.

Conclusion: We should respond to the virus with reason, rather than fear.

As you saw in last week’s Logic-Checker about Super Tuesday, this argument is inductive, meaning it must be evaluated based on how likely it is that the conclusion is true if we accept all the premises as true. As with that Super Tuesday example, it is easy to claim that you should accept the conclusion if you accept all of the premises. So far, so good.

Insight that an argument’s premises (if temporarily accepted as true) strongly support its conclusion is the equivalent of pointing out that a house has been well designed and constructed. But step two of the logic-checking process, which involves scrutinizing each premise in the argument, is the equivalent of determining if a house was built of good bricks or lousy ones.

This step does not require you to be cynical about each and every premise in an argument. For example, given what we now know about the Coronavirus and flu viruses in general (which, admittedly, isn’t everything), the first two premises seem on safe ground. And who can argue with Premise 6 that says children should be taught to be calm and rational in the face of adversity, rather than panicky and selfish?

Premise 3, while vague, can be charitably understood as implying younger, healthy people infected by the virus will likely recover without much impact on their overall, long-term health. While it is very likely true that the young and healthy will do better than the old and sick, the lethality of the virus across all age groups and conditions is still unknown and carriers of the virus (including younger, healthier ones) can still infect the more vulnerable. At the very least, if COVID-19 is no more deadly than previous flu viruses, we may still be looking at tens of thousands of casualties of the disease, which seems to constitute “much harm” (albeit not Armageddon).

At first glance, Premises 4 and 5 seem to be on safe ground. But if you look at the list of things that constitute irrational, fearful responses to the virus (Premise 5), it’s easy to question one or more items in that list.

I don’t think anyone would argue that illegal theft of hospital property is rational and hoarding supplies, while legal, does seem panicky (as well as selfish).

But if an uninfected person gets themselves checked out over fear that they were exposed to COVID-19 or because they feel symptomatic, is that an irrational choice that might deprive genuinely sick people of scarce medical resources, or a prudent response that might prevent the infection from spreading further?

Similarly, where does one draw the line regarding where and when cancelling events and travel plans represents the now-common phrase “an abundance of caution” versus irrational panic? Sharkawy uses the Olympics as an example of an event months away that he implies might be cancelled out of irrational fear. But an event that brings thousands of people from across the globe to one place seems like the very kind of event that should be reviewed carefully for health and safety concerns (much like we prepare for terror threats at events of that scale).

These challenges to the argument’s premises might not matter much, given how obvious the conclusion is. After all, no one is advocating that we should become more panicky and fearful in the face of the virus threat. But the very obviousness of the conclusion means the argument might not give us what we need to decide tough calls, including ones related to issues listed in Premise 5.

Given how well the argument’s premises support its conclusion, and the reasonableness of most (but not all) of those premises, I’m going to rate Sharkawy’s argument at 4/5 dummbells, meaning it is Fairly Strong. [Note to readers: I swapped my original graphic with a new 1-5 dumbbell ranking I'll be using from now on.]

Fairly Strong

Before readers get on with their day, which will likely involve making decisions about your own responses to COVID-19 and reactions to it beyond your control, notice that the logic-checking process of an eloquent (if imperfect) argument helps identify what we should be thinking about.

We should make decisions based on concern for others, not just ourselves and immediate loved ones. We should find ways to test, quarantine and treat people that don’t overwhelm a medical system that needs resources to focus on those at most risk. And we need to be patient as people (including us and people who are not us) make difficult choices during extraordinary times.

Original Argument by Abdu Sharkawy

I'm a doctor and an Infectious Diseases Specialist. I've been at this for more than 20 years seeing sick patients on a daily basis. I have worked in inner city hospitals and in the poorest slums of Africa. HIV-AIDS, Hepatitis,TB, SARS, Measles, Shingles, Whooping cough, Diphtheria...there is little I haven't been exposed to in my profession. And with notable exception of SARS, very little has left me feeling vulnerable, overwhelmed or downright scared.

I am not scared of Covid-19. I am concerned about the implications of a novel infectious agent that has spread the world over and continues to find new footholds in different soil. I am rightly concerned for the welfare of those who are elderly, in frail health or disenfranchised who stand to suffer mostly, and disproportionately, at the hands of this new scourge. But I am not scared of Covid-19.

What I am scared about is the loss of reason and wave of fear that has induced the masses of society into a spellbinding spiral of panic, stockpiling obscene quantities of anything that could fill a bomb shelter adequately in a post-apocalyptic world. I am scared of the N95 masks that are stolen from hospitals and urgent care clinics where they are actually needed for front line healthcare providers and instead are being donned in airports, malls, and coffee lounges, perpetuating even more fear and suspicion of others. I am scared that our hospitals will be overwhelmed with anyone who thinks they " probably don't have it but may as well get checked out no matter what because you just never know..." and those with heart failure, emphysema, pneumonia and strokes will pay the price for overfilled ER waiting rooms with only so many doctors and nurses to assess.

I am scared that travel restrictions will become so far reaching that weddings will be canceled, graduations missed and family reunions will not materialize. And well, even that big party called the Olympic Games...that could be kyboshed too. Can you even imagine?

I'm scared those same epidemic fears will limit trade, harm partnerships in multiple sectors, business and otherwise and ultimately culminate in a global recession.

But mostly, I'm scared about what message we are telling our kids when faced with a threat. Instead of reason, rationality, openmindedness and altruism, we are telling them to panic, be fearful, suspicious, reactionary and self-interested.

Covid-19 is nowhere near over. It will be coming to a city, a hospital, a friend, even a family member near you at some point. Expect it. Stop waiting to be surprised further. The fact is the virus itself will not likely do much harm when it arrives. But our own behaviors and "fight for yourself above all else" attitude could prove disastrous.

I implore you all. Temper fear with reason, panic with patience and uncertainty with education. We have an opportunity to learn a great deal about health hygiene and limiting the spread of innumerable transmissible diseases in our society. Let's meet this challenge together in the best spirit of compassion for others, patience, and above all, an unfailing effort to seek truth, facts and knowledge as opposed to conjecture, speculation and catastrophizing.

Facts not fear. Clean hands. Open hearts.

Our children will thank us for it.


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