May 31, 2020    PhilosophyAmericaEducationEast vs. West

Don’t Listen to the Experts

Finally, the New York Times seems to have noticed how strange Japan’s situation is. In terms of testing, Japan was just as bad as, if not worse than, the US. No draconian lockdowns. No sophisticated technological solutions like South Korea and Taiwan. Unlike Sweden, Japan had no clear strategy. Many Americans, including many Republicans, have criticized Trump for the lack of leadership and its consequences, but the Prime Minister of Japan, Shinzō Abe, hasn’t done much either. I’d say even less than Trump, but, get this, according to my father, many Japanese people feel he over-reacted. They think their half-assed lockdown, which is already over now, was not even necessary, because their daily case numbers were already declining. The total number of deaths so far is 894. Their population is 126.5 million. Even Germany, often thought of as the best performing European nation, has 8,530 deaths, and their population is 83 million, which makes them 14 times worse than Japan. The US is 44 times worse.

Although, like all other nations, Japan will still have to deal with the second wave, they have proven themselves to be superior in one respect: the ability to control the spread of the virus without leadership. How is that possible? What if the idea of leadership itself is the problem?

I’d argue that the key factor has been, not race, poverty, or population density, but the level of education. Because we are fighting something invisible, we cannot rely on our intuitions or common sense. We have to understand how the virus spreads cognitively. And, understanding is different from knowing. For instance, you might know you should wear a mask because some “expert” or “leader” told you, but in order for the mask to be effective, you need to understand why. Most Americans thought, and some still think, masks are for protecting themselves. Given that assumption, you won’t wear it if you already have the virus, especially if nobody is around you. But the mask is for protecting others. If you cough uncovered, large droplets with the virus will land on the surfaces around you, and others can get infected after you leave.

All this is counter-intuitive. To do the right thing in every unique situation, you need to understand the science behind it. That is, you need to have a working knowledge of it. You cannot just listen to what the “experts” tell you. Just like how you have to practice math in order to have a working knowledge of it, you have to discuss the science with others in order to develop a working knowledge of how a virus spreads.

The problem with worshipping leadership and expertise, as most Americans do, is that people think understanding is for leaders and experts, not for themselves. They simply wait for their leaders and experts to tell them what to do. The American worshipping of leadership has made people lazy, and this becomes a big problem in situations where the solution requires everyone to act intelligently. Americans have become so lazy that if any layman tries to understand epidemiology, they make fun of him, like, “Oh, suddenly you think you are an infectious disease expert?”

When the news broke that blacks and Hispanics were being disproportionately affected by the virus, the media was quick to conclude that it must be because they are poor and must work as essential workers. But, recently, the data showed that essential workers had a lower infection rate than the general population. The theories about poverty and density are also contradicted by the fact that Asians, who have the highest poverty rate in NYC, have the lowest infection rate of all races.

What if this isn’t about race but about the level of education? What if the virus is spreading in the areas with lower levels of education? Despite the highest poverty rate, Asians in NYC has the highest education level. The US has the greatest number of the greatest minds, but also has a large number of barely educated. Japan, on the other hand, is quality controlled. There aren’t many exceptional people but practically nobody who is illiterate. This allows Japan to count on its citizens to do the right thing without strong leadership.

I’m not suggesting that no racism is involved. The fact that there is a considerable educational gap between blacks/Hispanics and whites/Asians, which we can see even at the primary school level, suggests that there is systemic racism in education.

Even with strong motivation to take precautions, if you do not understand the science behind it, you wouldn’t be able to consistently do the right thing. Having good intentions isn’t enough in the current crisis.

College-educated people use the expression “flatten the curve” as if everyone should know what “curve” means. It’s a rather sophisticated concept. If we randomly asked people who did not go to college, what percentage would be able to explain what it means? Why are we, including Cuomo and De Blasio, pretending as if everyone can? Why are we trying not to offend the under-educated people by pretending as if they know? And, why are we making fun of people who try to understand more? It seems that our society has unconscious forces that discourage everyone from learning. “Leaders” and “experts” play significant roles in perpetuating it. Because they are the adults, we the children are supposed to just listen. The system discourages us from growing up.

No, don’t listen to the experts. Forget the leaders. Try to understand it yourself and come to your own conclusions. If you understand why 2 x 3 is 6, you would know what 4 x 7 is. Don’t wait for the experts to tell you what the answer is, because the virus will spread while you are waiting.