Harris and Christakis on Coronavirus

This post is just two excerpts from the start of Sam Harris’s March 8th podcast on the coronavirus. I typed these up so people could decide if they were interested in listening to the whole episode.

#190 - How Should We Respond to Coronavirus?

A Conversation with Nicholas Christakis

March 8th, 2020

Intro by Sam:

“I’ve been frankly alarmed by several encounters I’ve had with very smart people both in person and online which has revealed a mismatch between what I think is true and what many smart people believe. Here are a few statements which I think are true.

“COVID-19 is worse that the flu in every way, so comparisons with the flu are highly misleading. And it’s not just be if you catch it and are over 70, or you’re immunocompromised. There are healthy fit people getting killed by this virus.

“Another point I want to make up front, which we make at some length in this podcast, is that even if we are all destined to catch this virus eventually, social distancing at this point is essential. So called “flattening the curve” is actually a very big deal. Think about this, to get the worst flu in your life, is bad, but it to get it when the healthcare system has collapsed, under the pressure of everyone else getting this flu, is very different then getting it when hospitals are functioning normally.

“The only lever within reach, in the absence of a vaccine, the only thing we can do is slow the spread of this by changing our behavior. So the time for hugging people and shaking hands is over. You are not being friendly by shaking someone’s hand. In fact you are being quite rude. Your advertising the obliviousness of the risk you are posing to others.

“Wherever you are on earth, at the moment, if you can work from home, you should work from home.And this should be a company policy. Right, if you have company where some percentage of the work can be accomplished by telecommuting, you should implement that policy right now. And this is also true for schools. Stanford two days ago announced that all their classes would be moved online. Schools everywhere should implement that policy as quickly as they can.

“Now there’s an obvious trade-off between economic incentives and containing this disease. We should be privileging the latter. This is absolutely the time to avoid social gatherings, and public transport, as much as possible,”

Christakis is an MD, MPA, PhD, who directs “The Human Nature” lab at Yale. The lab is “at the intersection of the natural, social, and computational sciences.” He opens with:

“I have become obsessed over the last 15 years with the study of networks in general, and of course there are networks of computers, networks of neurons, and networks of genes, and of course networks of people. And it is through these networks that everyone from germs to ideas to norms to behaviors spread. And they are not the only lens through which we can understand spreading processes but they are a very powerful and important lens.

“And right now we have for example what I would consider to be a dueling contagion, between a biological contagion, namely the coronavirus, which is spreading on this network from person to person, and in parallel with that we have a set of social contagions, which is for example ideas about whether people should be vaccinated, or whether people should self-isolate, and those spread.

“Your probability of vaccinating depends on whether your friends get vaccinated for example. So we have these parallel biological and social contagions, and in some sense, the fate of what happens in our country will depend in part, not completely but in part, on who wins, of those contagions.”

Those two quotes appear in the first 10 minutes of the 1 hour and 18 minute podcast, so there is a lot more to the episode.

Christakis’s book Blueprint is “A dazzlingly erudite synthesis of history, philosophy, anthropology, genetics, sociology, economics, epidemiology, statistics and more.” He shows that the “diversity of our cultures and personal identities masks the fact that we are one, how eight universal human tendencies have bound us together, and given us dominion over our planet, our lives, and our common fate.”