by Jay Johansen | Apr 12, 2020
As I write this, we are in the middle of the Great Coronavirus Panic of 2020. Medical experts are urging strict measures to limit the spread of the virus, including shutting down most businesses and ordering everyone to stay at home. The government is largely following these recommendations. These steps are throwing millions of people out of work and demolishing the economy. But many of the people giving this advice are unquestionably qualified medical experts. Shouldn't we follow the experts' advice?
Do you always do everything your doctor tells you? Most people don't. Sometimes that's foolishness or laziness. But often it's a rational decision.
A doctor's job is to tell you what is best for your health. That's where his responsibility ends. It is not the doctor's job to decide your priorities for you. For example, suppose you have a terrible disease and your doctor tells you that to maximize your lifespan you should eat nothing but bread and water and stay in bed all day. Would you do it? Maybe. But many people would say, I'd rather enjoy what life I have left then spend my final months lying in bed doing nothing.
Of course we needn't be that dramatic. I have diabetes. My doctor gave me a lot of advice about changing my diet. I follow some of it, but not all of it. Because if enjoying my food shortens my life a little, oh well. I don't floss as often as the dentist says I should. Not for any real reason, it's just ... too much trouble. Etc.
The same is true for any expert. My auto mechanic's job is to tell me what's wrong with my car and what needs to be done to fix it. Do I always get every repair that he says is needed? No. There the issue is usually cost. Like, I once bought a used car on which the air conditioning didn't work. The mechanic said it would cost $1500 to fix it. I live in Michigan where it's only hot enough to need air conditioning maybe two months a year. It wasn't worth it to me. I opened the windows in the summer instead.
I expect an expert to give me the best advice he can ... from his perspective. If he's really good, he can give me an honest assessment of side effects and costs and alternatives and what will happen if I don't follow his advice. I expect him to encourage me to do more than necessary. After all, if the doctor tells me I should do X and I don't and then I get sick, I can't blame him. He told me what to do to solve the problem. But if the doctor says there's no need to do anything and I get sick, I might well blame him, and rightly so.
And by the way, in real life, the choice is rarely a stark black and white. It's not, "if you don't do X then you will die but if you do X you will live". More often it's, "your odds are better if you do X". We all make decisions on risk every day. You know that if you drive a car, there is a chance that you will be in an automobile accident and be injured or killed. Do you respond to that fact by never driving a car? For most of us, the answer is no. We know the risk, but we decide that the benefit, getting where we want to go faster, is worth it.
© 2020 by Jay Johansen
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