Harari could take away other lessons from COVID

3 minute read


I am somewhat disappointed by Yuval Noah Harari’s Lessons from a year of Covid. He says many great things in the article but furthers a weird misconception of political decision-making.

Two quotes to illuminate what bothers me

One reason for the gap between scientific success and political failure is that scientists co-operated globally, whereas politicians […] have failed to form an international alliance against the virus and to agree on a global plan.

a global anti-plague system already exists in […] the World Health Organization and several other institutions. […] We need to give this system some political clout and a lot more money, so that it won’t be entirely dependent on the whims of self-serving politicians.

I agree with his framing of this being a political failure but think he’s drawing a false dichotomy that perpetuates the problem. Scientists have an easy time collaborating on COVID related matters because it’s mainly natural scientists. They all more or less agree on something like scientific realism. Scientists utterly fail in political arenas all the time. There is no way around politics, given this planet’s diverse societies, so claiming that politicians are self-serving is a little bit of a dick move.

At their core, scientists are as self-serving as politicians. It’s just that the political environment compounds minor discrepancies into giant gaping cleavages, in the face of which any single individual feels fear and the need to save their own ass first. To compare political failure to scientific success, we should not look at the individuals but their environment. Unless we have reason to believe that selection effects direct a super disproportionate amount of sociopaths into politics. That doesn’t seem very plausible.

We need to foster a culture that evaluates policy-makers and politicians based on their decision-making processes, not outcomes. Essentially, a culture closer to the ideal of science: what matters most are your methods and even negative results can be great learning. One key problem here is a problem scientists routinely avoid: public relations. When you’re being judged on outcomes, massive uncertainty incentivizes you to do the most defensible thing - which usually doesn’t correlate with upside potential.

The trick we need to achieve: make the most defensible thing not the least risky but the most methodological. Everybody can learn to sit with uncertainty and communicate it. It doesn’t matter if the broader public is demanding certainty. What matters is the immediate environment of policy-makers and politicians - their teams and institutions. Each and every one of us can impact that incentive landscape. We can vote, we can advocate, we can become policy actors ourselves.

But whatever you do, the first step is to not criticize the people who are usually really trying their best under many many constraints. Going into science is, in some ways, the route of least resistance for anybody who values truth. If you have the capacity: play in hard mode, go into international policy-making and incrementally change the face of it such that it becomes an easy mode for future generations.