Covid and the 5 Monkeys Experiment
July 28, 2020
The Five Monkeys experiment is a classic thought experiment with implications for human behaviour.
The following pictogram sums it up.
Essentially this is where we appear to be right now with Covid and social distancing. As Jonathan Sumption pointed out this morning, in the now famous Imperial College Study that predicted 510,000 deaths as a plausible worst case scenario in the absence of lockdown, the under-reported part is that this report never proposed lockdown would cure the virus, rather its purpose was only to delay its effects until a vaccine could be found. It was thus effectively permanent. In fact the UK government (and most others) fell for the so called Middle Ground fallacy; eschewing the Swedish approach of limited lockdown – which was actually the true middle ground policy – and instead they chose between doing nothing at all and the extreme Imperial College vision of permanent lockdown and locked down hard, but in a temporary fashion, thus when freeing up restrictions the virus has inevitably returned.
There has been much good work done on the problems associated with the failure of the epidemiologists predictions, notably here, which is very much worth a read, not only to see how far of the mark most predictions were, but to remind ourselves of the panicked world in which those decisions were made.
However, like the five monkeys, governments and populations everywhere seem to have forgotten the reason for social distancing in the first place and now appear to believe that it will somehow ‘prevent’ the virus when it was only ever to delay its spread long enough to have enough ICU capacity to deal with it – which was behind the original ‘save the NHS’ mantra. As noted, Hong Kong has essentially just locked down the economy again almost totally, despite having had less than 20 deaths – most of whom are in the ‘usual’ vulnerable category. Meanwhile the UK has introduced massive uncertainty with regards to its quarantine policies and in what seems to be either curiously co-ordinated or just governmental groupthink, masks, which were previously largely dismissed as doing more harm than good, are now being made compulsory, seemingly as a form of compliance rather than anything else.
Governments everywhere are trying to focus on specific data like the R number or the number of new cases, without putting them into any form of context. In this they have become like high frequency data junkies in markets who obsess with data like Non Farm payrolls that used to provide insight into Fed policy but have not actually done so for over 25 years. People still follow them and predict them, but like the five monkeys, nobody can remember why.