I recently returned to school, part-time.
Unlike my earlier dalliances with school, I am deeply passionate about what I’m now studying. Instead of slogging through the motions for the degree at the end, then, I now wake up on Monday mornings ecstatic at the prospect of being able to explore the new week’s content.
(While sitting around reading is illuminating and I do a bunch of that, engaging with others on the material is partly how it truly gets “in the bones” for me. Chatting with professors and classmates, I am able to move away from abstract understandings and instead link up everything I’m learning with real life. It’s lovely, and inspiring!)
And yet: I come to my now-formal studies of public health with certain … perspectives. As much as being informed by all I read, these perspectives are borne from my own lived experiences with poverty and the various violences, both structural and interpersonal, with which they are correlated.
So when I began reading chapter 2 of the intro text for one of my courses, I felt a gut-level antagonism to its focus:
Entirely due to random insomnia-related early-morning reading one day a few years back, I began reading Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s Antifragile.
As I read Taleb’s works, I rejoiced; the way he approached the world was so refreshingly open to reality as it is, without a need to feign understanding of all its components now to savor it in all its ungraspable messiness. This trait, this mirthful, irreverent acceptance, I was then coming to see, was exceedingly rare in a world where certainty—or, rather, the comforting illusion of certainty—is often prized above virtually all else.
I quickly came to understand that Taleb does not like journalists. Though I abstractly understood his qualms, about which you can find (so much) more detail by searching the internet, I saw this more as a quirk than something worth considering more deeply.
I giggled at his journalist-related anecdotes, but didn’t go much deeper than that. I certainly didn’t share his (what I felt was) general antagonism towards journalism and journalists.
Last Friday, then, I was surprised to have my own encounter with such bone-deep antagonism, which revolved around …
(But: More than that, about how many people are made to suffer and die while experts-in-abstraction gather appropriate evidence before making real-life-impacting recommendations; “evidence-based” is not the abstraction it may seem, to the relatively affluent, but often, instead, its own source of human suffering)
My favorite thing about Fridays these days isn’t the weekend; it’s Matt Taibbi and Katie Halper’s Useful Idiots podcast. While I want to digress about all the whys of this, it’s beside the point of this post.
The point is that, last Friday, I had a viscerally Hulk-smash response to an audio clip they played.
In this clip, a journalist was grilling a White House representative on the “necessity” of vaccinating all teachers before sending them back to in-school teaching. The representative wouldn’t speak to the necessity, instead talking about things like the importance of vaccinating teachers early.
This frustrated the journalist, who kept returning to this point: the necessity.
Is it necessary, though?
Is it necessary?
The journalist, who wouldn’t likely have pushed down this path if he didn’t perceive himself, to some degree, as an advocate of some already-knowable objective truth, was actively contributing to what I described, in May, as the extinguishing of lives.
When non-affluent, and especially non-affluent people of color, are dying in far greater numbers than those who are affluent, cries of “We must wait to act until the evidence is clear!” by the affluent and their mouthpieces represent acts of violence:
acts of extinguishing.
The lives of the poor and all those denied-effective-voices are extinguished while those more affluent wait for “appropriate” evidence to accumulate.
How does a public professional, such as a journalist, not participate in extinguishing lives, then?
By considering asymmetries when discussing appropriate action.
Taleb’s work is all about asymmetries. As I wrote last April on the importance of wearing face masks, it’s all about asymmetry, baby:
I think this means I really need to start putting something on my face, pronto. It’s all about asymmetry of consequence. Worst-case scenario for wearing it is I look silly and nothing else changes; there’s no benefit. Worst-case scenario for not wearing it is hurting–or even inadvertently contributing to killing–someone else. With such asymmetrical costs and benefits, it’s dumb to be walking around out there without some stopgap barrier.
In short: When small acts have little downside and may, on the other hand, have huge upsides, you take those small acts, even if it’s not (yet) “evidence-based.” The costs of failing to take that small action enormously outweigh any costs of taking the action, so: You take the small, potentially asymmetrically protective step just in case, because you could, in fact, die while waiting for the evidence that doing so is actually important to accumulate.
When “necessary” (because “science”!) is the threshold for taking protective actions, a lot of non-affluent people will die.
thanks to how “necessary” is defined by those with the power both to define it,
and to have their definitions widely heeded.
If I am examined, in class, about the merits of being “evidence-based,”
I plan to lose points as needed in order to begin learning how to more effectively make my own point here. This post is simply a fumbling first step in the direction of learning to articulate these U.S.-counterintuitive anti-life-extinguishing points.
I plan, too, to reference not necessarily Taleb but Harvard Medical School professor Eugene T. Richardson in his new Epidemic Illusions when I object to the obscene-to-me reverence for “evidence-based” in contexts where people die while waiting for bureaucrat-acceptable evidence to accumulate.
For me, “evidence-based” is a primary mechanism by which the poor
die are extinguished—all in the pursuit of objective and currently accessible truth, natch—