Acting on data or emotion?

I was reading some commentary about the Coronavirus and the political response to the aid package (CARES Act) right after passing (3/27/2020). An online commenter was questioning whether the U.S. was acting on data or emotion.

That’s quite the question.

In this context the commenter was implying, it’s considered better to act on data. Of course there are two problems with that:

  1. In the case of the Coronavirus, the data isn’t (or wasn’t at the the time) available.
  2. In every case, the data chosen is a story.

For #1, consider that the data is still coming in. What if the virus affects different nationalities differently and has different mortality rates for them. What if the lifestyle patterns of different countries affect the rate of spread. What if by waiting for the data, you kill your opportunity to survive?

Isn’t that why our brain runs on emotion in the first place? To help us survive an unknown threat. A threat lacking data.

For #2, consider that when the cases first started popping up, a number of live TV personalities started telling people, “18,000 people die from the flu every year.” They selected their data to create a story. The Coronavirus is a virus, the flu is a virus, they are the same. Here’s how many people died from the flu, so we shouldn’t overblow this. They picked their data to fit their story. A story that backed up an emotion of confidence.

Also for #2, it may sound as though I’m saying all data is useless. I’m not. I went to college for engineering. I believe in science. When we are measuring specific variables in controlled in environments, we can be more objective about our analysis. An example would be if the government set up testing for all US citizens over a week, and after testing you were quarantined based on contagion, or free from the virus. Then we have controlled most or all the variables. However, testing randomly, or not testing as has been criticized, leads to an uncontrolled environment. One where the data has to be chosen to support whatever story someone is trying to tell.

To give an example, in this case the commenter was asking if the government stimulus could be better spent on cancer research to save more lives long-term as a question we should be asking, and basing it on data. Of course, that’s an example of another story being told with data. Is the story we’re writing about saving the most lives throughout history, or saving the lives of people on this planet at this moment?

There is a reason society has evolved a mix of people who run on emotion and thinking, so that society has both bases covered. People worried about the instant ramifications on the long-term and people focused on the optimal response once the data is in. However, that doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot of tension throughout that process of getting both to see eye-to-eye.