Naive realism and the pandemic

Ross Douthat writes,

it probably makes more sense to compare the U.S. death toll to similarly positioned and sized countries — meaning the biggest countries in Western Europe and our major neighbors in the Americas — than to compare us to a global average. And when you compare deaths as a share of population within that group of peer countries, the U.S. starts to look more mediocre and less uniquely catastrophic.

He is responding to the among his newspaper’s writers and readers that the United States suffered many more COVID deaths because Donald Trump was President. I think that this view is very widespread and very wrong.

A lot of research suggests that non-pharmaceutical interventions made little or no difference in cross-regional and cross-country comparisons. Statistical comparisons aside, tell me what policies the President could have put in place that would have made a large difference. Show your work, keeping in mind how many deaths seemed to stem from New York subways and nursing homes.

Jeffrey Friedman introduced me to the term naive realism, which is an important concept with a misleading name. I would explain naive realism as follows.

A first-order naive realist believes that he knows enough to solve a problem if he were in charge.
A second-order naive realist admits that he does not know the solution, but he is sure that someone could solve the problem if that person were put in charge.

It seems to me that there are a lot of naive realists about the pandemic. To them, I would say the following:

1. Even now, there are huge gaps in our knowledge. It is not clear that after more than 6 months we know what the optimal policy should be or should have been.

2. Among experts, the most touted solution is massive testing along with “track and trace.” But in February or March, when this might have made a large difference, it was logistically and politically impossible. It was logistically impossible for many reasons, including the fact that the FDA was in the process of disapproving any test not issued by the CDC, and the CDC was in the process of issuing faulty tests. It was politically impossible because in early March, politicians on the left were positioning themselves against taking the virus seriously, arguing that to do so was anti-Asian and racist.

3. Health experts were against masks.

I am not saying that President Trump said the right things or gave good advice. But to me, the view that we would have had a different outcome under a different President seems difficult to support.