March 25, 2020 3:12PM

Against the “Noble Lie” – COVID-19 Edition

The main political conflict in recent years is between experts or elites and non‐​experts. For lack of a better word, the non‐​experts are called populists. Their complaints have been specific: Elites and experts are arrogant, they have different values, they condescend in annoying ways, they ignore the sometimes legitimate concerns of populists, among others. Experts say that they should be listened to because they’re more knowledgeable. We see it in debates on every issue from climate change to trade, immigration, and everything in between.

The COVID-19 pandemic exposes another criticism of experts: They lie with noble intentions. And the consequences of those noble lies are quite negative.

A recent New York Times op‐​ed by Zeynep Tufekci exposes the danger of noble lies when it comes to limiting the transmission of COVID-19. She details the claims by public officials and health experts that masks don’t limit transmission. She wrote:

Many health experts, no doubt motivated by the sensible and urgent aim of preserving the remaining masks for health care workers, started telling people that they didn’t need masks or that they wouldn’t know how to wear them.

Those claims were simply untrue. Yes, healthcare workers need masks, but masks (even those that are homemade) also reduce transmission outside of hospitals and clinics. Sick people who wear masks reduce their likelihood of transmitting the virus and healthy people who wear them reduce their likelihood of becoming infected. Tufecki pointed out the obvious contradiction: If masks don’t work, why do healthcare workers need them?

Noble lies are those knowingly propagated by elites or experts to advance a bigger agenda. I can’t think of a single noble lie that has led to better outcomes and most have done more harm than good. The arguments against mass use of face masks were noble lies intended for the good reason of attempting to reduce the mass consumption of face masks to conserve them for healthcare workers. However, they backfired quickly. Ultimately, that failure will cause even more harm down the line.

One source of harm is how social enforcers of new anti‐​COVID‐​19 norms respond. Enforcing these norms through pressure to not gather in large crowds, proper hand hygiene, to maintain social distance, and to stop shaking hands is positive. Those social enforcement mechanisms work best when everybody is basically on the same page about what works but they follow the norms to varying degrees. But if lots of people don’t trust the advice and they disagree about proper methods to limit the transmission of the disease because they’ve been misled by noble lies, social pressure will be contradictory and less effective at altering behavior.

Health experts, epidemiologists, medical researchers, scientists, and other experts have knowledge and experience that is valuable in containing COVID-19 and eventually wiping it out. They will eventually discover a vaccine and treatments that will benefit all of us. But without widespread trust in them, their jobs will be harder. Noble lies will reduce that trust and make it less likely that people will heed their advice and warnings. If some percentage of their guidance is a lie and we all know that they are sometimes lying, people will be less likely to listen or will cherry‐​pick which advice to follow. People will be more likely to consume snake oil, listen to grifters, and fall back on prejudices or other biases that will end up hurting themselves and others. And this will all happen rapidly in the current media market where information is cheap and available at a cost near zero, as it currently is.

Even worse, the noble lie does serious damage to expert culture as one noble lie can justify more lies that are increasingly less noble. Experts will justify less‐​noble lies on the precedence of previous lies that were nobler with no natural limiting principle. And they judge the nobility of the lie by the intent of the liar, which is a dangerous trap. This cycle can only destroy expert credibility.

A common justification for the noble lie is that people aren’t taking the current COVID-19 crisis seriously enough, so experts are justified in trying to “scare people straight” with a lie. The major problem, if the goal is to change other people’s behavior with additional information, is that they won’t be scared straight as soon as the lie is known. Thus, the noble lie will backfire.

Scaring people straight works better when scary truths are revealed rather than when lies are peddled. Emily Oster, economist and author of two superb books on pregnancy risks and raising young children, points out this problem in another area of medicine: alcohol consumption by pregnant mothers. She highlights a report published by the American Academy of Pediatrics with the headline finding that “no amount of alcohol should be considered safe in pregnancy.” Oster points out that the report itself contradicts that statement. She further details to another problem:

Reasonable people can differ, but when we lump together all levels of drinking—without really clearly focusing on what we should be concerned about—we risk losing sight of the groups that actually need help.

Heavy drinking during pregnancy is a big risk, but exaggerating it means that the public can lose sight of the people most negatively affected. Perhaps some pregnant mothers can’t limit themselves to a small amount of alcohol so, for them, the better advice is not to drink at all, but that does not translate into a warning that no expecting mothers should imbibe ever. Exaggeration could mute the actual message: Drinking a lot while pregnant can do serious, permanent harm to your baby.

Experts and elites are more trusted when they tell the truth and expose non‐​obvious tradeoffs. Every action has tradeoffs, even those that are obviously a net‐​benefit. For instance, arguing in favor of lockdowns, quarantines, and travel restrictions while acknowledging that those actions will severely disrupt economic activities and lead to other, different health problems and early deaths. Those extra health problems and deaths may be worth it, but being open about that tradeoff and making the case honestly is the best that experts can do.

This doesn’t mean that experts should consider every non‐​expert objection and weigh them equally when considering a response. Anti‐​vaxxers can be safely ignored during the COVID-19 crisis, for instance. But it does mean that experts need to present the facts honestly and openly. Populists may not believe them, but it’s better to make an honest case for an action that isn’t believed than it is to make a dishonest case that is later exposed as the long‐​term costs in lost credibility are high. The present value of trust in experts is too valuable to be squandered on an ephemeral change in behavior bought at the expense of a lie.

As a libertarian, my preference is for as few government rules and regulations as required to build and maintain a free, peaceful, and prosperous society. In the areas where rules and regulations are necessary, they should be well‐​considered and guided by experts who understand the issue that is being regulated. There should also be consequences for making errors and rewards for being correct. Trust in those experts is fragile in even the best of times, but crucial for widespread popular acceptance which is necessary for the enforcement of any new policy. When some experts commit noble lies, it damages their credibility and limits the extent of their wiser (compared to non‐​experts) recommendations.

Tufekci ended her piece with this prescient warning:

Research shows that during disasters, people can show strikingly altruistic behavior, but interventions by authorities can backfire if they fuel mistrust or treat the public as an adversary rather than people who will step up if treated with respect. Given that even homemade masks may work better than no masks, wearing them might be something to direct people to do while they stay at home more, as we all should.

Experts should commit themselves publicly to always telling the truth and to banish the noble lie from public debate. By limiting the transmission of noble lies, hopefully we can do something to limit the spread of COVID-19.