Coronavirus: The First Big Test of Behavioral Science

The United Kingdom is at a crossroads, an ideological battle between natural science and behavioral science. Let’s hope for all our sakes we get this one right.

Boris Johnson, the UK Prime Minister, is facing a dilemma. When do we go from the so-called containment phase for controlling Covid-19 Coronavirus, to the delay phase.

In the medical / natural science corner, is the Chief Medical Officer, Professor Chris Whitty, who has presented himself calmly, reassuringly, as completely on top of his brief. He is a physician and an epidemiologist (as well as a lawyer, and an MBA). His evidence at the newly formed House of Commons Coronavirus Committee was calm, frank, precise. He is exactly the sort of advisor that any government would be proud to have. Flatten the peak. Delay the virus spread. Keep the height of the peak low. Save lives.

Mitigation efforts like social distancing help reduce the disease caseload on any given date, and can keep the healthcare system from becoming overwhelmed.
Image: New York Times adapted from CDC/Economist https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/11/science/coronavirus-curve-mitigation-infection.html

In the behavioral science corner is, well, I am not sure who. Maybe it’s the Chief Scientific Advisor, who highlighted the need to take account of behavioral science. Yes, please do. It’s a wicked problem, and please include more complex social modelling.

But what we are now seeing is what the Director General of the World Health Organization (up until now also criticised for its seemingly political response to the issue) could be referring to as ‘alarming levels of inaction’.

I do hope, however, that Boris Johnson is being guided by the science, both behavioral and epidemiological, and not by advisors who profess to be superforecasters. You don’t have to be a superforecaster to forecast that if we get this wrong, many will die unnecessarily.

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