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We might be able to benefit from safety heuristics more than usual right now.

Here’s the definition of a heuristic:

A heuristic technique, or a heuristic, is any approach to problem solving or self-discovery that employs a practical method that is not guaranteed to be optimal, perfect or rational, but which is nevertheless sufficient for reaching an immediate, short-term goal.

Right now we know that COVID19 is dangerous, and we know the ways that we can most easily put ourselves and others at risk. But we’re also still waiting on wider testing, which we need before we can determine several aspects of the risks involved with this virus. We don’t yet know exactly how fast the virus spreads. We don’t know whether or not antibodies lead to sufficient immunity. We don’t know exactly how much of a risk there is of catching the virus through airborne transmission. There are many details that we need more research on.

Since we don’t have enough information yet, we should follow risk-averse heuristics. By playing it safe, we can avoid accidentally doing dangerous things that could put ourselves and others at risk.

The precautionary principle is a heuristic that can help us play it safe.

The precautionary principle is: when you don’t know the fragility of a system, behave as if it’s fragile.

Put another way, the precautionary principle “is a strategy for approaching issues of potential harm when extensive scientific knowledge on the matter is lacking.”

The precautionary princinple is useful when these two things are true at the same time:

1. The risks are potentially high

2. The risks are not easily calculable

The situation we currently find ourselves in meets both of those criteria.

Tim Ferris is one of the people who’s been following the precautionary principle in response to COVID19 for several weeks now. He decided to start self-isolation on February 14th, almost a month before the rest of North America decided to. He made this decision based on the precautionary principle.

He outlines his reasoning for doing so in his post Some thoughts on coronaviruses and seatbelts.

Here’s a key excerpt — this is from February 14th:

“I am curtailing unnecessary travel and group interactions for the next 2–3 weeks to see how things shake out, particularly given the asymptomatic “incubation period” of up to 14 days.

Might that be an overreaction? Might I be misinformed? Totally. But then again, how many head-on car accidents have I had? Zero. I nonetheless put on my seatbelt every time that I drive, and we have great data on traffic fatalities. Do you have a fire extinguisher in your kitchen? Would you accept $100 to get rid of it? $1,000? I wouldn’t. As unlikely as a kitchen fire may be, the extreme known consequences of an out-of-control fire easily justify a fire extinguisher, even if it gathers dust forever. It’s cheap disaster insurance, just like having emergency stores of water in the garage.”

Six weeks after Tim wrote that, most people are now on board with the basics of social distancing.

But there remains a great deal of debate about two details:

1. Masks or no Masks

2. Is it reasonsible to go for a walk?

The science on both of these questions is fuzzy and conflicted. The truth seems to be that we can’t really asses those questions without doing a level of testing that we can’t do soon enough to know. Because the initial testing hasn’t indicated obvious and direct danger, we’re being given the go-ahead to decide for ourselves whether or not to wear a mask if we don’t have clear flu symptoms. On the outdoor activity front, some governments are encouraging people to go for walks as long as we leave 6ft.

But despite that, we should consider following Tim’s lead and acting based on the precautionary principle. Since there’s a lack of clarity, we should consider wearing our metaphorical seatbelts right now.

In terms of direct steps, we should wear masks, and we should avoid going outside for non-essential activities. Going for a walk is not an essential activity for most people. It’s a nice to have, but is it essential?

As I wrote in my post Just because you can go for a walk, doesn’t mean you should go for a walk

“We each have different needs and different resources. So we’ll need to make different decisions. It’s up to us to decide how much of a sacrifice we can make, beyond the basics. And our answer about how much of a sacrifice we can make can also change, in either direction. It doesn’t have to be a stagnant thing. But we need to be honest with ourselves about whether we’re doing everything we can to do our part.

It’s up to us to be honest with ourselves about what our needs are and what sacrifices we can afford to make. We aren’t being forced to do the right thing. It’s up to us.”

We’re not being forced to follow the precautionary principle. But playing it safe right now is something that many of us can afford to do. Many of us could get by without exercising outdoors. Many of us could fashion together a homemade mask without impacting any health care workers’ supplies.

If we choose to follow the precautionary principle, the worst case scenario is that we made some unnecessary personal sacrifices. The best case scenario is that we help save lives.