Pascal's wager

French philosopher, mathematician and physicist, Blaise Pascal designed a though experiment about the existence of God that can also be applied to other subjects, including how we respond to the coronavirus pandemic.


Observer columnist

Before diving in, I want to apologize to everyone for my contribution to the onslaught of COVID-19/Coronavirus (CV) media coverage. It’s inescapable, I know.

When this whole conversation began a few weeks ago, I thought it was silly and overblown. As many people have already pointed out, we lived through SARS, MRSA, Swine Flu, Avian Flu, etc. I made fun of CV on Twitter, reminding everyone that it’s not the Spanish Flu. Well, jokes on me because last week I earnestly Googled “Spanish flu v. Coronavirus.”

For those who believe the virus isn’t very serious and everything is being overblown, fine. You can think that. You could even be right. But I think it’s a worthwhile exercise to think through all possible scenarios before reacting, especially when life and death are literally part of the equation.

In situations like this (climate change is another relevant example), I like to use “Pascal’s Wager” as a template. Pascal’s original was focused on belief in God, but the reasoning here is 100% applicable to the current situation.

When considering potential outcomes, there are two options for belief: the virus is serious or the virus is not serious; and two options for response: be cautious or ignore and dismiss.

Now, if the virus is not as serious as we are being led to believe, then neither response will have a negative outcome. The worst thing that would happen is that we’d expended a little extra effort for no reason. If, however, the virus is serious and we choose to “ignore and dismiss,” there could be millions of resulting deaths, probably including a couple people that you know personally.

With that very short thought experiment, we can see that the only logical reaction to CV is to take precautions as if the worst-case scenario predictions are accurate (even if you don’t really believe they are).

If you’re 25 and you say, “If I get it, I’ll be fine!” Yes, you’re right, but that’s also a revoltingly selfish and shortsighted mindset. Will your mom or grandma be fine when you infect them while you’re asymptomatic? If so, will their friends be okay if it’s passed to them? You really want to avoid a “hindsight is 20/20” type situation here.

Although I have been watching the fluctuating numbers and predictions like some sort of masochistic statistician, I am not going to throw my amateurish (and frankly irrelevant) predictions into the conversation. I have no idea what is going to happen. Really though, none of us do.

The one thing I do know, is Pacific County. I do know how our community members can come together to create something positive — I’ve been on the receiving end of these kindnesses in the past.

Let’s assume that we all decide to take the threat seriously (as we already established is the most sensible step forward). What can we do to support each other when we aren’t even supposed to be in the same room?

Well, young and healthy people have a responsibility here whether we like it or not. Do you have an elderly neighbor with no close family? Leave a note on their door with your phone number in case they need your help. Then, if they call, follow through.

Clean and disinfect your octogenarian grandmother’s home (and be careful!).

Create a Facebook group or chat conversation with your close neighbors. Keep each other informed. Ask for help if you need it.

Even a simple phone call to someone can make a huge difference to morale. It’s not easy being vulnerable and scared, being isolated is a magnifier of those anxieties.

The key point is to remember that this is not about you. It’s not about me. Don’t be the one to inadvertently delivers a death sentence because you think not washing your hands is some sort of silent protest against Jay Inslee. Now is a time to come together (figuratively). We can get back to arguing when we all make it through to the other side.

North Pacific County resident Allie Bair is a columnist for the Chinook Observer.

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