[AKN #70] Dealing with uncertainty or how I am updating my beliefs on the Omicron Variant
LAUGH: Bill Burr on Elvis, LOVE: Are high status people more likely to lie?
I’ve been through a lot since the last time we talked.
Since last Tuesday, I had to sit in a 1 hour and 45 minute Uber to Newark, New Jersey.
A trying time which will undoubtedly become my go to story when I get asked in job interviews to “tell me about a time where you had to overcome a hardship.”
New Jersey gets a lot of flack.
And it should because it unequivocally sucks.
I know what you are thinking right now “oh, but I bet Kevin hasn’t been to Hoboken it’s such a nice up and coming area, let me reach out to him and mention it.”
Save the strain on your pretty little texting fingers because this isn’t one of those opinions I’m open to revisiting.
I was born in New York therefore I have an irrational hatred of New Jersey that transcends my rational brain.
I could try to come up with reasons why I dislike it like “they took the Statue of Liberty from us” or “have you literally talked to anyone who grew up there?”
But in reality, it is a hatred that comes from my lizard brain.
A hatred that is impossible to fix without years of ayahuasca retreats and a wise sherpa who could guide me in releasing the attachment to my ego.
I can hear you now: well if you feel so strongly about this then why didn't you fly out of JFK?
Well you see, I fly with this absolutely garbage airline.
Let’s call them “United Airlines.”
I needed to spend another $200 with them before the end of the year to hit the next tier of airline status.
Unfortunately, United only flies out of New Jersey. Which makes sense. Just like how Satan lives in Hell and not Butte, Montana.
So I was forced to compromise my deeply held convictions because I am a status seeking elite.
But thankfully now that I’ve completed the last trip, I am officially a United Elitist.
Which unlocks the United “Mother Bird option” on flights.
This is where the stewardess gives you a bag of gummy worms upon boarding.
Then you pre-chew the gummy worms and pass it from your mouth into the mouth of three randomly chosen passengers from Economy.
Because at United, they understand that no world class flight experience is complete without a ceremonial display of power and status.
On to the newsletter!
LIVE: Dealing with uncertainty or how I am updating my beliefs on the Omicron Variant
Throughout the pandemic, I have written several pieces on how I am thinking about COVID.
People have found those helpful so I wanted to write a new one now that we have a new variant in the works.
The new Omicron variant deserves our attention and we should monitor the situation on a weekly basis.
It is too new to know anything with a meaningful level of certainty.
This variant is the gateway drug to us understanding the movement from pandemic to endemic (ie: we may need a new version of the vaccine to address either this variant or future variants, future variants will require fast action)
I am going to give you the reasons and sources for how I came to the following conclusions, but I am also going to cover how I got there.
My hope is this post will provide you with the tools to act correctly today, but also the tools to be your own boss so you can do this for yourself over the next few weeks, months, and years.
I will do this by walking you through my two step process for dealing with uncertainty:
STEP 1: Network Intelligence
STEP 2: Synthesize in my own words
STEP 1: NETWORK INTELLIGENCE
Network intelligence is a fancy way of saying “see what smart people think about this subject.”
We have all become amateur epidemiologists and virologists over the last year and a half, but all we are doing is reading and interpreting the opinions of experts.
Which is fine!
In the face of uncertainty, it is always best to default to the person who has spent a decade or more thinking about the problem.
The critical piece here is who you consider an expert.
There is a big difference between an expert and some moron with influence, but we will have to cover that another day.
For now, just start to get more clarity around your list of expert sources and ask yourself how right have they been each step of the way.
My process for soliciting expert feedback starts with the following two sources:
Twitter. Twitter is ahead of the game on all COVID updates. You can find virologists warning us about how bad this was going to be as early as February 2020. Their prescience is both creepy and sad when you consider that we didn’t listen to the people who actually knew what they were talking about thanks to faulty structures of discerning truth.
However, Twitter is not without its faults. The key to COVID Twitter is following the right people. Not the nihilist people who spend their days shouting “SEE told you THEY were wrong” into the void.
Thankfully, people have put together great lists of follows for keeping up on this such as Noah Smith’s COVID follow list. Reading through this Twitter feed every day will get you four weeks ahead of the mainstream COVID news. No joke.
Articles. Smart people are constantly thinking about how they should be adjusting their behaviors in the face of COVID uncertainty. Thankfully, smart people write and distribute their thoughts on the subject as they learn more.
These articles are written in major publications such as the New York Times — which is still the go to major newspaper for finding truth for good reason — as well as independent news sources like Substack.
In my experience, the independent news sources are the ones who break the story first and are able to provide A LOT of detail which would otherwise be edited out of a major newspaper article.
For example, the two best articles I have read on Omicron are on Substack:
Best introduction: New Concerning Variant by Your Local Epidemiologist
Best curation article: The Omicron Situation by Noah Smith
After reading these sources, you will be in the 99.9%ile of understanding the Omicron Variant TODAY.
This will change in the next few weeks as we learn more, but that is why I am leaving you with the breadcrumbs to keep yourself up to date!
STEP 2: SYNTHESIZE IN MY OWN WORDS
Ok great. We read a bunch of stuff and are feeling pretty good about our understanding of the Omicron Variant.
But now comes the critical period. All you have done is read. Now it is time to take it to the next level and write or talk about it.
We don’t really know anything until we put it in our own words.
For example, when I write things down and share them with others I am forced to come to terms with how little I know about the subject.
When I come to a gap in my understanding, I do a lot of anxious Googling to plug the holes in my thought process.
I am not saying you need to write it out (that is a different article), but what I am saying is once you read these articles, you should be texting them to your friends or talking about them in conversation.
This process will do two things. It will:
Deeply embed what you just learned in your mind.
Give you the tools to start questioning the conclusions being drawn by the experts. Once you begin to embody and try to defend the stance that the author takes, people will ask you questions and you will begin to see holes in not only your understanding, but even the expert’s thought process. Suddenly you will find yourself thinking “Oh shit, maybe they are wrong.”
SYNTHESIZING IN MY OWN WORDS IN ACTION…ERR KIND OF
When I outlined this article, I envisioned this section being the part where I show how I combine a series of expert opinions to get my personal answer.
However, I honestly find essentially everything said in the Noah Smith article to be where I fall as well. It is a well researched and reasoned article so sometimes you have to know when you are not really adding anything novel and instead just point people to the best source.
Here are some of the best highlights from that article:
Point 1: Yes, Omicron is extremely worrying.
So why is Omicron worth freaking out about? Two reasons. First, it’s spreading fast, and taking over very quickly from the Delta variant. And second, unlike Delta and other variants, Omicron has evolved a whole suite of mutations that are thought to facilitate evasion of known antibodies, along with some mutations that may make it more transmissible.
I recommend the Trevor Bedford Twitter thread, but especially this tweet.
Point 2: No, this doesn’t mean we’re headed back to March 2020.
Even if Omicron is an escape variant, that does not mean we’re “back to square one” with regards to this pandemic. It’s all a matter of degree. As Katherine J. Wu explains, our bodies develop a very diverse array of defenses against new viruses, and even a variant which evades some of those defenses won’t simply breeze past all of them. And as this paper in Nature shows, it takes many many mutations to fully escape antibodies to existing variants, and there’s also T-cell immunity to contend with. So the vaccination we’ve already done was not wasted, and the immunity we’ve built up is not useless. Booster shots of the existing vaccine will be useful, and we should all get them.
Point 4: Variant-specific booster shots are already in the works.
The obvious approach to an escape variant is to use variant-specific boosters, sort of like we do for flu shots every year.
Meanwhile, as Topol noted in our interview, a pan-Covid “supervaccine” of the type currently being worked on by multiple labs would be even better than having to get Covid shots every 6 months or 1 year. It would allow us to put an end to this pandemic decisively, once and for all.
Updating behaviors in light of new evidence
Given the newest findings above, I am updating my thoughts on COVID from the Delta Variant article and making a few changes to my personal behaviors.
I am getting my booster shot sooner rather than later.
I was holding off on getting the booster given the CDC recommendation discussed here, but I think the data is clear that having a recent injection is a good precautionary measure to take as we deal with the uncertainty of Omicron and future variants.
I am back to checking COVID updates on a daily basis by looking at the Twitter list I highlighted above.
Omicron could turn into something worse — potentially even COVID-22 — and it is important to be on alert.
While I still believe the delta variant appears to be about as dangerous for my use case (in my 30s, fully vaccinated with an mRNA vaccine) as the flu, I now acknowledge that there are virus evolutionary forces at play which makes the ‘tread lightly and keep a low profile’ set of behaviors a good default.
While I am not going to drastically change my lifestyle (ie: I still plan on going out and seeing friends, etc), I am going to be open to revisiting whether or not I should change this behavior pattern as we enter the holidays and more data begins coming in.
As always, I am open to revisiting any and all of these conclusions, but this is where I am at today. But like I said, tomorrow is a different day and I reserve the right to change my opinion if the right data presents itself. As everyone should.
LAUGH: Bill Burr on Elvis
Bill Burr is the master of the rant.
His ability to go on a diatribe about the pettiest shit that bothers him and double down when he is wrong inspires me.
This bit on Elvis being a trail blazer for celebrities and watching a documentary on Elvis with his black wife puts all of his skills on display.
My favorite part is the progression of the argument with his wife, but especially when he salvages a laugh from a really tense situation and insists on taking it one step further.
LOVE: Are high status people more likely to lie?
“Persuasion and the Prestige Paradox” was the most fascinating article I read in the last 6 months.
I highlighted every other sentence since it was packed full of interesting tid bits of information.
Six of my favorite takeaways (emphasis mine):
An increasingly common way in which people argue
Many have discovered an argument hack. They don’t need to argue that something is false. They just need to show that it’s associated with low status. The converse is also true: You don’t need to argue that something is true. You just need to show that it’s associated with high status. And when low status people express the truth, it sometimes becomes high status to lie.
The two paths to persuading others — which has a lot of the same lessons found in Thinking Fast and Thinking Slow
The first type, termed the “central” route, comes from careful and thoughtful consideration of the messages we hear. When the central route is engaged, we actively evaluate the information presented, and try to discern whether or not it’s true.
When the “peripheral” route is engaged, we pay more attention to cues apart from the actual information or content or the message. For example, we might evaluate someone’s argument based on how attractive they are or where they were educated, without considering the actual merits of their message.
When we accept a message through the peripheral route, we tend to be more passive than when we accept a message through the central route.
The central problem with “trusting the experts”
people are typically less motivated to scrutinize a message if the source is considered to be an expert. We interpret the message through the peripheral route.
What you believe is related to your social status and relationship with status
Our social brains process information not only by examining the facts, but also considering the social consequences of what happens to our reputations if we believe something.
The tendency to exhibit preference falsification is strongest amongst people who most care about their social status
In short, people have a mechanism in their minds. It stops them from saying something that could lower their status, even if it’s true. And it propels them to say something that could increase their status, even if it’s false
High status people are more prone to this lapse in judgment due to their thoughts about what others will think of them
High-status people are more preoccupied with how others view them. Which means that educated and/or affluent people may be especially prone to peripheral, as opposed to central, methods of persuasion.
in a fascinating study on the collapse of the Soviet Union, researchers have found that university-educated people were two to three times more likely than high school graduates to say they supported the Communist Party. White-collar professional workers were likewise two to three times more supportive of communist ideology, relative to farm laborers and semi-skilled workers.
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Disclaimer: Opinions expressed are strictly my own. Who else’s would they be?