Humility was missing in action as the coronavirus pandemic invaded the U.S.
Note: This piece was originally published in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
On Sept. 28, 1918, 200,000 people jammed Philadelphia’s streets to enjoy the Liberty Loan Drive Parade. We know that a “deluge of death” from influenza followed, but fewer know about the decision that came before the parade.
Flu outbreaks had hit a Kansas army base in March 1918, influenza then roared throughout Europe. A Boston military parade on Sept. 3 spread the flu throughout New England. Two days before the Philadelphia parade was to begin, flu outbreaks consumed nearby army camps in New Jersey and Maryland.
Against this backdrop, Philadelphia officials faced this question on Sept. 27: Does the parade proceed tomorrow? Under pressure to meet bond quotas and hoping to avoid public panic, they let the parade go forward.
Three days later every Philadelphia hospital bed was filled; thousands died within a week.
This is just one of many critical decisions that history recognizes as tragic.
In the early morning hours of Dec. 7, 1941, radar operators in Hawaii saw on their screen what proved to be Japanese planes headed to Pearl Harbor. But a superior dismissed the report, deciding the radar showed only a flight of American bombers en route from San Francisco.
A generation later in December 1963, Lyndon Johnson decided he could not be called the president who “lost Vietnam,” so plans for withdrawing American troops were shelved.
In 2003, President George W. Bush decided to invade Iraq, leading to incalculable and continuing losses.
And now we are dealing with the aftermath of decisions a year ago to dismiss COVID-19 as irrelevant to the United States. Despite years of warnings about pandemics and their catastrophic consequences, our most senior leaders mimicked Philadelphia officials a century ago and played down the risks to public health.
As Dr. Anthony Fauci told Jake Tapper on Easter about events in January and February of 2020, “There was a lot of pushback about shutting things down back then.”
We’ve seen what happened next.
The question is, why do smart people make terrible decisions?
Dr. Robert Burton’s 2008 book captures the problem in its title: “On Being Certain – Believing You Are Right Even When You’re Not.” Burton describes how processes distinct from reason create a feeling of certainty that make it difficult to let go of opinions, even in the face of compelling contradictory evidence. You can recognize this trait in people about whom it can be said: not always right, but never in doubt.
Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman’s 2011 best seller, “Thinking, Fast and Slow,” explains how shortcuts in thinking, “heuristics,” lead us astray. The “affect” heuristic, for example, avoids the mental work needed to answer a difficult question by substituting instead the simpler query, “Do I like this?”
Melding the two authors’ works together, a decisionmaker faced with a tough choice might ask himself, “Does this answer make me feel good?”
That is not how we would like to believe our leaders make decisions, but the concept does fit with our former president’s emphatic reliance on gut instincts over others’ expertise.
A better way is found through embracing one of the virtues, namely humility.
Humility brings to the forefront of decision-making the idea that you might be wrong. Keeping this in mind enables — indeed it requires — one to consider a broad range of possibilities vs. just the choice that feels good. The renowned federal Judge Learned Hand urged that the phrase, “Think that ye may be mistaken,” be inscribed on schools, churches, court houses and every legislature.
As applied to our COVID-19 pandemic, imagine if our senior leaders had asked themselves in January and February of last year, “But what if we are wrong?”
Many pandemic war games would have given them the answer, and it would have been terrifying.
The past is prologue. As our leaders contemplate our next steps, I hope they find the humility to ask themselves, “What if we are wrong.”