Why You Can’t Win Arguments About COVID-19


And Why It’s Better to Argue With Yourself…

By Justin Choi

A deadly illness makes the zoonotic leap from a bat to a human. It shuts down schools, then entire cities, and eventually the entire world. Society sets up makeshift hospitals. We dig mass graves. Infection spreads, prompting mass social distancing initiatives and the need for martial law, which remains in effect for 18 months until a vaccine is finally produced.

This isn’t COVID-19. It’s the movie “Contagion,” and it was released in 2011. My point here isn’t to marvel at the eerie similarities, but rather to make a simple point: The novel coronavirus was foreseeable.

History has provided plenty of case studies, as recently as the devastating Spanish Flu a century ago. Bill Gates foretold COVID-19’s coming in his now infamous Ted Talk, and he laid out the needed steps to thwart it. And he wasn’t the only one. Yet here we sit – quarantined, without the testing, protocols, and plan to get back to some form of normal. Despite the entire world being focused on the same problem, we are still debating what is fact and what is not.

This isn’t a failure of science or even politics. It’s a failing of human psychology – and one we can learn from to make better decisions in our own lives.

Why Human Psychology Fails Us

The level of global flat-footedness exposed by COVID-19 is particularly spectacular due to the intersection of human biases at which this pandemic sits – from confirmation bias to normalcy bias, right down to baser challenges like cultural insensitivity and ageism.

In seeking to explain the desperation with which we’ve clung to so many of our biases in the face of COVID-19, argumentative theory provides an explanation: that the goal of reasoning is not to pursue truth. Rather, reasoning seeks only to win arguments. In other words, argumentative theory explains why reasoning – and seemingly reasonable people – so often journey down irrational paths, as we’ve seen throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Argumentative theory also helps explain why we rely on an arsenal of biases to ward off pesky facts and reinterpret them to our liking – even to extreme degrees.

Bias Is the Gateway Drug to Conspiracy Theories

Normalcy bias is inherent in all of us. It’s the idea that life will go on in the future as it has in the past – that the likelihood of any given potential disaster, whether climatological or viral, would pale in comparison to the likelihood that tomorrow will be similar to yesterday. Here in the U.S., normalcy bias started to rear its head early when we first heard of the novel coronavirus wreaking havoc in China. We believed that because something went one way in the past, it would go the same way the next time. MERS, SARS, swine flu – these prior pandemics were observed from afar and proved of little consequence within the U.S. But COVID-19 was radically different, and the level of response in China demonstrated that difference clearly. China locked down a city, and then a province – one with the same number of people as my home state of California. And then the entire country. If China was willing to stall its economy, we all should have immediately realized we were dealing with something serious, even if Western media was downplaying the lockdowns with “you should be more worried about the flu” headlines.

But of course, beneath the normalcy bias was a different form of bias: cultural bias. The alarms raised by some were greeted with dismissive remarks, some of them downright hostile. COVID-19, the cultural bias told us, was something foreign – that perhaps something specific to the Communist leadership or the cultural differences was a contributing cause to the situation. The net effect was that what was clearly an alarming warning of what was to come was ignored.

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