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Follow Decision Theory!

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Back in January, I wrote that there's no such thing as "following the science" -- that scientists and medical experts "aren't experts in ethical or rational decision-making. Their expertise merely concerns the descriptive facts, providing the essential inputs to rational decision-making, but not what to do with those inputs."It's worth additionally emphasizing that this question of how to convert information into rational decisions is not something about which academic experts are entirely at sea. On the contrary, there's a well-developed academic subfield of decision theory which tells us how to balance considerations of risk and reward in a rational manner.  The key concept here is expected value, which involves multiplying (the value of) each possible outcome by its probability.  For example, we know that (all else equal) we should not accept a 50% chance of causing 10 extra deaths for the sake of a 1% chance of averting 100 deaths, for the latter's expected value (one death averted) does not outweigh the former's expected cost (5 extra deaths).Now, my central complaint throughout the pandemic has been that policy-makers and institutions like the FDA (and their European equivalents) have evidently not been guided by any sort of cost-benefit analysis or the most basic principles of decision theory.  As Govind Persad put it, withholding vaccines during a pandemic is like withdrawing the service ladder from a subway tunnel for a safety check, while someone is stuck in the tunnel.  The tiny risk of harm from the vaccine is completely dwarfed by the risk posed by remaining vulnerable to COVID-19.  Prioritizing the former risk over the latter thus reveals a shocking kind of innumeracy and normative ignorance on the part of these policy-makers.Trump's flouting of established scientific expertise deplorably caused many unnecessary deaths.  But the same can be said of the broader medical establishment's flouting of. . .

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