Now seems like as good a time as any to discuss a key realisation that has helped me to make sense of the world. I’ve noticed that people don’t always seem to distinguish between ‘The General’ and ‘The Specific’. So what? Well, it can be an important distinction. Let me try to explain.
I sometimes take issue with certain campaigns because they tend to make a lot of sweeping statements that are not always easy to apply in reality. Take the recent environmental arguments about air travel, for example.
I’m not denying the environmental impact of aviation, IN GENERAL, but I would argue that it has to be balanced against other factors. So, for example, I recently attended a conference in Amsterdam – as a researcher, such events are an important part of my ‘industry’. Maybe I shouldn’t have attended at all but, I’m not interested in debating that point here. I was invited to give a talk to promote our research and so I went. How should I have travelled there? Flying was the obvious choice (and the one I ultimately went with), but were there any alternatives?
Flying takes 1h20 (plus security etc.) and is pretty cheap. I could have got the train, which involves two changes, takes 10 hours and is a lot more expensive. I could have driven an electric car down to the Eurostar, then driven the rest of the way, but that is simply not practical given the range of my current car or the cost of hiring one with a larger range (plus the Eurostar ticket is expensive and this would have taken even longer). Or I could have taken the ferry, which takes 16 hours and is still more expensive than the flight. I also can’t believe that spending 16 hours on a great big, heavy, dirty, diesel ferry full of people and cars produces less carbon per person than being crammed onto a plane for an hour.
The reality is, there are other factors to consider. First, I am using public money, so I have a responsibility to get there as cheaply as possible. Second, I have to consider the travel time, because any time I spend travelling, I am not working. Third, I have to think about how tired I will be when I arrive, as I have to do a presentation to hundreds of people. Finally, there are the additional food and accommodation costs that a longer journey incurs…
So yes, IN GENERAL, aviation is bad, but on this SPECIFIC trip…?
This is where it becomes relevant to our current predicament, but let me give you another example first.
The NHS currently recommends that pregnant women are induced if they reach seven days past their due date, less than the fourteen days that were recommended previously. We are told that this halves the risk to the baby, and that is entirely true, but let’s take a closer look at the figures.
According to the NHS, the risk of stillbirth at 14 days overdue is 0.16%, while the risk after 7 days is 0.07%. Yes, the risk is halved, but from one very small number to an even smaller one (both around 1 in 1,000). If you, as a couple, decide not to induce in your SPECIFIC scenario, then the risk to you is negligible and you might find it acceptable to avoid induction for as long as possible. But the NHS has to look at the big picture for the GENERAL population. That risk multiplied across all the women who give birth across the whole country each year could mean thousands of dead babies! So, of course, the NHS is going to look at the risk differently.
Something similar applies to the coronavirus. As a 30-something-year-old man, I am not at great risk. Even if I catch the virus, it is unlikely to be life-threatening for me SPECIFICALLY, so I might be tempted to ignore government advice. The risk of death for the under-40s is around 0.2% (or 1 in 500). But the government has to look at the GENERAL situation, the big picture. They have to consider the risk across the population and the chance of infecting others, including the over-70s who have an 8% (nearly 1 in 12) chance of dying if they catch it. The risk changes dramatically based on your perspective.
I know that these are complicated issues and that people don’t like grey areas, but the real world is rarely black and white. Just be aware that you only see the world from a certain point of view. Try to have a sense of perspective, follow government instructions to help slow the spread of this virus and let’s all be calm, patient and considerate of one another during this difficult time.