I recently saw a
of TV journalists and politicians confidently
saying that the coronavirus would be no worse than the flu. What
struck me about it was not just how mistaken they seemed, but how
daring. How could they feel safe saying such things?
The answer, I realized, is that they didn't think they could get
caught. They didn't realize there was any danger in making false
predictions. These people constantly make false predictions, and
get away with it, because the things they make predictions about
either have mushy enough outcomes that they can bluster their way
out of trouble, or happen so far in the future that few remember
what they said.
An epidemic is different. It falsifies your predictions rapidly and
But epidemics are rare enough that these people clearly
didn't realize this was even a possibility. Instead they just
continued to use their ordinary m.o., which, as the epidemic has
made clear, is to talk confidently about things they don't
An event like this is thus a uniquely powerful way of taking people's
measure. As Warren Buffett said, "It's only when the tide goes out
that you learn who's been swimming naked." And the tide has just
gone out like never before.
Now that we've seen the results, let's remember what we saw, because
this is the most accurate test of credibility we're ever likely to have. I hope.