Avalanches, Pandemics and Democracy

by | October 26, 2020

On Sunday February 19, 2012, a feather-like snow crystal standing on end, less than a centimeter tall and buried under three feet of newly fallen snow, collapsed.

Instantaneously millions of other snow crystals in that same thin layer, no longer able to support the load of the snow above, also collapsed, causing a slab containing 6,000 cubic meters of snow to break loose and crash down the slope. The mass of snow quickly accelerated, churning into a boiling cloud traveling up to 65 mph.

The five skiers in its path had no chance to escape. It pinned one against a tree, pounding him relentlessly as it passed, and swept the other four down the slope, tossing them like rag dolls, slamming them against trees and packing their mouths with snow. When the avalanche finally came to rest 2,500 feet below, all were buried. Two were rescued by other members of the original group of sixteen who had taken a safer descent route. The other three were dead from some combination of trauma and asphyxiation.

The fragile, deadly layer of snow was invisible to the skiers. Possibly some in the group suspected it was there because they had tracked the weather and knew the calm, dry period preceding the storm was conducive to forming such lethal crystals. Possibly they refused to believe the layer was sensitive enough to react to the weight of a skier. Possibly others had a gut feeling they were in dangerous terrain but, enthralled by the allure of deep, untracked powder, followed the lead of others and didn’t speak up. Possibly some didn’t suspect there was any risk at all. Possibly some simply knew that they couldn’t perfectly predict the outcome of skiing the slope, but given the dire consequence took a safer line. Each skier had a different view of the risk level that morning, or perhaps didn’t have a view at all. Whatever the reason, the group failed to establish a final, widely shared, decisive assessment of the risk. It was a deadly mistake.

As a backcountry skier it’s impossible to predict with 100% accuracy that you or a companion will not trigger an avalanche. There are myriad variables that go into the stability of snow. Snow can weaken, or the weather can change in the span of a few hours, radically changing the probability that a skier could trigger an avalanche. Across a hundred backcountry skiers, there is rarely complete consensus on what it would take to trigger an avalanche on any given slope, or when it is safe to ski any given slope. And when it comes down to that final go/no-go decision, the only definitive answer is the binary event of an avalanche – and by then, if you’re wrong, it’s too late.

Sound familiar?

SARS-CoV-2 is invisible. It can live in a human who may look and feel perfectly healthy. By the time you can visually observe that you are at risk of getting infected by the virus, it may be too late. Once infected, maybe you’ll survive, like 37.6 million people infected globally who survived. Or maybe, like almost 1.1 million others, you won’t.

Risk is rarely easy to measure. Scientists are struggling across the globe to monitor, map and forecast where Covid outbreaks will occur and how many people may die. Models are being developed and deployed to understand the effectiveness and impacts of non-pharmaceutical interventions and policies (closures, shutdowns, etc.) to protect populations and stem the spread of the pandemic. And today, with cases on the rise in many countries, governments struggle to find the right balance of testing, tracing, closures, shutdowns and lockdowns. The economic consequences can be devastating if closures are too strict. The health consequences are devastating if policies are not strict enough.

Outcomes vary dramatically across nations. Peru imposed strict policies but struggled with high case and death rates. Sweden is the leading example of a country with few strict non-pharmaceutical interventions yet fewer deaths per 100,000 people than in the U.S. Taiwan tops the charts with one of the lowest levels of closures and remarkably low rates of Covid. In the U.S., state-level incidence and mortality rates vary widely amidst a hodgepodge of closures, lockdowns, and other non-pharmaceutical interventions. Correlations abound that are being construed to support or oppose various interventions. Some find evidence of correlations between mask orders and higher incidence of Covid and have taken the view that mask wearing worsens the spread of the disease. Others point to correlations that support mask wearing as an important intervention.

What’s going on here?

The wild card is human behavior. It’s well-known that as a species we are wholly unable to consistently and accurately judge risk. As described by Marilynne Robinson in a conversation with Ezra Klein, “we are trapped by our primitive notion of causality.” In other words, when it comes to an accurate assessment of reality, we are too often one sandwich short of a picnic.

No backcountry skier will ever have the kind of x-ray vision and intuitive grasp of physics to scan a mountain slope and know with certainty that a slope will avalanche under a skier’s weight. No mortal can scan the town as they leave the house and know where they will encounter a super spreader. Yet people still ski backcountry slopes, introducing some probability into their life of getting caught in an avalanche; and people still socialize in groups, go to bars, or otherwise increase their probability of being exposed to SARS-CoV-2.

The reason is because humans have needs, whether to ski powder, eat at a restaurant, or something more fundamental like procuring food and being near loved ones. In the fulfillment of those needs, when we are faced with assessing risk amidst daunting levels of complexity, fraught with unknown variables and indeterminable consequences, we resort to simple rule-making procedures, or heuristics, to make the go/no-go decision easier.

For accidents involving avalanches, Ian McCammon identified four such factors that can trap us into making bad decisions. We are most comfortable with the familiar. We seek social proof by mimicking the behavior of others in our close social circles. We are biased by commitment, finding it difficult to change course despite new information. And we more aggressively pursue our needs as restrictions and constraints are placed on our freedoms and reduce the options available to us. Such heuristics often have very little to do with the actual risk level.

As a result, risk assessment is highly individual. This is a problem when it comes to how policymakers seek to guide pandemic behavior to balance economic and health outcomes. Compounding this challenge is our politics.

Whether it’s closures or masks or even a belief in the pandemic itself, what you believe and what you see in the data seems to be defined by your political party. One side sees opportunity to use the pandemic to make the President look bad. The other appears willing to bend science and skew data to make them look good.

This, to me, is bizarre. The last I checked, Republicans and Democrats were not at war over whether a buried layer of feathery snow crystals can be deadly or not. People who teach avalanche courses teach you the same material regardless of their, or your, political affiliation.

Again, what’s going on here?

An intriguing interview with Thomas Friedman gave me a clue. It’s about trust. And dignity. It’s about fear. And humiliation. These are the most powerful emotions. It is natural to fear, especially during a pandemic. We fear sickness, death, loss of jobs and the roof over our heads and loss of freedoms. In a state of fear, our senses are heightened; the world is no longer safe. Is “the other side” out to get us? Do they want my job, my business, my freedom, my dignity? Behaviors and beliefs that don’t align with ours are threatening. How easy it becomes to humiliate. And how searing the wound thereby inflicted. Too much humiliation, too little dignity, a loss of trust, and we burn down our democracy.

Why tear apart the very house built by our forefathers to protect cherished freedoms, the most brilliant system of government in the history of the world? Friedman points out that the only thing worse than a one-party autocracy is a one-party democracy and that our entire system is built around the notion there will be two parties that fight hard but ultimately compromise.

Yet we now believe the “other side” is evil, un-worthy of compromise.

Marilynne Robinson also said, “If you think another person is evil, you are effectively blinded.” Are we going blind—a self-inflicted inability to empathize with our fellow citizen?

I am a local elected leader – a County Commissioner – in rural Wyoming. In my community, we’ve come a long way and gone through a lot: late March business closures, April-May stay-at-home orders, June re-openings, a July spike in cases, mask orders, an August drop in cases, September school openings, and a recent resurgence and a close call at our nursing home. We’ve debated policies every step of the way. And I have struggled with our responses every step of the way.

Shutdowns, lockdowns, closures, orders, recommendations, partial closures, essential versus non-essential businesses, curbside pickup, alcohol to go, gathering sizes, masks and school re-openings. I’ve tossed and turned many a night, asking myself what is the baseline risk? And how much does each response reduce that risk or cause unintended negative consequences? One study says this; another that. One country, even one county, does this and their local hospitals can’t keep up while another does that and gets along fine.

I have feared for my community, for my wife and children, for my parents, and even for myself. What if I could set aside both my fear of the virus and my fear that health orders are inching us towards a less democratic, less liberal and more autocratic state? Would I then be able to view the pandemic with more balance and sobriety?

I know that I too am trapped “by a primitive notion of causality.” I am susceptible to the kind of heuristic traps described by McCammon. I can fear and close my ears to those who oppose what instinctively feels right to me or to those who support what instinctively feels wrong. But like an avalanche involving a group of skiers where each has their own interpretation of the risk, there is no correct ‘moral’ stance here, just a recognition that amidst the complexity of trying to predict a disaster, we each bring our own assessment of the risk.

Democracy demands that even though we may disagree, we see each other as worthy of respect and that fundamentally, we think well of each other. We are, in the end, all in this together. And accordingly, we need to keep asking, what am I missing or assuming that’s putting you at risk?

Covid has left many of us disoriented, disrupted, and discouraged. But, it will not defeat us, and may even help unite us yet.

My fellow American, I think well of you.

Filed Under: Featured

About the Author

Mark Newcomb is a County Commissioner in Teton County, Wyoming and an economist. He is a former professional climbing and skiing guide, ski patroller and avalanche course instructor. Mark was also a co-owner of Exum Mountain Guides.

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