COVID-19 and the Butterfield Effect

The deadly pandemic is being contained—so why are we doing all of these mitigation efforts? It’s a mystery!
May 4, 2020
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Rendering of the novel coronavirus being destroyed by disinfectant. (Shutterstock)

We all knew this was going to happen. At the very beginning of our vast national social-distancing experiment, we said that we would know it was working if it all seemed like an overreaction.

This is the great paradox of any preventive measure. If it works, it prevents the danger that makes it necessary—which, in turn, allows people to be complacent and dismissive about that danger. There’s even a name for this: the Butterfield Effect. It was coined back in the 2000s by James Taranto as a play on the name of New York Times reporter Fox Butterfield and the title of the 2004 film The Butterfly Effect. Taranto was criticizing Butterfield for headlines like “Despite Drop in Crime, an Increase in Inmates,” which failed to consider whether crime was going down precisely because we were putting more criminals in prison.

The Butterfield Effect refers to any argument that presents a cause-and-effect relationship—more criminals in prison causes crime rates to go down—as if it were a paradox.

You can see where I’m going with this. We’re already starting to see a lot of arguments along the lines of “Despite Drop in COVID-19 Cases, Lockdowns Continue.”

Heather Mac Donald is back, for example, complaining that, “Even as evidence keeps mounting that the virus is magnitudes less deadly than was advertised, the public health professionals are hardening their economy-killing prescriptions, rather than loosening them.”

Yes, this is the same Heather Mac Donald who scoffed back on March 13 that “the number of cases in most afflicted countries is paltry,” and projected that “even assuming that coronavirus deaths in the United States increase by a factor of one thousand over the year, the resulting deaths would only outnumber annual traffic deaths by 2,200.” She is one who is off by at least one order of magnitude. Six weeks later—not “over the year,” but after six weeks—the number of COVID-19 deaths outnumbers annual traffic deaths by more than 22,000.

And yet this is the result she now claims as vindication that discredits the shutdowns.

None of this makes sense as a logical, consistent argument. It makes sense only when you realize that now, when we’re just past the peak death rate in most places, the people who denied the threat in the first place feel it has receded enough for them to find a receptive audience again.

Similarly, Kimberley Strassel accuses Democrats and public health officials of “moving the goalposts” on the shutdowns, artificially extending them now that we are past the peak of deaths—as if the goal is to remain just at the edge of disaster. Again, this is an argument that finds an audience only because the shutdowns worked well enough to make people feel complacent again.

The concern with opening up, of course, is that without social distancing, this disease tends to spread geometrically. Over less than a month, it exploded from the “paltry” number skeptics scoffed at to thousands of deaths per day. The obvious worry is that if we relax preventive measures while we’re still near the peak, the disease will take off again from a much higher base level.

But let’s be clear about one thing: Hardly anyone is actually against reopening the economy—and nobody who is in power advocates against it. (I am sure you will find radical environmentalists who regard the mass shutdown of human activity as their ideal.) Many places are already reopening in phases or announcing their plans to do so. The only disagreement is over the details of when we reopen, how, and how much.

But behind these Butterfield Effect complaints is the notion that some shadowy “they” is plotting to maintain the lockdowns forever. For Strassel, it’s a partisan plot: “Mrs. Pelosi sees in this moment a political opportunity to pin the blame for the natural course of a disease on the White House.” Heather Mac Donald pins it on the Deep State: “The public health establishment is fighting desperately to maintain this degree of hysteria in the populace, in order to prolong its newfound power over almost every aspect of American life.”

Wake up, sheeple!

In reality, Democratic governors have been busy setting rules for reopening. I think the criteria set by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo are essentially correct: Reopening will happen so long as intensive-care units are being used at levels below 70 percent and new cases do not resume geometric upward growth. And despite talk about “moving the goalposts,” this is precisely the approach originally envisioned. (See, for example, the highly influential Imperial College report, which envisioned lockdowns that would be lifted and reimposed based on precisely this kind of target.)

Given that reopening was the plan all along, what are the Butterfield Effect complaints really about? This is a fallback position, an attempt by COVID-19 skeptics to save face after being proven so spectacularly wrong in their initial predictions. It’s a way of casting themselves as the heroes in this narrative again, as the bold liberators striking a blow against “authoritarian” leaders.

The prize for freedom-fighter cosplay probably has to go to Dennis Prager, who compared himself to Rosa Parks because he doesn’t wear a mask outdoors. But in most places, no one is legally required to wear a mask outdoors, so his big act of civil disobedience is to not violate the law. As with the protests to end the shutdowns, this is an easy kind of activism, because it demands that we do what we were already planning to do anyway.

But all of this is far behind the curve. The question now is not about reopening but about instituting a test-and-trace system that allows us to reopen while still containing the virus.

If we do that successfully, then I am sure the Butterfield Effect will kick in once again, and these same people will ponder the paradox of why we’re doing all of this intrusive testing and tracing when people are free to go to shops and restaurants.