No, a 1981 Novel Didn’t Predict Coronavirus (But Here’s Why You Think it Did)
As COVID-19 doomsday theories spread faster than the virus itself, it’s important for us to understand the ways in which our reasoning is susceptible to error.
As the coronavirus pandemic postpones our sports, closes our offices, and cancels our travel plans, the past seven days have been a chilling reminder of how quickly a global health crisis can make a profound impact on our daily lives. Unfortunately, inseparably wedged between the C.D.C. updates and the presidential addresses has been a dangerous slew of misinformation and conspiracy theories.
While confronting (and correcting) misinformation is a formidable challenge, at least we have trusted health organizations and government agencies to point the concerned public to. Unsure if what you just read on Twitter is reliable? Head to the C.D.C. website. A friend offers new information about the virus? Respond with four little words: cite your sources, (please).
But conspiracy theories? Those are tougher to eradicate. Take, for instance, the doomsday proclamations from yesteryear that have been circulating the internet as proof that people — or supernatural forces — predicted the COVID-19 pandemic. Like the 1981 science fiction thriller by Dean Koontz, that describes a deadly disease called the “Wuhan-400.” Or psychic Sylvia Browne who, more than a decade ago, predicted a “pneumonia-like illness” would spread throughout the globe in 2020. Or the Bible, which lists a fatal epidemic as one of four signs of the apocalypse. Or, well, The Simpsons.
Frankly, it’s easy to get drawn into these stories and treat them as evidence that the coming of this pandemic was foretold to us. Even those that laugh them off still tend to spread the stories to others, while quietly thinking to themselves, but what if?
Here’s the good news: there’s a very simple explanation as to why these stories are so easy to believe. And it has to do with how our minds process the world — and the flaws therein.
Psychologists informally refer to this phenomenon as The Texas Sharpshooter Fallacy, named after the following analogy: suppose you were to shoot at the side of a barn haphazardly. After you finished, you’d have a pretty random smattering of hits. But suppose you approached the barn, found the tightest cluster of hits — and proceeded to draw the bullseye around that cluster. You’d proclaim yourself a sharpshooter! (But of course, you are not.)
This analogy adeptly summarizes how we can be so easily tricked into believing those “look, it came true!” stories. To paraphrase Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman, our minds long to apply order and cohesion to randomness. And we’re quick to overemphasize similarities while downplaying the differences. Like that 1981 novel? The book explains that “Wuhan-400”: cannot live outside of a human for longer than one minute; cannot contaminate objects; and kills every human that comes into contact with it. None of these claims accurately describe COVID-19; but our minds are quick to highlight what is similar, while discounting what isn’t.
This is far from the first time we’ve indulged fantasy forecasts. In 1898, Morgan Robertson wrote a book called Futility, which told the story of a grand, “unsinkable” ocean-liner (named Titan) hitting an iceberg and sinking off the coast of Newfoundland — a full fourteen years before the Titanic sank in the same place. Many of the Titan’s measurements (like the ship’s capacity, length, and lifeboat count) were eerily similar to Titanic’s. But what’s left out of this story: the author had extensive knowledge of maritime operations and nautical regulations, which allowed him to project reasonably accurate specs for a large ocean-liner. Oh, and in the book, the protagonist slays a polar bear to rescue a child — one of the many differences left out in the retelling of this paranormal pronouncement.
The Texas Sharpshooter Fallacy shares similarities to other mental processing errors, such as confirmation bias, and apophenia — a lesser popularized bias that describes our tendency to mistakenly apply meaning or connections to coincidences and unrelated items.
For example, after the tragedy of Kobe Bryant’s fatal helicopter accident earlier this year, remember the reports of meaningful stat lines and game scores that were posted? Like this one, during a Celtics/Lakers game in February, in which the score and game clock happened to land on significant numbers from Kobe’s life (including his 81-point game, and the jersey numbers he and his daughter wore). Nice sentiments, yes, but ultimately these are examples of our minds applying meaning to coincidence. With so many numbers, random patterns are inevitable. With so many stories, coincidences are inevitable. But our minds hate randomness. So we draw the bullseye in after.
Now, you may be saying to yourself, so what? These predictions are harmless; it’s fun to believe that they could be true. But remember, there are many more threatening conspiracy theories currently circulating the internet about this pandemic. A lot of them are xenophobic, hateful, or even dangerous. And that twinge of “but what if?” you feel about the doomsday predictions? That’s where conspiracy theories also take foothold in your mind. It’s those same faulty heuristics — those biases described above — that can influence us to believe almost any explanation so long as it loosely fits the facts. It’s those biases that encourage us to see patterns that aren’t really there — especially in matters we feel are beyond our control.
Let me be clear: I’m not suggesting that entertaining doomsday predictions is a gateway to believing more dangerous conspiracies. But failing to understand our minds’ propensity to assign unsound causations, or its willingness to discount important details in favor of a few coincidental correlations — that is dangerous.
As we enact the appropriate measures to keep this virus from spreading, let’s also consider the perils that exist in how we spread information — something that’s infectious in its own right, and increasingly difficult to slow down in our ever-connected world.