Discover more from David Friedman’s Substack
My Comments on Reader Comments
on my lab leak post
One commenter linked to a more detailed analysis along the same general lines as mine. It calculated a prior from past evidence of lab leaks and zoonotic infection and included in its calculation some of the more technical points I chose to ignore. Its prior was only .7% but its posterior probability for a lab leak was 89%.
Another commenter responded that all one could say was that we didn’t know the origin and that the knowledge was in any case of no importance to her. I have some sympathy to the latter point — a random individual has very little influence over policies to which the knowledge might be relevant — but one possible relevance to her future decisions comes from the fact that the lab leak theory was strongly rejected by a lot of authoritative voices. If it was nonetheless true, and if there are plausible reasons to believe that the people who rejected it did so for dishonest reasons, she should in the future be reluctant to trust information from such sources. That could be relevant to personal decisions in the future. Of course, she may already be skeptical of such voices, in which case knowing whether they lied this time is not worth much.
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Whether or not the information was useful to her, putting it out may still be useful to me. One of my functions, as I view it, is putting ideas out in the hope that they will spread. The number of people reading my substack is too small to have any significant influence on public policy but ideas they get from my posts and put into general circulation might affect the views of many more.
For one real world example … . In my Price Theory textbook1 I mentioned that one argument for allowing individuals to carry concealed handguns was that it made mugging riskier. Even if the criminal won 99% of the resulting conflicts, one chance in a hundred of being killed might be a high enough price to persuade many muggers to adopt a safer profession. An ex-student of mine coauthored a published article offering statistical evidence for such an effect. That set off both an extended academic debate and a push for laws making it easier for citizens to carry concealed firearms — with the result that, currently, half of the states in the U.S. allow concealed carry without requiring a permit.
Whether the effects are good or bad is something people continue to argue about, but it is at least possible that one paragraph in a not terribly successful economics textbook was part of the reason it happened.