Disaster risks: Think ahead

4 Jun 2021

An interview with Dr. Nikil Mukerji, philosopher, about risk prevention.

Philosophy has an important contribution to make in a crisis, says Nikil Mukerji. (Photo: Lara Witossek)

Dr. Nikil Mukerji firmly believes it’s not only in a pandemic that philosophical risk researchers are needed. Even beyond major crises, risk assessment must be incorporated into political decision-making. Mukerji is the Academic Director of the executive degree program on philosophy, politics and economics (PPW) and describes himself as an academic skeptic. Last year, he co-wrote a book with Adriano Mannino called “Covid-19: Was in der Krise zählt. Über Philosophie in Echtzeit” (which translates as “Covid-19: What Matters in a Crisis. On Philosophy in Real Time”). While the book became a bestseller, it went largely unnoticed that Mukerji won the German Rock Prize of the German Pop Foundation with his band “Spacemueller.” With songs they wrote and recorded before the pandemic hit. “It’s just always good,” says Mukerji, “to have an expert in disaster ethics around who’ll pay attention to the risk of us running out of music in a pandemic…”

You wrote your book on the coronavirus pandemic in just one week. That’s fast. How did you manage it?

By collating existing texts. After all, as disaster ethicists, we’d already been looking at Covid-19 since January 2020 and had been warning about it. But our contributions didn’t make it into the media, for the most part. People were skeptical. Some accused us of scaremongering.

When the book came out, it became a bestseller.
Yes, when it was already too late for effective risk prevention and all that was left was to manage the crisis...

So that’s why you recommend “thinking ahead” in your book.

Exactly. We say you shouldn’t wait for disaster risks to strike; you should think ahead. And consider what you can do to keep yourself safe or to minimize the scale of disasters should they occur.

What can you do in your role as a philosophical risk researcher?

During the pandemic, the impression that’s been created is that virologists and epidemiologists are the only experts who should have their voices heard in this crisis. But philosophy has an important contribution to make, too: Epistemology helps with interpreting scientific judgments, and decision theory and ethics bring all these judgments together and make it possible, in turn, to decide on what actions to take.

Do you really need to understand decision theory to react quickly and adequately in a crisis?

You should at least understand the basic principles of decision theory. For example, any reasonable decision theory must include a principle of risk mitigation. To do that, you need to consider, at least, the worst case scenario and ask how likely it is to occur and how bad it would be. And you also need to understand the paradoxes that characterize good decision-making: If, for instance, you incur costs to rule out risks, it may look as if you’re throwing money out the window — the well-known prevention paradox.

You put forward a strong proposition for dealing with the pandemic ...

We’re only saying what is common sense in countries that have made it through the crisis well so far: You have to react early and you have to respond decisively. Then you’ll do better in every respect. In our book, we call this strategy “containment.” Today it’s known as “NoCovid.”

Could such a strategy have persuaded people as early as last February? Without seeing those memorable images from Italy?

I think so. But what was happening in Wuhan would have to have been portrayed in a much more hard-hitting way. But, unfortunately, the media failed in doing this, in my view.

How do you arrive at your forecasts?

We don’t actually make forecasts. Instead, we think through scenarios and conditional probabilities. To do that, we ask: What might conceivably happen? And how likely is it to happen? And if necessary: What is the best way to mitigate the bad scenarios, and how expensive would that be? Can I give you an example that’s also in the book?

Last spring, we asked how vaccination coverage could be achieved throughout the population, and identified three conditions: First, at least one vaccine must successfully get through scientific trials. Second, it must be produced. Third, it must be administered to the population. What can go wrong there? Every step. So, they should have paid attention to expanding manufacturing capacities early on. But they didn’t. The EU focused largely on promoting step one and ignored the question of production. This is exactly the scenario we warned about in the book a year ago. The next bottleneck is administering the vaccine. We risk the next mistake happening here. Once there is enough vaccine, it may be that we don’t get the vaccine delivered as soon as possible.

Isn’t it a bit unreasonable to fixate so much on risks?

I’m not saying you should avoid all risks. I’m just saying you should mitigate them if the potential for damage is high and the cost of mitigating them is low. A skydiver, for example, is no chicken—not even if they meticulously check that their parachute’s working before they jump. That’s just common sense. Actually, I often advocate taking certain risks. When the Federal Health Minister decided to hold AstraZeneca vaccinations because of very rare potential side effects, I advocated continuing to vaccinate with it. It was wrong to halt vaccinations, because the risk of suffering the extremely rare side effects from the vaccine was many orders of magnitude less than the very substantial risk to many people that is associated with the Covid infection itself.

So you yourself don’t fear risks any more than other people do?

No, I just avoid irrational risks. For instance, I never tailgate when I’m driving. You don’t achieve anything by doing that anyway. And in the worst case, you can cause extreme damage.

Before the pandemic, as a researcher you also dealt with conspiracy theories. How does that relate to risk research?

Proponents of conspiracy theories can be a disaster risk in themselves. We see that in the current situation. There are people who are seduced by such theories and are refusing to get vaccinated. If there’s too many of them, the consequence is that the pandemic cannot be stopped soon and the scale of the disaster will grow.

Some of the serious media outlets have now introduced fact checking. But, is that the right way to take the wind out of the sails of conspiracy theorists?

Fact checking can be used to sensitize people who are at risk of falling for conspiracy theories. But it’s not just about dispelling conspiracy theories. Some of them do turn out to be true. Just think of Watergate or the NSA scandal, for example. If a conspiracy theory is true, society should know about it. Fact checking can be helpful here, too.

The interview was held at the beginning of March 2021.

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