Ebola and Unbounded Risks

The Ebola virus is probably the biggest news story in the world right now. Not because it takes up the most bandwidth — it’s often drowned out by the Mideast conflict, Russia-Ukraine or the stock market. And not because it’s the biggest current threat to most people on the planet. It isn’t.

It’s the biggest news story because there is a potentially unbounded risk.

When Probability Is Fairly Meaningless

Whenever a potentially unbounded risk exists, you should do everything you can to avoid or mitigate it. On an individual level, one example would be buying a “dream house” with a buried oil tank in the yard. Chances are, you’ll be fine and removal will cost a few thousand or at most a few tens of thousands of dollars — and you’ll gain a dream house for a below-market price. But there is a tiny-yet-non-zero chance that you’ll strike calamity and end up spending $500,000+ to remove something from the ground that originally came from the ground anyway.

This is not a risk you want to take, and most real estate buyers have realized this by now, which is why you can’t sell a house with a buried oil tank.

The Window of Unscripted Outcomes

So, back to Ebola.

Everything is probably going to work out over the next several months. World health authorities probably have the capabilities to contain the virus, they will chase it down wherever it pops up or transfers via airplane, and as a bonus we’ll finally develop a vaccine or cure for this terrible disease.

In the meantime, though, the sharply increasing number of cases doesn’t paint an optimistic short-term forecast. And as we wait for a long-term positive outcome, there is a tiny-yet-non-zero chance that something will happen that is not in the script.

That is the unbounded risk.

A Decent Strategy: Overreact and Look Silly

Revolutionary moments, not incremental moments, are what direct the course of history. The leap, the shift, the eureka. It’s often good (from our perspective) when humans make these leaps: discovering fire, agriculture, gravity, antibiotics. It’s not always so good (again, from our perspective) when organisms like bacteria and viruses do it.

In this case, with Ebola, we should do everything we can to avoid an unscripted outcome, which probably means doing things that look like overreacting now. Back in March 2014, it would have looked like overreacting to speed up development of promising treatments, get more health experts to the center of the epidemic, and get more protective supplies to health workers, but those steps would have been exactly what was needed. No one doing those things would have gotten enough credit for stopping a disaster, but the point is not getting credit. The point is stopping an unbounded risk, which is almost always worthwhile.

It’s much better to overreact early than to try to stop a rainstorm with a tarp later.