Negative Proof

April 17th, 2020

Thirty-eight years ago, I was assigned as a section leader in the 173rd Aviation Company in Hanau, West Germany. I was an Army lieutenant back then. I made friends with the company safety officer, whose name I can no longer remember. I do remember having a conversation with the safety guy about OERs (Officer Efficiency Reports). Every year, every military officer got an OER from his or her superior. Part of the OER process required the officer being reviewed to explain in detail what they had accomplished during the last year. Often, it was hard to come up with anything extraordinary. Sometimes, it was hard to think of anything at all. I complained to my friend that I was just trying to do my job, and I really didn’t know what write down for my boss.

My friend shook his head. Then the safety officer told me that in a way I was lucky. He said that I could always find something that I had done: flown X number of missions, trained Y number of pilots, passed Z number of inspections. My friend explained to me that I could always show that I had made something happen. He, on the other hand, had to show that his efforts had prevented something. In his job he had to somehow convince his boss that he had kept something bad from happening. He had to provide a negative proof.

I think about that now with the corona virus crisis in full swing. Our governor in Wisconsin, Tony Evers, just extended the “safer-at-home” rules until May 26th. A lot of people are very unhappy about this. I know I’m not happy. There is already a political backlash on its way. There is a growing sentiment that we don’t need all these rules any more, and that we instead need to get people moving and working again.

Governor Evers, like many other governors is in an unenviable position. He can talk all he wants about how the social distancing and the business/school shutdowns have saved lives. He can tell the residents of Wisconsin repeatedly how the lockdown is stopping the disease from spreading. However, Evers is in a the same situation as my friend, the safety officer. Evers cannot prove that his rules have stopped the disease or saved lives. He cannot point to any particular group of people in the state and say, “You’re alive today because we are following these rules.”

The people who are angry about the extended lockdown can clearly see the downside of the “safer-at-home” policy. Some of them know that they are now unemployed. Some of them know that they cannot go to church. Some of them know that they cannot travel when and where they like. Some of them know that their kids are not getting a school education. These drawbacks are obvious and indisputable.

The advantages of Evers’ policies are not.

This is not the governor’s fault. We, as a people, simply don’t know enough about the virus. We don’t have enough testing to know who is infected, we don’t know how best to track it, and we don’t know how many people will fall ill and/or die. We don’t have a vaccine. There is no cure. We don’t have a clue.

It is very possible that Governor Evers is overreacting, but how can he know for sure? To a certain extent he is guessing, and that is all anyone can do right now. He is erring on the side of caution.

I don’t know if that is the right thing to do. All I know is that I am glad that I don’t have his job.




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