David Heinemeier Hansson

May 22, 2023

But what if you're wrong?

They seemed so sure. First, that the pandemic couldn't possibly have come from a lab rather than a market. Then, that masks – any masks! – would materially retard the spread. Later, that the vaccine would prevent you from getting the virus. Finally, that if you were vaccinated, you couldn't spread the virus. All of that, and plenty more, turned out to be false.

In the years to come, there'll be plenty of time to point fingers. Who, when, where. The main characters are already digging their rhetorical tunnels.

But as we've passed the three-year anniversary for pandemic, I think it's just as important to look inwards. Because not only did most people buy the false claims, they became little foot soldiers in the crusade for them. Including me, for a while.

Start by watching this compilation of false pandemic claims advanced in the US. Then wince – I hope! – as the claims are fortified by vicious attacks on anyone who dared to dissent. It's only been three years, and not even that long for many of the examples in that video, but I'd be surprised if most of those who wore a Team Safety jersey can't recognize fragments of themselves in those clips. I could.

It's a humbling experience to be proven wrong. No wonder most of us would rather cover it up with excuses. I have plenty too.

But you can't learn from your mistakes unless you're willing to recognize them as such. The broad pandemic response – the prolonged lockdowns, the persecution of those unwilling to be vaccinated, the excessive masking of teens and children – were mistakes. Mistakes that'll take years to unwind.

Even worse, though, were the mistakes around how to act when you do not know something for sure. And how could anyone have known much of anything regarding the pandemic for sure. It was called a novel corona virus for a reason.

The essence of science is falsification. If your hypothesis cannot be proven wrong, it's a faith, not a predictor of fact. And falsification requires an adversarial process. We must subject our arguments to counterarguments, our past findings to new findings.

But that's not what we did during the pandemic. The official, and frighteningly uniform, response was to haunt and harass anyone who dared attempt falsification. We sacrificed the process of science to early, unproven, and ultimately false guesses at what was really what.

In addition to a challenging health crisis, the pandemic doubled as a grand intellectual test, and most of us failed it. Not all, but most. If you want to be better prepared for the next test, and I guarantee you there'll be plenty more, you better begin studying now.

Start by asking yourself this question more often: But what if I'm wrong?

About David Heinemeier Hansson

Made Basecamp and HEY for the underdogs as co-owner and CTO of 37signals. Created Ruby on Rails. Wrote REWORK, It Doesn't Have to Be Crazy at Work, and REMOTE. Won at Le Mans as a racing driver. Fought the big tech monopolies as an antitrust advocate. Invested in Danish startups.