What history feels like
Aside from what I need to know to stay up to date with the latest info, I’m not following the news media or political circus much at all. Instead, I’m looking for context, I want to understand the trends. I don’t just want the facts, I want to understand the why behind them. I want to learn how to think about this rationally.
So rather than adding to the panic or just re-stating what’s happening in the news, I’m gonna try to share what I’m learning from this experience. I think we can use this as a way to examine ourselves collectively and individually, and learn to think better about this rather unusual event we’re living through.
Maybe I’m just speaking for myself, but I find this whole experience as interesting as it is frightening.
Living through History
Now that there’s no longer any doubt we’re in the midst of a global pandemic. Governments, businesses, and people are trying their best to figure out the right course of action. But containment in most countries is already failing and we’re moving into a delay and mitigation phase in order to “flatten the curve”.
It is in times like these that I realize we’re living in a historical moment. History is happening to us right now.
Our day-to-day experience of life tends to feel quite separate from “History”. There’s probably some sort of bias here that makes us feel like our current time is nothing at all like actual history. Especially with regards to big historical events like wars, famines or — gulp — pestilence. From the purview of the present, people from the past might very well be from another planet.
During the past weeks, we’ve been pulled out of that mirage as mercilessly as a newborn is ejected from its mother’s womb during birth. Suddenly, we get to look upon ourselves as if we were an Alien observing from the outside. We realize this event is another moment in History.
What will be said about this in the future? How will 22nd-century historians write about the COVID-19 outbreak of 2020? Will it be a cataclysmic event or just a minor blip?
Regardless, it is during moments like these that we realize we’re not separate from History but are living in it, just like all the people of the past.
With the merciless judgment of our future selves and descendants ahead of us, it is in situations like these where the collective and individual decision-making apparatus is truly put to the test.
The problem is, we will never really know whether we’ve made the right decisions. If this blows over and things never turned out as bad as some people were fearing, many will smugly pronounce: “See, things are fine now! What were the point of all that panic, the school shutdowns, and quarantines?”. But of course, it might very well be exactly because of those measures that things turned out for the better. Such decisions look like an overreaction after the fact. But it is by “overreacting” that we may reduce the scale and impact of the outbreak. In hindsight, however, it will probably feel silly. On the other hand, if we don’t do enough, the results will likely speak for themselves. But even then, it’s hard to separate causality from correlation.
The difficulty with decision making in such an uncertain world is that the counterfactuals can never be known and we can only speculate as to whether or not we made the right decisions.
The point here is that this makes the decision-making process all the more important. Whether or not the outcome was what we wanted, if we apply the right process then we can be confident that we did the right thing, all things considered.
So what would a good decision-making process look like?
- It is one that considers the second and third-order consequences.
- It is one that considers the unknown unknowns, not just the known unknowns.
- It is one that uses the best available evidence (duh…).
- It uses a Bayesian probabilistic framing, not black or white thinking.
- It takes into account not just the likely results, but people’s reactions to that outcome.
- It is one based on first principles rather than on bad analogies or groupthink.
- It attempts to avoid the biggest risks and downsides rather than trying to get the most optimal outcomes.
Of course, this is all easier said than done. But I doubt most decision-makers are even asking themselves these questions right now.
Perhaps, by considering how we will be judged by future humans, we can be less judgmental of people in our past and also more mindful of our decision-making process today.
A dress rehearsal
I tweeted the other day that the COVID-19 outbreak is more or less a dress rehearsal for a future pandemic that is probably going to be much more catastrophic. It seems to me like we’re failing this one. Instead of making the hard but necessary choices, leaders are mostly resorting to political posturing. Trying to please the crowds. In an effort to “avoid panic”, we’re not confronting the reality of the situation early enough. It should go without saying that we’re now paying the price for that.
Aside from the fact that containment is failing, the stock market crash is the surest sign of how people feel about our current and near term prospects.
Maybe we’ll learn something
Considering the pandemic within a broader historical context, we’re about to witness a very large, (sort of ) controlled experiment in government policy and procedure. Since most countries are more or less equally affected by the outbreak but are responding quite differently, we will get to compare the results of those measures in the future. In so far as we can tease out causality, we will be able to learn a lot about what countermeasures work better, how fast one must respond, how to deal with people’s fears and anxiety, which health systems are better prepared, which containment and prevention policies are most efficacious, etc.
The next time this happens (and it will), we can hope that we will have better systems and procedures in place — nationally and globally — to deal with it in the most level-headed way possible.
I think a large part of the varying responses we’re seeing from leaders in politics and business comes down to their background and perspective.
There seems to be a fault-line between those who have an “engineering” mindset vs those with a “social” mindset. A quantitative vs a qualitative outlook, if you will.
Those with an engineering mindset have been quick to spot the exponential nature of the trends and threats, those with the social mindset miss this and assume things won’t be that bad because they aren’t that bad right now.
This explains why so many tech companies are early with instituting work from home policies and why countries like Taiwan and Singapore seems to be handling the situation rather well. (Singapore’s prime minister is a mathematician by training.)
One of the key learnings so far is that the severity of the pandemic is not just a result of the infectiousness or other inherent characteristics of the virus, but more so our response to it. Put differently, the effectiveness with which the virus spreads within and between communities is as much a result of how people and communities behave, as the “virality” of the virus itself.
This is both frightening and reassuring.
It could be worse…
The fact that we’re already witnessing varying outcomes between different countries and communities is a cause for hope. The different results we’re already seeing when comparing countries like Italy, South Korea, Singapore, the US, etc tell a story of what we can do when we get our head straight.
And people are sort of working together. Both locally and globally. People are sacrificing their own well-being and freedom in order to protect others in their community, especially the elderly. Governments and international organizations are, however imperfectly, coordinating and collaborating.
We could be dealing with this in a much better way, no doubt, but there is cause for hope. A hundred years ago during the Spanish flu, we had no way to cure the disease, no prospect of a vaccine, much less knowledge about viral diseases and we were are also in the midst of a world war. It could certainly be much worse :).