Covid Chronicles (6)

A few days ago, I delivered a virtual talk on decision-making followed by some Q&A. Controversially perhaps, I said that while the human tragedy in Covid19 was incomparable, the pandemic was also a rich, multidimensional, complex intellectual challenge of the kind most of us would rarely encounter in our lives.

The experience of this pandemic has made explicit our ways of seeing. It has also exposed the cracks in how so many of us, talking at one another in disciplinary shorthand, fail to communicate effectively.

As a global debate rages on about education and learning in schools and beyond, each of these cracks could be — to channel Leonard Cohen — where the light comes in. It is instructive to see clearly what we need to learn and teach so we can cope with the life we have now.

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Numeracy or more precisely, the lack of it, is a challenge for most. While many got cracking with imperfect data and started to produce graphs, others argued about log scales, deaths per capita v absolute number of deaths, the scales on the axes etc. Innumeracy does not help the cause of understanding how things are connected (more below). Numerate people, meanwhile are failing is to communicate their numerical clarity to innumerate people widening the chasm of understanding and damaging trust (on which more later).

Science has probably never featured so heavily in the daily news updates and press conferences. The social chatter — and indeed the ministers at the podium in the UK daily briefings — made it clear that not all understand the simple properties of science namely that science is not fixed; science does not have a panacea or glib answers; science seeks to understand and asks questions, explores, keeps an open mind; therefore science changes; emerging science can be tentative for a long time; science isn’t perfect; science will not save us from ourselves and our lack of scientific temper.

Risk is a nebulous concept for many. We struggle to conceptualise and understand risk, we struggle even more to communicate coherently about risk. Risk literacy is poor, risk communication is hard, risk related discussions quickly get emotive and can be easily derailed. Assessing risk and matching it against our own risk appetites is not an easy or desirable task for most.

Uncertainty is formless, timeless, seemingly endless. It is around us in spades. It paralyses most, it focuses some. As the multiply-attributed adage tells us: “when you are going through hell, keep going”, we need to plod through uncertainty. It is the elephant that must be eaten in bite-sized chunks, to deploy that old cliche. 

Connectedness, while anathema to narrow nationalists as well as narrow disciplinary experts, is us. Two key challenges stood out.

First that linear thinking to deal with exponential threat is a non-starter. A paper that NN Taleb co-authored with Joseph Norman and Yaneer Bar-Yam in January 2020 cautioned that due to “increased connectivity,” the spread will be “nonlinear”; for statisticians, “nonlinearity” describes events very much like a pandemic: an output disproportionate to known inputs (the structure and growth of pathogens, say), owing to both unknown and unknowable inputs (their incubation periods in humans, or random mutations), or eccentric interaction among various inputs (wet markets and airplane travel), or exponential growth (from networked human contact), or all three (quoted from here). Taleb has notably been vocal about how the pandemic is not a “black swan” event.

Second that a single discipline’s lens is insufficient. A pure free markets or economics lens is insufficient. A pure public health lens divorced from economics is insufficient. A pure political lens divorced from risk data and scientific findings is insufficient.  System dynamics, that those formally trained in engineering and policy intuitively deploy in their thinking, and multidisciplinary approaches are essential for political decision makers to understand. So far we are seeing little proof of that coherence.

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That we are seeing our ways of seeing must not lead us into despair. I am thinking of John Berger, whose book Ways Of Seeing changed so many of us; his Bento’s Sketchbook is, in his words, about looking at the world we live in, with its horrors and its beauty.

For those of us who teach, learn, question, reflect, this is a call to rethinking what and how we teach, what and how we learn, and how we continually update that learning to remain relevant and to be able to face down the next challenge ahead of us – that of climate change.

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