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We failed in our response because of widespread asystemic thinking (theatlantic.com)
65 points by vo2maxer 12 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 24 comments





When all this passes, I wonder what lessons people will take away regarding the other huge complex system elephant-in-the-room: climate change.

With covid, we've seen the climate drama play out in a rapid 3-month microcosm (both what's happening and what the climate doomsday-ists say will happen): denial, dismissal of its severity, ignorance towards the science and experts, incompetent government response until it's too late, widespread disruptions, stock market collapse, the connected officials catching wind of this early and hitting their personal exits, etc. The idealogical debate going on now with covid is what's the acceptable tradeoff between economic/corporate welfare versus literally human lives.

But we've also seen positive trends too: individuals are taking matters into their own hands by 3D printing medical hacks around ventilator shortages, and manufacturers are retooling and mobilizing industrial capabilities towards those same needs.

Covid is the current systemic crisis -- we need all-hands on deck for it. And as we've seen with the shelter-in-place orders, if it's not voluntary it's going to be forced. Question is can we learn from it and be humbled by it enough to seriously tackle the existential systemic crisis on our doorsteps.


Climate change will continue to happen locally first.

Meaning you can have a state-wide localized disaster in e.g. Texas or Florida, or France, but it won't be global for quite some time. Weather events also tend to be much more predictable (we know that a Hurricane won't hover over 1 state for 6 weeks, for example)

Don't get me wrong, it is a global phenomenon, but because it's much more gradual than "shut everything down", it doesn't have the same effect on people's behavior.

I'd venture to say local weather crises evoke approximately the same response as Covid-19.


> We faltered because of our failure to consider risk in its full context, especially when dealing with coupled risk—when multiple things can go wrong together. We were hampered by our inability to think about second- and third-order effects and by our susceptibility to scientism—the false comfort of assuming that numbers and percentages give us a solid empirical basis. We failed to understand that complex systems defy simplistic reductionism.

This puts words on what's been frustrating me the most when talking about this issue with some of my friends and on online boards.

I haven't considered it before, but when I think about it now I realize that I see a clear distinction among those I have been talking to between those who have done an MSc or higher in an area such as physics, mathematics or computer science.

(I don't mean to imply that those people are in some way more intelligent, but it goes to show how extended practice of systemic thinking and problem solving can prime us to better understand complex issues in general, or at least get a better approximation for our uncertainty and how that relates to risk)

I also think there's the simple fact that the vast majority of even educated people have a hard time understanding simple statistics.

There's been this notion that "Japan has handled the outbreak well" or, among the conspiratoricals, "the government is hiding the real numbers" where my take is that the data is just not there to make any kind of conclusion either way yet.

And this is hardly a US issue - we see the same pattern most everywhere.


> There's been this notion that "Japan has handled the outbreak well" or, among the conspiratoricals, "the government is hiding the real numbers" where my take is that the data is just not there to make any kind of conclusion either way yet.

Because they aren't testing broadly in the population, which is a way of "hiding the real numbers" without it looking so nefarious... you just don't get real numbers and then there's nothing to hide. As a political tool it's a nice bit of sleight-of-hand, but as a public policy decision it's disastrous.


It's more interesting than that even.

The study of Complex Adaptive Systems[1] is pretty fascinating, and is a somewhat systematic way of getting at the concepts being mentioned in this quote. It's definitely science it's just a different focus, where you spend a lot more effort looking at the emergent and often unpredictable properties of an adaptive system with autonomous components.

This isn't exactly some groundbreaking theory at this point, it emerged in the late 80's or so and had a mild pop culture moment[2] but it's still pretty handy for providing a framework and some language for understanding and discussing situations like the one described here.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Complex_adaptive_system

[2] https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B07WVV5J2R/ref=dbs_a_def_r...


> This puts words on what's been frustrating me the most when talking about this issue with some of my friends and on online boards.

You are not the only one who is like that in my circle. What did you do with your knowledge to prepare for this epidemic?


Honestly, I was (perhaps part knowingly) uninformed and ignorant until the spread outside of China started making the news, so nothing worth noting until the past 4 weeks or so.

Yourself?


That was me too.

I have many people though being hyper-vigilant about the news however they practically did nothing to prepare for it. So why bother?


> I also think there's the simple fact that the vast majority of even educated people have a hard time understanding simple statistics.

I'm educated and I don't see valid statistics. Without total comprehensive direct and antibodies tests we just don't have valid statistics data. We MUST test everyone (in proper statistical sense) to obtain valid data to work with. Instead we got all media histerically fixated upon single topic and hence total panic.


Precisely my point.

> We failed to understand that complex systems defy simplistic reductionism.

That reads like anti intellectual mumbo-jumbo to me. What complex system [0] are we talking about? There aren't very many feedback loops in the dynamics of a pathogen invading a totally susceptible population. That's the whole problem. The main one that comes to mind is the lock downs that are being put in place everywhere now - once you already have a big issue.

I fully agree that a lot of people don't understand the severity of a pathogen spreading exponentially as long as the absolute numbers look low. But there are more than enough people who do, who can give solid advice in that kind of situation. These people have been really concerned since late January at the very least.

If they weren't heard, that's the problem.

[0] https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Complex_system


The entire article is about the various cascading effects, from an overwhelmed healthcare system with reduced capacity to handle normal emergencies and elective procedures (which will have a long term effect on people’s health), to manufactures not making certain items because they have to respond quickly to more pressing concerns (and the delayed crisis that may cause in other areas).

> These people have been really concerned since late January at the very least.

I would say another 90% of these people are concerned all the time because they are smart yet emotionally immature.

Tl;dr: if your society is going to be owned by pandemic there’s a bunch of doctors working in healthcare who will figure it out; so starting isolation early on will lead to people ignoring you when it actually hits us


This is a spectacular article, spelling out something that I've been struggling to identify and communicate. Just the combination of asymptomatic transmission, R0 (2 - 2.4 is NOT "low"), and hospitalization rates should have been enough to freak people out more than they were. I particularly appreciate the first half of the argument and the review of how there was a collective inability to grasp implications.

Yes, systemic thinking might have helped to a degree. Plus the imagination and pandemic know-how to understand the likely consequences. Like understanding that a virus even more lethal and contagious can spread from one part of the globe to another within a year, again. Or that a nuclear war could be triggered by mistake any time. Or a combined terrorist attack could be launched on all nuclear power plants and other centralized nodes in the highly electrified backbone, after which a collapse of society would be close to instant. Not to mention climate change. Etc.

There are a myriad of disasters that could or will happen, at some point. But the most important reason that we are not prepared is AFAICS because governments and people generally simply hope that such things won't happen, and if they do, not on their watch, due to the path of least resistance.

Understandable, but for one who long has had the ability to envision all sorts of mayhem, I sure wish people would take this opportunity to wake up, not only to virus threats but to all of the gravest risks that confront us, and start chipping away at those that are actually possible to mitigate.


The US failed because very few - nearly zero - people in the political leadership of the US are interested in working for the general public, thinking about the interests of the general public, etc. It's a failure of power - the interests of the general public have no power in running the US government.

To put it another way: if you laid out a ten-page paper describing exactly the right course of action (you're omniscient, you know these things) on the desk of every federal leader, it still wouldn't happen. If you did it on the first day of the outbreak, it wouldn't happen. If you did it today, it wouldn't happen.

It's a power failure, not a knowledge failure or a "we think wrong" failure. Nobody is sitting at their desk right now saying "damnit, we tried our hardest and just didn't THINK of the solution! If only we were better thinkers!".


I'd say that they are very interested in the very large part of the public who voted for them. Their actions so far have been very popular. And they may continue to be so, all the way through, even if the death toll is in the millions. They have blamed the virus on the Chinese, the closures on overreaction by their opponents, and even the death toll is seen as unfortunate but necessary for the economy.

Perhaps personal acquaintance with victims will change that, but I have suspicion that it won't. Certainly it hasn't so far.

They win elections because they know how to care for enough of the people to win. If it angers you, as it does me, the only way to combat it is to win. No amount of complaining or message sending changes that basic fact.


> I'd say that they are very interested in the very large part of the public who voted for them.

You may be interested in the research of Page and Gilens, which shows the opposite is true.


The demographic with the highest percentage of people who voted for Trump is older white men. Older men are also the demographic with the highest risk of death from COVID-19. The worse that the Trump administration does at managing the outbreak, the more of their voters will die before they can vote in November.

Considering Trump's slim vote margin of victory in 2016, this could matter.

Talk of re-opening the economy early instead serves a different constituency: the people who fund much of the recent Republican political program. These are mostly rich individuals who can make idiosyncratic, self-centered decisions. The result is a Republican political machine that pursues the interests of these individuals, even when it means coming into conflict with the interests of their voters.

The reason politicians want to make these funders happy is that, if the politician loses office, these funders are the same people who can set them up with a well-paid gig in the broader political machine. See for example Sarah Palin, who made this work so well that she quit her political job early.


They may well support it up to the point that it kills them. I expect it to be popular to tell them there is nothing to worry about and they'll probably be fine.

>And if we hope to blunt the impact of others like it, let’s not forget, again, that all of our lives are, together, embedded in highly complex systems.

Isn't that the reason for the end of systemic thinking? If it is highly complex, what good is it to focus on managing the system? Why not manage the perception and let evolution run its course?


It's interesting to see our desire for blame kick in.

If Earth was hit by an meteor two weeks ago, or if there was a major earthquake in California, I'm sure we'd see similar blame coming from the media.

Someone that has been warning of meteors or earthquakes for two decades would get on TV and talk about how negligent everyone in power is for ignoring their warnings. Agencies would argue that with more funding they could have responded earlier.

Everyone who already hates Xi Jinping or Trump or Johnson or Pelosi will attach new narratives to their favorite villain blaming them for the event and the response.

Maybe sometimes shit just happens, and we should skip the blame game and focus on improving our response.

The best thing about this story was that it's was self-reflective on the media's 180 on this issue. That's something I don't see often in media. Just four weeks ago all the major media outlets were downplaying everything, and now those same outlets are placing blame for not taking things seriously on everyone but themselves.


Note that this is an op-ed by a professor at UNC Chapel Hill, not something by a journalist.

> If Earth was hit by an meteor two weeks ago

COVID-19 has been a looming problem in the US for over six weeks. I personally stocked up on nonperishables four weeks ago when it was clear that government was doing nothing to attempt to control or even just monitor domestic spread, and the blowup was only a matter of when.

Framing this situation as if it just suddenly occurred is preposterous. It only seems that way to people who were asleep or pushing the agenda to stay asleep, much like how a drunk driver thinks whatever they hit just "came out of nowhere".

Many institutions and influential people are jointly and severally responsible for pushing the narrative of denial and inaction. None of them get absolved simply because other ones were doing the same while wearing different team jerseys. And the ones that continue to stonewall, distract, and disrupt deserve the most blame.




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