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The world should think better about catastrophic and existential risks (economist.com)
322 points by prostoalex 4 days ago | hide | favorite | 255 comments

Why do people say Covid was a black swan event? It was not, it was utterly predictable, if not the specific virus, then at least the course of its spread. The black swan is our collective ineptitude in handling the crisis, not the virus itself.

We’ve had pandemics repeatedly throughout recorded history and before. It’s not as though the world went “a virus what is this we’ve never seen anything like it”.

The black plague, the flu of 1918, and numerous other examples of epidemic diseases have struck down multitudes over thousands of years. Even Sars was just a score of years ago.

We were simply inept when it came to Covid-19. We dropped the ball. The thing about Covid isn’t how unexpected it was, it’s how utterly predictable it has been at every single turn.

Imagine there's a society at the bottom of a valley. Every 10 years, there's a flood which means everyone will have to move to the mountains for 3 months and eat stored food. So the wise old men make a flood council, to be populated with responsible people who ensure there's huts in the mountains and plenty of food.

Except it doesn't flood like a clockwork every 10 years. It's more like an annual dice roll. It can happen more often, but it can also happen less often. It's entirely within the scope of probability that kids are born and grow to be adults without a flood.

After a three decades, what has happened?

Someone will have the brilliant idea of using the spare food. Initially it will seem necessary, as hard times have arrived due to other circumstances. Eventually, people forget about filling it up.

Someone else will decide the flood huts are a waste, a bunch of empty homes with great views that nobody ever lives in. Why not sell it?

The flood council's work becomes undermined by their cost. People see there's all these highly educated people working on a plan that nobody's ever used. They see fat cats flying around to flood conferences, big flood taking a tax on everyone, and fearmongering whenever the flood council reminds people to be prepared.

So the flood eventually happens, people are drowned and the survivors starve.

"But there was no way to see it coming."

One of the benefits of a state is that it does not need to operate like a business. It can and should maintain these refuges and keep them stocked. Perishables get replaced and consumed in the valley. A state has the ability to stand above current whims.

At the very least, contingency plans don’t go stale.

The second aspect is us facing the pandemic. Playing it down, calling it a hoax, refusing to wear a mask. Stomping around with guns. Making it a partisan issue. War rhetoric. It’s utterly insane. A few calm generations in the flood valley don’t quite explain this.

> At the very least, contingency plans don’t go stale.

They do if not maintained, especially when there are major changes in population size or spatial distribution, or changes in the infrastructure and its usage (e.g. hospital spinups and closures, traffic/transport).

To make it worse, Trump outright gutted the pandemic response team, and Germany hasn't done well in that regard either although we were quick to listen on experts, which mitigated that at least a bit.

> A few calm generations in the flood valley don’t quite explain this.

They do, actually. In the US, but also in parts of the EU, "science denial" has been moved from "whacko nutjob" territory to outright mainstream, with constant cuts in education funding doing the rest. Democracy requires a demos, especially a demos able (both intellectually and in terms of time) and willing to participate in the democratic process, to work.

> It can and should

That last word is the problem: there are many people, without a drop of sarcasm, irony, or smiling, who think government should indeed be run like a business.

A public information campaign on why that’s not the case certainly seems important to greatly reduce this idea’s popularity. Are there any groups doing this?

> "benefits of a state ... can and should maintain these refuges ..."

Real life example:

"The Japanese mayor who was laughed at for building a huge sea wall - until his village was left almost untouched by tsunami"


But that mayor was (he died long before the tsunami), I'd think, a rare person.

And even when the flood is actually occurring, people will shout it down as a hoax, or argue that any countermeasures have been a massive overreaction because only x people have drowned so far.

Any scientific work that produces an uncomfortable prediction will be written off as doom-mongering and any proposal that would impact people's personal comfort level will be declared as unworkable and unreasonable.

Imagine there are two societies like this. One invests in building huts and storing food, the other one doesn't. They don't have to maintain the food storage and huts. The labor is spent on something else that advances society. Let's say this gives them a 1% advantage in advancing society every year. After 100 years the 1% advantage turns into 1.001^100 = 2.7. The society that didn't invest in the disaster plan advanced much more.

When you tie up your resources you can't invest it into something else. Governments know this very well. That's why they borrow money to invest it into projects that will have a higher payoff than the interest.

At some point in disaster planning you need to ask what the impact of the preparation is vs the impact of the disaster itself. Obviously officials can't say after a disaster that the reason they didn't prepare was that they calculated that the cost to prepare was higher than the likelihood of the disaster times the cost of the disaster. If the officials admitted that then they would seem heartless. They say instead: "There was no way to see it coming."

If you think this line of thinking by officials is unreasonable, then I'd like to ask you: do you have a bomb shelter at home? Why not? The Swiss do: [0]

>"Every inhabitant must have a protected place that can be reached quickly from his place of residence".

>"Apartment block owners are required to construct and fit out shelters in all new dwellings".

>(Articles 45 and 46 of the Swiss Federal Law on Civil Protection).

Obviously this is an expensive law. The Swiss can afford it, because they're one if the richest countries in the world. In the case of disaster the Swiss are prepared. The rest of us are not.

[0] https://www.swissinfo.ch/eng/always-be-prepared_how-ready-is...

I don't think the numbers work out though.

Say Pandemic response preparation costs $10 billion a year, and the event occurs every hundred years. That means the total cost is $1T over 100 years.

Has the Pandemic caused more than $1T of damage to the United States? We've spent more than $1T just on the government bailout, which doesn't even come close to covering the damage to individuals and the economy as a whole. I'd say it easily exceeds $1T. Far more was spent on the Iraq war than on Covid preparation, yet the latter would have paid massive returns.

Frankly, pandemic response would be a rounding error compared to the defense budget. Even $2B a year in pandemic preparation might have saved us. That's only $200B per hundred years, far less than Covid has cost the US this year.

No. The direct cost at $10 billion a year might be $1T over 100 years. The opportunity cost, which is what I was talking about, is not $1T.

If you want to factor in opportunity cost you have to think of it like compound interest. $10 billion invested today could have a $1T payoff on its own over 100 years.

Inflation alone would make $10 billion in 1920 worth $128 billion today. And inflation doesn't account for any efficiency increases you can gain over time if you had invested the money otherwise.

> "... using the spare food ... Someone else will decide the flood huts are a waste"

Also, those politicians, get more votes — they can use the money they save when they sell the spare food, to lower the taxes or give people welfare money, and build and give away free houses in the valley.

Any politicians who want to keep the houses on the hills, are pretty powerless.

Brilliant example.

At the core, in a capitalist society, a company with no capital 'wasted' on distaster planning will out compete a company that has invested capital in disaster planning in the short term

And "short term" can mean quote long periods of time in practise. As a result we end up with this incredibly fragile system and society.

This can't be emphasised enough: capitalism is systemically biased against rational survival strategies.

It's fundamentally an irrational system which uses emotion and political leverage - with a bit of innovation - to maximise short-term individual gain.

But it has surrounded itself with a self-serving cloud of rhetoric about how it's "efficient" and "rational", when in fact it's astoundingly bad at dealing with planet-scale collective threats that could be easily handled with genuinely rational management.

I would say that anarchy, rather than capitalism, is biased in that way. I would not expect anarcho-capitalism to do any better or any worse than anarcho-communism.

Reason being, some rules just don’t make sense unless you have a deep understanding of the part of the world they interact with; and if you are free to flout those rules, it can be very tempting when you have no salient examples of the consequences of breaking them.

Lead was added to gasoline for improved performance, not to cause systemic increases in violence after 30 years of widespread use; CFCs were chosen because of their low toxicity, reactivity and flammability, not to catalytically destroy the ozone layer; antibiotics are used by meat farmers to increase growth rate and allow more intensive farming, not to trigger the evolution of MRSA. There are almost certainly other things which I could not even describe accurately that follow the same pattern.

I have no idea how to protect against disasters that only experts can comprehend without also allowing obsolete ideologies and standards organisations to crystallise against progress. But then, I’m only superficially familiar with political philosophy — I was about 30 when I learned of Chesterton’s Fence.

I think we can look at this differently; the problem isn't necessarily capitalism; it's that we don't live in a society that follows classically ideal capitalist dynamics anymore.

In a healthy capitalist system, you'd have enough competition to make this less of an issue. But healthy competition has been obliterated by our (politically condoned) race for short-term gains through economies of scale, and by the development of incorporation (hundreds of years ago by now, yet the conflicts with other social constructs like freedom of speech and capitalism have never really been addressed).

Any exact number is of course by definition flawed, but it's hard to imagine a stable capitalist system existing without much more vigorous competition - any firm with enough market share to significantly influence standards or think more about retaining users (i.e. lock-in) than about the competition is a problem; and much of our economy is made up of firms like that. At which size does that happen? Anything exceeding 1% market share?

Without sufficient variation and choice, the underlying dynamics (of capitalism) just don't work. In essence, we don't live in a classical capitalism with market forces converging on efficient solutions; but rather in an business or political world where barriers to entry and network effects form moats around inflexible fiefdoms in our society.

This isn't a problem that's easy to solve, because economies of scale work, and even if society at large would benefit from more dynamism, self-interest pulls individuals into corporations that are large enough to undermine competition. Furthermore, the rules we've invented surrounding incorporation strongly encourage this behavior, because it's a way to limit personal risk, and because a conceptual organization can choose to be many formal organizations, it's a way to for corporations to avoid bearing the costs of risks more generally than individuals can. Additionally, basic things like trademarks, patents and copyrights work in favor of centralization - and while I'm sure there are alternatives to those concepts, they're really deeply embedded in society, support well-connected vested interest with strong lobbies, have broad popular support, and in any case have a useful purpose too - replacing such concepts is essentially a non-starter, even if it would be beneficial in the long run.

So at best we can hope for reforms to increase resilience - those would be useful not just in catastrophic situations, but also to increase the effectiveness of capitalism in general. Reforms should limit the kind of exclusive control intellectual property offers (such that it's less suitable as a weapon to knock out competitors, and more suitable to earn income from those you cannot control yet use your innovations). We should have much stricter antitrust regulations, with fewer exceptions allowing large sizes (i.e. the default assumption should be that significant market share is harmful, and place the burden of proof the other way around to the way it is now) and smaller size limits before rules kick in. And we should reevalute the kind of protections corporations benefit from that do make sense for individuals; and perhaps to what extent incorporation can be used to shield owners from risks to encourage subsidiary-jungles less (or simply have a small tax on incorporation itself, much like individuals pay income tax - but on overall value, not profit, such that it's costly to have tons of layers of incorporation).

> I think we can look at this differently; the problem isn't necessarily capitalism; it's that we don't live in a society that follows classically ideal capitalist dynamics anymore.

When was that time supposed to be? In my years of studying history as a hobby, I've never encountered this mystical utopia of "true" free-market capitalism. In fact, as far as I know the ideology itself is mostly a product of the 20th century.

Oh definitely. We've never lived in an ideal anything ;-). Yet much of the assumptions about how capitalism will allocate resources efficiently rest on exactly the kind of properties we don't follow and are following increasingly poorly over the past decades. (Oh, I see I used the word "anymore" above. Well, that doesn't make sense, indeed).

As to the ideology: I blame the cold war for that; that shifted the debate firmly towards capitalism as an article of national identity, and the "more" the better (whatever that even means). To this day it's still common to hear the response that any criticism of capitalism is akin to communism - i.e. we're still identifying ourselves with this myth, even though communism (to the extent that that mystical utopia ever existed) has been defeated. And once something is a form of patriotic self-affirmation, it's too much to expect any kind of pragmatic, reasonable tuning to take place in politics (not that that's happening in politics currently regardless of topic, but I think that's a different matter).

I thought it was already obvious that extant economic systems necessitate hybridization.

Capitalism needs social and communal optimization and policy in order to not completely collapse, i.e. currently bailouts, but this can also be accomplished with effective policy and law. Communism needs capital wealth and free-market trading to not collapse into a material deficit.

"Nassim Nicholas Taleb is “irritated,” he told Bloomberg Television on March 31st, whenever the coronavirus pandemic is referred to as a “black swan,” the term he coined for an unpredictable, rare, catastrophic event, in his best-selling 2007 book of that title. “The Black Swan” was meant to explain why, in a networked world, we need to change business practices and social norms—not, as he recently told me, to provide “a cliché for any bad thing that surprises us.” Besides, the pandemic was wholly predictable—he, like Bill Gates, Laurie Garrett, and others, had predicted it—a white swan if ever there was one. “We issued our warning that, effectively, you should kill it in the egg,” Taleb told Bloomberg. Governments “did not want to spend pennies in January; now they are going to spend trillions.”

read more :

NewYorker:"The Pandemic Isn’t a Black Swan but a Portent of a More Fragile Global System" ( April 21, 2020 )


Have to say I'm struggling to see the difference between the pandemic and the financial crisis. Both were utterly predictable as things which could happen but difficult to time [if anything, the financial crisis was much more predictable] and both were exacerbated because systems and economies were built around assuming such scenarios were unlikely in the immediate future and inherently self-limiting

Given the quote talks about spending money in January, I believe it’s referring to testing and contact tracing (and manufacturing PPE).

If this had been done early on, it would’ve been easy to time outbreaks, and we could’ve had more targeted lockdowns.

I don't see much difference either. Maybe one factor in something being a Black Swan is just how widely or not the predictions are believed. There were plenty of whisperings on the internet about a potential problem with sub-prime mortgages way before 2007. I even had a lecturer at university talking about Kondratiev waves[0] and how we were possibly nearing the end of one.


Not to fully justify it myself (I'm not sure I believe it either), but more to provide a devil's advocate perspective:

- A key part of the financial crisis is that, collectively the group of auditors and risk evaluators and experts who are supposed to understand/evaluate/quantify risk, generally failed to properly price in the risk of mortgage-backed securities failing en masse (they basically said, the chance of this happening is astronomically low, and were wrong by many orders of magnitude). Taleb's point was that, for certain events, it is surprisingly difficult to accurately assess their true probability, and even very advanced, highly-paid experts (with a strong vested interest in getting it right), can fail (and fail spectacularly). One of the lessons here is, to not place too much mis-placed confidence in certain kinds of estimates, and to be skeptical of gambling on certain probabilities which are fundamentally non-verifiable or hard to verify (even though they might look like regular probabilities and come packaged with lots of nice documentation and fancy equations and backed by lots of PhDs who tell you how wonderful their models are... we still need to be skeptical). When the weatherman tells you there's a 40% chance of rain, you can be sure that even though he might be wrong, he is very unlikely to be wrong by orders of magnitude (i.e. that the actual chance of rain is 4% or 0.004% or 100%); when a quant at an investment bank tells you that a AAA-rated MBS will fail with probability 0.00001%, you probably shouldn't trust that number in the same way, even though both are probabilities and both come with models and equations to support them.

- With COVID-19 and pandemics in general, it's not clear that the relevant public health experts failed to price in the risk or to accurately estimate/approximate the risk. What seems more likely is that our governments and businesses failed to heed their advice (i.e. that pandemics are inevitable, that they will happen with some regularity e.g. every 10-30 years, that in a globally connected world they will spread more rapidly than ever, etc.), and failed to act on the advice they were given (or in the case of the US, almost literally threw out the pandemic response handbook and ignored it). This makes it less of a "black swan" problem, and more of a regular (though still spectacular) failure of governance.

I might argue however that, there is perhaps a general tendency to incorrectly categorize such things as "black swan" events, which is an interesting phenomenon in and of its own (i.e. why do people want to take white swans and paint them black or to simply pretend as if they were black when they are not).


> Governments “did not want to spend pennies in January; now they are going to spend trillions”

Based in the UK here, and this is what I find particularly galling.

If governments, including ours, had imposed travel restrictions in January people would have kicked up about it, and the travel industry would have been slammed, but thousands of lives would have been saved, and we would not now be in our deepest economic slump in over 40 years.

Sadly, as with various other countries, it's hard to avoid the conclusion that the people at the highest levels of government and civil service here are utterly incompetent[1].

[1] Yes, I know their jobs are incredibly difficult but, as pointed out already, this was an entirely predictable set of circumstances. This is also not a partisan comment: our Conservative government have done an extremely poor job, but the Labour party are so useless they handed the them an easy landslide at the last general election, and the Lib Dems aren't even worth the bother of talking about.

> Sadly, as with various other countries, it's hard to avoid the conclusion that...

... hindsight is 20/20. Nobody was suggesting travel restrictions in January.

I get that, but that's sort of the point, and in the UK we didn't do anything of substance until the end of March, which was far too late.

On 28th January I organised a DR drill, where everyone in our Cambridge office plus others in tech from other offices worked from home. This ran on 5th February. A week or two later I unofficially asked everyone on my team to stop all travel between offices, and requested key stakeholders not visit us in Cambridge. This was officially confirmed company-wide at the beginning of March. We shut all our offices and required all staff to work from home full-time 10 days before the government mandated lockdown began.

I'm not even holding this up as "we did a great job" because we were far too slow to act ourselves, but it's certainly not just 20/20 hindsight. I hear that trope far too often, and it's tiresome. I jolly well expect everyone in positions of leadership (including me) to have learned lessons from these events and do much better and act much more quickly next time around.

Again, let me reiterate that this situation was entirely predictable, and in fact was predicted by numerous experts, including Bill Gates.

I definitely remember reading HN threads in January/early Feb about how we needed to take action immediately

Yeah but that's like the old quote that the stock market successfully predicted nine of the past five recessions. Sometimes, in hindsight, it might have been the right thing to do. But most of the time, when you look back at what people on HN said we needed to action about immediately, it would have been an absolute overreaction. You can't know which of the two situations you're in beforehand.

I bet that even if we overreacted every time, if you added up the cost it would be less than what Covid has cost us.

In other words, that one time it's real it's more expensive than preventing 10 events that didn't happen.

> Nobody was suggesting travel restrictions in January.

Not true, Trump was one of the first leaders to call for travel restrictions as far back as January, but back then the dominant narrative was that travel restrictions are bad, so he backed off.


You don't have to go back to 1918.

1957 - 1958 pandemic estimated to have killed ~1.1 million people worldwide: https://www.cdc.gov/flu/pandemic-resources/1957-1958-pandemi...

1968 pandemic estimated to have killed 1 million worldwide: https://www.cdc.gov/flu/pandemic-resources/1968-pandemic.htm...

I think of SARS & MERS as near-misses. They could've been a lot worse if the viruses were just a bit more contagious. Overall, it seems like some form of pandemic could be expected at least every 25 years or so, on average! I also wonder if this might be increasing in frequency as the world population grows & global travel becomes ever more common.

I think covid has been handled exceptionally poorly at every turn. Globally, we need to get a lot better at handling something like this. As bad as some viruses have been, it's not difficult to imagine even worse ones if a parameter or two were tweaked.

Also: -

AIDS - an ongoing pandemic, 32 000 000 + deaths and counting (per Wikipedia). (The cynical adage about news applies here: "nothing ever happens in Africa.")

Mad Cow disease - major near miss. I am still not allowed to donate blood to this day, because I was in the UK in the mid-'80s.

It's egregiously lazy to call Covid-19 a "black swan".

Honestly given how the population in 1918 was between 1-2 billion [1], 1957 2.8 billion and 1968 3.5 billion, given that there's over twice as many people around now, we got off lightly.

[1] https://www.worldometers.info/world-population/world-populat... first source I found, don't quote me on it

You can convincingly say this in retrospect about any event that happened, after all, it happened; it can't be so improbable and someone somewhere inevitably warned about the risk.

The spread of coronavirus outside China was in no way inevitable. Several potential pandemics were handled internally, this one escaped due to denial and incompetence, at which point it was harder to control. If it is utterly predictable we should be able to predict its course and fatalities - we can't.

If we had a large asteroid strike, famine, a robot rebellion, a collapse in world supply chains or super-volcano eruption it'd be 'inevitable' according to somebody somewhere, but most of the world didn't expect it and didn't prepare for it.

This wasn't "someone, somewhere" predicting it though: every epidemiologist predicted it. They said flu was the most likely, but they all also said a SARS-like coronavirus was another potential option (haemorrhagic fevers were the other type warned about). SARS and MERS weren't that long ago, and both had pandemic potential. Two near misses in the past 20 years means this was always a case of when not if.

The US had made preparations for a pandemic after SARS / MERS, but the funding was cut and the stockpile was neglected and had to be discarded. The advisories were given, people were aware, the system works, the people did their jobs. But the higher ups decided not to act, causing the biggest wave of deaths in living history.

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3322916/ https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK92448/

Yes, and similar scenes played out everywhere that wasn't affected by SARS or MERS: they produced plans, issued advisories, but the politicians didn't act. Countries that were affected by SARS learnt their lesson, which is why they've dealt with this so much more effectively.

Several eastern european countries acted promptly- Czech Repibloc, Slovakia, Poland - without ever having much to do with SARS or MERS.

Every country that made masks mandatory and distributed them effectively, did well.

Masks were not mandatory in South Korea till well past the peak, though they are commonly worn.

Masks were not used in New Zealand which has had one of the best responses.

Masks are a useful low-cost measure but they're not sufficient on their own, quarantine and test and trace is far more effective and is probably what allowed those countries to get on top of their outbreaks so quickly, though honestly I'm not sure anybody knows the answers as yet about variations in infection and spread - we'll know a lot more in a few years in retrospect.

There's a common thread in most of the countries that have done incredibly badly though - the leaders have downplayed the risk and refused to take common sense measures to stop the spread (UK, Brazil, US).


I see mask a sort of like logs in warships used to plug leaks during battle. Cheap, easy to source and relatively effective enough in a pinch... at least enough to buy time for a proper response.

Might not be as effective as prepping before hand with better design, response or tactics. But you make do with what you got, competent leader or not.

Effectively the name of the game for the whole world is to buy enough time for a Vaccine to be created... or maybe for the virus to hopefully mutate into a more survivable form perhaps.

> You can convincingly say this in retrospect about any event that happened, after all, it happened; it can't be so improbable and someone somewhere inevitably warned about the risk.

Before this pandemic people wouldn't care. Now it's happen people like you are still trying to justify it away.

Well, if you'd spoken to any epidemiologist (and I have) they'd have warned this was coming. It was inevitable.

Before: "nah, it won't happen". Now: "well, you can say anything in retrospect". This is the superpower of human stupidity, it can dismiss anything inconvenient.

I'm not attempting to justify or defend the US or the Chinese pandemic response to Coronavirus (both of which were awful).

I'm saying it was not utterly predictable in the course of its spread. The extent of the spread would have surprised most people, including epidemiologists if you asked them in January - precisely because we have encountered very similar viruses before and managed to contain them - it was always a possibility, but was considered by most of the world a remote one. Indeed, epidemiologists and governments in many countries knew about the virus in February, but not all reacted appropriately as they'd seen many such warnings before and for previous viruses it was contained and not a risk.

There's swine flu in humans in multiple locations in China at the moment and it is likely to evolve to jump human to human - are you personally preparing for it to spread in the US now? If not why not since its spread is, like coronavirus, inevitable?

Human stupidity also lends itself to retrospective reframing of events as inevitable and easily predictable when they are neither - it's easy to say everyone knew what was coming when talking in retrospect and very hard to accurately asses risk or probability.

At several points along the way, scientific experts (not one or a handful, but many) have made recommendations that were ignored by world leaders because they were seen as financially or politically costly.

Most of the disasters you mention are definitely predictable and we can say with a reasonable degree of certainty that they will occur within the next x years. If x is anything more than 100, then people will ignore it, because our brains are biased to discount the odds of bad things happening to us.

We should at the least have a basic plan on what to do if those things happen, but it seems that many places didn't even accomplish that before this predictable pandemic occurred.

I don’t agree that this spread due to denial and incompetence, they didn’t help, but fundamentally this spread because most people don’t get that sick. Since people mostly feel ok, they’re not getting medical treatment and aren’t on the radar of any kind of intervention. Also, it’s not true to say that if you can say with certainty that something will happen, you know exactly how it’s going to go down. I know with 100% certainty that there will be another stock market bubble in the next 20 years, it’s completely predictable, but I can’t tell you when or how, because that is a different kind of knowledge, it’s situational rather than systemic.

> I don’t agree that this spread due to denial and incompetence

Indeed.There are countries that reacted better than others, but that didn't make the problem go away: it was still a major disruption to the economy and a major health problem causing some people to die. The magnitude of those problems is affected by competence (and luck), but it's not one of those things where if you play by the book you're just going to be fine.

Yeah you are gonna be fine, not toally unaffected by largely just fine.

Look at Czech Republic, Vietnam, Korea, Japan. There, hardly anyone died at all.

I'm in no way disagreeing that countries like Vietnam have done a good job in keeping on top of the problem, but talking about any country's response in the past tense seems premature.

Pretty much any assessment needs to have a "so far" appended.

Technically if it happens in 21 years your 100% confident prediction is wrong. You'd still feel you kinda got it right, though. Certainty is a different beast. Not even "Tomorrow the sun will raise in the morning" can reach 100% certainty.

> but most of the world didn't expect it and didn't prepare for it.

You cannot say this about the United States. Both of the prior administrations developed detailed pandemic response plans.

Bush’s plan was informed by the "near miss" of a worrying H5N1 Influenza outbreak. Obama dealt with Ebola and Zika.

The Trump administration’s response to SARS-CoV-2 was so catastrophically incompetent that it nearly seems intentional.

James Fallows has a very detailed piece that covers this:


> didn't prepare for it.

Correct, we didn't prepare for it. I would even say that politics stifled our response to a large degree. But, in my opinion, to say we didn't expect it, is incorrect. Sure, the average Joe may not have understood the potential risks, however epidemiologists were literally screaming the graveness of the situation at the public. The fact that people decided not to take heed was their ineptitude. The science and logic required to reduce the impact of the virus were all available, and the actions to be taken were fairly simple. The fact that people refused to take those actions in a timely manner, and that governments prioritised economy over public health are some of the reasons why we're in this mess. But we certainly were not caught by surprise - we had the time to react, and the knowledge to react well.

The thing is they actually have not prioritised anything, they thought they were prioritising, but actually caused a deeper recession by failing to contain the virus.

It's like prioritising cooking dinner over dealing with the house fire - it doesn't work that way.

No. Pandemics keep happening repeatedly and based on the past ~100 years, you'd be inclined to say that the frequency may be increasing: 1918, HIV, 1957, 1968, 2020. (and particularly so if you factor in the near-misses: SARS and MERS)

What about the set of events that "someone somewhere spent millions of dollars on and defined it as a national security risk and set up federally managed groups and processes to guard against it"? Seems to be a slightly smaller set.

They even made a freaking movie about it (Contagion). So I'd say it was absolutely predictable.

By that rationale, a two headed shark attack near an atoll that is collapsing into itself is absolutely predictable, too.

If it actually happens then yes. By definition if someone says there will be a two headed shark attack near an atoll and it actually happens they made the correct prediction. I'd sure start taking two headed shark experts very seriously in that case.

Taleb actually predicted it, even though he doesn't like it being called a prediction. In his own words: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tb2pXXUSzmI

So did Bill Gates, but predicting “a disease epidemic will hit us and have severe consequences” is a pretty sure bet and not that impressive.

It sounds impressive considering that politicians argued (and still argue, like in the case of Brazil) that it's not severe and we are still overreacting in the middle of people dying.

That's exactly the point: if it IS easily predictable, it's NOT a black swan.

It was in Europe months before it was detected in China.

Seems pretty inevitable that it would have spread.

Here is a paper to back up your claims, where they apparently found traces of COVID-19 in Spain in March 2019. The paper is yet to be peer reviewed though:


It's an extraordinary claim but completely without evidence.

I've been following that, the only thing that is known is that there were some reactions activating tests, observed with the samples from March 2019, but not the whole virus, not even more markers, but just the two. Something like "a chemical probe that tests for presence of two times 10 letters", whereas a virus is something having 30000 letters. False positives using these kind of tests are possible, and even the "contamination" of the samples, and there isn't any demonstration that the authors made sure that wasn't a false positive.

Even worse, apparently nothing was actually isolated and preserved from the samples, in order to reproduce that, or isolate more letters, more a case of "the dog ate their homework" -- if I understood they claim they don't have the samples anymore?

In short: these researches used the search for 20 letters in the sample, which sometimes lies, even if that virus has 30000 letters, and they can't show that it wasn't a false positive. And even if the 20 letters have been there (only that month -- very improbable!), there's no sign that a whole virus has been.

The result from March 2019 is at the moment something that "needs more investigation" (if there is any material that can be tested again) but the presence of the virus during that month can't be established from that recently reported result.

Edit: the specification of the IP2 and IP4 gene tests that gave result in March 2019 sample:


What do you make of the abnormally high pneumonia cases in Italy late 2019?


Regarding that specific case, everything relevant for us at the moment is behind the link you give and one internet search away:

It's dated "March 26, 2020" and it starts with "Italian researchers are looking at whether a higher than usual number of cases..."

If they were looking then, during the following three months we would have heard that they have found something? I understand they still haven't.

However, other research was done since: during the last months no virus was sequenced more often than SARS-CoV-2. The genomic information in the virus slowly changes and it can be used to determine the point when the virus started infecting humans:


"The origin of the regression between sampling dates and ‘root-to-tip’ distances (Fig. S3) provides a cursory point estimate for the time to the MRCA (tMRCA) around late 2019. Using TreeDater (Volz and Frost, 2017), we observe an estimated tMRCA, which corresponds to the start of the COVID-19 epidemic, of 6 October 2019–11 December 2019 (95% CIs) (Fig. S4). These dates for the start of the epidemic are in broad agreement with previous estimates performed on smaller subsets of the COVID-19 genomic data using various computational methods (Table 1), though they should still be taken with some caution."

That is one of the many reasons why "March 2019" doesn't fit. Another one is that COVID-19 hits every infected community very hard due to its fast spread, and such development just couldn't be ignored in any country, and even in the whole world -- look how much happened during last few months, and what happens when people try to ignore its existence.

It is very probable that the virus reached Europe before the start of 2020, even if it wasn't detected then. But not "March 2019."

I am aware of this confirmed case:


"French hospital which has retested old samples from pneumonia patients discovered that it treated a man who had COVID-19 as early as Dec. 27"

And there is also a claim that in France there was a later reevaluated CT scan of the lungs that looked as a "typique Covid" that was initially dated "16 Nov 2019", but I haven't seen any independent confirmation of that claim:


I'm not aware of any proof for anything before Dec. 27 and it's possible there is or will be some. But I don't expect any other months than December or, at earliest and more unique, November.

Yeah, I've been thinking about how much false positives are with the result. I don't know about your background, but I am certainly not an epidemiologist, nor do I have the time to do the investigation, so I'd rather not get into the whole debate and wait for more published papers by people who are more knowledgeable than me in this area.

> I'd rather not get into the whole debate and wait for more published papers by people who are more knowledgeable than me in this area.

I've responded because it looked to me that you believe that the paper can "back up" the claims with, as you wrote: "traces of COVID-19 in Spain in March 2019."

I'm quite sure it can't show that COVID-19 was in Spain in March 2019, and even if the paper reports detecting IP2 and IP4 genes from the archived sample, even that is not certain.

No, I get it, I also find a lot of people who put links in to say "see, this is the definitive proof", I am not one of them; I've only put the paper into the response simply to add a bit more context to the other person's claim (since it was devoid of any form of links or reading material to back up his/her claim). I won't really believe that the study is true until there are more studies done on top of it and been peer reviewed (heck, peer reviewers can even be political!).

I'm constantly amazed at the number of people who still refuse to believe that this pandemic even exists or that we are living through it. There is collective denial and disbelief. Even though we've had pandemics throughout human history. We've also had a constant stream of infectious diseases with pandemic potential - almost every year - for as long as I can remember.

Epidemiologists have been warning us that it was a matter of when, not if, when a "big one" strikes.

This is like experiencing annual tremors in a heavy seismic zone, then acting shocked when the earthquake eventually hits.

Black swan events may be predictable in their eventuality but are blind spots for human psychology because they are sufficiently rare.

Black swan events aren't predictable by definition. They're usually events sufficiently rare that when they happen, it's the first time that category of event has been observed. This, we can't assess their likelihood since we have no real prior. So a market crash, plague, asteroid, etc. aren't black swan events. They just aren't rare enough. We've seen them. They have an annual probability. Hell, a COVID-like illness isn't even all that unlikely. A lethal fungal plague might be, since we've never seen such a thing in humans, although we've seen that in other mammals so it shouldn't come as a total shock.

As a better example, an AI apocalypse would be a black swan since we've never observed such an event and have no really great way of assessing its likelihood. Although we've some idea of that possibility.

To really get at the meat of it, consider the name. Black swans came as a surprise when Europeans visited Australia because a non-white swan had never before been observed. No one would even have thought to ask the question "what are the odds you find an all black swan in Australia?"

I think you are working with a harder defn of it than the original definition:


"Based on the [Taleb]'s criteria:

    1 The event is a surprise (to the observer).

    2 The event has a major effect.

    3 After the first recorded instance of the event, it is rationalized by hindsight, as if it could have been expected [...]"

I don't mean to add any fire to the debate. Just wanted to gently point out that the first recorded instances of a pandemic have happened so a pandemic does break the 3rd rule.

I think other commenters have pointed out that the reaction of global leadership has been a surprise with major effects that will be rationalised in the future. Making their reaction to the event itself the black swan event.

In a rational world, we'd have expected leaders to band together against a potential pandemic. That this level of incompetency should have been expected will be the rationalization that follows.

If you read the book Black Swan, it is exactly one of its defining characteristics that it is unpredictable. The only thing you can do against black swans is making systems less fragile.

Yes, there is a big difference between predicting an occurrence and theoretically knowing about it's possibility / eventual occurrence.

Here's Talebs essay for those without the book: https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/6fc4/ed36e247194c9c0b7adfec...

Small nitpick: Unpredictable for the observer. So in a way this pandemic was a black swan for some (naive) people.

On the other hand, I think it's good that someone like Taleb now goes around and pokes all the policymakers and governments that nothing of this was unpredictable and Corona is a white swan event.

It’s been a while I read it, but you are right. Personally I think it already ranks amongst the most important books of the 21st century. Everyone should read it.

I didn't perceive it as a black swan at all. It was more like having more snow in the winter than we are used to and therefore having roofs collapse. — yes — there was more snow than usual, but — no — it was still in tune with what would have been reasonable to assume.

Our roofs didn't collapse because of an unfantomable amount of snow, our roofs collapse because they were poorly built, badly maintained and all the money went into the fences to our neighbours instead (partly because we hate them, partly because we want to impress them).


We have also seen (in eurioe and the US) the kind of political paradigms that accompany, and cover for, systematic ineptitude.

Lockdown Vs Not has been (is) mostly centred around a specific dichotomy. Freedom, economic health, employment, etc one hand. The spread of covid in the other.

Those trade-off a exist, but just because a trade-off exists does not mean that it is always the operative dynamic. It is just the only decision left when ineptitude takes other options off the table.

Institutional competency is a primary force.

Where I live (Ireland) a failure to equip & prepare nursing homes accounted for a large number of deaths. It was just out of reach, in terms of our institutional ability to react in the necesytimeframe.

Testing, on a scale that can control the pandemic, was feasible. It would have been an achievement, but it was not impossible. Ireland has a large meditech & pharma industry. The resource and knowledge exist. We just weren't able to do it.

It can't be a question of costs. The cost in lives and their value might be debatable. The cost in money is not. What does a month of lockdown cost?

I was tidying out some books the other day and I found an excellent book that I had read ~1995: "The Coming Plague" by Laurie Garret:


I'm slowly re-reading it again and it is quite surreal - the first chapter describes a team from the US investigating a nasty disease in South America in the 1950s and literally one of the complaints their senior's have about the project is that it is "no worse than flu" when it was actually a highly dangerous disease.

The basic message of this book is: it's not if but when this happens.

Considering the population to the time of great plagues, this one is pretty harmless in comparison and I don't think the reaction was particularly bad. I hope the long term effects aren't as pronounced as feared. The economic damage will be significant and we will see that in a few weeks probably.

The definition from Wikipedia reads: "The black swan theory or theory of black swan events is a metaphor that describes an event that comes as a surprise, has a major effect, and is often inappropriately rationalised after the fact with the benefit of hindsight."

So predictability is not a criteria.

>comes as a surprise

Isn't that related to predictability?

people get surprised all the time by events that have a low percentage chance of happening but are not unique, I mean people get surprised when their spouse cheats on them and that isn't particularly unlikely.

Anyway, I would agree a black swan needs a very low chance of happening, but not that it has to be the first time it has ever happened.

Certainly when the Europeans saw the black swan in Australia it was the first time they had seen one, but probably not the first time they had seen a variation of a species in a non-European location that looked slightly different than expected.

on edit: some clarifications.

Wikipedia is not an authority on anything. It will be just as wrong as the misconceptions of whoever wrote the synopsis.

The term black swan in this context was coined by Nassim Taleb; he wrote a book about it, which when fully understood distinguishes predictable but rare from completely unexpected.

That Wikipedia manages to mangle this doesn’t mean the originator of the term suddenly became wrong.

> Why do people say Covid was a black swan event?

Because A Black Swan event is a Russell's teapot.

So since Black Swan events have no meaning, people assign meaning to them.

Since everyone talks about Black Swan events so much, they must exist right?

Which Covid-19 fits.

It was unpredictable in the sense that we expected another influenza epidemic. SARS 1 and MERS were easier to contain as patients show more symptoms.

Let people be.

There’s way too much “we need to start...” bullshit these days, and mostly spearheaded by the same group of ~500 businesses and media corps[1]; as if any of these fucking mega corporations give a shit about any of us.

When everything you believe in starts aligning perfectly with the corporations that have been screwing you for decades (tax havens, monopolizing the industries your parents worked in, sending all our jobs over seas to underaged slaves, dumping toxins into our rivers, etc.), it’s time to rethink your thinking.

1. took me all of three seconds to find an example for the publisher in question, in what looks like The Economist running pseudo-critic defense for Nike’s sweatshops, etc.: https://www.economist.com/business/1999/02/25/sweatshop-wars

>There’s way too much “we need to start...”

Not really. A world as complex as ours needs to be starting new initiatives all the time. Basically every convenience you take for granted (electricity, indoor plumbing, grocery stores) was because society said "we need to start". In places where they were slow to do that, it's generally less available and lower quality or they have to rely on technology from the places and people that took initiative.

We need to be starting much much more, not less.

"we need..." is a persuasion technique. It tries to sell an idea by (a) trying to incorporate you into it the argument before you even agreed (the "we" part) and (b) pushing on through a sense of false urgency (the "need" part).

"We need" is never ever an argument on itself. And it can be easily countered with: Who is this "we" you're talking about because I surely haven't agreed yet if I go along in your story. And the "need" isn't a shared need unless I'm willing to agree that it is a shared need between you and me.

"We need" forces the other to think past the problem and move directly towards "solutions". As if the problem exists outside of our own experience and should be considered as a problem. "We need" never explains why a set of facts is considered a problem in the first place. It just puts the focus on solutions, maybe even solutions that detract from what truly ought to be done.

The same is true when posing "society" as this homogeneous group that declares in unisono "we need to start". This couldn't be farther from the truth. "Society" is just a complex network of individuals, tribes, factions, parties,... with ever evolving shared and conflicting interests. Anything a society seemingly "agreed" upon is more emergent behaviour then deliberate action.

"society" sure didn't consciously decide "we need to start using technology or believing experience x, y or z." On the contrary. There are plenty of examples of beliefs being disparaged, vilified, questioned,... to the point where their proponents were burned on the stake. Or technologies and their inventors being ridiculed or banned because nobody was interested, or it was unclear which problem they truly solved.

Humanity survived just fine without electricity, indoor plumbing, grocery stores, digital technology and so on for hundreds of thousands of years. Ask any elderly person if they felt unhappy 60 or 70 years ago because they weren't able to consult Wikipedia via digital devices. They will simply answer "Well, we just went to the library. And that worked out perfectly for us. There simply wasn't an alternative and we didn't lament the lack of an alternative."

Stating that society agreed to "we need to start" would putting the horse before the cart.

I typed out a much longer response but this will do:

I think you are not following my argument or the OP. Neither supposes that "we need" is a standalone argument. OP provides specific examples for why "we need" to do these things.

"We" doesn't mean literally every human. Do you think people are actually being misled by this? It just means something like "society at large".

"We" need plumbing. This doesn't mean you can't individually live alone in the woods without plumbing.

"Need" doesn't mean you "must" have something. You don't "need" water if you're suicidal.

"Need" is just shorthand for "sustains our current way of life". If you want to see the downfall of civilization, you don't "need" agriculture. If you don't care about people on dialysis or the millions/billions of others that would die without power, then you don't "need" electricity or internal combustion engines.

You're allowed to have these opposing views.

The "we need" arguments assume that most people want to maintain or improve standards of living.

If you want to decrease standards of living, that's a fine opinion to have (although weird). More importantly, if you don't care about society, why bother arguing this at all? Why post on HN? No one is stopping you from living a pre-plumbing, pre-agricultural life if that's what you want.

"Society" of course tries to sustain itself. If society wants to keep existing in its current form, it does need to do many things (indoor plumbing, running water, electricity, or as the OP talks about, preparing for certain dangerous situations).

"We need" is both a social construct and a rhetorical device. No more, no less. I'm all fine when "we need" is used as a conclusion to a careful and thoughtful debate in which we both, equally, established a common need and a common wish to address that need knowing we're both deeply invested. I'm wary of hearing "we need to..." at the opening of every argument over and over again without showing how invested the person making the argument is in solving the issue.

If everything is turned into a priority, then nothing becomes a priority. Both time and the willingness to pay attention are in short demand.

We need to invest in an equitable society, economies of scale, reduce greenhouse gasses, invest in green technology, prepare for the next pandemic, vote for sensible politics (whatever those may be), invest in education, in the military, in getting to the Moon and establishing viable economies there, getting someone on Mars, invest in global network of satellites across the world, invest in developing nations, overhaul global supply lines and create less dependencies, find a better cure for cancer, invest in cybersecurity, invest in solutions to safeguard rights such as free speech and privacy, reduce fossil fuel dependency, invest in new industries and markets, and so on and so on and so on.

Here's how the vast majority of people reason, then. There are only 24 hours in a day. And life is rather short with just a few precious decades. How can I spend those valuable hours and my own talents in a healthy balance between taking care of myself and my loved ones, and deriving a due sense of personal satisfaction, meaningfulness and purpose?

There are 7.8 billion different answers to that question reflecting different and often very conflicting beliefs, wants, needs, dreams, desires and hopes.

"We need" at the start of every argument dismisses the reality that humanity or society is made up of individual humans, each of which is a unique universe of thoughts and feelings in their own right.

"We need" is a wonky substitute for a far more honest "I - personally - feel strongly about this issue, this is how invested I am in the issue, and I'm curious as to how you're feeling about this."

Worst case, "we need" is simply you projecting a personal fleeting desire to the entirety of humanity. "We need to go to Mars". I'm sure some people feel strongly about that. Maybe you do in this very instance, but will you still actively be thinking about how humanity could get there in an hour or two? Or have you moved on by then, forgetting that you even posted a fleeting thought on social media in the first place? Moreover, you just placed this massive issue - the urgency to get boots on Mars, or the preparation for the next pandemic - at my doorstep, how am I as an individual supposed to even contribute towards solving that problem while including the entirety of humanity or society?

"we need preparing for a pandemic" or "we need to invest in dialysis for people who need it for their survival". Sure, but that's your personal sentiment. But it's not an argument. How are you, as an individual acting on that sentiment? Who are you voting on? Are you making donations? Are you a researcher? Are you running for office yourself? Or are you endorsing politicians who will be making decisions? Or have you invested millions in factories that might one day supply vaccines, hopefully? What are you doing to show the way forward beyond a moot online demonstration of a due sense of self awareness?

"We should have had a (non-false) sense of urgency about this last year?" Who is this we? Why are you involving me into this? I read the news and social media like the next person and I'm an individual with limited time and resources. I'm not an elected decision maker. I'm certainly not privy to intelligence reports. And when I voted for decision makers that ran for office, a pandemic sure wasn't on everyone's mind.

It's an argument that could easily be met with could have, would have, should have, but "we" - whoever that is - didn't. Hindsight 20/20.

Instead, a better argument is "I feel it's important to vote for politicians that are aware of the importance of public health and who are willing to endorse increased public spending on public health and social security. I feel it's important to hold politicians who don't do this publicly accountable. That's why I openly voice my concern because I care about the impact of their policies on my own community and other communities. I also call representatives, I vote, I support news organizations through donations, I attend rallies to show support and so on."

Showing how you're caring is far more important then just telling you're caring.

Preparing for expected catastrophes is not a fleeting desire. It's basically the opposite. There are entire industries built up around this (FEMA, insurance, flood control systems, the CDC, banking reserve ratios, backup servers, many safety rules and systems). Saying we need to adjust these efforts to reflect the real world cost-benefit trade offs is common sense. You can disagree with the particular calculus they're doing (e.g. by thinking a pandemic is so unlikely that we shouldn't prepare very much), but I don't see a sound argument to say "we don't need to prepare at all for these costly events".

>If everything is turned into a priority, then nothing becomes a priority. Both time and the willingness to pay attention are in short demand.

I don't think people are turning everything into a priority. But if some ill-defined group is trying to do this, it wouldn't change the fact that certain things are a priority if we want to maintain our way of life. Disaster management is one of them.

I'm sure a bunch of people think irrelevant things happening on Instagram are a priority. But that doesn't change the fact that preserving infrastructure is a priority for maintaining our way of life.

As I said, if you don't care about maintaining our way of life, then of course you won't care about what we need to do to preserve that way of life.

>Here's how the vast majority of people reason, then. There are only 24 hours in a day. And life is rather short with just a few precious decades. How can I spend those valuable hours and my own talents in a healthy balance between taking care of myself and my loved ones, and deriving a due sense of personal satisfaction, meaningfulness and purpose?

I think I see the disconnect. No one is saying that the fry cook at McDonalds needs to align global resources better to deal with potential catastrophe. You are reading "we" too literally. (Rather, you are just misunderstanding the word "we". "We" doesn't mean an has never meant every human. We really just means a group of which the speaker is part. It need not include you.)

"We need to better prepare for certain catastrophes" means that politicians and other key actors (say businesses, insurers, bureaucrats, researchers, engineers that have relevant assets, skills, experiences, etc.) need to think better about these and non-key actors (say voters, consumers) need to shift attention, money, votes, etc. to supporting those key actors in this goal. If you are okay with disruptions like pandemics, then you can disagree with this. I think most people would prefer to avoid these disruptions though, given the comparatively low cost for doing so.

>at my doorstep, how am I as an individual supposed to even contribute towards solving that problem while including the entirety of humanity or society?

Support politicians that endorse science and logic, for example. Wear a mask as another example.

I don't think anyone is asking you to do anything that "includes the entirety of humanity or society". We are saying make the choices you can make and support the politicians and businesses that deal with these problems proactively.

>But it's not an argument.

No one is saying "we need to prepare for a pandemic" as a standalone argument. But the argument is not complicated. A pandemic could disrupt our way of life greatly by "harm X" (lets say decrease in quality adjusted life years or GDP). It has a chance of occur of "probability Y". Y here is close to 100% as we know. The cost of preparing systems to mitigate the risks to "harm level Z" is "cost Q". As long as harm X times probability Y is really big (which as we see, it is) and cost Q is less than harm level Z, then it is rational to invest Q resources into mitigation.

You can disagree with whatever numbers we might pick for X Y Z Q, but to say we shouldn't perform the calculus is just to say you don't think society is worth preserving. Again, you can have that viewpoint if you want.

The conversation that I think people are trying to have is "How should we preserve, improve and maintain society" and you're basically saying "don't bother". It's fine to say that, but the people having the discussion obviously aren't going to listen to you.

If we're discussing whether Liverpool should trade Coutinho then no one will be interested in your view that "football is stupid".

>How are you, as an individual acting on that sentiment? Who are you voting on? Are you making donations? Are you a researcher? Are you running for office yourself? Or are you endorsing politicians who will be making decisions? Or have you invested millions in factories that might one day supply vaccines, hopefully? What are you doing to show the way forward beyond a moot online demonstration of a due sense of self awareness?

I am doing things to my ability but this is irrelevant to our argument. I can make a powerful and logically airtight argument supporting thing X while selling a product that kills thing X. I can even make that same argument while personally killing thing X at that very moment.

I'm not holding this discussion to trumpet (or even to discuss) my own virtues or actions. I'm having this argument to disagree with a poorly reasoned argument made by the person I first responded to. I could be a computer simulation and it wouldn't take anything at all away from the logic of the points I make.

>"We should have had a (non-false) sense of urgency about this last year?" Who is this we? Why are you involving me into this?

I'm not involving you. You misunderstand the definition of the word "we"


"People in general" does not mean every single person and certainly doesn't have to mean you.

>I read the news and social media like the next person and I'm an individual with limited time and resources. I'm not an elected decision maker. I'm certainly not privy to intelligence reports. And when I voted for decision makers that ran for office, a pandemic sure wasn't on everyone's mind.

You shouldn't elect someone that campaigns on a single pet risk, so much as you should elect someone that takes a rational, cost-benefit approach to risks in general.

>It's an argument that could easily be met with could have, would have, should have, but "we" - whoever that is - didn't. Hindsight 20/20.

Well, that's not exactly right is it? "We" certainly did meet the risk where I am. Americans (or more specifically, some Americans in some places) are having issues understanding science. There's not much hindsight involved. Were there epidemiologists that said we didn't need to worry about or prepare for the risk of a pandemic? Pandemics have happened in the past and will continue to happen in the future.

More importantly, everyone saw what happened in China. America saw this and part of it decided not to take steps to mitigate the risks. I can tell you steps to take to mitigate your risk starting tomorrow and many Americans will still ignore it. This is not hindsight bias.

You could argue China's failures shouldn't be criticized by hindsight bias. But why are many Americans continuing not to fix the problem happening today and tomorrow? Hindsight is not the issue. I can give you steps right now to fix this. But many Americans don't want to listen. As a result they are going to fail. When I point this failure out in the future, it won't be hindsight bias.

>Instead, a better argument is "I feel it's important to vote for politicians that are aware of the importance of public health and who are willing to endorse increased public spending on public health and social security. I feel it's important to hold politicians who don't do this publicly accountable. That's why I openly voice my concern because I care about the impact of their policies on my own community and other communities. I also call representatives, I vote, I support news organizations through donations, I attend rallies to show support and so on."

Ok, that's what this article is doing. I'm not sure who you're arguing against here.

>Showing how you're caring is far more important then just telling you're caring.

I don't care about showing or telling about my caring. I'm just trying to correct the person I originally responded to. What I do or don't do is irrelevant to correcting OP's point.

I was at a mega corp store yesterday to buy some basic necessities. While paying the bill, I was asked to donate money for Covid-19. They do this nearly all year, asking for donations for something or the other.

Why should I trust this mega corp with just one dollar? How do I even know what they are doing with this money? The mega corps have repeatedly shown they care about nothing but profits. Isn't it hypocritical to ask for money from common man to fix problems that they created in the first place (like pollution)? I'd rather trust Doctors without borders than these people.

But the thing that annoys me the most - if they really cared that much, why can't they donate a dollar (or whatever amount) from their profit every time I shop there? Instead of pestering shoppers many of whom live paycheck to paycheck?

Yes, we need to do much much more. But the leadership for it (both in thought and action) is not these multi billion dollar corporations and their cronies (especially the media). They are largely the reason we are here in the first place - causing pollution, wage stagnation, privacy violation etc

The reason they ask you to donate is to gather pricing data: If you're willing to donate, it means they can raise the price of the goods without hurting the demand curve.

They actually do donate the money; they're not trying to keep your dollar. It's difficult to acquire this data via other means, so they don't mind paying it out properly.

Which part of the OP deals with megacorps?

I don't like megacorps either but I don't see which part of the OP you disagree with.

>Isn't it hypocritical to ask for money from common man to fix problems that they created in the first place (like pollution)?

No. I think a better word is "unseemly". I don't think it's hypocritical for a company or person to use carbon and then buy carbon offsets or donate to the rain forest or something.

Even if it were hypocritical I would still rather have a polluting corporation that fought pollution than a polluting corporation that didn't.

>if they really cared that much, why can't they donate a dollar (or whatever amount) from their profit every time I shop there?

Many of them do just that. I don't think corporate giving is the solution to society's problems but it is a real thing that happens and can make a difference for some people.

Corporations of course do things for marketing and PR reasons. If one of you things is to encourage you to donate or to donate themselves then I don't see the problem (although I am annoyed having to press a bunch of buttons to pay).

Huh? Please tell me which one of these "~500 businesses and media corps" is at work here and what exactly they are saying "we need to start..." doing that is, in actuality, screwing us. Else your diatribe has zero relevance.

Your post is an example of tactical nihilism. Suddenly, you've forgotten about every corporation that has reprehensible politics that you dislike? Suddenly, every media organization is truthful, every sponsor an altruist?

Honestly, how have you not seen these "we need to start doing X" posts? They rain down from the heavens on a weekly basis. "It's time to stop doing X, and do Y". "Here's why Z is problematic." It's literally corporate moralizing, sprinkled with doomsday predictions and rationalizations for hating the enemy du jour. It gets so very tiresome.

This thread:

1. Topic A is done by evil X.

2. No it's not.

3. Why are you trying to distract from the evil of X?

Again, huh? There is simply no relevance of the rant to the article; it has nothing to do with politics or "tactical nihilism." It appears several other posters also fail to find the relevance.

Less certainty, more inquiry.

Tactical nihilism

Great word, I have to write that down.

How are big corporations pushing preparedness for black swan events? If anything they do the opposite - see 2009.

I don't see the relevance of your rant.

What does your link have to do with?:

"There’s way too much “we need to start...” bullshit these days, and mostly spearheaded by the same group of ~500 businesses and media corps"

There's no apparent connection that I can see.

Corporations are bad, but that doesn't distract from two very distinct facts:

1. We let corporations do this to us. The cult of profit over all else is why all of those things you mention are an issue. As long as we keep removing regulations, laws and things that were put into place to stop companies from doing this shit, what can we honestly expect?

2. There are many things we've done which are not the result of corporations but rather our own narcissistic drive for fake freedoms above all else. The people refusing to wear masks for example or practice basic preventative measures against pandemics are not doing so because of businesses and media corps telling them to stop. They're doing so because of pervasive behavior which has infected the national debate and is peddled by elected officials. This won't change until people stand face to face with the results of their actions and unfortunately in a pandemic that means mass death.

Our general reaction to the coronavirus convinced me that we're lucky it's not far, far deadlier. Because if we had to stare down a virus that would threaten our extinction, we'd choose extinction.

How shortsighted. Humanity faces many existential threats and it is completely and utterly irresponsible to not even try to mitigate them.

> spearheaded by the same group of ~500 businesses and media corps

The Economist may be quite friendly to capitalism, but they're independently owned (mostly by wealthy families, plus some staff, per [0]).

Regardless, your premise seems entirely strange to me. I hear "we need to start..." from individuals, mostly on the political left outside of the mainstream. Nike and Exxon Mobil never tell me to change things.

[0] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Economist_Group

i have a mini-theory in which any group that allocates resources to existential risks will operate at a disadvantage (in the short term) to groups that do not, thus it's likely that anybody who does this will lose to competitors (businesses, countries) that do not.

FOr example, cloud providers who do not plan for meteor-based regional outages (which occur rarely) believe they can home all their data in a single region. This is much cheaper and will allow the provider a better profit margin, and realistically, not a lot of customers care about their data surviving a meteor taking out US-EAST1.

Matt Levine has a great take on this in regards to the airline industry in this pandemic. He talks about all the people upset about all the stock buybacks they did during the boom years and how they should have saved cash for a pandemic.

He runs the basic math, and even if the airlines completely cease to exist, it was still the financially sound decision to return the money to investors. Even if they knew the pandemic was going to happen this year, they made the right decision... and given that this was such a rare event, it would have been extremely foolish to try to maintain a cash cushion for this.

Things this catastrophic are better left to governments for bailouts (which really is just insurance at a societal level) than for companies to save for. Having to save for events this unlikely is incredibly inefficient.

Or just let the airlines go bust. New ones will crop up once the situation improves.

Pretty much. When an airline goes out of business, most of the physical aircraft will still be sold to someone unless they fall victim to lack of proper maintenance.

I'm not convinced the premiums paid (taxes paid by corporations) match the risk and payouts given, it's only been 12 years since the last hundreds of billion dollar bailout. But yes, capitalism alone does not work.

Do you have a link?

Toby Ord talks about this very problem in his book "The Precipice: Existential Risk and the Future of Humanity" [1] -- I totally recommend it if you are into this subject, although I have to admit I am pretty pessimistic after reading it, as it seems that the only way to avoid existential risk is by preparing through international collaboration at a global level. Precisely what I do not think will happen any time soon in the current climate.

[1] - https://www.amazon.com/Precipice-Existential-Risk-Future-Hum...

They cite that book in the article. It seems to be their primary source.

But they do care about power outages, hurricanes, tornadoes (maybe not in US-EAST1), cut fiber lines

The probability any one very rare event is low. Preparing for it helps mitigate risks for many other issues however.

I believe GPS premise is largely correct, although the metaphor used could use a bit of work.

You don't need to worry about a meteor taking out us-east-1 because us-east-1 will take itself out several times over before a meteor ever shows up.

Besides, if the meteor’s big enough, it’ll also take out your customers.

This is a significant issue, any company that set aside resources to protect against a pandemic after the Spanish Flu would have been operating with increased costs for a full 100 years. Yet when the virus hit and companies struggled, I saw plenty of comments saying these companies deserved to fail. I’m all for capitalism and the benefits of market forces, but that’s ludicrous. I’m not saying they should all be bailed out either, companies come and go to be honest, but what we do need to do is ensure our vital interests and the infrastructure we depend on is secure and that’s going to take a pragmatic approach.

The global cost of the virus is astronomical, but protecting ourselves effectively against a new virus doesn’t have to be crippling. The same is true of many other credible risks the article covers. Such preparations could even offer additional useful benefits. It’s just going to take vision and pragmatism I’m not sure our political leaders have in them these days.

The "It's the companies fault for not being prepared" line originated as a satirical jab at the "personal responsibility" rhetoric the right has used for decades to systematically dismantle any semblance of a social safety net in the United States.

>...vital interests and the infrastructure we depend on is secure and that’s going to take a pragmatic approach.

I argue for letting these businesses fail, even if vital, because, it seems, the powers that be have forgotten to take care of them, regulate them, and not get captured by private interests, for decades now. Infrastructure across the the country is literally crumbling. Major dams have failed this year. I fully expect to suffer much more before those with the power to delegate resources where needed will find the will too.

Moral hazard. Why would anyone waste money planning for something that could make the business fail, when they know there will be trillions in bailouts?

We'll solve the problem eventually, I guess, when it becomes clear that there's no money left for bailouts.

Money will never run out. Government will just print more money resulting in inflation and other problems. Most of the currencies are free floating and are not backed up by something tangible like gold.

Oh, sure, money itself may conjured such that it never runs out, but the ability of the government to tap the economy's output is definitely finite.

If you start just conjuring money to bridge the gap, you're basically robbing whoever holds money (or other financial instruments denominated in your currency). These parties then work very hard to stop holding money. When that process is done, you're back where you started, only with less trust, higher transaction costs, and elevated risk burdens depressing output across the economy.

>any company that set aside resources to protect against a pandemic after the Spanish Flu would have been operating with increased costs for a full 100 years

It's not so much setting aside money for a certain very rare event, it's realizing that there are a LOT of low-probability events that are close to catastrophic and the chance of encountering one of these events is quite high in aggregate even if the chance of a specific event in the pool is low.

> and the chance of encountering one of these events is quite high

Indeed, and there are a lot of overlapping disaster preparedness steps that make sense no matter what the triggering event happened to be, so it makes sense to establish, e.g.: robust command and control infrastructure that doesn't rely on primary infrastructure, including communications and chains of command; stockpiles of strategic durable goods like medical equipment, rations, batteries, etc.

Unfortunately, long term, people tend to abandon them. US had many stockpiles before that it no longer does, because they were all sold off as "unneeded".

Setting aside money as "pandemic" is a problem. Setting aside money for "emergency" helps reduce impact.

1970 gas shortages 2000 dotcom bubble burst 2008 housing crisis

> 1970 gas shortages 2000 dotcom bubble burst 2008 housing crisis

All missed opportunities to change broken institutional structures and to do things differently.

The ability of money to timeshift resources is magical when it works: I can forego goods and services now, save more money, and then purchase more goods and services later.

However, this has limits. It doesn't work for large scale shortages like the oil shocks of the seventies. If everybody had saved money beforehand, there still wouldn't be more oil available in total. When the oil price doubles, you'll only be able to buy half as much with your savings.

What are the preparations that a company would have needed to do in the last 100 years to protect themselves in the event of a new pandemic? Wouldn't they need a plan to restructure to cut costs or find new revenue, and be able to cover cash flow in the n months it takes to do that restructuring? Is it that crazy to expect that from a large profitable company with long-term goals? Consider that it's common "financial advice" for individuals to be able to cover n months of living expenses in the event of an emergency, and that is often much more infeasible for an individual than it ought to be for a large profitable company.

Doesn’t appear to be a problem. Print money to accelerate out of the quagmire seems sensible.

Capitalism doesn't seem to really incentivize "vision and pragmatism" at any level of government these days. Social media and entertainment-journalism have compressed attention cycles so much that planning for next year or next administration might as well be lumped in with planning for the next global catastrophe 100 years from now in terms of payoff and optics.

the unstated prerequisite is for regulation to stipulate a minimum reserve so that the competitive field remains level, otherwise the dynamics would lead to risk ignorers eventually crowding out the disadvantaged risk mitigators. for business risks, i'd support a reserve requirement of 12 months, which phases in as a fledgling company reaches sustainability.

but, a pandemic is not an idiosyncratic risk of individuals or firms, but rather a broad systemic risk, and as such, should be bourne by society as a whole, not each individual and business separately.

Let me understand this: you want a business to have enough capital to pay its expenses for 12 months on zero revenue?

Holy Jesus; that's massive.

Capital is not free. Typical costs of capital today are about 8% (1). You're proposing, essentially, an 8% tax — not on a firm's profits, but on a firm's expenses. I don't want you to think, "oh, that will push a few firms into failure, rendering their entire business unviable." I want you to think, "it will spare a few firms." I also shudder to think of what happens to firm formation in the face of the steep, steep barriers to entry this raises.

You propose a very, very expensive way to build resilience. You're right, though, that the costs would be borne by all of society. Maybe it's worth it? But it's a hell of an ask, and I'm skeptical.

(1) if you have better figures than http://people.stern.nyu.edu/adamodar/New_Home_Page/datafile/... then I'm all for 'em

it's not that incredible. most going concerns already have the working capital, current assets, and receivables to hold out 3-6 months.

and the cost of capital isn't the right rate to be applying here. a better estimate is the spread between the cost of debt and their short-term securities rate (like the interest rate on current assets), which could even be negative (that is, making money). certain businesses can even be financed via their receivables alone.

damodaran is a good reference. his book was the basis of my finance and valuation classes. but it's dense and not easy to implement without going all in. it really taught me that finance and valuation are arguments, not analytical solutions.

That's just evolutionary theory applied to groups. Bacteria that allocate resources to existential risks (e.g. antibiotics) operate at a disadvantage to bacteria that do not, except in environments with frequent encounters with antibiotics.

Definitely. Another place the mathematics translates pretty cleanly to is financial leverage.

If you take a loan to expand your business and pull forward profits, or even rent property instead of buying it, you take tail risk but in normal times tend to outcompete.

I think it's an ironclad argument for regulation (and maybe government intervention) in insurance markets, and a good argument in many others -- Even though I'm generally in favour of some leverage.

The right answer may not always be the risk compensated answer. The social gains to be had from ignoring the risk could be worthwhile in the broader picture, even if some groups fail.

Yes, precisely (my background is biophysics). Selection pressure leads to rapid population shifts when one has a favorable mutation. However, you can look at eukaryotes and see that absolute efficiency isn't the metric by which they are being evaluated.

That's a pretty good theory. It even shows up in the start-up world: those companies that invest in good security and proper IT infra have a short term disadvantage compared to the ones that don't, which actually may have the effect that those that don't eventually win out at which point they will either end up with a massive security issue or they get wise and fix things in time. It's not a level playing field and tricks like this can easily make a big difference in outcome.

There's a great SlateStarCodex essay on this called "Studies on Slack", where this tradeoff of investing resources in preparation for low-likelihood catastrophic events is examined.

Here is a link to the full article on LessWrong - https://www.lesswrong.com/posts/GZSzMqr8hAB2dR8pk/studies-on...

Shame you can't link to the original Slate Star Codex copy.

This is basically the case for many government regulations, e.g. bank reserve requirements, building codes, food and safety laws, etc.

So it's a coordination problem. If only there were some sort of Organisation (in this specific example, for Health), whose remit was the whole World instead of particular groups, maybe we'd be able to coordinate to avoid a tragedy of the commons?

This is a good example where good marketing can make up for the disadvantage.

If you explain to your customers what you did to prepare for eventualities, those among them who are risk averse may decide to become customers and pay you a little extra.

Probably one of the reasons why security is at the bottom of everybody's priority list.

The US government could find the money to be fully prepared for pandemic diseases in its couch cushions. The problem is not a lack of resources but rather a lack of operational capability to observe, orient, decide and act.

And even if you do prepare, the preparation might be for nil (or very little) advantage if a government will just bail out your competitors anyway.

that works for a profot seeking institution, but preparing for existential risks doesn't have a disadvantage in national security. it's the profit motive that is short sighted, and you've accidentally mistaken "any group" for "any group organized for the purpose of making profit."

It's compounded because of the interdependance of companies and countires.

Elon musk is a counter example to your theory.

Not quite. Elon's strategies involve finding product/market fit in the short term for technologies that will be critical in the long term. But the companies themselves are on a knifes edge of survival. For example, if a meteor struck tomorrow, neither Tesla or SpaceX would have any advantage over their competitors. And if anything, because he runs his companies so close to the edge, his companies are uniquely susceptible to external catastrophic events.

The world should act better about catastrophic and existential risks.

We think fine. We think when things get serious we'll act. Then things get serious -- like billions of people locked down, plastic in our bloodstreams, would-be leaders exacerbating problems, etc -- and we don't act how we thought we would.

The problem is our behavior. Thinking is relevant, but behavior is the issue.

One of my favorite essays of all time is "A Muscular Empathy": https://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2011/12/a-muscu...

It explores this idea, that we like to think that we would be heroes if things got tough... even though we don't do anything heroic in our normal, cushy lives.

We seem to think we would some how be better people if things are hard, when in reality it is often the opposite. This pandemic has really driven home this point.

To quote the article:

> Still, we are, in the main, ordinary people living in plush times. We are smart enough to get by, responsible enough to raise a couple of kids, thrifty to sock away for a vacation, and industrious enough to keep the lights on. We like our cars. We love a good cheeseburger. We'd die without air-conditioning. In the great mass of humanity that's ever lived, we are distinguished only by our creature comforts, and we are, on the whole, mediocre.

That mediocrity is oft-exemplified by the claim that though we are unremarkable in this easy world, something about enslavement, degradation and poverty would make us exemplary. We can barely throw a left hook--but surely we would have beaten Mike Tyson.

This reminds me of the book Ordinary Men, people overestimate their goodness, but put in the right (wrong) situation we can become monsters.


Funny, I think it's exactly the other way around -- people wring their hands about things that don't matter ("plastic in our bloodstreams") but tend to act appropriately. Don't panic. Carry on.

Treating a threat as existential is often enormously costly, and we reliably overestimate threats. Ignoring them is a good first response, if not always a good second one. Being a week or a month late to the current pandemic is less costly than locking down for SARS, mad cow, bird flu, swine flu, ...

Not to mention the times when we did overreact. The latest TSA budget is $8.24 billion dollars, or 824 lives per year (at a cost of $10 million per life), or 2.17 One World Trade Centers per year, or (verging into polemic) one 9/11 every four years.

Isn't the lesson that we tend to overreact? Sure, maybe it'll be a pandemic, and let's not completely discount the idea, but why not just lock the plane's cabin doors and see if it gets worse?

>Treating a threat as existential is often enormously costly, and we reliably overestimate threats. Ignoring them is a good first response, if not always a good second one.

For the general public, ignoring and carrying on is a great response. We live in a world that capitalizes on specialists. The problem with COVID-19 was multiple failures by the people whose jobs were to care about pandemics. And we don't need massive budgets to prevent pandemics. Just epidemiologists and doctors on the lookout. Small teams working with hotspot countries.

It's not the average citizen's fault we got here. It's the fault of the institutions tasked with protecting us, who only had to hire a small team of experts every two decades to write up short proposals of what to do in unusual but eventually guaranteed emergencies. From what I've seen, the majority of Western countries were making up their pandemic response on the fly. And it's a virus that spreads like the annual flu, so not even a "black swan" method of infection.


As far as I know most countries already do that more often than you ask for. Everyone had a strong response to the 2009 pandemic, with plans, PPE stockpiles and such. The virus turned out very mild, which lead to heeding to the advice of epidemiologists to be politically costly. But in the USA pandemic preparedness was only effectively disassembled with the 2017 update.

As an employee of a state department of health, I can honestly say we were blindsided and had no plan. At most, our plan was "Do what the CDC says." Even if the CDC had been on top of things, much more could've been done and planned.

Well sure, but all this is a somewhat-conscious decision by politicians: "basing on experience, doing the pandemic preparations as advised by epidemiologists is more expensive than absorbing a pandemic not prepared (even if that somehow happens during our term)".

I think the tendency is slightly more complicated than that. I People tend to under react to a certain point and then tend to overreact past that point. The problem is that this inflection point is rarely informed by any sort of rational thought.

Why is plastic in our bloodstream something that doesn't matter?

That's stupid. Over the long shot, "being a week or a month late to the current pandemic" will be completely disastrous. We're lucky that the current pandemic kills mainly old people (more or less, let's gloss over permanently disabled people), but are you denying that it's just a matter of time until some virus comes along that lies in the sweet spot of infectiousness, mortality and/or permanent damage to the body?

Enforcing lockdown a week earlier could have halved death toll in the UK


This is the only thing I fault my own government for. They reacted, and reasonably well but two weeks too late thinking it might blow over. Respect the exponential function or you'll end up paying for it.

That's entirely presumptive. You can't conclude that a model works because the predictions the model makes don't come true.

Models are the best we have. And if we compare the UK with countries that reacted faster then it seems likely that a lot of deaths could have been prevented.

If you compare the UK to places that didn't lock down and have had very few deaths you can conclude the opposite. That's why you shouldn't cherry pick your data points.

Many people created models of the spread of Covid. Some of these models worked very well and others were terribly inaccurate. We should use the models that work and not those that have lost all credibility.

Isn't this an extreme case though?

The problem is that our priorities can be made to work against us.

Can you elaborate on that?

I'm reading that as: in a world of scarce resources, there is always going to something higher priority to deal with than extremely low risk catastrophic/existential events.

risk = probability * impact

- climate change: very high probability * very high impact

- terrorism: low/med probability * low/med impact

- thermonuclear war: low-ish(?) probability * extremely high impact

- superhuman AGI: ??? probability * ??? impact (likely very high impact, but + or - is uncertain)

In a standard rational decision-making framework, if: cost of action < risk, then: take action.

[Edit: Of course this is all a gross simplification. See more here https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Optimal_decision]

Well said, but I believe the “thinking” problem is because we are not generally wired to think in a statistical sense. We can assess the severity fairly well, but we have all kinds of cognitive biases that get in the way of accurate probability assessments. [1]

[1] https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_cognitive_biases

That’s a frequently used formula for security, and it’s dumb there too, manipulated to explain away problems or get money.

Impact is more like “perceived impact to me” and risk is over a timeline that matters to the assessor of risk.

War hawks see nuclear war as medium probability, low impact. Most people see climate change as something impactful in a timeframe they don’t give a shit about, and terrorism is medium or high impact with medium or high probability in a timeframe that matters to them.

Sorry you feel that it’s dumb, because it’s not so much a formula as the basic concept (in words) of a expected value, which is perhaps the most fundamental concept in statistics, ML, decision theory, game theory, economics, medical decision and more. As I mentioned, the application of this concept gets much spicier (and more useful) once you start accounting for random variables, priors, model assumptions, etc. There are centuries of academic and practical thought devoted to these topics.

The “definition” of risk that I gave is a useful heuristic, even for my cat. He seems to calculate the probability of being caught on the kitchen counters, conditional on the number of people home and the time of day. He knows that he may get spritzed for violations and can balance this against the reward (simply chillin’ = stern warning; eviscerating a briefly undefended loaf of fresh challah = direct barrage from the water bottle). Clearly, this shrewd exploitation of Lady Luck is a learned behavior. (Whether is consciously strategic behavior or just serendipitously adaptive cat programming is actually immaterial in the game theoretic sense—mixed strategy Nash equilibria that result from evolutionary dynamics are equivalent to those that arise from strategic deduction).

Anyways, you’re right that the original motivation for probability theory and expected value was to “get money” (via gambling): https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Problem_of_points

My comment came off more snarky than intended. I usually see that concept depicted like science, but the details for the inputs are very much opinion.

Your cat is honest.

Humans take great leaps to dial in the answer they want!

> terrorism is medium or high impact

This implies that the best solution to terrorism is to abolish national news, in order to diminish its impact.

Perhaps abolishing cable news or meaningful adoption of the public mandate.

Think about how OJ Simpson ushered in our era of shit news.

> In a standard rational decision-making framework, if: cost of action < risk, then: take action.

Yes, but cost of action includes opportunity cost of not doing all the alternative actions for which you now suddenly don’t have the time.

Which makes rational decision making incredibly hard!

Example: focus all the effort on preventing climate change by reducing CO2 right now, or work on improving GDP for entire world so we have enough money and tech to mitigate the downsides?

The first sentence of the link I posted accounts for opportunity cost: “An optimal decision is a decision that leads to at least as good a known or expected outcome as all other available decision options.”

And there is much, much more than opportunity cost that makes decision theory difficult. However, the basic definition of expected value (e.g. both risk and reward)—and decision making on the basis of it (e.g. cost-benefit analysis)—is so universally useful that I believe every living creature relies on this concept in some way or another (even if things are decided for them via evolutionary fitness—which we probably shouldn’t let happen to us as a civilization).

As for your question, I reject the premise that there exists a binary choice between “focus all the effort on...reducing CO2 right now” vs. having “enough money and tech to mitigate the downsides” (an idea I’d also reject as frankly absurd—how will money and tech address a 50% species extinction rate?). Speaking of which, there are many classes of things that defy the concept of market value or utility—like the existence of species—which is where this framework can fall down. We can’t recognize their value as infinite without reaching absurdities (like I dunno, destroying everything else in the universe to preserve toucans or something). But preserving the future inhabitability of the planet for humans and other living beings is clearly of such high aggregate value that it is rational to devote significant effort towards mitigation (beginning with the actions that have the highest benefit/cost ratio).

By the way, I highly recommend the book “Beyond Growth” by Herman Daly as an introduction to ecological economics and the failure of GDP as a measure of progress.

> very high probability of climate change.

There is a 100% probability. It has been happening since there was a climate. The question is how much can we really affect it or even if we should.

Rephrase it as "very high probability of human-induced climate change" and the probability stays the same, but the impact of taking action changes completely.

If the change is human induced and on a very short timeframe (ie since the industrial revolution), then action on a similar scale should be possible to mitigate the impact.

I think something else is being said. Along the lines of our priorities and concerns can be highjacked as a means to a different end. Which is almost certainly happening.

Money is effectively priority, or at least control over the priorities of others. How do we ensure a greater return on investment for doing things that are actually in the public interest, so that people with money choose to use it in order to make people do actions that prioritize that?

The problem is CAPITALISM.

Capitalism prioritizes profits over people's lives.

If it were profitable to stockpile resources to protect life and/or property, in advance of foreseeable adverse events, we would be more prepared.

Precisely because it is not profitable, we are not.

The problem is not the mechanism of capital distribution, it's the incentives.

Effectively, government (through taxation and public works) is the mechanism of capital (re-)distribution that is not (or should not be) profit driven.

> The problem is not the mechanism of capital distribution, it's the incentives.

...which is exactly capitalism: 1) private companies are required to maximize (short term) profit as their first priority. 2) the billionaire class can heavily influence policy through regulatory capture

> We think fine

Daniel Kahneman argues otherwise.

If you're interested in existential risks check out effective altruism. It's a philanthropic movement whose idea is to maximize the amount of good we can do with our resources. Much of the research is focused on x-risks. I've come to the conclusion that non-profit is the only sector that can tackle x-risks because it's not profitable and there's no political will, which pretty much leaves ea researchers as the only people looking at the area.

Note that some popular effective altruists have a little bit of tunnel vision when it comes to X-risks, which leads them to overfund X-risk-due-to-AI over something like, say, X-risk-due-to-asteroids. (X-risk-due-to-nanotech is being suitably supported by not funding nanotech.)

Plus, some people working on the AI X-risk problem are doing it for nothing, which means the state of funding is a bit weird.

> tunnel vision when it comes to X-risks, which leads them to overfund X-risk-due-to-AI over something like, say, X-risk-due-to-asteroids.

Risks from natural events like asteroids are actually quite well understood and we have tight bounds that they aren't that risky per century. The natural risks cause area probably deserves more funding on a global level, but EAs are definitely thinking about it. It's literally the first section in 80k's intro article about X-risks: https://80000hours.org/articles/extinction-risk/

"The world should think better about catastrophic and existential risks"

"Plans and early-warning systems are always a good idea"

Yes, we know, but how do achieve anything when people are deep in denial and reading conspiracy theories on Facebook is considered "news"?

You have to consider that the current pandemic is relatively tractable compared to the climate crisis, and we're failing miserably even at that.

It is a bit syrreal to read about low probability/high impact risks while we have a very high probability/catastrophic impact event already started.

What catastrophic impact event are you referring to? Covid-19? Climate change?

Neither of those are existential risks: they're incredibly unlikely to wipe us out. The kind of high impact risks the article is about are much worse.

There is almost no event that will wipe out humanity with certainty. Our species could survive for millennia in hermetically sealed caves, huddled around underground breeder reactors. There is however a very real risk of wiping out our current way of life; civilization is quite brittle. That would of course mean that we no longer have the means to sustain eight billion people, and most of them would die. The latter is what most people refer to when they say that climate change is an existential risk, because there is a very real danger that our population drops massively over the next hundred years or so. And not because we finally figured out how to use contraceptives.

> danger that our population drops massively over the next hundred years or so. And not because we finally figured out how to use contraceptives.

According to the evidence from Brazil and India, because we watch TV. According to the evidence from China, because of access to basic healthcare[1].

(I don't know of any evidence about video games, but they'd contribute too.)

[1] China's "one child policy" is blamed for the drop in fertility there, but if you look at the charts, fertility started trending down with the "barefoot doctor" campaign (someone with basic hygiene knowledge in every village). The one child policy coincides with a slight pause in the decline.

0.05c 2km asteroid. Grey goo. Fast UFAI takeoff (e.g. paperclip maximiser). Nuclear holocaust damaging our infrastructure enough that we don't survive the next big asteroid (speaking of which, we have no anti-asteroid infrastructure). Bioweapons causing widespread infertility, airdropped over uncontacted tribes.

Uhhh, climate change will absolutely kill us all if we don't do something.

How would it kill us all?

I suppose it could lead to a Venus like atmosphere if things got really crazy. Realistically the worst case scenario would just lead to coastal areas being uninhabitable and widespread famine and unrest while the worlds farming and population gets redistributed to more habitable latitudes. I don't think it would ever wipe out EVERYONE even if it's a sizable percentage.

There is no "redistribution to more habitable latitudes" (a breathtakingly vast understatement of human suffering) without all out war. There is no all out war without nuclear destruction at our own hand.

If your plan involves moving the entirety of food production to areas of the globe that are currently permafrost and have no comparable ecosystems to where we are currently farming, you are going to have a bad time. You can't just bootstrap a healthy, thriving set of soil conditions, food webs, etc in a couple years. These things normally take thousands or even tens of thousands of years on geological timescales. Just look at how long it takes deciduous forests to reach their apex state: thousands of years.

I agree with you. But you don't have to go quite all the way to Venus for a plausible scenario that would, probably, wipe out humanity. See page 6 of this link for a scary infographic.


Of course direct emissions won't get there alone, but runaway feedbacks could.

Intuitively it seems very difficult to see how things could go all the way towards being Venus-like if all the positive feedback mechanisms kick off. We're really, really similar to Venus, but Earth's crust wouldn't appear to have that many greenhouse chemicals stored up. (Unless geologists have failed to account for something)

But there's a long distance between Venusian hellscape (hot enough to melt lead and raining sulfuric acid) and what we have today, and most of it is pretty awful for us. "Kill everybody" isn't crazy.

Sorry, we don't even understand the 'realistic' worst case scenario. We've blown past previous estimates of temperature rise and atmospheric co2 by decades. It's a nonlinear system with many unknowns, this is why its critical we operate on the precautionary principle.

No climate forecast that I'm aware of predicts human extinction; much of Earth would still be habitable by humans even at +20 C (although that would trigger a huge mass extinction among other species). There's a big gap between "pretty bad" and "literally no survivors".

+2c would make plenty of inhabited areas uninhabitable, ive never seen predictions of +20c, what would that even look like?

The crop failures and localised starvation of +2c would become global at +20c.

The migration of people, something that humans are historically absolutely terrible at handling, would be on an unimaginable level. Imagine the bloodshed.

20c being habitable seems like a stretch to me, and my Google Fu only turned up mentions of Antarctica hitting 20c. Have any references for that number? Most reports I've read say a +2c will cause significant problems globally.

+20C global average warming would correspond to roughly +40C land average warming. With polar regions seeing significantly more warming, at least +60C. That would see the coast of Antarctica averaging Death Valley's summer highs. Suffice to say, humans are not going to survive +20C global average warming.

The risks involved with rapidly changing the planet's climate are huge and largely unknowable. We're running a very dangerous experiment where we can't know what all the results will be. Hence, you don't run the experiment.

Europe has struggled "pretty badly" with migrant crisis on the order of a few million people. Fairly soon, estimated climate change refugees in one of the most prosperous and advanced areas of the world is going to be at one order of magnitude more[0], i.e. about 1 person in 10 in Europe will have been fleeing death. This isn't +20C, this is within the next few decades. At the scale of the world, we're talking about predictions of 150 million refugees by 2050[1]. Sea level rise is one thing, but climate change is also desertification, tornadoes, death of the seabed[2], melting glaciers and re-arranging of maritime currents therefore weather patterns. The decline of structures of agriculture can also lead to radicalization of people in some areas of the world (see [1] again). The collapse of food chains can also be global, and just for the US alone for example a rise of 4 degrees would cut corn production in half[3], while precipitating what is already in motion (again, just for the US as an example, migrant crises from Central and South America[3]).

Uprooting not only entire industries but entire cities, states, and lives on an order of magnitude significant for any major country of union in the world, is not something that will be easily done without significant loss of quality of life, rise in tensions and potential wars, and widespread shortages of resources.

I imagine your reference to +20C is wildly exaggerated, because there is so little research about that since predictions about compound effects become exponentially more difficult. Even just an estimate that's over a decade old of up to +5C change already presents risks to India, China, ocean life, and major cities like NYC, London and Tokyo[4]. At +3C in the world, due to differences between land and sea it is possible that on average people (who are on land) would experience rises of averages closer to +7C already.[5]

Needless to say that +20C is something else entirely, and it's likely that no possible study would do justice to the idea due to catastrophic cascades of effects. The claim that humanity would still be inhabiting Earth would probably require some redefinition of "humanity" and "inhabiting" if survival/adaptation proved to be possible, which are all far-reaching thought experiments with the extent of current knowledge.

[0] https://helprefugees.org/news/climate-change-refugee-crisis/

[1] https://www.brookings.edu/research/the-climate-crisis-migrat...

[2] https://phys.org/news/2018-04-climate-ocean-food-chains-fish...

[3] https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/apr/06/us-mex...

[4] https://www.newscientist.com/article/dn11089-the-impacts-of-...

[5] https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-52543589

> Fairly soon, estimated climate change refugees in one of the most prosperous and advanced areas of the world is going to be at one order of magnitude more[0], i.e. about 1 person in 10 in Europe will have been fleeing death.

I initially read this wrong and tried to find where in the report they said that 1 in 10 Europeans would be fleeing due to climate change.

The claim is that 10-20 million will be fleeing draught or extreme weather events in Africa and they will tend to flee North not South. I’m seeing a quote from a US General but not a link to an actual study.

Longer term, over the next 40 years, they have this to say;

> There is no clear global dataset on displacement by slow-onset climate extremes such as sea level rise and desertification; often this migration is classed as economic or other planned migration, failing to acknowledge fully the ‘push’ resulting from climate change impacts. This leaves the full human impact of climate change unknown and depends not only on the magnitude of the event, but also on the vulnerability of the area and the society it impacts. Communities from Alaska to Fiji and Kiribati have already been relocated, or are making plans to do so because rising sea levels threaten their lands. Developing countries - that have contributed least to climate change - are experiencing the strongest negative impacts, with increasing frequency and magnitude of extreme weather events that pose potentially disastrous consequences for agriculture and food security.

> According to a recent study, 1.4 billion people could be forced to leave their homes by 2060 and this number could rise to two billion by 2100. This estimate is based on combined projections of population growth, submerging coastal zones, exhausted natural resources, declining net primary production, desertification and urban sprawl.

The study they are referencing is this one;


It’s not much of an analysis, but it’s rooted in something real. Coastal populations number about 600 million, maybe up to 1 billion this century. SLR (sea level rise) has been 0.4m since 1900 and estimated to be between an additional 0.4-2.5m this century. “As a result, SLR is anticipated to be one of the most expensive and irreversible future consequences of global climate change.”

I liked this Nature article for a more balanced review of the literature;


It looks at various estimates ranging from 80 million to 1.4 billion people displaced by the end of this century based on SLR and the various assumptions being made by the respective models. For example, looking at areas which lie in 100-year floodplains assuming they’re were all inhabitable, that would impact an estimated 444 million people by 2100 factoring in population growth.

> However, ...residence in the 100-year floodplain may not necessarily result in migration responses to SLR. Indeed, many low-lying areas in the 100-year floodplain, such as Asia’s densely populated ‘mega-deltas’, possess fertile soil and ample water, which is ideal for farming and fishing. Floodplains thus attract large numbers of migrants from other areas, notwithstanding the presence of coastal hazards. Simple residency in the 100-year floodplain does not, therefore, result in migration; it is only when the costs of increasing exposure to SLR hazards exceed the benefits of coastal environments that migration may occur.

If you look at just areas that would become permanently inundated, it is a much smaller land area and estimated to impact 88 million people by 2100.

SLR may be among the greatest/costliest threat of climate change, but SLR models have a huge variance of outcomes, and fairly long time horizons.

Uhhhh, no.

It's not a new idea, right? People are bad at valuing far-off very-bad risks compared to inconsequential but tangible near-term risks. And bad at valuing broadly distributed hardships versus concentrated individual pain.

It's exactly why we can't solve climate change, right?

It’s one reason we’ve had trouble solving climate change (I wouldn’t go so far as to say we can’t).

Two more reasons:

1. It’s a classic tragedy of the commons, where many actors, at the individual, corporate, and national level, have incentives to worsen the problem even if nearly everyone would benefit if they all behaved differently.

2. The climate is a complex system, so it’s hard to educate the public about how it works, and easy for bad faith actors or pseudoscientific cranks to obfuscate the discussion.

3. It is also easy for bad faith actors to exploit the response for their own benefit, undermining the nascent response directly, and undermining it indirectly by undermining those who argue for change with integrity

> There is little planning anywhere for what to do in response to a volcanic eruption large enough to cool and dry the climate around the world, as the eruption of Tambora, a volcano in Indonesia, did in 1815.

Here I am, thinking about how to provoke a massive volcanic eruption in order to save what's left of our ecosystem.

In case you have been living under a rock: At the end of 2019 we had massive fires in Australia, due to unusually high temperatures. And now the Russian Arctic is experiencing the same - https://news.yahoo.com/russian-arctic-sets-fantastical-heat-...

Much cheaper to just spray sulfur dioxide from a plane: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stratospheric_aerosol_injectio...

Covid and climate change aren't one country problems. Just like a building on fire doesn't affect just one office. The problem is we need top-down coordination for worldwide threats. We need the UN, or a UN-like organization (United Earth?).

The problem is that very large institutions become corrupt with very high certainty. It poses a huge near-term risk itself, so we somehow need to solve coordination problems while staying decentralized.

There was nothing unpredictable about this. In 2013 I got handed a copy of a book called 'Spillover, Animal infections and the next pandemic' by David Quammen.

It was pretty much a storyboard for how COVD-19 (and other) diseases come into play and spread around the world. Totally predictable, in excruciating detail.


Same. I am still surprised when someone says this was totally unpredictable. That book gave me a great overview of what could happen. For example I had a discussion with some friends about facemasks, they claimed that they were not useful, like governments were saying. In the book I remember that almost every researcher regrets not buying more, they are useful.

At least it gave me the ability to take more informed decisions.

The recent conversation between Tom Bilyeu and Daniel Schmachtenberger is a great primer on this topic. Tom inquires about existential risk from a pragmatic, entrepreneurial point of view.

This Economist article only scratches the surface of the risk of accelerating technology development. Schmachtenberger provides a framework for thought and much deeper insights in this direction.


I wish there were more interviews with Daniel Schmachtenberger. His interview on Eric Weinstein’s podcast [0] was also great.

[0] https://youtu.be/_b4qKv1Ctv8

Governments should focus more on long-termism than short-termism in general.

Sounds like a good way to get voted out in favor of the other guy who promises short term benefits.

Which usually involves stopping, or at least short-circuiting the short-term profit motive. But governments have a lot of power and wield a lot of money. The public purse is a nice prize for corrupt corporations to target, and chipping away at regulations that keep this machine pointed the right direction for the long term is all the rage across a whole side of the political spectrum.

For better or worse most politicians terms are "short" in that sense so you get where this thinking come from.

Just read Nassim Nicholas Taleb's "The Black Swan" if you want more thinking about this topic..

And even better his concept of building anti-fragile systems. We can model things, predict things, etc - but in the end everything is more complex than we can know so as to appear random. We can’t predict what will happen but we can build systems that are anti-fragile, or robust at the minimum.

We'll also do well by taking a leaf from the Stoics, who wrote only 2000+ years ago ... on the importance of "prerehearsal of future ills".

The meaning of it is explained in a note (24.2) from Seneca's Letters on Ethics (the full collection of 124 letters; excellently translated by Graver and Long):

"The advice to reflect on all possible misfortunes is not meant to license groundless worry but rather to afford an accurate assessment of what a human life is likely to include, thus mitigating the psychological impact of inevitable misfortune. [...]"


And here's a rousing passage by Seneca from letter 91 ("A terrible fire at Lyon"):

"When one is unprepared for a disaster, it has a greater effect: shock intensifies the blow. No mortal can fail to grieve more deeply when amazement is added to the loss [...]

"Absolutely anything can be overthrown in its finest hour by the caprice of fortune. Th brighter it shines, the more it is liable to be attacked and shaken: for fortune, nothing is arduous, nothing difficult. Not always does it come by a single road, not always by paths that are well worn. Sometimes it turns our hands against each other; at other times, relying on its own resources, it finds dangers for us that need no agent. No moment is exempt. In the midst of pleasure, things arise that cause us pain. In a time of peace, war breaks out, and all that one had relied on for security becomes an object of fear: friends turn into foes, allies into enemies. The calm of a summer day is suddenly transformed into storms greater than those of winter. Even without an enemy at hand, we suffer war’s effects. If there are no other reasons for calamity, excessive prosperity finds its own reasons. The most careful people are attacked by illness; the sturdiest by physical decline; punishments affect those who are completely guiltless; riots those who live in total seclusion. People who have almost forgotten the power of chance find themselves picked out to experience some novel misfortune. The achievements of a lifetime, put together with great effort and many answered prayers, are cast to ruin in a single day. But to speak of a day is to make our hastening calamities slower than they really are. An hour, a mere moment is enough to overturn an empire. It would be some relief to our frailty and our concerns if everything came to an end as slowly as it comes into existence. The reality is that it takes time for things to grow but little or no time for them to be lost."

A sobering thought is that there’s little to stop Covids 20.1 through 20.4 emerging as endemic human diseases next week.

It’s not like an earthquake where the disaster also relieves stress, albeit in the long term.

There’s an insurance product for that.

Pandemic insurance is available for businesses - it is a cost that will, by definition, not likely pay back. But if an event occurs it will pay out as expected.

Human behavior is such that only about 12% of Californians in at-risk areas purchase earthquake insurance - even though many significant earthquakes have occurred in living memory.

I've heard people argue that a lot of the older housing stock in the Bay Area isn't worth insuring because the property value dwarfs the value of the home.

Unfortunately, pandemic insurance is unlikely to work in the real world. A pandemic by definition affects the entire globe, meaning that if pandemic insurance needs to pay out, it will have to pay out for all policy holders, all at once. Given that the business model of insurance companies is to spread risk across all policy holders, it is impossible for insurance companies to payout all policies all at once.

Not to mention the fact that pricing pandemic insurance is going to be very hard. Insurance companies generally don't like to take risks... they like things that are highly predictable and can be modeled. The percentage of people aged 40 who will die in a given year is predictable. So are the chances of car accidents by 17 year old female drivers. When the next pandemic will come is anyone's guess though. And lacking a decent way to model a risk like this, the insurance company will inevitably need to charge a high premium to make this a worthwhile product. Meanwhile, consumers will balk at the high premium and not buy the coverage.

Yet the models exist and are routinely used to evaluate and price that risk.

It does work in the real world. It is a risk that is covered by insurers and reinsurers as well as capital market investors. The World Bank’s pandemic bond paid-out in response to the Covid-19 event as it was designed to (that bond was criticized for its effectiveness, but had nothing to do with the actual cover it provided and its mechanics).

‘Excess’ or ‘Extreme’ mortality risk is a risk that life insurers accumulate and naturally seek reinsurance for. There is a market for it.

There's a great article in this month's Wired all about this: https://www.wired.com/story/nathan-wolfe-global-economic-fal...

The short version is that this guy was selling exactly that kind of insurance, but way too many companies waited until "next year" to actually go through with buying it. Perhaps things will be different now.

And yet, one of the largest risks is that our modern society simply assumes that none of those will ever happen.

When I grew up in the 80's, society was built around the expectation that WW3 was pretty imminent, and while I'm quite happy that the cold war is over, modern society would most likely be better of if we stopped taking everything for granted and start preparing for things that we know will happen at some point. Like pandemics.

Some kind of shit will happen at some point. That's about the only thing that is certain. We should use the time we have until then for building a non-fragile society.

Cant read the article but +1 for title.

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