A Failure, But Not Of Prediction

Scott Alexander – Slate Star Codex

At one level, this is about why we didn’t see COVID-19 coming. At another, it is using that as a case study of a whole class of decisions which depend on making judgements about uncertain futures – which is to say most of the ones that matter. The problem is not a shortfall in prediction skills, which is just as well because prediction is a tricky game. It is instead presented as a shortfall in probabilistic reasoning skills, which in turn relates to the classic risk management scales of likelihood and impact. Low likelihood, high impact events matter a great deal – which is why the insurance industry exists. If there is a 10% chance of an imminent global pandemic, it is well worth investing in mitigation, even if it turns out that the pandemic fizzles out – which is why it made sense to stockpile large quantities of flu vaccine in 2009 which turned out not to be needed.

But, slightly less explicitly in the article, there is another step which is essential before any of this becomes useful, as opposed to merely interesting. Probabilistic reasoning can be a good pointer to action, but it has succeeded only if appropriate action is in fact taken. So perhaps those showing greatest wisdom back in January and February were not either those who dismissed what was happening in Wuhan as far away and unimportant, or those who jumped immediately to proclaiming imminent global catastrophe – but those who saw from an apparently moderate risk, an immediate need to take precautionary actions.

There is, of course, a political dimension to this as well. Back in 2009, the then French Health Minister was heavily criticised for the money spent – money apparently wasted – on one of those vaccine stockpiles. She is quite rightly unapologetic, but it’s another reason why understanding the concept of risk and its mitigation is important. As Alexander observes,

Uncertainty about the world doesn’t imply uncertainty about the best course of action!

There will be no ‘back to normal’

Christopher Haley, Jack Orlik, Eszter Czibor, Hugo Cuello, Teo Firpo, Marieke Goettsch, Lou-Davina Stouffs and Laurie Smith – NESTA

What will the world look like when we are beyond COVID-19? It’s an obvious question, and one attracting increasing attention, with a first flowering of answers appearing, doubtless with many more to come. This is an example of the approach, demonstrating both the importance of posing the question and the potential traps in attempting to answer it.

The strongest assertion in the post comes in its very first sentence:

The pandemic will change the world permanently and profoundly.

Some might choose to debate even that of course, but if the premise is accepted, it is possible to reflect on what those permanent and profound changes might be. The difficulty comes quickly afterwards, as this post both recognises and demonstrates: the more that there is potential for the changes to be profound, the less it is possible to identify what they might be with any degree of confidence or rigour, and the more there is a risk of generating long lists of what might be possible without being able to say much of consequence about what is probable. More subtly, that approach also gives little room to questions about how those probabilities might be influenced – and by whom.

The lists in this post are wide ranging and provocative. They are a good reminder of the need to be alert to change and to be on the lookout for leading indicators. But they don’t and can’t (and don’t aspire to)describe the new normal we may someday reach.