PREDICTING THE NEXT EPIDEMIC

by Margaret Heffernan

Something remarkable happened in UK media on Tuesday morning, around 650 am. Kate Jones, Professor of Ecology and Biodiversity at University College, London was talking about the wet markets of China and whether they should be banned, in order to reduce the risk of pandemics.

“It’s a really complex system and I’m sorry not to give you a yes or no but it’s a really complex system and that’s the nature of it,” she explained. “The hazard plus the exposure: that’s your risk. It’s trying to figure out and understand how you predict and prevent the next pandemic. And it’s not easy because it’s a really complex system…”

Thanking her, host Justin Webb acknowledged “We need to be capable of understanding complexity and coping with not a yes and not a no.”

I’d like to hope that this really is a breakthrough moment: when finally we move away from the simplistic binaries beloved of politicians and the media and start to make time and space to understand the complexities of life. Will Covid-19 return? Should the lockdown be lifted today? Next month? We don’t know. There isn’t a yes or no answer. Saying so isn’t weakness, but strength.

What does Jones mean when talking about a complex system? She means that it is driven by multiple factors, some of which we can identify and track, many of which we can’t see. That’s why every pandemic is different: they break out with different pathogens in different places at different times in different ways. That uniqueness means there isn’t a profile whose return you can look for. The factors influencing epidemics are too vast and intrinsically unpredictable to track. And it means that while expertise does really matter, nobody can yet be a comprehensive expert in this pandemic because it isn’t over yet and all the data isn’t in — and might never be. Asked a simple yes/no question, the appropriate answer in many cases is “we don’t know.”

Models are helpful of course, but they can’t deliver absolute certainty either because they can’t include all data everywhere and are poor at capturing subtle, contextual and cultural information that is hard to quantify. And it’s all too tempting (for politicians in particular) to mistake the model for reality.

We are all getting a crash course in complexity now because epidemics illustrate the concept so well. They are generally certain (epidemics keep happening) but specifically ambiguous: it’s impossible to predict what will break out, when or where. Likewise, the financial system is complex: when the Bank of England says that there will be further crashes but can’t say where or when or what the cause will be, it isn’t be stupid, it’s being smart. Human society is complex too, which is why the hapless manufacturers of plastic straws didn’t predict their market being wiped out in a matter of months. And why serial sexual predators did not anticipate moving from celebrity to pariah overnight.

Complexity isn’t new, it’s a characteristic of biological systems. But the shift from a complicated world to a complex one has accelerated in the last few decades, when we have moved from a complicated world to a complex one. The two aren’t the same — and complexity isn’t just complicated on steroids. Complicated environments are linear, follow rules and are predictable; like an assembly line, they can be planned, managed, repeated and controlled. They’re maximized by routine and efficiency — and, as such, have provided the prevailing ethos in management and leadership for the last 100 years.

But the advent of globalization, coupled with pervasive communications, has made much of life complex: non-linear and fluid, where very small effects may produce disproportionate impacts. General Stanley McChrystal distinguishes the contrast between the first Gulf War (1990–1991) which he says was complicated — an intensely planned application of overwhelming force, executed by the book — and the Iraq War (begun in 2003) which was complex: a fluid, volatile environment of shifting opacity where a lone individual with a cell phone could tip the balance. On a more mundane level, the maker of electronic keyboards inhabits a complex world where a single negative review on Amazon can reduce sales by fifty percent.

Life is uncertain. But Silicon Valley has delighted in deluding us with the fantasty that we can control complexity with technology: with infinite data, the promise went, everything could become foreseeable. After all, if most (but not all) the time, GPS can tell us when we will reach our destination, so it of course it could also predict the books, movies, sexual partners and careers that will leave us completely happy and fulfilled. This has all been snake oil. It makes for a lucrative salespitch but has left us intellectually adrift, unprepared for the ambiguities and uncertainties that characterize real life.

So, as Professor Jones said, we don’t know if banning wet markets will prevent future epidemics. It could send them underground where there would be even less oversight. In the meantime, intensified farming is also a factor and that doesn’t look likely to be banned anytime soon. We could expend a lot of energy attacking something the poor need — while giving ourselves a false sense of security.

The truth is that, however much we learn about this pandemic, we cannot predict the next one, only that there will be one. The future remains uncharted. Ineradicable uncertainty has always characterized human life and will continue to do so. We might fantasize about absolute certainties, but that won’t help us. Asking questions that can only yield yes/no answers is unhelpful. Being willing and able, as Professor Jones was, to brush them aside sets a model of integrity that, let’s hope, might one day become standard. If it does, then April 14 could be a day to remember with thanks.

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CEO of 6 businesses, her book WILFUL BLINDNESS was called a classic; her TED talks have been seen by over 12 million people. UNCHARTED is her new book.

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Margaret Heffernan

Margaret Heffernan

CEO of 6 businesses, her book WILFUL BLINDNESS was called a classic; her TED talks have been seen by over 12 million people. UNCHARTED is her new book.

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