Building a Fragile Future

It has begun. The author who wrote the following words goes on to explain why the models got it wrong. Spoiler alert: It wasn’t their fault. He even discusses the dissenting voices whose predictions have been much more aligned with reality, yet he labels them the “corona dark web.” He wrote:

However, according to the author, the models weren’t really wrong because “we have achieved so much more [with lockdowns] than modelers even imagined possible.” The positive reinforcement continues for a bit as he talks about how amazing it is that we all pulled together for the greater good. This message will be well received by the gullible masses, who look at the numbers and get the sinking feeling they have been Kony2012ed again.

They will probably never stop to question how we accomplished this despite also being told that our president downplayed the pandemic and botched everything, but I digress.

The admission that we have achieved more than the ‘modelers even imagined possible’ is a stunning admission, and is precisely why you shouldn’t gamble on predictive models when it comes to rare events. Unfortunately, not only did we gamble, we bet the farm. We let it all ride on the vaunted reputation of the Imperial College modelers whose best-case scenario failed to imagine our actual response as a possibility.

Black Swans

Black Swans are large-scale unpredictable and irregular events with potentially severe consequences. While COVID isn’t a Black Swan in the traditional sense because it could be predicted, there are some similarities to be considered.

Nassim Taleb coined the term ‘Black Swan’ related to his work in economic markets, but went on to broaden its application in his book, Antifragile. The basic take is that ‘fragility is quite measurable, risk not so at all, particularly risk associated with a rare event.’

When we embrace randomness, there will be small failures within the system, but the system itself will strengthen and be better prepared for the next catastrophe. Artificial interventions leave the system more fragile than it was prior to the Black Swan event.

Taleb wrote, “An annoying aspect of the Black Swan problem – in fact the central, and largely missed point – is that the odds of rare events are simply not computable. We know a lot less about hundred-year flood than five-year floods – model error swells when it comes to small probabilities. The rarer the event, the less tractable, and less we know about how frequent it’s occurrence – yet the rarer the event, the more confident these “scientists” involved in predicting, modeling, and using PowerPoint in conferences with equations in multi color backgrounds have become.”

Sound familiar?

Building Fragile Systems

Taleb coined another term, ‘fragilista.’ He explains, “In short, the fragilista (medical, economic, social planning) is one who makes you engage in policies and actions, all artificial, in which the benefits are small and visible, and the side effects potentially severe and invisible.” 

Examples of artificial systems meant to disrupt randomness are everywhere. Taleb became famous because he pointed out the flaws in the policy-making and micromanaging of Alan Greenspan, the Chair of the Federal Reserve. Taleb warned that the economy has natural peaks and valleys, and that by trying to flatten out the valleys through artificial means, Greenspan was creating a system that was more fragile in the face of volatility. The financial crisis of 2008 made him look like a prophet.

For many women, getting pregnant would be perceived as a Black Swan event. In an attempt to avoid it (or maybe even just avoid periods because they hate them), the drug industry introduced an artificial means of convincing your body its already pregnant – and this can go on for 10, 15, 20 years. The benefit is ‘small and visible.’ You may not get pregnant most of the time, but you leave the body more fragile – more susceptible to cancer, autoimmune disease, gallbladder and liver damage, even mentally frailer.

And now we have the response to COVID-19. We have essentially locked down the entire northern hemisphere for several weeks. Does anyone think this virus is going to just go away? I’m guessing some people do. The same people who stopped looking for masks on February 29 because the Surgeon General Tweeted that, “They are NOT effective in preventing general public from catching Coronavirus.” Then, began sewing masks frantically on March 26, when a CDC official said everyone should be wearing a mask.

Weeks into these lockdowns we really can’t prove any lives have been saved by these drastic measures, but I would argue we are more fragile to the dangers of this virus when it circles back around. Not only that, but the health of non-COVID patients who can’t schedule other tests has been put at risk, not to mention how our economic system and civil rights have endured cracks from which the negative repercussions could last for decades. And all of this based on a predictive model that couldn’t even imagine what turned out to be our actual response.

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