Theory(ish)

Optimism is KEY to managing uncertainty (even in public policy, even for coronavirus)

I have been meaning to write something about the uncertainty that seems to surround anything-coronavirus. I want to complement rather than repeat what other (more famous) people have said already, so I will not be comprehensive. Instead, I’ll focus on two points that, while known, deserve a brief mention, and add a consideration about the need for optimism.

Understanding uncertainty is not the same as knowing what to do in all uncertain situations.

If you put me in the cabin of a plane without a pilot, I will be able to tell you there is much I do not know about flying planes, but that will not help me much. I have never flown a plane nor experienced something similar. I will crash.

No need to take my word. The point has already been made by a more-famous uncertainty ‘aficionado’. The single-sentence summary follows:

It is not just that skin in the game is necessary for fairness, commercial efficiency, and risk management: skin in the game is necessary to understand the world.

Nassim Taleb, 2018, Skin in the Game, Penguin, p. 3. Link.

Trust experience.

Appropriately understood, the precautionary principle is helpful in situations of marked uncertainty.

If understood as a matter of preferences, the precautionary principle can be used to justify unreasonable excesses. Agoraphobics, for example, can say that not leaving home is a precaution against the risks of life.

The precautionary principle is, therefore, best understood as a way to maximise possibilities. For example, if you drive while drunk, you might kill yourself/others, which would terminate your ability to take future actions. Taking an Uber keeps you/others alive and, in doing so, enables you to do additional stuff in the future.

Complex systems cannot easily be modelled. When a complex system is not yet understood, therefore, it is important to avoid actions that could trigger a systemic failure. Thus, the precautionary principle is not, per se, about avoiding bad outcomes, but about avoiding the type of bad outcomes that foreclose the room for future actions.

Once again, there is no need to take my word for it. This is a point often referred to as ‘irreversibility’, a point that has been made in a variety of contexts – an example:

One condition is that the [precationary principle] policy leads [/] reduce the degree of irreversibility for future choices. For instance, a policy that leads to preserve a wildland area is more valuable if one expects to obtain better information over time. Indeed, it leaves the option of reconsidering the development decision later on.

Christian Gollier & Nicolas Treich, 2003, Decision-Making Under Scientific Uncertainty: The Economics of the PrecautionaryPrinciple, p. 99. Link.

Live today, to play tomorrow.

Optimism contributes to solutions arising sooner rather than later.

Understood as above, the precautionary principle is not, by itself, the solution to anything. Therein a concern.

Excess of fear and pessimism about coronavirus is leading the social distancing debate into pointless over-emphasis on marginal risks such as, for example, the possibility of getting sick while running in a park, or the exact type of items people buy at stores. As a result, we pay less attention (than we could) to identifying, discussing, and realising actions that could lead to a solution.

Not all solutions look like a vaccine, this much needs to be clear. Smaller, indeed partial, solutions can help to make challenges more manageable.

An example of currently-under-discussed efforts that could significantly aid the fight against coronavirus is the progress that is being done on the treatment front, where there are several instances of successful treatment of severely-ill patients with plasma from recovered patients (link, link, link) and even experimental drugs with a seemingly-astonishing rate of success (link). These efforts are far from ready to be deployed in large scale, but this is the very point I am making. We urgently need to give more support to these type of solution-focused efforts.

Not to say that the exact examples given here are, actually, the solution. Nobody can know that. What my experience thinking and reading about uncertainty tells me, however (which means that I am arguing partially on intuition rather than solely on known facts) is that, whenever solutions become reachable, optimists can find them faster than pessimists.

Be optimistic: acknowledge the problems, but focus on finding the solutions.

Cover photo by Andre Gorham II on Unsplash.

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